Femininity means different things to different people.
I don’t mean that femmes look different from each other, although that is also true. I mean that the subtext, power, and meaning of being femme, what it means to us, is not homogenous.
For me, living this life as a femme is empowering. I didn’t used to much care what I looked like, and would haphazardly match too-large shirts with too-large pants. I considered it a win as long as the people around me, in particular my parents, didn’t say anything about it. I wanted to disappear. I held no pride in this masculine presentation, and faced it with sad boredom at best. I spent decades in a near-constant state of dissociation and depersonalization, facing the person in the mirror as an unwelcome stranger. It was not a choice. It was an imposed on me from outside, by those who had decided for me what my gender was, and my mental health would have continued to deteriorate if I had not eventually recognized it as such.
It was in femininity that I found myself. Femininity enabled me to start caring about my appearance in ways that I never could or would have while under masculinity’s heel. Recognizing my gender and embracing the rich language of color, style, softness, and skin associated with it has let me, for the first time, look in a mirror and see myself.
Femme fashion comes with a much ampler vocabulary of options than masculine attire is likely to ever contain, and exploring its lexicon felt like learning to speak for the first time. In makeup, flats, heels, skirts, and crop tops, I could take and exercise control over my appearance that I never before felt. I could look and be myself, in my own hands, beautiful and proud, a vision of what they convinced me I could never become.
Femininity, likewise, is not quite the same concept for me as it might be for a white woman. My culture is Hispanic from Puerto Rico and Cuba, the result of Spanish patriarchy and West African food and music being thrust into and absorbed by the original, indigenous Taíno. Before the Spanish invasion, Taíno fashion consisted almost entirely of jewelry. Married and high-status women wore a skirt, the nagua, but most other people wore little or no clothing. Traditional Spanish women’s clothing was loose, long, and brightly colored, a different response to a comparably warm homeland, this time pulled in a conservative direction by centuries of rigid Catholicism. My particular background is further influenced by my parents’ being from lower-class, and in Mom’s case rural and explicitly mixed-race, families, who met in the United States. Loud presentation, carousing, and miscellaneous behavior that a more aristocratic upbringing would have declared boorish and uncouth were simply how they lived.
This combination, and centuries of social upheaval and migration thereafter, has made the clothing norms of my culture an incoherent blend. Catholic modesty remains an obnoxious subtext, but the memory of our ancestral exhibitionism and a plodding revolt against that restrictive import prods us in showier directions. Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s Taíno heritage is
Something that many Cubans and Puerto Ricans dismiss as long passed into antiquity, but in this way, it is alive and well. White people tend to misunderstand this ongoing compromise, and with it my cultures’ intense, playful flirtatiousness. They think our short skirts, bikinis, tight jeans, and décolletage are all evidence that northern Caribbean women are all thinly restrained sexual dynamos freely available as “experiences,” in a form of stereotyping that will be familiar to people of many non-white backgrounds.
This part of my history is what I access when I arrange my femme style the way I do. I spent my youth too listless and terrified to enjoy any part of my culture’s loud style, but it’s a part of me now. I have been in open revolt against many of my culture’s norms for reasons too numerous and too painful to articulate here, but in enthusiastic embrace of this fitful femininity, I can find communion with my roots.
When I wear something cute and artsy, I defy the racist caricature white people insist is my reality. When I wear a daring crop top and shorts to showcase my curves, I revel in a body that I have long been ashamed of; I embody my people’s long history of confidently showing skin in spite of Spanish Catholicism’s modesty standards; and I challenge people’s notions of what transgender women look like. In both cases, I can feel beautiful, a sensation that retains novelty for a long time after nearly three decades of being unable to look at myself in the mirror without a deep sense of wrongness.
But when I put on masculine clothing, whether the three-piece suit I used to wear for special occasions, my old gym clothes, or even the T-shirts I used to wear as my quotidian go-to, I don’t feel any of that. These items put me back in that dark place, where I can’t even see myself for the fine grid of this isn’t me. These items make me harshly scrutinize my jawline and the shape of my hands and the width of my shoulders, seeing in them anxieties otherwise past. These items make me look in the mirror and see an unwelcome stranger bearing the weight of everything I fled my homeland to escape, all the violence and awkwardness and emotional repression, all the ugliness and despair, all the hard edges and pushes and shoves of a society-wide effort to cram me into a mold I did not fit.
Masculinity, in my culture, comes with a dichotomous mix of laid-back confidence and brutal assertion. Cuban and Puerto Rican men are trained to get what they want with clever, flirtatious wordplay, effusively friendly body language, and where all of that fails, hotheaded displays of bravura, impulsive belligerence. The masculine clothing I grew up with—guayaberas and linen pants, singlets and jeans, shorts and shirtlessness—do not come with the subtext of power, prestige, and privilege that three-piece suits and fine dress shoes provide the Western butch, not even to us.
That’s not how these concepts are transmitted in our culture, but even if it was…men’s clothing comes with no empowerment for me. Men’s clothing is how my agency was denied for decades, men’s clothing is the prison I inhabited during my long exile from my true gender, and men’s clothing is what I escaped when I fled. Men’s clothing comes, here, with the subtext second-wave feminism assigns to women’s clothing: confusion, weakness, fear, loss of control. Insisting on this narrative, among other harms, leaves people like me, for whom femininity is the revolt against unfair expectations, out of the conversation, and is part and parcel of the way conventional, white feminism does not deal fairly with women of color.
There is no rebellion for me in rejecting the feminine. To take up suits and ties now would be body horror, not empowerment.
But feeling the summer breeze on my legs and the swish of my sundress with every step? The gentle touch of the makeup brush and the frustration of eyeliner? The freedom to be coquettish or sarcastic, as I please?
That is powerful.
by Alyssa Gonzalez