The cost of femme

As some who know me may have noticed, I look different lately. Probably enough that if they already knew me as he/him, as a guy with a fairly short haircut, as a guy who bound his chest and didn’t shave his legs, as a guy with stubble, as a guy who usually wore clothing not socially ascribed to women, as a guy who in wearing “women’s clothing” would describe it as drag— to those people, whether they be friends, family, or colleagues, much has changed. It still says “M” on all the legal documents where I had it changed, and all I’ve ever said publicly to anyone about what might be the case is that I’m really genderfluid or genderqueer. But I’ve substantially grown out (some of) my head hair, I sometimes wear makeup, I don’t bind, I shave a good deal of my body and face, and I wear ambiguous or outright “female” clothing depending on where I’m going. Most crucially, I have stayed off of testosterone injections for more than a year— which has had several major effects, but the very obvious one is that I’ve changed shape and could no longer fit into most binder models. Resurgent estrogen is enthusiastic.

I would like to assure everyone at this time: nothing is wrong. This is not the first time I have explored something beyond the gender binary, but in this instance I am not doing so under duress. Far from it. What’s actually happening with my gender is extremely complicated and confusing, even for me, and I have held off from explaining it to many others because I want to understand my own impulses better. So— this is not going to be a big essay about why I’ve “gone femme.” It’s also not going to be a big essay about all the disagreements I’ve developed with the femme/butch binary; let it suffice for now to simply hint that you would think in a world with such highly advanced and convoluted gender theory we might be more wary of any binaries.

For now, I’m just reflecting on the sheer fact of my gender presentation veering more in the direction that many people call femme— in the direction I will call femme as a cautious placeholder— and how this has a cost for me. I do not mean a social cost, a privilege cost. Even though they’re real, I will get into those issues whenever I write about the femme/butch binary failing. I mean something else.

First of all, leaving out the existential why of me turning to femme, some facets of that shift are within my control and some facets are less so. Some of my femme is an utterly independent choice, and some is not. I have chosen to grow my hair, I have chosen to wear makeup, I have chosen to wear bras that make me feel good about my appearance, I have chosen to wear clothing that I like and that happens to not be considered suitable for men. But I have not had a choice about wearing bras in general principle; if I can’t fit into a binder or do anything else that effectively compresses my chest, there is no point in trying, and there are a host of reasons that walking around publicly with unsupported double-Ds is not something I’d be comfortable doing. And more urgently, while others can always do what they feel is necessary for their own survival (physical and psychological), I have felt distinct pressure to keep myself hairless in all the places that women are “not supposed” to have hair. Given most other aspects of my presentation, if someone reads me as a cis woman, I am likely to be treated a certain negative way, and I am under too many other stresses in my life to cope easily with repeated microaggressions of that nature. More gravely, I have to consider the fact that I am not a trans woman, I would never lay claim to such experiences, but I am a femme-performing person with a tenor voice and occasional five o’clock shadow; if anyone were to interpret this as some always could, it might go quite poorly for me under some circumstances. I’m learning to materially enjoy the feeling of baby-smooth depilated skin where it didn’t exist before, but it began as and still remains a survival decision. My only areas of serious resistance are one area that very few people get to see, and my armpits. Possibly because everybody has armpit hair, and mine is sparse. Not everybody has face hair, and not everybody has leg hair in abundance.

That’s the first personal cost: it’s difficult for me to do femme in half measures. If you commit to part of it, I’m under the impression that you may often wind up committing to more because otherwise the world won’t even want you to try. This has at least been my struggle. Luckily, I’m adapting to it. With a particular level of commitment assumed, the bigger costs mount: time, energy, and money. Depilating cream doesn’t work very well on me, so all depilation means shaving, and this adds easily 30-40 minutes to any combined shower & hygiene routine. I have to contort myself and focus so intently that it’s physically exhausting. I have to shave my face every 1.5-2 days before the stubble is too visible, and it’s become tedious at best. I have to spend money on things I never used to budget for. Things I need to feel comfortable in my own skin, to like how I look: makeup, bras, clothes, products to protect against chub rub on parts of my thighs I never used to expose. Things I need to safely complete the femme commitment: more razor blades more often (until I can save up for a straight razor or something like electrolysis), bras again.

I could always give up. I could stop bothering with the things I genuinely don’t want to do, and I could stop bothering with the things I do want to do until I somehow get the budget to handle everything. Unfortunately, one thing I do know about my gender journey is that my history of butch presentation around 2007-2008 and 2009-2014 stemmed from several things, but one was that I actually had given up. I’d tried to do femme for so much of my life before that, and I actually wanted it, but as a child and teen I had limited energy, somewhat limited time, and a huge impression that there was no value in trying femme; I saw myself as a femme failure. As I then explored a binary male identity from linked but distinct causes, I increasingly lost the time for femme altogether, and I lost the money, and one bad relationship gave me a visceral aversion to it. Then I got into a much better relationship, one where I was actually free to be me in general, and I started to explore what my real self-expression was, and over time it’s happened that this involved many femme tokens, but there was still neither time, nor energy, nor money. But now I am somehow— sometimes it feels ludicrous— trying to go back to my truest, deepest aesthetic instinct.

I’m trying to make the time and energy spent on “pampering” myself actually feel like pampering, though that, of course, would still require money in its fullest form. I don’t know if it’s working. I’m trying. I’m trying to spend money efficiently, wisely, and with an eye for durable investments, just as I have to do with so many other things. I’m trying. I discovered the Lush brand recently, and I immediately saw its appeal to many consumers; a lot of their products look virtually edible, and who doesn’t want to literally rub a chocolate-based exfoliating mask onto their face? Unfortunately I also learned that Lush has donated money to the odiously misogynist organization PETA, which I cannot consciously support, so I’m not buying anything else from them, but I’m probably going to copy some product recipes for fun (and for cheaper). I’m trying. I’m trying.

The cost of femme really does take a lot of trying, though. And that is what the industry exploiting femme in our current society takes into account. I’m not happy about that, and I don’t see my choice to be femme as somehow empowering. I feel limited and sad about lots of things even though I feel happier about myself. And it would be the reverse if I went back to doing butch. I don’t think there is a clear winning or losing presentation between the two. And again, as I hope to write more about later— I really don’t want to think of it as “the two” at all. I suffer the costs of doing femme now, but truly I suffer them as the costs of doing something else entirely.


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