Conformity as Identity or Survival?

By Penny Robo

Penny RoboHow do you win a fight over the validity of your womanhood when wearing a skirt means you’re playing dress-up but wearing pants means you’re not trying? How can you be accepted by someone who tells you in one breath that your short hair is evidence you’re just slapping a label onto yourself, and with the next tells another woman her long hair is proof she’s playing into stereotypes?

Well, you can’t. Over and over again we’re told everything we’re doing wrong, without a peep about what we could be doing right. These aren’t positions taken in good faith, there’s no Goldilocks zone for you to inhabit where you’re just right for their tastes.

We’re ultimately left to our own interpretations, but we’ve got our own concerns too, don’t we? Am I wearing makeup because it makes me feel good about myself? Because it makes me feel safer? Because it’s what I’m expected to do? Am I rejecting makeup to make a statement? To stay in my comfort zone? Or do I simply not care for it?

We’re regularly filled with self-doubt, partly over our own desires to continue understanding ourselves as best we can. But we can’t forget that those doubts are fueled on the regular by worries over the messages we send. Our identities, despite our wishes, are a highly and seemingly inherently political thing, where our clothes, grooming regimens, and taste in media is constantly scrutinized. Every public-facing facet of ourselves is pored over by bad-faith actors and allies alike, the former in search of ammunition and the latter with the unending terror of finding an ideological impurity that could be weaponized against the rest of the community.

These questions can consume us if we let them. And at the same time it can afford us a level of introspection most people don’t have any need or want for, it can also hobble us. I don’t need to put together my outfit for the day wondering how it’s going to be perceived depending on how well I happen to pass at any particular moment, but I do. I always worry if how well those leggings help me pass by unnoticed most of the day will end up adding an extra layer of disgust to the face of whoever realizes I’m trans, or if the ambiguity of that leather jacket catching more eyes will lead to softer looks. And then there are the nights, when safety becomes a greater concern, and I can’t help but worry about how someone will react if I get too much attention.

On my worst days I will be paralyzed with concerns over the messages I’m sending and default to the soft punk girl that would hopefully elicit little more than an eyeroll if I’m read as anything other than a girl. I’m tired of my my “aesthetic” being driven by safety concerns… a lot of the time, it feels like the only right thing I could do for a lot of people is just not exist.

And I’m not alone in this. I’ve known trans women who have been out for years that still hesitate to wear “women’s clothing” out in public because of the potential for bad responses. Hell, before I ever knowingly met another trans woman in my life, I knew butch cis women with the exact same worries about getting side-eyed or harassed if they put on a skirt or too much makeup, and those fears weren’t unfounded. They’d get misgendered even by people who knew they were cis. People are cruel, y’all know that.

I don’t have any answers here, no tidy bows to wrap things up in. Only my own experiences and those of my friends. Friends that have learned to jettison the expectations of others and present themselves as they feel best, friends that are driven by fear, and both groups ending up in all different places on the typically understood “spectrum of femininity”.

But as long as social acceptance and bodily safety are prices to be paid for merely existing, there’s no one who could honestly claim that the manner in which we present ourselves to the world is necessarily evidence of our beliefs about women, men, or gender roles.

It doesn’t matter how badly you want us to present as living bullet-points of our personal beliefs; too many of us have to use our clothes and hair as armor to use them as ideological billboards.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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