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Trans is not short for transition. It’s also not short for transformation, the one great promise I keep buying from the fashion industry. When I shop for the trans body I live in, part of me is still hoping that slipping into the right blazer will transfigure my body into the body I wish it was.
The clothes I select have to do a lot of legwork: They need to project my identity, provide a protective costume for me, and, in many cases, help me modify my body shape so that my outsides match my insides.
I never forget that underneath my three layers of medical-grade nylon, cotton, and spandex is me. The trans body that I have. The body that is mine, that is trans no matter how I costume it. My clothes aren’t going to transform me: I’m going to change how I wear them. The more I invest in dressing in a way that simply honors who I am, the less I fit into the dominant gender categories. Nothing about any of this is simple — outside the binary, there are extra choices to make. Everything can feel like a compromise.
These are the things that I started learning the first time I walked into the men’s section and started flipping through the racks. I knew my sizes and measurements, which made things easier, but when a salesperson came up to me to ask if I needed help, the numbers vanished from my brain. I stammered and turned red, as though caught with pornography.
“Do you know what you’re looking for?” the girl asked. She looked up at me through heavy lashes. I’m 6-feet tall, which was tall enough to see the roots of her hair coming in and the spot on her hairline where she didn’t blend her foundation. Her voice was pitched medium, not in the high register that women use when they are trying to sound friendly and relatable. She wasn’t sure what to do with me.
“A sweater. Pants,” I said. My skin hurt, I was blushing so hard. “I’m just looking, though.”
She eyed me. I wasn’t wearing makeup, and in my baggy T-shirt and jeans, I might have come across as a butch lesbian, androgynous enough to look like I belonged in that section. “Alright,” she finally told me. “Let me know if you need a fitting room.”
At that point, I knew that she knew. If I’d been styled to look more cishet, she might have asked if the clothes were a gift for my boyfriend. I’ve learned from years of trying to disappear into straight female spaces that the invocation of a heterosexual male partner will immediately put a straight woman at ease. Even when I am at my most androgynous, my curves erased and obscured by my clothes and support garments, I can raise my voice an octave and say “boyfriend” and feel the straight women around me relax. “It’s a she,” they think. Their body language changes to convey acceptance. “She has a boyfriend. She must be one of us.”
My non-belonging is apparent in spaces like fitting rooms and clothing stores, where genders are rigidly defined and separated. Male on one side, female on the other. Where does that leave me, who doesn’t really belong in either? If I’m shopping for the body that I was born with, I can linger in the ladies’ clothes section and try on pretty dresses or soft fabrics that make me feel like I’m in femme drag. If I’m shopping for the body that I want, or the clothes that represent my identity as a trans person, I need to venture into the men’s section. Practice has made this easier, but I still feel like I have to be on my guard.
The men’s section, and specifically the men in it, comes with its own problems: although I’ve never been threatened or demeaned by a man in that context, I know that there are consequences for being trans in public. There are the rape threats: At least one man has told me, “I’m going to rape you until you’re straight” because of the way I was dressed. There’s street harassment, too. Last week, for example, six men who were drinking outside a bar yelled “faggot” at me when I walked past them. Men have suggested that I must be intersex because of the way I look, or assumed that I am a lesbian. They do not hold doors for me; they do not give up their seats. Often, I’m considered “one of the guys,” even though I am not a guy and never want to be one.
Although my choice of clothing has fooled more than one woman into being afraid of me — crossing the street at night to avoid me, for example — it does not seem to fool men in the same way. Best case: I fail to show up on their radars, which is not a bad thing.
There is no perfect fit on either side for me, which often means I need to mix and match, compromising between what I’m already working with and what’s available to me.
The pickings are slim for someone with my body. Women’s clothes are too short. I am tall with long limbs. I’m muscular, especially in my lower body. I have noticed that clothes made for women are tight, small in the shoulders, and made of easy-to-rip fabrics. They are designed to give you “a waist” and cover what you think are your “problem areas.” The shirts are often borderline transparent and printed with provocative images or words: “I’m sassy.” “I’m cute.” “Look, but don’t talk to me.” The buttons and zippers are on the left side. A dressmaker I knew told me that the reason for this was to incapacitate women with a garment that was difficult to get yourself out of. “When you put on women’s clothes, you’re assuming an entire system of oppression,” he told me. “You simply don’t see it because it’s the size of a button.”
Men’s clothes fit me for length and are boxy enough to conceal the female body I walk around in. Instead of silk or soft poly blends, these clothes are built to last. “You’re a tough dude,” they seem to say. Thick cotton, denim, and even soft canvas are the most common. When I wear men’s clothes, I can imagine the design team playing tug-of-war with a T-shirt prototype in a test room. Men’s clothes are made to withstand bar fights, dog bites, roadside emergencies, and pickup games. When first aid manuals tell you to use a strip from your shirt as a tourniquet or bandage, they are referring to the shirts worn by men — not the ones sold to women. If I wear men’s clothes, the first thing I notice is their weight. There’s simply more fabric, heavier weave. It feels like armor, a protective layer between me and the world.
Generally, I end up somewhere in the middle. I wear straight-cut relaxed denim jeans that don’t hug my calves or thighs too tightly. I cuff these, because I think it looks cool and it shows off my high tops. I prefer men’s shirts and sweaters, usually with the sleeves rolled up. (Yes, I pop my collar when it gets hot outside.) I wear female undergarments for comfort and then a compression shirt over them. If I can find a brand that sells unisex clothes, I buy them: Converse, American Apparel, and a few others have made an effort to bridge the gap. Mostly, it’s just difficult to find something that doesn’t immediately flag me as either male or female.
How do I shop for the body I want, not the body I have? Surgery and hormones are not on the table for me, so clothes, tailoring, and styling are key. The clothes I wear do the work that medical interventions can’t. They flatten my chest, widen my shoulders, and sharpen my features. I wear a special cotton-lined compression shirt under my clothes and over my sports bra. When I put a button-down men’s shirt on top of this, I look totally flat. Styling helps, too. I darken my eyebrows with pencil and keep my hair very short. It works for me: I’ve been called “sir” while wearing a women’s swimsuit.
I know it’s working when straight women look at me shyly, when it’s not immediately apparent if I belong. I know it’s working when the salesperson takes me into the men’s fitting room first, even though I do not look like a man and have no desire to be one. If she asks, “Are you comfortable here?” I know that what I’m wearing has done its job. I look other. I look like what I am.