Performing Femininity

The following is the introduction of the book FEM–available here:

I remember getting into a fight with a boyfriend (a real fight, not an argument) and fleeing the scene to buy two new pairs of heels. Two good ones too—gold leather gladiator sandals (not some obnoxious shit either) and a pair of brown and black faux-snake strappy sandals. I don’t remember what we were fighting over, but I remember those shoes. They weren’t designer, and I don’t know what happened to either pair now. I just know I wore them all the time.

I was still boiling mad on the inside at checkout but buying them somehow made me feel whole again. I was still my own person no matter what else was going on—even if I went back to the dude in those same shoes the next week. It was like starting yourself over. Your whole look, your whole aura, in the swipe of a debit card.

I was like 18 at that point. I’d recently started wearing better stuff because of an office job with a collegebound program. Well, it was only a workstudy position, which is a minimum wage job at a college reserved for low income students. But it was my first decent-seeming position after five long years of food service jobs. All throughout high school, I’d been a busboy, a cashier at several different locations, and a bakery clerk at a supermarket. Many hours spent under those florescent lights.

I learned quickly how different things were when you’re not wearing a hat and black pants to work. I was doing less actual work and people were more polite towards me. I was sitting at a desk making calls or organizing files instead of breaking up cookie dough batter. That also meant I could wear what I wanted because I was no longer standing on my feet every second of the day. That position was also my introduction to the education field beyond taking classes myself. I was on the other side of the desk, albeit administratively, but it was professional.

That whole time period, I was either in a bad relationship or taking the bus or whatever other issue, but I didn’t look like it. I think I just learned to enjoy being put together all the time. It makes you stand up straight. How do I walk around in these shoes all day? Well, once you walk out the house with them on, they’re on. You just keeping walking.

I came to like wearing fun stuff that you could go anywhere in. To teaching or to class as a student. To a restaurant or to a desk job. I remember being with that same boyfriend and he was rapping and had a random concert in the middle of the week while we were out. Lucky me, I was wear wearing jeans and a collared shirt and those brown strappy heels for no reason.

I know that being a feminine woman isn’t necessarily revolutionary. I’m not rejecting the patriarchy by wearing skirts and heels and low-cut shirts. But playing into the role gives me some sense of control. At least I know who I’m playing and how to play into it in order to get in and out of situations.

And I didn’t come made like that. I used to think I was somewhere between average and ugly. True facts. In high school, I was mad insecure and would look at myself in the florescent lighting at vo-tech like, wow I really look like this. Sucks.

I think it didn’t help that during high school I was still dressing like I was in middle school—jeans and sneakers jeans and Timbs. Then back to jeans and sneakers in the spring. For work, all I did was trade jeans for black pants. It was the same thing my brother and sister wore. Same thing all my co-workers wore. Same thing my boyfriends wore.

Because for years, if I wasn’t at school or work, I was booed up in one serious relationship or another. I look back and wish someone had looked over me more closely. I swear I was just doing whatever. Working here or there. Smoking this, drinking that. Chilling different places. No plan looking forward. Everything around me kept me in that uniform.

Fortunately, I was the type to always have a job of some sort, and I was always good at school. Even without much effort, I did well. My bosses liked me because I worked harder than they were paying me. In the same way, I knew what to do in a classroom. I loved reading and writing already, and I eventually learned how to advocate for my ideas. That’s part of why I stayed in school for as long as I have. It’s a place where you have to have a mouth for your ideas. You can be pretty and sit there (or ugly and sit there), but that wasn’t nearly enough to have respect in the room. I always liked that.

Part of my academic path into the English department had to do with clothes too. My first major in college was nursing because well I don’t know. It seemed like a real job and I was in the trade school mind-state from high school. But by the end of the first semester I changed it to psychology partially because I didn’t want to wear scrubs every day. (I’ll note here that I also didn’t get what a psychologist did either.)

Now I half-wish I would have went to med school or something because I know I could have done it. But I didn’t really know what was going on. I was just floating back and forth between college and work or my other job too, plus ya know ruining my life via men. Somehow, I managed to fit it all in.

And I think I landed in the right place. I guess I always knew I wanted to write. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be writing. I had to graduate and flounder around a while to figure that out but grad school gave me time to think and write and care. I found my footing after a while, and I was there click clacking down the hallway, even when I was pregnant.

I once read someone saying that dressing well was polite—that it’s about being pleasing to look at. Not outrageous, modest yet striking. I think it’s also part of having a pokerface. No one can tell how much money I have or don’t have. They can’t see the weight of single motherhood on me or the fact that I’m feeling antsy at my job and was to jump ship with the with the kid and move to another country to do a Peace and Conflicts Studies degree.

The only thing that people know is that I look good, even if it’s only to cope.

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