Dress-up games

Remember the person who asked for advice on how to dress for that professional event? Well, the same person just sent this follow-up story. It breaks my heart.

Setting: The big, high profile conference is over. I’m at the afterparty, feeling very tired, but with an urge to crash and burn. I’m with some real friends, my colleagues from the previous job who are not part of the “rich and famous” culture of the place we’re in. I’m getting good feedback on the work I’ve done during the two days of conference.

The night in flashes of memory.

Several people ask me how old I am. With a sinking feeling, I understand that they are impressed by my job not only because I was good at it, but because they are amazed that someone so young can have the role I had at the conference. When I tell them I’m 27, they look confused.

I’m in jeans and a t-shirt, not really dressed for the event. Can’t figure out if people are staring a bit because they’ve seen me during the day, because I’m dressed wrong or because they can’t tell my gender.

I’m in the bathroom, and stay a couple of minutes in front of the mirror outside the stalls, trying to shape up my hair. Had a haircut the day before, that has created an instant rise in references to me as “he” or “him”. A group of girls are standing next to me, I’m not looking at them. They are whispering about something, and finally one of them softly pokes me in the shoulder and then quickly withdraws her hand as if I would bite, saying in a somewhat careful and half joking but not mean voice that I’m in the wrong bathroom. I give her my usual “No I’m not” but this time it doesn’t help – she looks at me like I’m an idiot, and I have to say it again, giving her some clues with my body language as well before she believes me and throws the “oh my god I’m so embarrassed” reaction I’m getting used to by now.

Several people refer to me as “him” during the evening.

I’m on the dance floor, talking and dancing a bit with my “boss”, the guy who’s the star on stage at the conference and the person who invites all the speakers and get them to come speak at the event with the promise of great parties, excessive style. A girl he’s hanging out with approaches me, wants to talk. Music is loud, she’s close and talking directly into my ear. After a while I get what she wants – she can’t tell if I’m a boy or a girl. I tell her she’s not the first, and that people have tried to kick me out of the women’s bathroom earlier this evening. She doesn’t hear what I’m saying, or the consequence of that story for my gender doesn’t register, and she asks me again. I tell her I’m a girl.

She’s in a 600 dollar dress and 300 dollar shoes, the epitome of femme on the upscale club circuit where our conference after party is taking place. She drags me off to the bar, waves a bartender over with her credit card and buys us shots. I’m reading her as friendly but curious – it feels like she’s never met someone like me. I try to answer some of her questions about my identity. We’re laughing and drinking.

She takes me under the arm, her body language giving the story of two girls who are best friends, heads close, giggling. I’m wondering what she’s up to, but I’m following along. She walks me towards the toilet, I’m still following, a bit drunk, not sure what she’s up to, but I’m tagging along. In front of the mirrors she brings out her purse, and asks if she can put make up on me.

On one level, I like to provoke people by suddenly appearing in female guise to people who have only seen me in my normal “guy” appearance. It gives me attention. It amazes people. They think I’m hot. It’s still somehow a freak show, but when I was 16 I was much more of a girly girl and I sometimes go back to feeling good about male attention the way I did then.

After trying to apply some make-up, she changes her mind – let’s change clothes! she says. I’ve done this once before, with a friend during my studies. Me and that girl respected each other, but it was very clear to both of us that we had completely different strategies and comfort zones when it came to clothes. As a fun experiment, we decided to go out together and dress each other. She put me in a tiny black dress, high heels and pink/purple make up, I put her in jeans and a Prodigy hoodie. We had lots of fun, but were both relieved when we switched back after a couple of hours. We were playing a game back then, and I felt this new “friend” wanted to play the same game.

I’m up for it, telling her I’ve done it before and it was fun. Her dress is also very beautiful, black silk. We lock ourselves in a toilet stall, and get undressed. She’s almost naked before me, and want’s me to say that her body is beautiful. I’m trying to put on her stockings, obviously doing it wrong, she helps me. She sees the hair on my legs, and grabs a pinch of it, trying to pull it off, saying I need to shave. She’s not being hostile, more eager in a strange way. This is where I should have reacted the first time.

