I recently headed to my local JCPenney store to take advantage of their winter clearance sale and snag some new sweaters.
I thought my current sweaters were simply wearing out and stretched. I thought their casual shape was just baggy, and I felt uncomfortable wearing them, and I wanted to get some new ones to replace them. I grabbed my size (an XL) and headed to the ladies dressing room hoping I could dive in without anyone seeing me and telling me I was in the wrong area.
I made it in without incident, but was immediately disappointed: the XL was like a dress. The sleeves were nearly 8 inches too long and the whole garment just bagged off of me. What the hell? XL was my size.
Back to the display to grab a size large instead. Back through the gauntlet to the fitting room. (WHY do they put the fitting room in the clearance section? There were dozens of middle-aged moms glancing my way as I darted into the nearest open door.) But when I tried the large on, it was also loose and baggy.
Now I was frustrated. I HATE dressing rooms. I hate trying on clothes in public and having to dodge the attendant and hope they don’t call me sir. I hate getting stared down or even glanced at while people try to figure out if I am a boy or a girl and therefore in the appropriate place for changing my clothes behind a solid door.
Nevertheless, the allure of a $10 sweater was enough to overcome my frustration, and I went back to the display a third time and grabbed a medium. I decided to head to the men’s dressing room since it was closer, and had to fight down a moment of panic when I turned the corner and there was a male attendant folding clothes in the doorway to the men’s fitting room. As I hesitated, he glanced up and said “Fitting rooms are open” and paid me no more attention. That felt like a minor win and I sprinted past him before he could give it more thought.
I pulled on the medium and nearly passed out. No, not because it was too tight. Because it fit. I don’t know how. Vanity sizing issues aside, I’m comparing my current self to my past self. AND I’m comparing clothes from one suburban department store with another (Kohls sweaters from 5 years ago to JCP sweaters today). How on earth did my size stop being an XL and become a Medium? Fricking medium!?
Guys. I LOVE clothing. Its my favorite subject to write about because it matters so much and learning to dress better changed the way I think and feel about myself. I actually like shopping and finding clothes that make me feel confident and handsome.
And I have been buying the wrong size clothes for at least a year.
How did that happen? Why?
Maybe because I don’t “own” my actual body. I don’t believe it. Since I’m still heavier and rounder than some arbitrary idealized idea of myself, I disconnected from the body I actually have. I was wearing clothing that is 2 sizes too large. Two!
Somehow I continued wearing those old ill-fitting clothes because they weren’t too tight so I didn’t think about moving on from them. I felt awful in those old sweaters and shirts. AWFUL. Every. Single. Time. I. Wore. Them.
But I kept wearing them.
And here’s the thought that keeps going through my head: my perception of myself is sometimes still so distorted that I thought feeling awful in my clothing was normal.
Actually, maybe I thought it was something I deserved.
Of course I felt sloppy. I was wearing men’s clothing (taboo). And the old shame of wearing the “wrong” clothes from all the way back from when I was 10 years old was so familiar that I, someone who loves clothes and getting dressed, never questioned it. I accepted it.
Have you felt that shame? That shame society sells us about wearing the “wrong” clothes and being too fat? I pulled that shame on every single time I donned those old shirts and sweaters.
In a poorly-lit department store (men’s!) changing room, I had a standoff with that shame.
What I wanted to say here was that I stared that shame down and I won. “Look at me, I’m an enlightened badass.” But that’s not what happened.
What happened was much softer than that. When I finished adjusting the sweater, and I looked up into my own face looking back at me in the mirror, I thought, “Oh. Oh, I see you now. There you are. I see you.” and my heart cracked open a little bit.
I felt all the feels. I felt a sadness for my prolonged distance from myself. I felt joy at being seen. I felt kindness and compassion for my beautiful handsome fat butch self. I felt proud of all the work I’ve done to lead up to that moment where I could actually look myself in the eye with kindness and love.
I felt dapper as hell when I tried on sweaters that actually fit. I felt so good, I marched back out and grabbed a bunch of dress shirts two sizes smaller than I’ve been wearing and tried those on as well. And damn if those didn’t fit and look better too!
But here’s an important point: I did not feel better simply because I am smaller. I felt better because I truly saw myself. Because I didn’t recoil in shame from myself. Because I honored who I am, right now, at this moment, by simply choosing the right size of clothes.
This is why clothing is such a big deal to me. So many times clothing is actually a reflection of what’s on the inside.
There are times when your outfit feels just right, and you spend the whole day walking around with swagger and feeling confident. And on those days, when you look in the mirror, you see your best self.
Conversely, the clothes we choose have a huge effect on how we feel about ourselves. It’s a circular relationship. I feel like crap so I dress like I feel like crap and then I see my reflection and it confirms “Yep, you look like crap”.
Clothing can be both a reflection and a manifestation of how you feel.
In that dressing room, I also saw how my clothing could help me to understand some of how I was treating myself.
I was treating myself like less than. Like I deserved to feel shame. I had simply never noticed it because it was confined to literally one very specific area of my wardrobe. It was only my “comfortable”, casual winter clothing that was afflicted by this malaise. But lurking in my cozy sweater drawer were some latent negative feelings about myself, my presentation, and my body.
What a sneak shame can be! I dress deliberately and with care and confidence nearly every day. And I thought I had come to fully accept myself. I was so surprised to become aware of that internalized rejection of being a big butch lesbian. Of my latent, well-hidden shame.
I keep thinking over and over how embedded that rejection and shame feels. How it feels normal to be worried about shopping in the men’s section. How it feels normal to dread going into a fitting room or bathroom. How it feels normal to use self-deprecating jokes to brush off the awful things people say. How even when you’ve learned how to dress well and you feel confident, you never know when your cozy sweater drawer will try to convince you that you might not be good enough. How a piece of your clothing will enable you to feel uncomfortable and that discomfort somehow feels right.
I think about how each and every day we butches get up and dress our asses off, it’s an act of rebellion. About how we feel like we have to be constantly braced for a confrontation (wrong bathroom, sir!) or an uncomfortable stink eye from a stranger on the elevator. About how sometimes our very existence feels like a perpetual act of defiance.
And here’s what I learned about shame from this incident: I might not ever fully get rid of it, but if I feel shame and counter that feeling by calling it a liar, it loses its power. If I reply “that’s not true” when I have thoughts of being inadequate, or “wrong”, or ugly, or unloveable, the very act of standing up for myself is proof that shame has no place here.
I can protect myself, just like I would protect someone I loved if someone badmouthed my wife, or my sister, or my mother, or my coworker.
More importantly, I learned that you don’t always have to meet shame with power or assertiveness. The most powerful thing for me this time around was meeting shame with kindness, self-love, and compassion. Being gentle with myself was much more powerful than trying to strongarm my shame.
Every day is another chance to learn, to grow, to start treating our butch selves with the same courtesy, gallantry, kindness, and love that we show so readily to the women we love.
How powerful, how healing, would it be if WE were the women we love?