It’s Not About the Garment

It’s Not About the Garment

Written by David Rowell

On a recent trip to Venice, my wife and I were standing at the end of a quiet lane overlooking the marvelous Grand Canal when a family joined-in for the view. Turning away from the beauty of the location to say hello, something caught my eye. Now, before I say anything further here, let me caution against jumping to a conclusion of inappropriate thought on my part, as what I saw was not meant to be concealed. Among the family was a young girl; or perhaps I should say young woman, maybe about 11 years old. The girl was wearing a tank top; one without a lot of material, and one that readily revealed the bra underneath as most of its strapping was exposed. Of course, I can’t say any intent in this, nor motivation. And as a guy, I don’t know what personal nuances may be at play here. Of course, I have known women. I’m married, have a sister and a daughter who went through puberty, and am aware there can be numerous thoughts regarding the garment itself as well as gender development. Women can hate bras as a matter of discomfort, or love fine lingerie, have practical ambivalence, and everything in between. More to the point as a matter of gender development, I am aware that ‘development’ is for many girls, indeed a source of great pride. And a first bra can bring great satisfaction. But, what occurred to me here, in that quick moment was the recalling of what I read from Janet Mock about her youth lived as a boy before becoming a woman. She tells very vividly about her deep and desperate want of girl’s/women’s shoes when she was taken into shoe stores. And I can tell you that in my work with transgender persons I often hear “I can’t wait until I …” (I can’t wait until I can go out in heels; I can’t wait until I can go to work in a dress shirt and tie, I can’t wait until I can wear a suit or a dress, to prom. And I can’t wait until I have facial hair to shave, or have noticeable breasts under my shirt). An often unrelenting barrage of “if only,” and I can’t wait.”

It’s not about the bra or the shoes. Not generally anyway. And this is what cisgender people oftentimes don’t understand. “Ok, so you want to wear a sweater vest and button shirt – go wear one,” they may flippantly say; or “so you want to wear a skirt – people will stare but whatever”. And many a parent in the early stages of dealing with a transgender youth, mistakenly believe, they can give the child just that one desired garment and placate them perhaps. Not likely. These desires for articles of clothing that express inner gender are not only deep, but they are also persistent, and the word persistent is an understatement for many. For many it is clinical dysphoria. It is true that as it comes to gender expression there are spectrums and innumerable ways such are attached to the psyche, and not all of which dysphoric, whelming or even uncomfortable. The psychological and emotional manifestation differs for everyone. Regardless there are a great many that are denied the free expression of their inner gender to express through clothing and other means openly. And the thoughts and desire related to such can be very literally ever-present. Many a transgender woman living still as a male can’t walk down the sidewalk without a bombardment of envious thoughts about the women – their feminine mannerism as well as feminine clothing and styles; and likewise many a transgender man still living as a female can’t turn on the TV without envious thoughts about the masculine expression (behaviors as well as clothing) of the male characters seen. These desirous thoughts come at a transgender person all the time from many directions – harrying frustrating envy. They can’t wait to quell such with free expression.

The first bra for a transgender female is as personal and as satisfying as it for any female. It may be hidden and for personal satisfaction only, or it may be open to all. The satisfaction is not just in wearing this garment or that. This too needs more understanding. Cisgender people need to get away from thinking, for example, that a transgender woman just likes to wear skirts and dresses. Yes, true, but for most feminine transgender persons only in the same way that other women like to wear skirts and dresses – as a natural expression and NOT as some abnormal kick or such. By far for most transgender males and transgender females, normalcy is the goal, not kink or something else. We all seek comfort in what we wear.

So how can we help cisgender persons understand the deep and persistent desire for natural expression? First, let’s be clear that in the interest of understanding and empathy the goal is to help someone feel a similar nagging discomfort; or even more correctly a sense of persistent non-comfort; subtle and pervasive, a bit awkward but not freakish. We want them to understand a feeling of normal abnormality similar to what a transgender person feels when presenting in their assigned-at-birth gender. So, ideally, we could ask a cisgender person to wear clothing that is subtly the opposite gender. For example, ask a cisgender male to imagine he has to wear floral or pastel shirts of soft fabric in place of his standard button-down or polo shirts. Or perhaps subtly feminine slacks with a side zipper instead of a fly. Have him try to imagine that everyone expected him to wear this more feminine clothing every day. And have him imagine the nagging sense of wanting to not be thus feminine in his expression – a nagging sense of wanting to go out in a guy’s shirt and jeans. For a cisgender female you could have her imagine very basic pattern less non-form-fitting slacks of coarser fabric, and a very plain polo day after day.

It may be hard for some cisgender persons to use their imagination, as described above. So, another way to help them gain empathy is through some actual experience. Of course it may be asking too much to get cisgender persons to actually wear clothing typically associated with another gender, but what about some other means of demonstrating nagging non-comfort. How about having them wear two different shoes to work or a night out. Or how about wearing a shirt inside out; or maybe pants on backwards for a stroll through a busy park. Something not entirely correct, but something not outright embarrassing either. In doing so, they should feel a constant sense of wanting to ‘correct’ the situation.

This is what it is about. We use clothing to be correct with who we are (though often tempered by social norms). When we can truly show ourselves, who we are and who we want to be, and at the same time, feel correct – that is personally satisfying. It may be a suit, heels, or the straps of a bra, but it is mostly just ourselves that we want the world to see and accept. When we love our clothes, we really are loving ourselves and want others to do the same. Anything else is a matter of persistent non-comfort in one form or another.  

Both cisgender and transgender persons feel need and pride in revealing themselves through clothing and other means. When a person cannot do so, they feel a consistent sense of wrongness that needs to be corrected. For most cisgender persons corrections can easily be made. That is not usually the case with transgender persons. Due to societal judgment, it is often hard for transgender persons to authentically outwardly express their true selves – yet the need remains.

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