The first time I have ever ventured into the men’s department of a store with the intent to buy something for myself was about a year ago. It was a simple band t-shirt, one of my favorites that I own to date. They made the same one for girls, but none of them were available in my size, so I got one that fit me from the opposite side of the store. The only difference: the men’s one wouldn’t hug my lack of curves, and I was more than happy about that. However, that night when I came home and showed my dad what I had bought on my trip that day, my mom decided to let him know that it was technically a men’s shirt. I don’t remember a time when I was asked so many questions about something so harmless in my life.
It was a baggy band t-shirt; something that people of all genders have worn for as long as the band t-shirts have been around. Nobody would have known that the shirt wasn’t meant for women if it wasn’t mentioned. And, while I understand that clothing is structured certain ways–chest space for women, for example–there is no real reason to limit who gets to wear these things. By my father reacting that way and interrogating me for buying clothes, it almost sent the message that I shouldn’t be wearing that- a normal t-shirt- for the simple fact that it was from one end of the store and not the other.
I generally don’t care about people’s opinions of how I dress, but this was coming from family. I am lucky to have some of the most supporting parents out there, so this genuinely surprised me. I spent a long time thinking about the conversation, and I still do. It makes me hesitant to do certain things, like shop in the men’s department if I want to. I mean, who doesn’t love oversized flannels? It also made me hesitant to wear my perfectly normal band t-shirt out of the house, and that what bothers me the most. I thought that, walking around school or in stores, people would be able to magically tell and point it out, ask the same questions as my father had. As if the slightly higher than usual neckline would be a dead giveaway that the shirt was not intended to be worn by me, which sounds even worse to me when I’m putting words on a paper, but I remember multiple times when I’ve had that thought clear as day.
And as harmless as my paranoia may be, it has really limited my expression of who I am. I like dresses, but I also like suits. I’m not necessarily a feminine person, and button down shirts are and have been my favorite piece of clothing for a long time. I’ve really wanted to buy things such as bow ties for myself to go along with them. I work at a clothing store, and often see them, but I never go to buy one because of that fundamental fear of judgement.
But, of course, there are those that have it worse, where this judgement practically rules their lives. A transgender friend of mine who recently came out to their parents sat down with me to discuss their experiences before this difficult decision. They identify as male, but they were looked at as female by their family and many others until recently. They explained that in public, the expectation of them was for them to wear “manly” clothes, and that it would make everyone act differently around them when they weren’t adhering to this standard, thus making everyone uncomfortable. In their words, it’s “as if I’ve changed my mind about what I want to be… I wore a dress during a dance ‘cause my mother told me to and I was very uncomfortable and one of my teachers who knew had questioned me about it because, I think, it just made her confused.”
And one may think that this isn’t a bad thing, that it isn’t directly affecting the person involved, but perception is being sacrificed here. People wear the clothes they chose to express their identity and their interests. I wear band t-shirts because I love music, a very specific kind, and I want to show that. I love it when people compliment my clothing, or say that they like a band or game, too. I’ve made friends through expressing my interests like that. So, when that expression is being taken away, forcing a person into a box that there is no escape from, it hurts. It’s just plain upsetting to give up a part of who you are because of expectation.
One of my friends describes it as peer pressure, and they have given in. They said, “when people put it like that, it makes me feel like I should listen to them because when they use the correct pronouns and my name, it makes me feel better of my life… I love my clothes, but there are some things that I would like to wear but just don’t because of the expectation.”
The dangers here are obvious. People weren’t meant to be stuffed into molds, even if that is society’s expectation. Not everyone could if they wanted to, really. There will always be something unique about everyone, and no matter how much they may want to hide it, it is still there, still a part of who they are. Conformity might be the end goal to some, but that saddens me. So, even if it’s small, wearing what you want is important. It’s an amazing self esteem boost, and can even help get you out of bed in the morning. If you’re a girl in a suit, or other “men’s clothing”; if others stare at you, call your names; even if you’re the only one around you that’s breaking the mold and not following some obnoxious fashion trend that makes no logical sense (cold shoulder sweaters, I’m looking at you), you’re being you.
And in the end, that’s what will always be most important.