I’m taking a feminist, gender, and queer theory class right now at Wayne State. And after reading Judith Butler, we were offered an interesting extra credit opportunity: to “perform [our] gender in a way that is… different than usual. The point is to challenge yourself to experience gender in a radically different way, and that requires risk.”
Given that I’m pretty androgynous, there are a number of ways I could have approached this. Anyone looking at me would assume (correctly) that I”m a woman; that’s certainly how I present myself. But I’m also not particularly feminine. I don’t own (let alone wear) makeup. I usually just toss my hair up into a messy ponytail. And while I do like to wear skirts, I usually do so more for comfort rather than style; I find jeans to be stiff and awkward.
Knowing all of these things, my friend and fellow classmate Kaitlyn (who is a lot more feminine than I am) turned to me when our professor announced this challenge and said excitedly, “I want to see you with makeup on.”
Others felt similarly. So I asked my sister to help me come up with an outfit. She gave me a miniskirt and wedge boots. I put them on and straightened my hair, then headed over to my friend Ashley’s; she had agreed to do my makeup.
Her girlfriend Lura answered the door. Giving me an absolutely incredulous look, she said, “You’re dressed like a Republican.”
Once the makeup had been applied, I headed to campus. Having been excited about this for days, I was surprised by how nervous I felt. My friends and classmates knew why I was dressed that way, but how would everyone else react?
I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of my body than I was that day. (Interestingly enough, Kaitlyn, who had opted to dress up like a man, told me that she felt invisible.)
The real challenge didn’t end up having much to do with how others perceived me, but rather, how I saw myself. Unlike my classmates, who all decided to dress up like members of the opposite sex, I didn’t call a lot of attention to myself with my outfit (a couple of guys flirted with me, which was weird, but what I mean is that I looked like a “normal” woman).
I sure as hell didn’t feel normal, though. Weird how just changing your outfit can cause people to make assumptions about what goes on inside your head; I”m just as guilty of that as anyone else, of course.
And that’s something we talked about in class that afternoon. As I mentioned, I was the only person who didn’t cross-dress. All of the other women did. But their idea of how to present themselves as men did not vary much; most of them turned up with baggy pants and sweatshirts. Granted, they did this to hide their bodies, most likely, but the one man in our class definitely doesn’t dress anything like that. Neither do a lot of men I know.
Which is why presenting myself as a different “kind” of woman was a bigger challenge than most people thought. But even I didn’t really learn that until later that afternoon.
Have you ever tried to take care of children while wearing heels and a miniskirt? I don’t recommend it.
I regularly babysit two girls, ages five and eight. I pick them up from school, help them with their homework, feed them dinner, bathe them, and get them off to bed before their mom comes home at night.
That might sound low-key to you, but it’s not. That day, the kids wanted to go to the park, so I agreed to take them. The five-year-old fell and hurt herself, so I had to pick her up off the ground and carry her home. In a miniskirt. And heels.
As I was doing that, I thought to myself, “This is a little like a modern day corset.”
Women aren’t perceived as “weak” because they can’t do things. They’re perceived as such because they’re encouraged to wear clothing that prevents them from doing anything but stand there and look pretty. Even I, an able-bodied feminist who was determined to make it through my normal routine dressed that way, struggled with the desire to just lie around and do nothing: tell the kids that we couldn’t go to the park that day, etc.
I never thought that looking so “normal,” and doing something so challenging and creative would go hand-in-hand.
But I did it. And I’m sure as hell never wearing heels and/or a miniskirt again.