Why dressing like a man made this girl feel like a woman.
Does the man always have to wear the pants in the relationship?
when I was a kid, my idea of gender roles was pretty fluid— probably because I was raised by a man. I’d seen my hyper-macho father marinating the stir-fry in the wok and pulling apple pies out of the oven while explaining in detail how he had got into a fight with a guy on the street and picked him up and thrown him over a car. He would smoke a cigar in his undershirt while bending over the sewing machine, covering a hole in the knee of my jeans with a butterfly patch.
I sometimes dressed like a boy back then. In high school, I decided that I wanted to be a writer and became fascinated with authors’ biographies. One day, I was looking at a photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and resolved to look like him. I donned corduroy bell-bottoms, a white shirt, a tie and combat boots. I took an old black hat and navy peacoat from my dad’s closet and threw them on. I cut my hair short in the bathroom.
The boys in my school thought I was insane and generally ignored me. But this was really the best I could hope for. Many of them were cruel and judgmental, constantly attacking girls about their physical appearance and reducing them to tears. We lived in terror of being insulted and told that we were ugly. Maybe I intuitively knew that dressing like a boy would somehow deflect their attention and offer me protection from them.
When I started college, I wore tiny checkered suits from the Salvation Army and always kept my hair incredibly short. My grades were through the roof, but guys thought that I was weird and didn’t ask me out. I was lonely. In an attempt to get a boyfriend, I stopped cutting my hair, started dressing like a girl and stopped being so eccentric. As soon as I altered my appearance to look more feminine, guys h
wanted to date me. The contrast was sort of shocking.
There was something that I didn’t like about that. It was as if my self-worth and social acceptance were based solely on the way I looked. I became incredibly self-conscious, always looking at my reflection, making sure I was dolled up enough. I looked around, hoping all men—those riding by in cars or seated on buses—found me attractive and worthwhile. It was like I was letting the mean boys from high school judge me. And they were everywhere I looked.
When I was in my mid-20s, I started talking to a guy at a party I was throwing. There was a poster of the painting The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse on the wall. She’s seated in a boat and has flowing hair and a white dress. “Has anyone ever told you that you look just like the woman in that painting?” he asked. “No,” I answered.
I was flattered because the woman is quite beautiful. Perhaps I should have thought about the painting more carefully. According to Arthurian legend, the Lady of Shalott is cursed to only see the world reflected in a mirror; when she rushes to the window one day to look at Sir Lancelot passing by, the curse is invoked and she dies soon after.
At the time, though, I was pleased and we started dating. He was always telling me that I was beautiful. Unfortunately, that was just about the only thing he liked about me.
He criticized me all the time. He frequently told me that I was boring. He said that none of his friends liked me. He insulted my family. He said that my housekeeping wasn’t up to par and that I didn’t throw marvellous parties the way other girls did. He never took my work seriously. Although we were both writers, his writing was his vocation. Mine was a hobby, while being a good partner ought to be my ultimate goal in life.
I had never felt so unattractive and miserable. After several years, I packed up the tiny threadbare undergarments that constituted my self-esteem and I ended the relationship. What had being pretty got me, other than a verbally abusive relationship? I was done attracting people with my looks. Never again, I said.
After the sadness that comes with leaving a relationship, I started to feel free. I reflected a lot about who I was when I was little, before boys came into my life, and how exciting and weird it was to be me. I got back to the wonderful business of being an individual and did a lot of happy growing over the next few years.
Then, a while ago, I was going to a ceremony because I’d been nominated for a writing award. Along with the invitation came the stress of what I would wear and how I would style my long, messy hair. The pressure of finding a sexy dress annoyed me. Why was I again treating every event, even intellectual ones, as if I were going to a nightclub? I went to the hairdresser and asked to have my hair cut short. I bought myself a slim, glamorous black suit. I decided that I was just going to dress like an effete Edwardian man. I wanted to look like I had done well in life.
I felt a little awkward showing up at the ceremony in my flat shoes, dark suit and newly short hair. Most of the other women were walking around in high heels and fantastic sparkly gowns. I felt underdressed and invisible. But as the event went on, I noticed that far more people came to talk to me than usual. Men and women listened to what I had to say. They offered me work. It didn’t seem appropriate to flirt with me—my clothes indicated that I was above that. I had a fabulous time.
The next event that I had, I wore the same outfit. (That’s another wonderful thing about a tailored suit: You can wear it over and over.) I didn’t care if nobody ever dated me again. I began to develop all sorts of new skills, becoming more outgoing, talkative, funny, opinionated. My ideas were beautiful. My wit was handsome. My compliments were adorable. My accomplishments were sexy. My theories were like dazzling Marie Antoinette beehives. I was less shy about travelling and giving interviews and having meetings.
When I did get asked out shortly after the transformation, the relationships I got into were special. It was clear that I had a strong personality and no intention of being walked over—so men who were interested in a meeting of the minds, and equality, were the ones who approached me. They found the way I dressed odd and amusing and stylish. And, anyway, when we are alone and both our suits come off, it becomes pretty clear who is the girl and who is the boy. ■