‘Something More Gender Neutral’

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There’s little you can do on the internet that has the potential to get your tender emotions more badly hurt, than publishing a blog post that is bound up in deeply personal desires, beliefs, insecurities and raw wounds, and will be viewed as being on the wrong side of public opinion. But here it is. Please try to be gentle.

I’ve potentially got a new job coming up in September and in anticipation of my morning bicycle commute, I went to buy a new laptop-compatible rucksack from TK MAXX today. I asked the attendant if they had anything besides the array of handbags I’d just sifted through, and she repeatedly impressed upon me that I could find ‘something more gender neutral’ on the other side of that floor. In hindsight it was likely impersonal as she was probably trained to say that, but hearing it addressed to me repeatedly hurt me more than she could have known.

I’m not the kind of Christian who has (or who at least appears to have) everything ‘sorted’. Not the 2.4 kids, white picket fence and toothy evangelical grin kind of Christian. Like most other people, I have my tender bits and my childhood scars that I’m waiting to be healed from, and I’m still learning to know myself, and to be myself. The attendant’s words stuck in my mind, and they stung. Today I’d plucked up the courage to out my floaty, pastel cotton skirt and my frilly grey shoulderless top with the flower on it, because of how I wanted to identify myself to the world. Not that I’m a follower of fashion, or that my clothes were particularly skimpy or curve-revealing; this wasn’t about ‘sex appeal’. Ultimately, I wanted to dress both for the weather, and in a way that would make a statement about what I am: a woman, and one who is interested in men.

I imagine that the last paragraph might produce a snigger, or maybe a groan of disgust. The truth is that it isn’t easy for me to make a statement of femininity in the way I dress.  Femininity is still something I feel like I have to measure up to – something that I have always had to measure up to. Besides this, my physique is not such that I can look good in a lot of easy-to-wear clothes that carry connotations of femininity in my British culture; I’m chunky, stocky, broad and muscular of shoulder, solid of jaw and big-boned (that is to say, in terms of BMI index, on the boundary between clinically overweight and obese). It would suit me if the fashions were different, but they are what they are, and they’re a way of identifying myself as I want to identify myself, so I don’t reject all of them. My hair is usually a mess because I don’t have the money or the time to get it cut regularly, it will never stay put when I brush it and I look like a boy when I tie it back, and I don’t usually wear makeup day-to-day because it’s expensive, time-consuming, messy, mildly uncomfortable, and makes me look vampish in significant amounts – or, as a gay friend once blurted out at a party when he and others were probably too drunk to realise that I would not receive a remark like that as he might have done, “Like a man in drag”. I’ve been told that I look masculine by family more than once; I’ve been told that I would be best complemented by a more ‘feminine’ man for a life partner and reassured, patronisingly, “Or it could be a girl, that’s okay too. We’re not judging!”. Even casual acquaintances seem to have picked me up on their ‘gaydar’ and made assumptions accordingly.

Figure now, if you would, what I might have looked like today in my floaty, pastel cotton skirt and my frilly grey shoulderless top with the flower on it. Sometimes when I look at myself in the mirror, I fear with sadness that my friend was right. But I am a woman who is interested in men, and I want to be identified as one, and I want to be regarded as worthy of celebrating and expressing what I am, and of being what I am, as much I want what I am to be regarded as worthy of celebrating and expressing. I want to identify myself as the daughter of Eve that God made me, and to express to the world my desire to marry as Eve married before the Fall; a Church-woman to a Christ-man, in imitation of the eventual union of Christ and his Church at the end of the age. My identity is not about what I perceive I am; it’s about what I am tout court. It is about being, about existence itself – about X and Y chromosomes, biology and the divine will of God: not about feeling, judging or thinking myself into something of my or anyone else’s choosing.

I experience, sometimes, what almost feels like an outside pressure on me to dress like what I look like – a feeling that because of the way I look, if I dress femininely, maybe I could be accused of somehow oppressing the lesbian and transgender people whom I allegedly resemble, by promoting conservative ‘stereotypes’. Or maybe that people who saw me dressed that way might regard me as a victim of ‘societal standards’ – when in fact it was a very intentional choice! (Deep down I know that this is only in my mind, but from the things I read sometimes, I get the feeling that the accusation would only be a breath away from the mouths of some. I must admit that my interest in the subject and my recent emergence from studenthood have exposed me to some rather extreme voices.). I know that I would look less remarkable to the eye if I simply caved in and donned a garb that was as apparently unfeminine as my muscular shoulders and my makeup-free face; caving in is certainly easier, and I can’t say it isn’t the norm for me. Ultimately, however, the fact is that I made an effort to dress like what I am today. The attendant’s recommendation of “something more gender neutral” hit me like a slap in the face and seemed to undermine all my confidence. I felt like asking her, “Why? Do I look like the sort of woman who would suit ‘something more gender neutral’ to you?” But I couldn’t make myself do it.

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