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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Rejecting the fashion calculus of femininity

Fashion calculus is over. Fashion anarchy is in.

Today is Trans Day of Visibility, and I am thinking about what it means to be brave. About the image of ourself that we put out there on social media. About how much of what we do—our fashion choices, our makeup choices, our poses and expressions—is for us, and how much is for those we think we have to please.

So I present to you three photos. Three stories. Three ideas about bravery and beauty.

I'm sitting with my legs crossed in an office chair. I'm wearing a knitted red skirt and grey turtleneck with diamond-pattern tights and leopard ankle booties. My hair is down, and I am smiling. There’s nothing particularly special about this outfit. I’ve worn some variation of it for the last couple of years, ever since I knitted this skirt. But this particular combination, with the diamond-pattern tights and the leopard ankle booties, made me feel so powerful. My colleague happily snapped a pic for me. I felt hot—make what you will of an asexual person saying that. To me, it means a particularly kind of confidence that comes with dressing my body in a way that matches the fierceness with which I want to take on my day. Some days that means tight skirts and cute heels; other days that might mean an A-line dress with flats. Whatever the particulars, when such an outfit comes together just so, I’m always elated and maybe a little surprised.

I just love it when an outfit comes together. I love putting on a little strut so that everyone knows I know I look good. Days like these are days I most intensely feel how much I have enjoyed embracing my femininity.

Four fitting room selfies. The first two are in a dark blue dress with thin straps that cross over in the back. The second two are in a light blue dress with cap sleeves. I went on a little shopping spree this past March Break. Not only did I pick up a new eyeshadow palette—Morphe’s Aurascape, full of brilliant pastel colours to up my game—but I also bought several new dresses. Of my several purchases, these two turned out to be a big deal for me.

I almost didn’t try on the first dress, the dark blue strappy number, let alone buy it. “It won’t work on my figure,” I thought. A quote from Mean Girls reverberated in my mind: Regina George staring forlornly into her bedroom mirror and saying, “At least you guys can wear halters. I’ve got man shoulders.” I’d long avoided wearing thinner strappy things, thinking they didn’t flatter my broad shoulders. Even the thought of trying it on made me anxious. Surely all I would see in the mirror would confirm to me that it was delusional to think such a dress could work.

Something made me ignore those doubts, however, and push past that anxiety, and find my size on the rack and march with it into the fitting stall. I slipped into it, took a few photos, sent them to a Discord server whose members I trusted to give me feedback with accuracy and alacrity. The verdict from them and from me was a resounding yes.

So I bought it.

In the next store I tried on many dresses, and this light blue one called to me. I love me a good cap sleeve, but I’ve avoided puffy ones, as well as low, square necks. As a tall bitch, I’ve always been self-conscious with shorter hemlines—too many midi dresses become mini on me, and mini dresses … well. So this dress, at first glance, seemed like a nightmare experience combining three things I tend to avoid. Yet when I tried it on, it felt right.

One of my closest friends commented to me, of this photo, that she was a little jealous: “I wish I would find dresses that fit close to my body and in which I would feel as good.” I thanked her for her vulnerability and replied, "I wish I wasn't so tall and broad-shouldered and could fill out a dress better." The mirror we held up to each other in this conversation demonstrates how the patriarchy conspires to make us eternally unsatisfied with our own bodies, encouraging us always to look at what other women have that we don’t—even when she is looking right back at you thinking much the same.

The secret, I am slowly learning, is that there is no magic outfit that will change how you feel about yourself. Yes, there are outfits that will make you feel like a million dollars, as pictured above. Yet the solution isn’t in the clothes we wear. It’s in redefining the limits we put on ourselves.

No, the dresses aren’t any different. I am different.

Don’t wear thin straps that emphasize your broad shoulders. Don’t wear blue eyeshadow that detracts from your blue eyes. Don’t wear this, don’t do that—every woman hears and internalizes a thousand such “rules” of fashion. Depending on our jobs, our lives, some of us are more or less beholden to dress codes, ideas of professionalism, ideals of femininity.

Trans women, as I have discussed before on this blog, face additional scrutiny. But this scrutiny is still, unequivocally, misogyny. Transmisogyny is misogyny, for at the end of the day, the policing of trans women’s appearances is an extension of the policing of all women’s appearances. To be a woman in our society is to be told to struggle constantly to be wanted while always being found wanting—too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too feminine, too masculine. It’s ironic that my struggle to adequately express my gender is itself an affirmation of my gender.

But I’m four years into this transition of mine, and I just … don’t care anymore. I want to spread my fashion wings. I’ll always return to the staples of my style, but I’ve become comfortable enough in my body and confident enough in my judgement to try more. To show more skin. To raise those hemlines. To wear pastel blue shadow. To put myself out there, literally, because I am already out there.

My hair is down. I'm wearing a light blue Desert Bus T-Shirt and smiling. I have no makeup on. This isn’t my first no-makeup selfie I’ve shared online, not even my first posted to this blog. Some people will tell you that no-makeup selfies are more honest, more raw, more authentic. That posting no-makeup pics is automatically braver and truer than a pic with makeup.

All of that is bullshit.

All of these photos of me are me. Wear makeup, don’t wear makeup—both of these are versions of oneself. What matters is which version we choose to present to the world. Yes, sometimes the reasons behind those choices are complicated. But at the end of the day, for me at least—I like wearing makeup. I love how I look with bright shadow and mascara and a bit of blush. So those selfies are not inherently less true than no-makeup selfies.

But I realized, writing this post, that its theme is not “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me”—I’m not here to brag about how good I look (why would I bother to state the obvious, come on). I’m here to share what I have learned about being brave.

I wear makeup, but I no longer feel like I need it as evidence to support the argument that is my womanhood.

On Wednesdays I wear pink, but I also wear it any other goddamn day of the week.

Yeah, I have broad shoulders, but they are my broad shoulders, and instead of spending the rest of my life agonizing about how to hide them or how they limit what I can wear, I’m going to wear what feels good.

The rules are arbitrary. I declare fashion anarchy. Today, and every day forward, I resolve not to put a limit on what I can wear. We spend so much time contorting ourselves, trying to conform to the ever-shifting, unattainably long list of rules. But the only way for someone like me to not be found wanting is to put myself back in a box and pretend to be someone I’m not, a comforting calumny for those who are too insecure to let go of rigid ideas of gender.

I’m done with that. I’m done with the calculus of what I can or should wear, of who or what I can or should be. I’m done with limits.

The limit does not exist.