This past weekend, I had the pleasure of driving up to Minneapolis and spending way too much money hanging out with queer friends of mine in the area. We went to a local pub, where we played video games and talked and argued and were generally loud and rambunctious. Some of them I was meeting for the first time; others I had met before. All were greeted as old friends, as online relationships became part of our incarnational space.
On Saturday afternoon, before we met up, I realized I had some free time and an outlet mall nearby. I’d spent the day thus far mostly outdoors – I went to the Sculpture Garden and to the Zoo. I looked at my sweat-soaked tee and jean shorts and decided I should upgrade my wardrobe for the night. After all, there were plans of dancing and, as someone who had never been to a gay club, I wanted to look good for the occasion.
I went into store after store, looking for something less than $25 and cute enough that I’d be willing to try it on. Eventually, a dress at the Express Outlet struck my fancy. It was a simple design: a tank top with a high waist and a short skirt. The skirt was the kind that you can’t bend over in without showing everyone your choice of underwear.
The skirt scared me and that was exactly why I had to wear it.
I grew up in a culture where wearing something that landed above one’s knees was verboten. I shopped in the men’s section for cargo shorts so I wouldn’t have to risk buying short-shorts or immodest spaghetti strap tank tops. I may not have been instructed to wear feminine ankle-length skirts, but I was instructed to dress modestly as much as I could.
By the time I hit college, I’d become uncomfortable with my body and dismissed “immodest” clothing as inappropriate for my body type and inappropriate for my spiritual beliefs. Exposed skin just wasn’t a thing that was done. If I did, for some reason, find myself in a halter-top or a lower cut tee shirt, I had a large supply of modest camisoles to cover up the offending cleavage.
It took me a few years and a lot of work to get to a point where I was comfortable dressing in more feminine and more “revealing” clothing. For me, owning my body and owning my choices meant learning how to mimic and play at those gender expressions disregarded as “typically feminine.” I had to teach myself how to do make up, to do my hair, to be comfortable in dresses and “fancy” clothing. Modesty culture, in its attempts to protect my womanhood, had robbed me of my understanding of myself as a feminine being.
This is not to say that femininity is characterized by make up or by clothing or by outward expression. However, for those of who grew up in a culture that punishes expressions of femininity as “unholy” and “bad,” it can be a powerful statement to connect with those expressions and claim them for one’s own.
This is why I have little to no patience for arguments about “Can a Feminist Wear ...?” or examinations of feminism from the position that there is one singular “feminist choice” for something. Perhaps, in some people’s eyes, it is unfeminist for me to wear a skirt so short that I can’t bend over without flashing people. But for me, it is an important ownership of a femme identity that was suppressed for years by a patriarchal understanding of my body.
So on Saturday night in Minneapolis, I showed up to meet my friends in a bright red dress with an impossibly short skirt and danced like I didn’t care. I felt confident. I felt good about myself. And I felt free.