Thursday, December 2, 2010

"What Does a Lesbian Look Like?" - reflections on fashion and gender presentation

"What Does a Lesbian Look Like?" - from

Having stumbled across this article on Autostraddle (and admittedly scrambling to think of what to blog about for this class) I figured this might be an interesting thing to talk about.

Obviously, there's no clear cut answer to that question, and the round table-style discussion on the site makes that clear. But the varieties of responses made me think about something I've noticed more and more... that is, the queering of fashion, especially hipster fashion. For all its obvious flaws (including the appropriation of trends from marginalized cultures and the simplification and misrepresentation of political stances), hipster culture has at least had a hand in the popularization of androgynous fashion, and I can't help but think of it as a good thing.

(picture from

Whether it's girls in suspenders and men's suits, or boys in skinny jeans and scarves, this kind of gender-play may seem simple (and I'm far from calling it revolutionary) but the fact remains that if hipster culture (as irritating as it sometimes is) helps to normalize gender-bending trends, it could have far-reaching consequences. I'm thinking, for instance, of my haircut. I've had shortish hair for a while now, but over Thanksgiving Break, my amazing and talented hairstylist uncle cut it even shorter, into what my friends call "my gayest haircut ever." My (extremely conservative & Southern Baptist) grandparents didn't say a word. I think if it weren't for the presence of straight women in the mainstream media who've rocked short hair, that would've been the end of their believing that I'm heterosexual... or that I would have, at the very least, gotten a lecture about "looking like a boy."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's a good thing that things have to be "okay-ed" by straight celebrities... but I am thinking that the more representations we have of people playing with gendered fashion in the mainstream, the more it will trickle down, so that young kids in grade school may have a wider variety of images of what is acceptably "masculine" or "feminine" to pull from, thus (ideally) making the persecution of students who fall outside traditional, narrow gender roles a thing of the past.... Because gender roles, really, are the heart of the bullying issue (see this article, for example, or this one).

Gender roles are the simplest guides we get to "how to be a human" when we're born, and so when they are challenged, many people who unwittingly cling to them from insecurity (and who isn't insecure?) are made even more insecure. Narrow and strictly defined gender roles give us a guide, and guides make us feel better. When the guide is taken away and there are no rules, we suddenly have to examine why we do the things we do. Rather than participate in this self-examination, though, bullies instead will do and say terrible things, laying down their humanity in support of the "way things are"... so what if the way things were became a little more free? As the "counter-culture" style of hipsters bleeds into the mainstream, will we begin to see "average Joe" in skinny jeans and a tank top? Or "soccer moms" with buzz cuts? Do you think this could truly change anything?

(picture from

At any rate, the responses at Autostraddle are interesting if only for how clearly they illustrate how useless stereotypes really are. Here are some of my favorite points from the article:
Being a lesbian has allowed me to interpret femininity through a totally different lens. From the days of my tomboyhood, I’ve gotten to redefine what it means to be a girl. Trying to strike a balance between butch and femme in my appearance was exhausting, and I finally realized that I didn’t need to try to “look” like a woman or a lesbian, because I was already both those things. - Katrina, on p. 3 of the article
If it weren’t for ladies like Portia de Rossi, no one would have a point of reference for a girl like me. - Robin, p. 4
See; something is changing. Whereas a few years ago I noticed most women identified strongly with one end of the gender spectrum or the other, something lately has granted so many of us permission to not make that choice — and we’re not talking about androgyny. We’re talking about wearing a dress on Monday and a tie on Tuesday. - Riese, p. 5
I think fashion is increasingly blurring the lines with regard to gender and orientation and I like it. I personally appreciate that it’s becoming more and more difficult to look at a girl and guess her orientation – I find getting to know people is far more interesting when there’s more mystery and less room for assumptions. - Crystal, p. 2
On a personal note, since I came out I've been kind of uncertain about if/how much I wanted to play with my personal appearance and "looking" gay. Appearance is such a public thing, and it's a thing people don't feel shy about judging or commenting on (one of the articles I looked at about anti-gay bullying pointed out that while gender presentation and sexuality was the second most prevalent "theme" of adolescent bullying, the first was still plain-old physical appearance).

I used to have really long hair, and while I wasn't super-feminine, I did own a lot of cute dresses and skirts. Still, even before I was out, I always felt more comfortable in jeans (I own a lot of jeans - it's kind of embarrassing) and I frequently felt awkward and out of place in dresses.

In some ways, coming out has made me feel better about embracing tomboyish styles and playing around with cutting my hair (it just keeps getting shorter...) but in others, I felt a pressure not to seem like I was "trying too hard". I already felt a little stupid for taking so long to come out. I had to deal with peers and family members who thought I was faking it or just going through a phase, as if it were impossible to be gay unless you had been aware of it since early childhood. I thought the best way to prove that it wasn't a phase or something superficial like that was to just keep being the same old me, while happening to date girls. But by trying so hard to police my own style, I was missing out on so much! And, looking back, I had been doing the same kind of thing in the years I spent "playing" straight... even when I had short hair, I'd try extra-hard to be feminine in other ways to make sure I didn't appear gay. I never consciously thought about it as much as I do now, but I definitely did it.

Now, I've realized that:
  • genderplay in fashion is so fun, not to mention liberating;
  • boxer-briefs are so much more comfortable than thongs (or anything made primarily of lace);
  • lesbians come in a lot of varieties, and sometimes when I think I'm coming across as gay, I'm actually just coming across as a hipster;
  • but most of all...
  • my parents, friends, or anyone who feels like they can make judgments about the validity of my sexuality based on what I wear, or what I don't wear, or "how hard I'm trying" can get lost. I'm the only person qualified to say who or what I am, and that's not going to change whether or not I wear jeans or dresses or full-body glitter leotards.
What do you think? What are your experiences with stereotypes about "looking" gay, or gender presentation? Do you think these stereotypes are any better within the queer community itself?

1 comment:

  1. I think that a lot of young lesbians go through a period where we're overly conscious of how "gay" we think we look or want to look or try to look. The way I see it, after someone someone first comes to term with their sexuality or sexual orientation they often want to find consolidation with the LGBTQQIA community and might think they need to appear gay in order to do this. I also think that masculine-looking gay men and feminine-looking lesbians have the same issue of being invisible to the communities they identify with. It all boils down to the homonormative idea that when a person is attracted to people of the same sex, they tend to outwardly dress or carry themselves in a way that is usually associated with the opposite sex (the idea that gay men are feminine and lesbians are masculine).