I knew I had a problem when my resale shop visits began to conclude with me buying men’s vests that didn’t fit me. It only happened twice; and each time I felt first exhilarated and then crushed when I realized that while I cold put them on, the fit was still too awkward for functionality. The problem wasn’t that I was so-called straying into the men’s section–although I have yet to get over the tiny nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be there–rather it is that it has been nearly impossible for me to find the sort of androgynous and masculine-of-center clothes I would feel most myself in.
But the issue goes much deeper than not easily finding clothes I like; it is about access and how the denial of that access defines the cultural meaning of my body. Some of the most obvious instruments I would use to express my gender identity are largely denied to me (or at least made scarce) because I have a body that does not conform to cultural definitions of what the androgynous and/or masculine body should be. The lack of availability, therefore, sends a message that I can’t be genderqueer or do masculinity, that they aren’t identities open to me–because of my body. These identities are significantly more complicated than the clothes I wear, but how I dress myself greatly affects how I am read socially.
My search for a vest has led me to make some observations about how intensely many plus size clothing sellers are invested in a binary gender system and so-called biological determinism, which can trigger feelings of disphoria in anyone who doesn’t fit their limited scope. I am no longer comfortable doing high femme or pin-up, and I certainly don’t feel good about matronly; but those seem to be the options I have in such stores. I began to read the approach of store associates, and the inevitable “Can I help you?” or “What are you looking for today?” Can you help me feel visible? I am looking for myself. But none of them can help me, and they don’t understand the look of panic in my eyes when I see lacy, animal print camisoles.
I’ve all together stopped going into places that make me that uncomfortable, as a St. Louis-based resale shop has rescued me from that retail hell. Not only do they usually have a variety of more masculine-of-center clothes in a plus size range, their proceeds also go toward supporting area students through the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. (Learn more about the Scholar Shop here.) Just last week I made away with a gray blazer and a houndstooth, button-down sweater vest. There is often only one of most items, but the affordability and actually feeling like I exist makes up for that challenge.
Eddie Bauer Blazer $7 and CJ Banks Sweater Vest $3.50