Real women can wear dresses — or whatever they want
The girl behind the counter squinted down at me and asked which chocolate egg I wanted. There were a row of pink and blue eggs lined up in front of me, each one tucked carefully into place in the display cabinet. “Pink?” she said, glancing at my mother. My cousin stood next to me, cradling his blue egg. “Is that your favorite color?”
My mother looked at me. “Which do you want?” she asked, despite the girl behind the counter holding out a pink egg, and I blinked.
The girl raised an eyebrow for a moment and then swapped the eggs over. “So, pink’s not your favorite color?”
“She’s not the girly type,” my mother explained, planting a kiss on my head.
“She a tomboy then?” asked the girl, as my cousin and I ran off to break into our eggs.
As a kid, I was, in many ways, a tomboy. I was never hugely sporty — I preferred to curl up with a book at the side of a football pitch when my cousin played. I took tennis lessons and trampolining and enjoyed them. I preferred T-shirts and shorts and football shirts, sometimes handed down from my cousin. I wasn’t a girly girl; I never played with my hair or experimented with makeup. This might have been partly because my mother was never the type to be fussy with makeup or clothes. A lot of our mother-daughter bonding time was spent reading, watching films, and making up stories.
As a kid, I wasn’t trying to make any big statement — I just liked what I liked. In our family, there was a lot of focus on gender-equality: it wasn’t an issue if the girls liked football or the boys liked cooking. I remember a discussion during class of the role of the patriarch and being surprised when quite a few of the kids in my class said their fathers often got “the final say” in their households. I couldn’t remember ever seeing my father as the authority over my mother. I was taught that my parents were a team. Until I became a preteen, I wasn’t aware of the different societal standards placed on boys and girls, because I hadn’t been affected by them personally.
Once I did hit my teenage years, I began to feel a spark of interest in clothes and makeup. My mother spent what must have been pretty boring hours for her following me around clothes and makeup shops, watching me work through not quite knowing what I liked to gradually gaining a clearer idea. I didn’t get any disapproval from my family for this, either — they always just wanted us kids to be ourselves, whether that meant being “girlie,” “tomboyish,” or something else altogether.
Instead, the pressure came from inside my own brain.
When I was that little non-fussy girl, I’d prided myself on not being “girlie.” Teachers, cashiers, and friends’ parents had told me I wasn’t “girlie” for so long that it had almost become a badge of honor for me, a part of my identity. I sensed from an early age that my disinterest in fashion seemed to mark me out as different to some people, and I liked the feeling. I enjoyed the idea of not being the “typical girl.”
Now as a preteen, I was feeling more of a pull towards the things that the people I thought of (quite patronizingly) as “typical girls” enjoyed. Looking at myself in the mirror one day with a new lip gloss on, I realized that even though I liked wearing it and how it looked, I wasn’t sure if I liked myself for wearing it. Up until that point, my idea of myself had always been of a girl who liked casual clothes and the color blue and couldn’t be bothered with getting dressed up. If that facet of myself was changing, then was I still me?
As a very young kid, I’d been an easy crier, an oversensitive little girl who was prone to anxiety attacks. Then, during a sleepover, one of my cousins mentioned that she could never imagine anyone picking on me. “You always seem really tough,” she said admiringly, and my jaw dropped. I liked the image of myself the words gave me. Tough meant I could look after myself. Looking back, it seems pretty obvious that I latched onto the idea of not crying anymore because it represented the idea of no longer being easily hurt. I wasn’t going to be the kid who cried, the type of girl who needed to be comforted from then on.
After that, I sat stone-faced all the way through sad movies. When the news came on with heart-wrenching stories, I walked out of the room. As time went on, it got easier and easier, until I actually found it difficult to cry at all. Of course, I was still often sad inside, but I was holding on to the idea of being strong instead of crying or showing weakness.
Combined with feeling awkward about my sudden desire to feel more girlie and wear more traditionally feminine clothes, my disdain of crying led to a lot of emotional conflicts. I wanted to wear girls’ clothes. I wanted to cry at things. But more than that, I wanted to be respected and I wanted to feel like I couldn’t be hurt. I didn’t think I could have both.
Around age fifteen I discovered feminism. At first, learning about feminism just reinforced my ideas: Women were allowed to be strong and not cry and we were not weak. I stuck to my not-girlie, no crying rules even more. Over time, I started to see a different side of being strong. A side where you could cry if you wanted to and that didn’t make you any less of a strong woman, and certainly didn’t mean you were weak. A side that introduced me to the idea that strong women could wear pretty dresses, and that also led me to learn about the term “slut-shaming.” A side that led me to realize that I could be a tomboy and I could also be girlie, punk, gothic, indie, or whatever I wanted and still be a strong person. By now, some readers might be shrieking, “DUH!” but it was a pretty big revelation to me. I started out cautiously, buying the occasional dress and wearing makeup more often. I allowed myself to do things I was comfortable with, mixing my identities.
When I read the TVtropes page for Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses, I realized that it was just as wrong of me to force the idea that women should be tough, unemotional, and tomboyish on myself as it would have been for anyone else to think that to be a proper woman, you had to be sensitive, quiet, and gentle. It took me a while to learn that neither dressing “boyishly” or more “traditionally” feminine is superior — feminism supports all of it.
These days, I don’t really think about whether I come across as especially girly. I still don’t have much interest in sports. If I want to wear a pretty dress these days, I’ll do it. And if I want to wear shorts and a T-shirt the next day, I’ll do that.
One thing I do still struggle with is crying. Despite knowing logically that vulnerability does not make anyone “weak” or “ineffectual,” there’s still a part of me that struggles with the idea of being vulnerable myself. But I’m working on it, slowly. A documentary I watched on Kate Bush said of the song “Hounds of Love” that the power of the song is in the honesty of the lyrics, the strength is telling the truth about feeling weak, feeling afraid, feeling vulnerable. I hold onto that idea whenever I need to remind myself that vulnerability isn’t a weakness.
I might not be all the way there yet. But these days, I can say that putting on pretty dresses and crying at sad movies doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. It doesn’t mean I’m losing my identity. It doesn’t mean that I’m weak. It just means that this is how I feel right here, right now and that today, I want to wear a dress. Who knows about tomorrow?
(Image via Shutterstock.)