I’m in her dress, fitting myself into her shoes. They are black, shiny and two sizes too small, but I manage eventually. She’s putting on my jeans and t-shirt, and my Nike street shoes. She grabs me under the arm again, pulling me out back into the crowd in the bar. I’m still having fun, and people do give me that attention, that amazed appreciation, that “wow you should wear a dress more often” that I both hate because it’s sexist bullshit from guys in their 30ies to 40ies, but like because I feel like I’m provoking them, provoking their sense of gender and sexuality. Of course it’s on their terms, but I’m drunk, having fun and get around at least decently gracefully inthe high heels. My new friend is going around to the people she knows, trying to be seen in her new very “dull” jeans and t-shirt, and we’re parading our changed appearances together.

The memories are not exactly clear, but I think the turn comes when I for some reason raise my arm, and she sees the hair under my arms. Some sort of disgusted look comes on her face, and she seems to decide in that instant that she’s had enough of this experiment. Her whole body language changes as she tries to pull me back to the bathrooms to change back. Now! she says. I wrestle my arm from her grip, it hurts to walk that fast in the shoes that are too small, but follow her back to the toilet. We change back, she gets her dress back, I get my clothes back. She can’t get out of there fast enough, she just disappears. When I see her again, she’s taken her coat from the wardrobe and is on her way to the next club. Her body language is completely closed, this friendship is over.

Outside the club, we’re standing in a group of people, waiting to move on to the next place. She’s smoking a cigarette, telling me that she’s a tax lawyer. She half asks, half tells the group we’re standing in that she still looks like a super model, even in my clothes, right? There’s an undertone saying that I couldn’t look like a super model even in her clothes. From now on she’s ignoring me.

In the taxi home I tell the story to a former colleague, he’s male, nice and decent but not queer or feminist. But I need to tell someone, still processing what the hell just happened to me. When I’ve told him, more telling myself, and step out of the taxi that’s taking my friend a few more blocks, I break down. I’m feeling so lost and violated, stupid for not drawing a line, stupid for thinking we were playing some sort of game together, when she was just desperately trying to force me back into her idea of what being a woman can mean, tricking me out like something on a circus, throwing me away when the game wasn’t fun anymore. Her treatment of me becomes the representation of everything I was afraid of when thinking about how to dress for the event (ended up casual jeans and fashion-correct t-shirt). Rejection, being seen as a freak, disgusting people. She took all that insecurity and stabbed me with it like a knife. Insecurity was mine, but her behaviour was so.. disgustingly normative. I cried for two hours, in a mix of shame and anger and utter sadness.

The day after, I bought Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam, decided not to drink so much for a good while, and keep being myself, exploring the female masculinity I feel comfortable in. Leading up to this event, I had felt like I wanted to go more in a “edgy female” direction with my hair and looks, probably fueled by the exact same fears I had when it came to dressing for the conference. This weird weird thing in the after party woke me up, and got me back on track to expressing myself as I want to, not according to what other people might feel more comfortable with. I will never let anyone do to me what she did again. Drawing inspiration and strength from Halberstam’s book. Thinking about and loving male fashion again. Feeling a strange mix of sad and resolute.

What thoughts can you offer? (Just speak directly to the writer as “you”.)

And what are you thinking about gender right now?

Posted by on November 16th, 2008 at 08:00 am

Category: your voice 7 comments »

7 Responses to “Dress-up games”

  1. Ginger

    I’m so sorry for you. Not in that condescending, pitying way, but honest, my chest is aching, SORRY. What she did to you was so many levels of horrible and cruel. I don’t see what the problem is with you being who you are. Some people are just too heteronormative for their own good.


  2. JF

    I’m sorry about what happened to you–that sounds so awful.


  3. K

    That’s terrible. I hope she wakes up tomorrow and feels incredibly ashamed of herself.

    “This weird weird thing in the after party woke me up, and got me back on track to expressing myself as I want to, not according to what other people might feel more comfortable with.”

    :D Good to know that you’re not letting someone’s judgmental reactions shut you off from yourself. Go you!


  4. IF

    What a horrible betrayal on her part. I really feel for you.

    I’m also really glad that you’re going to carry on expressing yourself as you want to, the way you feel comfortable. Don’t let this one immature person’s behavior upset you.

    A troubling story, but really well told. You have a great way with words. Thanks for sharing.





  6. meghan

    I’m so sorry. Women are so unnecessarily cruel sometimes. Good luck with your exploration.


  7. picaresque

    PEOPLE are cruel


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