Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adventures in Gender Panic: Underwear Edition

Image via. Also someone please buy me this.
"You're not choosing sides. You're choosing a style."

These words popped up on my phone right when I was about to crawl under the t-shirt shelves at the store and cry. For the first time in fifteen minutes, I exhaled.

They were from Casey (incidentally, the partner of the delightful and fabulous C in this post about Chik-Fil-A), who is also genderqueer, and who has been one of my guiding lights lately while I'm trying to figure out what I'm trying to do with myself here, what feels right. In a culture structured around the idea of two genders, that's no easy thing. Lots of people can tell you this. This is not news. And along the lines of genderqueer and trans* identities, I have it pretty easy. I'm highly educated, white, and employed. I have health care. I can shop wherever I want without risk of being thrown out or followed by store employees. I know this.

But today I needed to buy new underwear, and I had an anxiety attack about it, and I don't think that's meaningless, either. Lately I've been wearing what people typically think of as men's clothing. I really like it, I feel great in it, it works for me right now. Because lotsa people expect us all to decide on a gender and stay with it forever, there's not a wide variety of gender-neutral clothing out there, and what there is is expensive (American Apparel, for instance).

A couple of straight people asked me, when I posted about this whole thing on Facebook, what gender panic is. This feels like a good time to tell you: I guess I don't really know. It's probably different for everyone. For me, it felt like an anxiety attack (high heart rate, shallow breathing, dizzy) because I couldn't fit into binary expectations: I don't fit comfortably in Man or Woman. Someone for whom I have a great deal of affection called me a "boygirl" today and that made my heart melt. Some people probably panic when they can't discern another person's gender and call that gender panic. Most of the time, I think playing around with gender expression is fun and empowering and anyone who's known me for ten minutes knows I like subversion. But sometimes it's hard and today wiped me out. Anyway.

Recently, I've had reasons to be more self-conscious about what I'm wearing and how I'm presenting (in part because I'm dating, a scenario in which externals and legibility matter). So whether I was going to buy "girl" underwear or "boy" underwear was a big question for me, and the answer was also pretty immediately clear. To the men's section I went. I hedged around for awhile, picking up some new tank tops and checking out jeans. By the time I got to the underwear section I'd worked myself up into a panic about it, not because wearing men's underwear feels wrong to me (I've worn it before, though mostly when doing drag), but because I seem to be at something of a turning point regarding my gender expression. Casual remarks about how something about me is more femme than expected make my eyes go wide and my head spin. Someone at the restaurant where I work calling me "sir" kind of makes me giggle. But there's something about buying underwear that feels really intimate. Now it's not just about how people in the world might see me. It's also about how I see myself. Most people in the world don't get to see my underthings.*

So I texted Casey and said that buying underwear was giving me gender panic, and she sent that brilliant response that I will be using forever. I'm not picking Man. I'm picking clothes. (I also texted our very own Kyrie, who was fabulous and sympathetic as always. Love you, lady.) After a couple of texts made clear that this was going to be a bigger conversation than is easily had over text message, Casey called and we talked about how stupid it is that this is hard. This isn't hard because Casey and I and lots of our other friends are weird. We are fabulous and not a problem. It's hard because this is a sick culture that's all "WELL WHICH IS IT BOY OR GIRL?" Look, I don't know. I want to wear what I want when I want to and I want other people to also do that and then we can go get ice cream and watch Friday Night Lights.

So I bought a whole lot of stuff today, clothes that I tried on and that I liked, and I bought some "men's" underwear and I bought "women's" sunglasses and I said fuck it and bought some mouthwash because regardless of whether my gender is legible to other people or to me, I still care about my dental health.

Do any of you have shopping advice? Stores or brands you like that are comfy?

*Ask nicely.


  1. i 100% relate to this: Recently, I've had reasons to be more self-conscious about what I'm wearing and how I'm presenting (in part because I'm dating, a scenario in which externals and legibility matter).

    some days, i dress extremely "femme" and other days i don't even come close, and it has become very clear to me over the years who will be attracted to me what days. and i don't mean in the general population, i mean in my COMMUNITY. it is so aggravating but then, everyone has things they find attractive and i guess it is selfish to want everyone to feel like androgyny (for lack of a better term here) RULES.

    ps - i would love to eat ice cream and watch friday night lights while wearing WHATEVER THE FUCK I WANT. sounds like a dream.

    1. Yeah, it's hard, that whole "would she still like me if I had long hair?" thing, or like, what if I want to wear eyeliner one day?

      I think the ice cream and Friday Night Lights viewing party should happen.

  2. This is an interesting post. I'm glad you had friends to work through it!

    I work at a Macy's that has 6 floors. 3 of the floors are dedicated to womens clothing. One floor has mens clothing and it is in the basement so the dudes don't have to come to ladyville. I find the assumptions they make about my gender overwhelming sometimes, and I identify as female 99% of the time.

    1. This is one of the reasons I can't handle going to malls. Although I did buy a suit I really like at Macy's recently.

    2. I don't know if it's true, but I heard that the Macy's in New York City (and other locations) have the men's department (only a single floor, like your location) on the top floor, only accessible by going through the women's departments. The rationale I heard was that the majority of the people shopping in the men's departments were women, so the men's floors were placed at the top to force women to traverse all the women's floors, increasing (presumably) the probability that the women would buy something for themselves. I wonder how often the women "shopping for their husbands/boyfriends" (as was presumed) were actually just shopping for themselves.

      On a personal note, I recall shopping in the men's department at the Macy's in New York and feeling heavily uncomfortable by the atmosphere of aggressive masculinity created by the store and its employees. It was almost overwhelming and creepy (and that's with all the male and male-presenting privilege I have).

    3. Yuck. I think when I looked femmier/had longer hair, people probably assumed that about me, too. Now it's different, but I've yet to have a problem. Kyrie and her boyfriend went suit shopping with me at the Macy's here in town and it went fine, but there was a lady working in the men's department and she did not seem weirded out at all. The Macy's in Gainesville has a pretty good reputation for that. Casey told me once that the manager went out of his way to make her feel welcome there when she needed a suit.

      I'd love to know more about what that atmosphere of aggressive masculinity looked like. It sounds horrible. I think I feel uncomfortable in any place that's aggressively gendered. Probably lots of people do, regardless of their gender identity/presentation - maybe because it feels prescriptive? Or exclusionary?

  3. One a somewhat different level, the panic surrounding underwear purchase is not just limited to gender, although I can see how that amplifies it. I wear traditional mens underwear and, also because of dating, had to re-evaluate my standard style, and found the options dizzying (trunk, boxer, brief, boxer-brief, thong??, low cut, etc) and said way more about who I am and my boy type and who I want to be than an afternoon trip to the mall should require. In the end, I'd recommend on online retailer. They often have great return policies as long as you try them on above something else and then you can play around in the privacy of your own home.

    1. That's good advice - although it's all sooooo expensive. I want underwear to be cheap and still comfortable and totally in line with my gender expression! I also want a pony.

  4. I like this one. And Casey is so sharp, no?