I tried on this dress at Sirens, a Canadian retailer I frequent. It consists of a “backbone” with four segments attached to it: a collar, a shelf bra, a waist belt, and a skirt. The result is tricky to put on, but shows striking bands of skin along the midriff and collarbones, looking at once regal and revealing, sexy and sensual. It’s the kind of high-fashion “supervillain chic” I find myself most drawn to, and ideally suited to my body shape. Sirens is full of items like this, and some of my favorite clothes have come from this store. I would even give the cringe-worthy brand name “Rehab” a pass for such majesty.
But its CA$65. And I’m an unemployed freelancer whose wife is on disability. So it’s not for me.
This is a story low-income people know well. The rest of society has endless and contradictory opinions on what we should use our limited funds to acquire, especially if we’re dependent on government benefit schemes. It’s politically convenient to declare that lower-income people should be restricted to the shabbiest, least healthy, most disposable versions of everything, to incentivize our labor and keep Western society visibly stratified. It’s similarly common to believe that being poor means one isn’t allowed a single moment of relaxation, fun, or happiness, and that such flickers of levity indicate that someone isn’t “serious” about getting out of poverty and therefore deserves their fate. Between these two classist thoughts in particular femmes are obnoxiously pinned.
“Femme” is, for too many people, synonymous with frivolous, unneeded, superficial, vain, submissive, and decorative. It’s something for the wealthy, the idle, and the conventionally pretty, defined in terms that privilege existing well-off classes.
“Femme” is, for too many people, synonymous with frivolous, unneeded, superficial, vain, submissive, and decorative. It’s something for the wealthy, the idle, and the conventionally pretty, defined in terms that privilege existing well-off classes. Such trivialities are supposed to be the first things lost to dour concrete and disposable plates when people run out of money, and the last desires to indulge when one’s fortunes return. We are expected to tolerate that compromise—see “submissive,” earlier—and to accept it as necessary. Our style and self-image are acceptable losses that men are rarely expected to imitate. Masculine style is necessary, to misogynist, femmephobic thought; ours is a toy.
This thought is not only classist and, at its core, misogynist, but it ripples through other axes as well, punishing us in racist, transmisogynist, and ableist ways. As a trans woman, I risk invalidation, medical neglect, and violence if I follow this economic advice and downgrade my femininity. Declaring femininity an optional indulgence for the less well-off leaves us—a disproportionately poor demographic—that much more vulnerable to transmisogynistic violence, a threat those of us who currently lack the means or desire to pass as cis know all too well.
Even if I somehow evaded this fate, letting my femme appearance deteriorate is, for me, a psychological trigger, inducing dysphoria that leaves me on edge, dissociated, and unable to function until it is restored. Similarly, hair and skin care products whose “white” counterparts are seen as luxuries are often anything but for people of color, necessary for maintaining the health and appearance of skin and hair that simply does not behave as the white mainstream assumes it does. When these items are made off-limits for the badly off, people’s health suffers, and with it, their ability to improve their lot. Disabled people have a similar relationship to these patterns. While high fashion is historically not kind to people of color, trans people, and disabled people alike, many people with mobility impairments and sensory sensitivities have better luck finding clothing that meets their needs, such as a lack of pressure on the waist or reduced need to bend down to dress oneself, within femme than outside it. The prevailing attitude toward femme things hurts all of these groups, in addition to being pointlessly mean toward femmes in general.
There is a lot I’ve had to give up in order to make my current destitution liveable. My PC gaming, fish-keeping, and various collecting hobbies are all frozen, waiting for when it is once more safe to pursue them. Everything I do for fun now is either effectively free or tied into a money-making scheme. My wardrobe is expansive, but its size is likewise capped. I received a tremendous body of donations from my friends when I was still finding my style, and much of that clothing is still in my closet. I remove and set aside items I don’t actually wear every now and then, but I know that doing the opposite—adding new items—isn’t possible right now Like all my other hobbies, exploring my femme style is expensive and frivolous, and therefore, I’m not allowed. This household won’t allow me, and more pointedly, this world won’t allow me.
What would I hear if that CA$65 put us in the red one month, and started yet another cycle of overdrafts that kept us under for three more? What would I hear if the flicker of happiness from new shoes or makeup took up $20 or $50 that should had gone to Rogers, and started the crumble that turned into the landslide? Would it be worse than the odd looks I used to get for spending $10 on two and three items at once from Wal-Mart or Payless Shoes or Value Village when things were tight but I needed that little joy?
I still have the skirt and shoes from Fairweather, and the other shoes from Wal-Mart, and the shorts and crop top from Sirens. I still have the guilt over $10 here and $20 there. I have been judged for giving in to these pleasures in my household’s flashes of financial repletion. I could pretend my 1990s action figures have long-term collectors’ value, but my dresses and leggings have no such redemption in the cruel eyes of femmephobia.
It’s clothing, so it’s useful. But it’s femme, so it’s frivolous, wasteful, indulgent, superficial, unnecessary. A hobby. Expendable. Not for me. Above my station.
I survive. But it’s in femme that I thrive.