Clothes Make the Man-Child (concluded)

NBP Guest Post

Because my school had outlawed sweatpants, to Macy’s we ventured for an all-new wardrobe for an all-new person. My mom and I had to compromise every time we shopped, from the first to the fiftieth time. We had a semi-amicable and fair shopping policy in place: we agreed that we would buy only those things that we both found acceptable. It was democratic, equal votes and equal veto rights. But things were much harder in practice particularly since I had rigid ideas about what was acceptable. The collar couldn’t be too big because that was girly! No shoulder pads either. The buttons couldn’t have any designs on them. And there definitely couldn’t be darts where boobs were supposed to go. No flair on the bottoms either. And the sleeves couldn’t be too short. If crossed by a stitch, hue, or cut that I perceived as too feminine, my jaw would set, my eyes would narrow, and a tiny piercing laser of death would shoot from my black raging pupils.

My mother, of course, had her own opinions, and was operating at a disadvantage since she was under the misconception that she was shopping for a girl, even though she acknowledged that I wasn’t a girly girl. While she tried to be sensitive to my stringent dressing restrictions, we still headed for the girls’ department where I headed straight for the boy-type clothes especially the collared polo shirts and sweatpants that I had become so fond of. But the girl version had more embellishments and gewgaws, was form-fitting, and was just plain stupid! Not only were we in the girls’ department, but my mom also wanted me to buy clothing that fit me (imagine!). I wanted to buy clothes that fit Andre the Giant. They were far more comfortable, and didn’t reveal the body underneath.

So we battled. I didn’t have eye-beams, but I sure mastered that piercing death ray. My mom, though, had her own weapons that rivaled mine (plus she was bigger and had the credit cards). If I was Cyclops, she was Banshee. My mother was keeper of “The Voice,” as I endearingly nicknamed it. Faster than a .223 Winchester, more powerful than the Acela, and able to leap the Freedom Tower in a single bound, it was not a sonic boom, scream or yell; quite the opposite. It was terse-to-kill, at a volume slightly elevated, but very eerily controlled. It is my Kryptonite, but when used against others for my protection, it was the ultimate in awesomeness! In Macy’s, though, it was deadly.

During much of the shopping experience, my mom, trying to be helpful, kept adding to the stack of things for me to try on. As she saw my eyes narrow and knew I was trying to vaporize her choices, the pitch of her voice lowered into the caustic zone. Meep! To the fitting room we went, loaded with all sorts of clothes that I loathed to try on. But on they went. I will admit, some were not as bad as I thought they would be, but on the other hand, some incited tears. This exercise was entirely too stressful. The main problem was that girls’ clothes—even clothes for little pre-pubescent girls—were cut to fit girls’ bodies, so even if they didn’t look overtly girly, they still whispered, “Girl, girl, girl!”

I wanted out of the fitting room like a lion wants out of his cage, but I was trapped in there until we found enough acceptable clothing that we wouldn’t have to endure this shopping nightmare for at least a few more months. When we finally got to the register, I was so happy not to be in the fitting room that I cared less about what we ultimately bought, than simply getting the hell outta there.

We were both battered and bruised and emotionally exhausted by the time we got home. Once the car ride was over, we could escape to our own corners to lick our wounds and calm our nerves. My go-to was obviously TV and Twinkies, and my mom’s was probably Tanqueray and a cigarette. So my mom and I went through these sparring rounds every season and every year, each hoping that the next trip would be a real mother-daughter bonding time, and each time realizing that we’d have to bond some other way.But there was one time when my mom was the clothes angel. For one agonizing celebratory event, my school actually mandated that all girls wear a skirt. Now. If shopping for regular every-day clothes was a boxing match, then shopping for dress-up clothes was an all-out UFC battle. For events such as these I had usually gotten away with wearing black pants and a kind of girlish silk blouse (ick, yes, I said the word “blouse,” but at least it had a collar, even though it probably also had shoulder pads), and some shoes that were clunky black flats that made me look like a ’90s doughty secretary. That wasn’t going to work for this one. I just couldn’t imagine myself in a dress or a skirt; it was an impossibility and went against every fiber of my being. To wear such clothes would have affirmed that I was a real girl. In my still mixed-up view of myself, I figured I could be a boy in a dress, but not a girl in a dress. My mother somehow understood this and came to the rescue.

This is the one and only time this phrase will ever make sense: culottes were the answer. Yes, I repeat, culottes, essentially giant shorts that can pass for skirts, but they do include that little cloth separation between the legs that makes all the difference. I could almost pretend that I was wearing uber baggy shorts. I wore them with my white silk blouse (still ick) and my ugly secretary shoes and advertised to anyone who would listen that I was NOT wearing a skirt. So while I was sort of trying to fit in as a girl, I essentially kept announcing, “I am NOT a girl, NOT a girl, but I guess I am a girl.”

            Clothing was, thus, the outward manifestation of my identity and gender struggle. In my Lands’ End uniform I got to camouflage myself as a little boy who was in fact a little girl. Post-uniform, I started to care about fitting in (pardon the pun)—that my quintessentially feminine name should match my clothing and appearance slightly more, but I still couldn’t stand wearing that clothing. I still had a lot of work to do in order to make a bespoke suit for whoever I was.