Last week, I bought new pants. And while that may sound like a mind-numbingly mundane act to you, believe me when I say that the earth shook a little. I haven’t purchased new pants in over three years. I’ve worn them on occasion, sure, and have several pairs languishing in the dark recesses of my closet. But overall, I’ve shied away from wearing jeans, slacks, and pants of all kinds ever since I discovered the fun, flattering, flirty world of skirts and dresses. Skirts work with my figure. They emphasize my waist, glide over my bum and thighs, and show off my shapely calves. Skirts are my sartorial staple. Skirts make me feel confident and stylish and powerful.
Skirts are also decidedly feminine. And as someone who has a deep-seated, highly irrational fear of androgynous dressing, I love them for it.
I first became aware of clothing as a means of personal expression around age 14. Back then, girls didn’t really do skirts and dresses. It was all about jeans. Preferably oversized jeans paired with enormous, baggy tops. And that suited me just fine because pretty much the moment I became aware of my body, I became self-conscious about it. I wasn’t slim or traditionally pretty, but I was a smart, driven overachiever. That magical combination made me the target of teasing from all sides and I did everything I could to be invisible. Oversized, gender-neutral clothes were instrumental in my quest to go unnoticed and hide my “imperfect” body from prying eyes.
My high school and college years overlapped with the heyday of grunge, so I was able to continue wearing various figure-masking styles and appear normal, if not stylish. Overalls, Doc Martens and my dad’s flannel shirts all stayed in heavy rotation beyond graduation.
Looking back, nearly all of my clothes from age 11 to age 23 were androgynous, even the more form-fitting ones. OK, a tie-dyed dress or two might’ve snuck in on occasion, but mostly I dressed for gender neutrality. It helped me feel like less of a body, less of a physical entity, to wear clothes that could go either way.
Then in my mid-twenties, I grew weary of feeling constant loathing for my own reflection and began to tinker around with more fitted, tailored styles of clothing. I already knew how to use garments to disguise my entire body — curves, lumps and all. But I was thrilled to discover that certain garments could simultaneously downplay the bits I hated and show off the bits I loved. And it was through wearing these styles that I began to truly accept and even love my body, just as it is.
Full skirts, belted waists, knee-length hemlines, high heels, tailored tops, V-neck shirts, loads of jewelry. My current style is built around the pieces and tactics that I discovered back then, all of which make me look womanly, feminine, girlish, anything but gender-neutral. And once I came into my own, sartorially speaking, anything less than full-on lady felt like backpedaling.
In fact, I became convinced that if I dipped back into androgyny, I’d undo the years of hard work that had brought me to a more peaceful, accepting place with my body. That I’d fall down a rabbit hole, never wear a skirt again, and start loathing myself just as vigorously as I had when I was 14. Learning to dress my figure in a way that showed it off set me down the path toward seeing myself as a whole being – heart, mind, soul, and body. And although it was downright weird to believe that donning a fedora, vest, and trousers would make me suddenly hate myself all over again, that, friends, is what I feared. Even a more tailored, formfitting, modern take on androgynous dressing – one that would suit my current figure and style – felt threatening and risky. Androgynous dressing scared the crap out of me because, for years, it had served to simultaneously protect me and hold me back.
But I’m working on it. Both because that kind of fear is counterproductive and stifling, and because I’ve got to trust myself. No waist-masking sweater or pair of chunky oxfords can destroy my hard work and make me devolve into self-loathing. Pants are not the enemy. In fact, I’m wearing my new pair today. And yes, they’re skinny and cropped and bright yellow and just about as girly as pants can get. But hey, it’s a start.
Did you grow up dressing androgynously? Did you do it because it was the norm, or because of your own preferences? Are you drawn to androgynous styles now? Sound off on this topic in the comments!
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.