I recently scanned a bunch of old photos and marveled at the many looks that comprise my fashion oeuvre. I read clothes and hairstyles I wear like a text. Each ensemble reflects a particular and personal philosophy of the world and my place in it. Each shift in dress represents a corresponding change in paradigm. See for yourself.
I, like most babies, began life in a state of gender ambiguity. Long, golden hair and a sailor suit made me the original Lady Gaga. Life’s a lot easier when you don’t have the capacity to dress yourself. We celebrate indeterminate sex in babies. This celebration is a broken promise.
Kindergarten school pictures display early exposure to gender indoctrination. At this point, my mom’s still dressing me and I haven’t developed much of a gendered worldview but my short hair and functional clothes symbolize budding masculinity. The red jump suit makes me look like Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis in the sketch that won’t die: “What’s up with That?”
Child sex abuse had a profound impact on my sexual and gender identity. By the time I entered First Grade, I developed seemingly paradoxical forms of exhibitionism and body shame. I regularly ran around my house wearing a shirt but no pants or underwear, a practice that understandably creeped out my older sister and her friends. Conversely, I rarely went swimming without a shirt covering my upper body. This was also the age I began to strongly identify with femininity. I sometimes placed a t-shirt atop my head and skipped around the cul-de-sac as if I were a girl. When my father opened the front door and called for me to come inside, I immediately ripped the faux-wig from my crown, indicating I sensed my breach of masculine performance was wrong.
By the time I entered Fifth Grade, I was regularly characterized as “sensitive.” Crutches and a broken foot magnify my “delicateness.” An un-tucked, oversized shirt represents my willingness to stand out from the crowd, to deviate from masculine, clean-cut norms of other boys in my class. Think I’m reading too much into my choice of clothing? Notice how girls in the class photo also wear oversized shirts that hang over their shorts and pants, while the boys’ tops are more form-fitting and neatly tucked into their trousers.
Watch me morph from a little boy to a tween girl. My parents divorced when I was an infant. Mom wasn’t around to shop for me in middle school, nor did my father find time to devote to my wardrobe. I was given carte blanche to dress myself as I wished. I also experimented with creative (feminine) hairstyles. Now past Freud’s latency stage, my developing body yearned to be touched by other men. I enacted what 19th century sexologists might describe as “contrary sexual desire” via clothes and hair that belied the “reality” (whatever that word means) of my biological sex and assigned gender. Scope out my modification of a Latina hairstyle popular in the late 1980s: an INTENTIONAL cowlick bang. Not surprisingly, I was tormented on a daily basis for my gender violations. Kids at school regularly spit the word “faggot” in my face and physically brutalized me. My well-intended parents begged me to cut my hair and dress like a boy. My incipient homosexuality was the problem, not homophobia.
Gender-ambiguity continued into high school. My clothes were still too big for my body and long hair usually covered my face. I felt a lot of body-related shame. In the four years I was a student at Cy-Fair High School, I never ONCE stepped foot in the locker room. I used the debate room closet to slip into my gym clothes: a pair of red sweats that covered most of my body. My friends, who knew nothing of my history of sexual abuse, often cracked jokes about my “red sweats.” I never washed those sweats, nor did I maintain my personal hygiene. While other kids came into their sexual beings, I did all I could to repel desire. But, as Foucault teaches us with his “repressive hypothesis,” the more I tried to contain my sexuality the more it became a topic of conversation among my peers.
I began going to gay bars as I neared high school graduation. Gay nightlife made me realize that I could, in fact, be looked at as sexual being. High school curriculum and bullies failed to coerce my body into masculine norms, but queer nightclubs indoctrinated me into masculinity’s mechanics. I can best explain this pro-homo, heteronormative paradox via analogy: Most dog trainers advocate positive reinforcement over punishment. Likewise, the promise of gay sex was much more persuasive than homophobic brutes punching me in gut. Nowhere is masculine, heterosexist performance rewarded more than in the gay community, where bottoms regularly claim they’re tops, femininity is derided, and the term “straight-acting” is celebrated in online dating profiles. The awe-inspiring gender-ambiguity I cultivated in high school faded away as I slow transitioned into the gay adolescence (not a typo) of my late teens and early twenties, otherwise known as twinkdom. My hair never fell below my chin once I became a young adult and my manner of dress became, compared to middle and high school, masculine.
Early adulthood brought on unique forms of masculine humiliation. To modify Britney Spears, I was not a boy, not yet a man. Many child sex abuse survivors develop self-destructive habits, like smoking and drug abuse, at a young age. I smoked from the age of 12 until I was 30, which significantly inhibited my ability to be the sort of “buffed-out gay Adonis” (Corey and Nakayama) men of my ilk find irresistible. Throughout my 20s, I weighed a gaunt 115 pounds. While other guys my age ripped off their shirts at circuit parties, I stood in a corner and wished my body were bigger, more masculine. I couldn’t imagine sleeping with anyone in a sober state. Nobody else could get a hold of me because I couldn’t get a hold of myself. I smoked so much I spoke in smoke signals. I rum-and-coked myself into false self-confidence. People regularly asked if I was “sick.” Looking back, I was thin but cute. I just didn’t have the eyes to see myself in any sort of objective manner.
When I turned 30, I moved to West Hollywood, and, for the first time in my life, lived in a gayborhood. I quit smoking and began regularly working out. The bigger I became, the more positive reinforcement I received. The more bulbous my physique, the more often I disrobed (just my shirt!) at dance clubs. The more muscle I packed onto my body, the more worthy I felt to be loved. Even my Facebook profile photos featured pictures of me in various stages of undress. The more masculine I looked in photos, the sexier I felt. Nobody objectifies better than the self. I made myself a piece of meat. As Joey Pants said in The Matrix, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it’s juicy and delicious. Ignorance is bliss.” I call this my “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” phase.
What sparked this blog entry was a recent shopping trip. I purchased a pair of Docksiders and a couple of Lacoste sweaters at a (gasp!) department store and thought, “When did I turn into THIS guy? When did I transform into the conservative-dressing, professorial type?” They say, “Mother knows best.” I strangely feel like I’m dressing in the same style of clothes my mother purchased for me when I was a kid. I’m in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. I still work out 5 times a week but no longer feel the need to show skin that, for years, I kept concealed. I’m no longer trying to work against trend (which is a trend in itself), nor am I clinging onto my youth via too-tight clothes and ironic t-shirts. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m being me rather than trying to act like somebody else, whether that “somebody” be a different gender, body type, or what have you.