So, I’m in the men’s section at the Levi’s store, leafing through the low-slung bootcuts and trying to remember how many inches I need to add to my waist size to accommodate my hips and thighs in a pair of men’s jeans.
It’s Sunday — the official day of the week for relaxing, running errands, and not worrying about how I look. I’m wearing a boxy jacket and baggy pants, and my head is freshly buzzed. I did something unusual today: I left the house without makeup or earrings.
A twenty-something male sales clerk is working next to me. He looks up at my face, smiles, and says in a loud, friendly tone, “Do you need help with anything, sir?”
I hold his gaze for another moment and smile gently. He pauses, looks closer, and says under his breath, “Sorry. Ma’am,” — quietly enough that if I were hard of hearing, I might miss the whole interaction. Quietly enough that his nearby co-workers don’t hear his mistake.
I hold my gentle smile but let my eyes go cold. My response is in my sweetest, most steady, most soothing voice: “No, thank you.” He walks away quickly. I am suddenly not so interested in trying on these these jeans.
I’ve already seen the rest of this floor, and I’m frustrated. The styles I like aren’t made for my body. Feeling stuck, I try to work through the dilemma by asking myself the real question on my mind: “What gender do I need to be right now?” The answer is, “I need clothes that fit.” I walk upstairs reluctantly, drizzling globs of self-confidence behind me on the floor with each step, like a water balloon coming untied.
The second floor is all women — trendy, young, thin, and styled — flicking through hangers quickly and commenting to their friends on what looks adorable.
Between the displays for “skinny jeans” and “super-skinny jeans,” I pause at the full-length mirror, watching myself in context with the women around me.
I look like a boy.
I don’t see this often — me, in public, as a boy. I’m usually gender-neutral from a distance and decidedly female up close. But here I am, bearing no female gender markers besides the bone structure of my face, and it really does take a second glance to even doubt the male assumption.
I am suddenly not so interested in being in this store. My eyes have gone from cold to glare, and I’m not sure which I hate most right now — my body, the clothing industry, or the binary gender system. I need air more than I need jeans. I border on rudeness as I push my way to the door.
Walking down the street, I’m trying to process what unnerved me most. I can narrow it down to two things. First, he addressed me as “sir” while looking at my face. I’m used to hearing it from behind and getting quick apologies as soon as I turn around, but this was a direct and unmistakable. I always assume that I look female up close, and this person read me as male. It hadn’t occurred to me that I looked like a boy today. How is it that I could be so completely unaware of this interpretation? What does that say about my self-acceptance? What does it say about my awareness of people around me? Why was I so offended?
The second piece that unnerved me was realizing how much work I do most days to be read as female. This is how I look by default: a shaved head, jeans, and a t-shirt. Makeup and jewelry are not necessities for walking out the door; they are decorations for sending a message. I wear them almost every day now because they’re necessary for the image that I want to convey; they get me treated the way I want to be treated.
I used to be low-maintenance androgynous: long hair, no makeup, no jewelry. Now I am higher-maintenance androgynous: shaved head, makeup, jewelry. No matter how I slice it, it’s about the balance. You’re just as likely to find me looking decidedly femme as you are to find me looking decidedly butch. Both feel like drag to me.
But I’m realizing… I can’t leave the house without makeup or jewelry, sport this haircut, and still expect to be read as female. And here’s the unnerving part: I’ve had this haircut for almost two years, and I hadn’t acknowledged this. I’ve been consistently offsetting the buzz cut with makeup and jewelry in public settings, making a direct point to be palatable, and not taking many days off from that work.
I’m grateful to my friends for not making me feel like I need to fit gender categories to be accepted. For letting me show up at their apartments in nothing but an ugly Mexican parka and ripped cargo pants and not asking me to be more presentable. For letting me wear lipstick one day and a flattened chest the next, and not asking me what that makes me. For letting me date women one day and men the next and not telling me which one I really want. For letting me date transgender people and not seeing it as a joke. For encouraging me to feel good in my body, whatever that takes.
So now I’m walking down the street, away from the Levi’s store, reflecting on all these things, and I pass a street vendor selling leather wristbands. They’re expensive but sexy, and I feel like I should give myself a present after being such a good sport, putting up with so much gender-fuckery internal dialog. I run my fingers over the black ones, each handmade with different designs, some with buckles and some with ties. I like the simple ones.
The man behind the cart looks up from his handiwork and says in a thick accent, “Hello, guy.”
My hands drop. I don’t respond. I don’t look up. I walk on.
It’s time to go home.