Why dress­ing like a man made this girl feel like a woman.

Does the man al­ways have to wear the pants in the re­la­tion­ship?

Elle (Canada) - - Elle - By Heather O’Neill

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. ■

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