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am i hiding who i am because of the way i dress?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
I'm having an identity crisis and it's manifesting in the way I dress. I'm a queer woman and my gender presentation is mostly feminine but honestly I know what my gender is less and less as time goes on.
My style has always been fluid: full glam and a floral dress one day and then no makeup and cargo pants the next…It used to bring me comfort and security to mold my gender presentation according to any given event, but now it feels like self betrayal to put on a skirt when I just don't want to. I feel like I'm hiding who I am because I change the way I dress according to the situation…
If I'm meeting my fam…then I go feminine. I feel like if I wear a pretty dress I'm more likely to get compliments and people will want to talk to me more. I know that's probably bad and internalized homophobia. Some days I feel paralyzed between masc and femme dressing. I can't bring myself to show up in a dress, and I feel uncomfortable showing up masc even if that's I how feel that day. Am I valid for changing the way I dress to get people to like me? Should I just learn how to not care? — Fashionfake19, she/they
I really wish the answer could be as simple as: “Wear whatever the fuck you want and disregard the opinion of any hater you come across”, but that’s a) not feasible for most people who are not Harry Styles, and b) not particularly useful advice. I Big Relate to knowing what your gender is less and less as time goes on and would be extremely annoyed if someone’s advice about how to express my gender feelings sartorially was to simply rock it and be confident. I’m not! That’s the whole problem! And it sounds like that’s not really what you need to hear, either, so let’s move on.
While the pain of not dressing the way you want to can pale in comparison to the fear of the hurtful, negative, or even dangerous reactions you might encounter when presenting your gender in a way that transcends the binary, it’s 100% human nature to evolve in the way you dress and present yourself. But it’s also — pardon my language — scary as fuck. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is extend yourself a bit of compassion and acknowledge that the discomfort you’re feeling isn’t stemming from any part of you being wrong or intentionally perpetuating the internalized homophobia you mentioned. In fact, it’s a sign of emotional growth. And when is that ever a “bad” thing?
embrace your fluidity, in your own time
The phenomenon of people being judged or even criminalized for failing to adhere to the gender binary dates back to European colonizers’ persecution of Two-Spirit people in Indigenous communities based in North America. It only started to ease up slightly in the U.S. once anti-cross-dressing arrests decreased following the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Even today, we’re living through an active surge of institutionally sanctioned homophobia and transphobia that affects pretty much everyone in the LGBTQ+ community; given all that painful context, it’s more than understandable to occasionally feel uneasy around how you present your gender to the world.
History and politics aside, nowhere is it written that your gender identity has to look the same on Tuesday as it did on Monday, and the sooner you can begin to feel OK about that fluidity, the sooner getting dressed will feel fun again. We all dress for other people sometimes, and it’s unrealistic to think that 365 of the outfits you put on every year are going to perfectly express who you are down to the last detail. I want you to look in the mirror and ask yourself a question the next time you’re getting ready and feeling fake for putting on a dress or insecure for showing up masc or any of the other stressful-sounding situations you mentioned: How would I dress for this occasion if other peoples’ reactions weren’t a factor?
I’m not suggesting you leave the house in anything that makes you uncomfortable, but what if you hit the thrift store or held a clothing swap with friends and put together an outfit that felt right to you gender-wise (right in that specific moment, not necessarily right to enter a situation that could invite judgment) and just wore it around the house for a while, slowly building up comfort? Even if you end up wearing a dress to the family dinner, identifying what you truly want to wear and how you want to communicate who you are to the world (even if you’re not ready to bring it past your front door yet) is the first step in having more fun on your sartorial gender journey.
rely on genderqueer community
The good (if slightly exhausting) news is, there’s no single way to initiate that journey. It is, as so many things are, a lifelong process that could look like exploring your feelings with the help of an LGBTQ+-affirming therapist or widening your social circle to include more queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks you trust to discuss these issues with. Journaling about the people in your life (online and off) whose way of “doing gender” you admire could also be an illuminating way to explore what they share in common, and how that might apply to you.
But you don’t just have to talk or think your way to feeling yourself. Add some masc-leaning photos to a Finsta where you gather your favorite ‘fit pics for your eyes only — or to your dating app profile, if you feel ready for that. Let yourself explore all the facets of yourself where it feels safe to do so (a.k.a somewhere that includes the presence of zero people you feel pressure to compulsory-femme it up for).
Striving for 100% authenticity, 100% of the time will only set yourself up for failure. You won’t come to a neat and tidy conclusion about your gender identity over night — it will take many, many baby steps. “Maybe at first that means adding masc accessories to a more femme look on a family outing, and then next time [choosing] a look that falls more ‘mid’ on the gender spectrum,” says Lydia Okello, a nonbinary writer and model who has written about sharing some of the representational anxiety around getting dressed that you mention. “Then, perhaps, you’ll get to the place where wearing your masculine looks feel right on the days you want, regardless of the activities.”
It will take time, but getting comfortable with fluidity and seeing how things work for you (and frankly, how they don’t) is an essential part of finding yourself. “I implore you to be kind to yourself on this journey,” Okello adds. “You are doing your best with what you know, and as time goes on you can gain more tools to help you feel like yourself.” You have so much time and so much joy ahead of you; to contain the potential for multiplicity within you is an inherently beautiful thing, and I hope you’ll eventually feel that.