I said on the podcast this week that I didn’t know how I became as femme as I am now. It just sort of snuck up on me.
The backstory on my life is that I am a cisgendered woman (which makes everything easier, really). I was given the basic lessons in femininity growing up–don’t be too loud, too big, too visible or too much of anything. Try to be more agreeable. Don’t wear purple and yellow together (I distinctly remember thinking purple and yellow was a great color combo, and also being the only one who thought that). It was a weird dissonance, since I grew up in the 80s when everything was too big and too loud and full of color. I mean, this dude was one of my heroes:
The 90s brought hip hop and grunge and flannel and to be honest I never really got over the 80s. I always wanted to look like Madonna in her punk phase:
I was basically forbidden to look like that, though. My mom though it was inappropriate and taught me the value of neutrals. I immediately quit makeup all together–what kid wants to wear brown eyeshadow? Boring.
There was a bonus round, too. I got fat at puberty, due to a combination of undiagnosed PCOS, family trauma, and probably just my genetic lottery. Let me tell you, being fat in middle school is SUPER AWESOME. You know when you have to run the mile in P.E. and you watch the last fat guy straggling to come in, breathing hard because he probably has undiagnosed asthma too? I was totally that guy.*
Fat people are bullied and ridiculed (not that we have the corner on that market, of course) into shame and silence. Most of the fat kids I knew were trying to make themselves as small and invisible as possible. If you don’t see me at all, you won’t give me a hard time. I got a message of distaste at home, too. My family has issues with weight, and body image, and that translated to my 11 year old self as a deep sense of shame and failure. I was on Weight Watchers by 14. I lost weight, I got praised. I gained weight, no one said anything to me. I learned that fatness was akin to being unnoticeable at best.
All my teen years were plagued with body image shit, so I didn’t learn how to dress or beautify myself much at all. I spent most of my time in baggy clothes and tying my long, brown hair back in a ponytail. I’d never been a femme kid–I detested dresses and played Star Trek instead of dolls–and when it came time to do the adolescent “hey we all want to have sex now” dance, I settled for being as plain and unnoticed as I could. I never got a boy’s attention until I had lost weight, which was a pretty awful message to receive at sixteen.**
This is the best of my recollections, because truth be told I didn’t think about my presentation much at all. I ran into stores, bought the clothes that sort of fit, and ran out. I rarely looked in a mirror and I didn’t put time or attention into my appearance. When I gained weight again after Weight Watchers, I felt like a total failure and stopped caring what I looked like apart from the occasional mental breakdown at WalMart.
My journey to femme was a slow one. I made a friend who introduced me to Lane Bryant, the only store I’d ever heard of that had pretty clothes that fit me. I could finally look semi-decent and be fat at the same time. I started being able to afford nicer clothes as I graduated college, too, and that helped a lot. I remember thinking that maybe I deserved to feel good in my body once in a while. I picked up the venerable Fat!So? and learned that I wasn’t the only one who thought maybe the whole fat hate thing is a load of bullshit. I was well into adulthood before this happened. I’ve finally given up jeans all together because skirts are just so much more comfortable, and also swishy and pretty. They’re fun.
I didn’t learn to wear make up the way I wanted to until I was 30. I was on blood thinners for a blood clot and developed millions of broken blood vessels on my face. I started to look like I had a perpetual cold–my cheeks and nose were always flush. I sought out makeup at first just to cover the red, but I soon found my love of blue eye shadow hadn’t gone away. Being a fully grown adult with disposable income, I could suddenly afford to play and also I was allowed to. I’ve had to learn as an adult what most people who wear makeup seem to learn in their teens.
Ironically, most of the adults around me like the neutral face and use make up to hide lines and wrinkles and aging and shit. Meanwhile, I’m piling on glitter and eyeliner like it’s 1989 (and also hiding bags under my eyes because fr rls). Because I can, and also because I’m tired of worrying what other people think. Makeup and hair are another form of self expression for me, not a way to hide who I am. I find it interesting that when I choose to express myself I usually choose colorful, bold, dark and loud options. It turns out that I don’t like being invisible after all.
The reality of being fat and femme is that we are constantly challenging society along with our own self esteem. Fat bodies are seen as ugly and something to be hidden–which contradicts much of femme dress which tends to highlight and show off body parts. Gods forbid we would have any VBO***, amirite? There are many, many fat women who refuse to show their upper arms or thighs because of the vast “jiggle” stigma. Femme is often about feeling confident, feminine, and even sexy at times. Good luck feeling like that when much of the world is set up to tell you that your body is unacceptable. I dress for me, yes, but when I get shitty looks and comments because of it, I struggle like any human being would.
Sometimes, I fantasize about going back to baggy sweatpants and huge tent-like t-shirts. (My shirts are fitted and cut for a curvy body. You can damn well see my belly when I wear them.) I imagine being invisible again, a faceless mass of flesh the eye passes over. It would be nice to be hidden, unscrutinized. Being ultra-femme is a vulnerable space for me. Doing the hair and the nails and the makeup and the cleavage shows the world exactly how I see myself (see that Madonna photo above and add 100 pounds). That vulnerability has allowed me to survive scrutiny and judgment, and taught me that I can survive those things and come out still feeling okay with myself. That lesson has been invaluable. I’m braver now, stronger than I was when I hid behind neutrality.
I think the message of femme week is that femme isn’t a requirement for being a woman, but it isn’t a bad way to be, either. Femme is an expression of personality. If you’re a cis woman it is the social norm and carries privilege, but it’s also a perfectly acceptable way to present yourself regardless of your gender identity. Femme can be fun, and colorful or it can be subdued and gentle. It can be a way to fit in or a way to stand out. Femme can be whatever you want it to be. For me, it’s a way to be more fully myself on the outside of my skin. If it works for you, however it works for you, rock the shit out of it.
*this makes my inner, ashamed sixth grader so mad. I probably could have gotten out of running the fucking mile if I had been diagnosed with asthma then as opposed to when I turned 30. Gah.
**truly ironic side note: that’s not totally true. I dated one boy in the ninth grade who was super in to me but he was too clingy so I broke up with him. We’re sort of married now. All signs say he’s still super into me.
***VBO: visible belly outline. Yes, it’s a thing. Yes, it upsets thin people. Weird, but true.