Liberating Gender Presentation from Expectations: Quitting Eyeliner, Dresses, and Shaving

I wore eyeliner for the first time in eight months as an experiment, and my eyes felt like strangers. At first, the whole idea seemed like a goofy lark, but I quickly recognized my burgeoning discomfort as I started muting the dark brown lines with eye shadow. I wore it for the rest of the day because I was genuinely afraid I’d stopped wearing more noticeable eye-makeup out of a masculine obligation to dismiss markers of my earlier femme identification. I don’t want to reject femme because I feel it is expected of me as a now more masculine-identified person. I don’t want to reject femme at all, and it has taken three gender performance experiments to convince myself that to identify as something else is not a rejection or devaluing of an identity that used to fit.

Ren WHere’s a femme photo throwback of me.

One of the other experiments was in the same vein as the make-up in terms of playing with femme performance—wearing a dress to work for the first time in six months. The other—not shaving—was more of a challenge to social expectations of female bodies. While I haven’t gotten rid of any of the dresses in my closet, I don’t see myself wearing them anytime soon. I like looking at them on the hanger, but the mere fact that they are dresses make them seem extravagant; and make me feel I am disappearing. Similarly, when I shaved, it seemed like I was trying to erase myself. So I stopped, and feel more present because I actually thought about what I wanted and not just what was expected of me.

Ren Liberating 2via

Femme is valuable and valid, and my changing sense of self will not suddenly deny femme a visible place in my world, even if I no longer express it so much on my own body. I think it is important to question the gendered elements of my presentation to identify what makes me happy versus what I might be doing because it is expected of me. I don’t know if I will want to start wearing dresses again some day, and so I may have to challenge myself with that and other experiments in the future. My gender isn’t in black and white, nor is it static, and I am happy that way.

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  • Ren, thank you so much for this. As a queer hard femme (who is dapper enough to read this site, ha!), I sometimes run up against exactly what you talk about in your opening paragraph: femme being rejected violently instead of simply being an option that one doesn’t feel the need to opt into. A discussion that explicitly rejects that rejection narrative is beyond welcome. Thank you.

  • It’s so important to foster solidarity and validate gender expression, and not reject others’ gender realities even when they aren’t our own. Masculinity doesn’t have to mean a rejection of femininity, and in fact, it shouldn’t. Thank you for reading!

  • Aaaa, thank you for writing this. I get so bummed when feminine types talk about us masculine types as if we’re an affront to their gender expressions just by existing. You basically just said everything about it that I wanted to say.

    I don’t present masculine to make a statement about femininity, I present masculine because I can’t present any other way, because trying to present any other way makes me feel like I can’t see myself in the mirror, and that’s kind of scary. That’s all there is to it, and I’m confused about why it makes femme queer women so angry at me.

    The part where you said that you like looking at dresses on hangers made me smile. I still love looking at shop displays of sundresses in the spring, it makes me all happy inside. I just don’t try to wear them anymore because I know what will happen.

  • Femme invisibility is an issue that I definitely want to recognize. That invisibility, I think, is part of the cause of the anger you are referencing. I used to identify and present as femme, and I remember vividly how hard it was to be recognized as queer by other queer people and society itself. I want to recognize and validate that anger. I also want to work toward building an atmosphere in our community where we can openly discuss those feelings and work at fostering visibility and validity for all gender expressions. Thanks for your comments!

  • Yeah, I used to present femme too, and sometimes I think I would give my left arm to have some of that invisibility back, especially when I go to job interviews or when some homophobic creep starts harassing me in public.

    I guess we all have our problems. I just wish we could have a conversation about the fact that femme invisibility is also a kind of privilege. The anger that femmes feel may be legitimate but I think it’s completely misplaced when they direct it at me.

  • I hesitate to make a direct bond between the terms invisibility and privilege on their own. Privilege is present, but it is very complicated. You have me considering the privilege of safety in terms of experiences of homophobia. I experienced invisibility when I identified as femme, and it didn’t feel safe because my very existence felt silenced. But this feeling of more emotional unsafe is not the same as feeling physically unsafe. Both are dangerous, different but dangerous.

    Cis privilege could be at issue here/may be something you are referring to/ is worth mentioning in discussions of privilege in the queer (and any) community. (I want to stress that not all femmes are cis–far from it.) I am genderqueer, but I usually pass as cis. Sometimes my passing causes me to question the very legitimacy of my gender identification. That isn’t the same as being threatened with physical violence or being fired for my gender status. I am privileged because I pass. I can judge the safety of a situation before I come out. A lot of people don’t have that option. It is difficult to not be recognized for who I am, but it is a different sort of difficult.

  • Thanks for your response. I don’t have anything to add, but what you’ve said seems pretty reasonable.

  • thank you so much for writing this. nobody understood my desire to experiment, or how good it felt to fuck with societal expectations of what i should look like.

  • I've been voraciously reading everything on this site, and this essay is one of the ones that really rang a cord with me.

    I'm smack-dab in the middle of trying to figure out who I am now, after years of presenting femme and being content in my little box of "queer cis-woman" and suddenly discovering that that wasn't me any more. I'm struggling with finding both the words and the clothing expression to convey where I am right now, and the newfound fluidity is scaring the hell out of me (OCD Brain does not like ambiguity). I'm finding myself moving further away from femme, but I want to hold onto some of the style choices I've felt comfortable in for so many years and I haven't yet figured out how to reconcile those two things.

    Thank you for reminding me that it's okay to experiment, and to not lock myself into one small category of who I think I'm supposed to be. Knowing I'm not alone in that is a great comfort.

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