Say "Yes" to the Dress?: Musings on Gender and Getting Dressed for the “Big Day”…and Every Day

Posted by Shae Miller on

by Shae Miller

A couple (Kim and Shae) are holding hands behind lit candles. One is wearing a tuxedo and the other is wearing a lacy, sleeveless, ivory and black dress.

Finding a wedding dress was actually easy.

In January, as Kim and I belatedly prepared for a small March wedding, my mom was in town and she wanted to go dress shopping. We bypassed the bridal shops and fancy boutiques in favor of thrift shops and outlet stores figuring that if the “right” dress existed it would show up in a place where we wouldn't have to break the bank.

And we did, in fact, find my dress at an outlet store, at a great discount (only paid $150-- which is a lot but for a wedding dress apparently it's nothing) and it was the only one left, which happened to be in my size. It was lace and tule, knee length, black and ivory, with enough sass to feel superbly me. Add some knee high kitten-heel boots and it would be perfect.

But finding the dress wasn't the issue. Wearing the dress was...or at least believing that I would be wearing it on the "big day".

When Kim and I first started planning our wedding (and I use the term "planning" very loosely since it was more of a series of statements that went something like: "Oh, we need that?") I thought that wearing a dress would be fabulous. I love dressing up and the idea of a wedding outfit felt almost campy to me. I loved the idea of something frilly that pushed the limits of what a wedding dress was supposed to look like. I thought that playing with the aesthetic of an event with cultural meanings that were so rife with institutional expectations that made me itchy would be one way of making it my own. At one point I even considered making my own dress, and I started to do so, but truth be told my "I can make that" spirit isn't always backed by actual skill!

But for someone who is genderqueer, the issue arose for me of whether or not wearing a dress would feel comfortable for me ON THE DAY of my wedding. While Kim knew what she was looking for and found it (not without difficulty-- try finding a men's style suit that fits well in women's sizes without paying $5000+, which we weren't willing to pay), I found my dress with ease but then continued to question my outfit choice.

Allow me to explain.

As long as I've known her, and for even longer, Kim diligently picks out and irons her clothes each night for the next day. When she gets up and gets ready in the morning her outfit is ready. She just puts it on and goes.

Inspired by her efficiency (and fashion sense), I tried this when we first moved in together. I picked out an outfit, tried it on, gave myself the thumbs up and hung it up for the next day.

But when I woke up in the morning, got ready, and put on my carefully crafted outfit from the night before, everything looked odd. I felt differently from the way I had felt when I picked everything out. Suddenly the blouse with feminine accents felt like drag. But not in a fun way. The best way I can think to describe it is that I felt like a kid who was trying on a parent's clothing…and doing a terrible job of pulling it off.

For me, this dynamic is very closely linked to my gender identity. I am genderqueer. I don't necessarily feel that “woman” isn’t an accurate description of me. I just feel like it is one aspect of my gender identity that doesn’t fully capture it. At other times in my life I have not identified as a woman at all-- but not as a man, either. And there was a point in my life when I absolutely struggled with my femininity.

But the truth is, my embodiment, the way I move, the way I am most comfortable is inexorably effeminate. And after struggling with that for years, against the grain of stereotypes that portray femininity as weak and objectified, I came to love and respect my femininity for all of the power and self-possession it contains.

But when I imagined waking up on my wedding day as my more boyish self (for lack of a better description) and having nothing but a dress to wear I was plagued with anxiety.

Finding the dress was not an issue. Committing to the dress was.

So I made a compromise. I found a suit for a really good price as a backup, that way if my dress didn't feel like me on that day I had a suit to wear that would feel like me.

Budget shopping wasn't just a necessity. It was a strategy. And it has been for me for some time. Buying clothing that may or may not fit my body, my identity, my sense of self in a few days, weeks, months, years, means making sure I have items that run the spectrum of gender expression. It also means listening to myself, and my body, on a daily basis.

My morning routine sometimes looks like a montage scene out of some 90s transformation rom-com. Scarves, pants, skirts, and blouses flying through the air as the protagonist intermittently poses in front of the mirror, spinning to reveal the next outfit, then the next, then the next, until finally-- there it is! This is the one. THE outfit.

For today.

But I have recently learned to love this routine, as strange and manic as it used to feel. The whole process sometimes feels like dressing a finicky toddler who just wants to wear their spiderman costume to school. But I have learned to love it because I have recognized it as a part of my day where I get to say "good morning" to myself, take a look in the mirror, and acknowledge where I am in that moment. It is the part of my day when I get to really see and spend time with myself before I enter the rest of the world.

It’s become a sort of daily meditation for me. And it works.

On the day that my wife and I got married, getting dressed was surprisingly easy. And this was in large part because I honored and respected my feelings and anxieties about what I would be putting on my body.

I accepted that my feelings about what I would be wearing were real, they were not frivolous, and they were an expression of who I am. And I took the time to make sure that I had what I needed to accommodate my aesthetic needs, should new ones arrive, whatever they were. I didn’t shame myself about it. I didn’t beat myself over the head with all of the wedding superstitions about how “once you pick out the dress you must stop looking for another outfit or it’s bad luck” (yes, seriously, there is a superstition about that and basically everything else that could possibly occur around a wedding). And Kim supported me in that whole process—of course she did, it wasn’t even a question!

But honestly…and here’s the kicker: I don’t think this is something entirely unique to me.

At the same time that I was getting ready for my wedding, I was teaching a handful of classes on the topics of gender and sexuality. In these classes, body image, beauty, and aesthetics often come up. Through these discussions I have found that a lot of students from all over the gender and sexual spectrum have similar experiences around their daily decisions. For queer and trans students this was compounded by a variety of stereotypes and expectations around their identities, but for heterosexual and cis (non-trans) students this was common as well.

The thing is, we judge it differently when the experience is held by queer and trans people because there is no readily available template for what it looks like and feels like to challenge gender and sexual norms—whether as a political act or a necessary component of self actualization. But everyone, no matter what their gender or sexual identity, learns how to be what and who they are. And they learn the appropriate ways to be who and what they are. This is socialization.

And often, they are at least tangentially aware of how the choices they make regarding how to present themselves to the world on any given day will impact their interactions, their self-concepts, their self-esteem.

So many of my students share stories about how, when they put on their outfit for the day, they think about who they want to interact with and then make decisions about wearing things that will likely facilitate those interactions while limiting others. Many of the women in my classes talk about distinct differences in the ways that they are treated when they do or don’t wear makeup, shave their legs, wear dresses, style their hair.

This is not news. This is what it looks like to live in a beauty-obsessed society with rigid standards for what men and women (no in between) should look like.

And I imagine that in a “say ‘yes’ to the dress” culture, a lot of people feel similarly to the way I felt in the days and months leading up to their own weddings. The whole thing is such a huge cultural spectacle that this shouldn’t come as a surprise (for more see Ingraham’s work on the white wedding).

Some people wake up in the morning and the outfit they picked out the night before feels right. For some of us, there are no guarantees.

I guess what I am saying is: Whatever your experience, honor yourself.

Aesthetics are not everything. But they can be an expression of our internal selves. And if that is true for you I encourage you to embrace whatever the process of manifesting that looks like. It isn’t always easy, but I have found that, like most forms of self-love, it is a practice that is painstakingly imperfect, but that becomes more intuitive with time.

 

 

References:

Ingraham, Chrys. 2002. "Heterosexuality: It's Just Not Natural!" pp. 73-82 in Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Diane Richardson and Steven Seidman, Eds. Thousand Oaks: Sage. 

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