As soon as I step into the clothing store, I feel like I don’t belong. The shop is packed with sophisticated, stylish women: high society matrons in killer heels and faux-fur coats, mothers with their young daughters, a picture-perfect teller from ANZ bank chatting brightly with a sales clerk about a new blazer. They all look so clean, so confident, so in their element, and here I am sweating buckets from my walk into the city, dressed in faded jeans and a jumper two sizes too big. A few times I imagine I catch someone staring at me from out of the corner of her eye, and I have to imagine it because there’s no reason why they’d be staring at me, would there? I’m just looking for a new work blouse a little trendier then the ones I bought from Target before starting my new job. So what if I’m not wearing make-up or smell a little more pungent then I’d like? I pick a sober, shaped black button-up off the rack, before I can start wondering whether or not these perfect apparitions even sweat at all, and bring it up to the register.
‘Aren’t you going to try it on?’ The salesgirl says.
Well, that does wonders for my paranoia.
Inside the nearest stall, I slip on my soon-to-be purchase and cinch the buttons closed, only to find that I can’t lift my arms over my head. This is a 14, isn’t it? Check the tag: yes, it’s a size 14, just like every other blouse I’ve owned. So why does this one feel like a straightjacket? Have I put on weight? Did my shoulders suddenly extend an inch and a half while I wasn’t looking? I hurry out into the next store over, where a beautiful red blouse (size 16,) fits my shoulders perfectly, but hangs off the rest of my body like a wet paper bag. Another refuses to close around my stomach (I’m not fat, am I? A little tubby maybe, but I didn’t think I was overweight), the next shows off the hair still growing on my collarbones despite many laser treatments (oh GOD I’m a fucking gorilla), and the last, which fits me perfectly, is just… shapeless. It makes my torso look like an inverted triangle. Heh, if I put up my hair, tightened my jaw, added a little bit of stubble, I could pass as a man-
Funny thing about being transgender. Panic attacks can come out of nowhere, especially when you look in the mirror and see a fair approximation of the male self you’ve spent three years transitioning out of. So now I’m hyperventilating in a changing room.
And someone knocks on the door.
‘Do you need anything, ma’am?’
Ma’am. Okay. She doesn’t think I’m a neanderthal. I hurriedly pull on the old, comfy t-shirt I wore down here, step out and ask for help. I can’t even look her in the eyes. She’s gorgeous, not one hair out of place, wearing one of those damned blouses that made me look like I had a beer gut. It looks stunning on her, effortlessly feminine, perfectly matched to a checkered black and white skirt that I could never fit into if I spent every waking hour exercising and drinking kale smoothies. I feel like I should be dragging my knuckles along the ground.
Her eyes flick over me, taking in my hips, my bust, the width of my shoulders, the hair on my arms.
The hesitation before her beaming smile speaks volumes.
‘We’ll see if we can fix something up.’
I didn’t end up buying anything that day. I pestered my partner into coming shopping with me later in the week, and together we went back to Target and found a collection of blouses that were both cute and servicable. I hadn’t been going mad, either: the blouses at Target were indeed size 14, and they fit me just as well as my old ones. It’s just that a Target size 14 is a Supre size 18, or a Review size 16. It’s almost as if, in the world of women’s fashion, clothing sizes are completely relative.
Before I began my transition from Callum into Callie and was still presenting as male, going shopping for new clothes was often as simple as walking into a shop, finding a t-shirt I liked, and so long as the colour didn’t make me look washed out or pallid (no pastels, thank you,) and it didn’t cut off my circulation anywhere, that was it. With a pair of jeans and a pair of somewhat ratty runners, I had a casual ensemble that could be worn in almost any situation. If I needed to be a little more formal, the addition of a nice coat, and maybe a scarf and cap, would do the trick perfectly. And as for variety, seven different colours of t-shirt and three pairs of jeans, washed weekly, had me covered. I looked good. I felt good. As a whole, I was presentable. And I didn’t quite understand why my female friends seemed to stress about buying clothes so much.
Did I mention I was also privileged up to the gills?
As a male, I was taken as a whole entity. My body, the framework upon which my clothes were draped, was seen in its entirety. A little bit of a stomach, some stubble: those tiny flaws weren’t demonised, they were lauded as accents, necessary imperfections that added a special ‘touch’ to my look. We see it all the time on advertisements and billboards: the tousled, somewhat grimy male model sporting a day’s growth and faux-sweat trickling down his sculpted chest. That’s not disgusting: that’s manly. That’s animalistic. That’s what fashion says men should be.
By contrast, fashion takes women apart. Rather than focusing on the body as a whole, shops are filled with garments made to accentuate and ‘perfect’ each and every part of the female anatomy, and woe betide the unfortunate wearer if you happen to miss a piece. First, you have the coats and skirts carefully made to create astounding optical illusions. These babies have tough stitches designed to slim down waists and hide rounder legs, to push up boobs and push out behinds. Shirts have stripes carefully printed to make busts look bigger. And where do I begin with the torture engines so aptly called stilletos? Sure, you’ll need to learn to walk in a completely new and painful way, can’t stroll over a boardwalk without getting your heel caught, and might just break your ankles if you trip, but think of the wonders they’re doing to show off your legs and your bum!
Then we come to layering. While strolling through the winter sales in Canberra Centre, I saw no end of shrugs, shirts, jackets and shawls, advertised as winter clothing, mind you, that were so thin and wispy I could see my hand through them. They aren’t meant to be warm. These clothes are specifically made to be layered with other clothes to create colour and fabric combinations. Useless on their own, sort of warm when stacked together, and priced at around $80 to $100 each. Hey, you’ll freeze, but at least you’ll look amazing!
Because of course, looking amazing is all that matters. Who cares about the price, fiscal or mental? As women, we have to be pleasant to look upon. It’s our duty. It’s what all those perfect models in their perfect dresses are telling us to do. But what about those of us who don’t fit that sublime image?
A few weeks ago, I saw a story on Cosmopolitan that really disturbed me. While Benjamin Cooper was helping his girlfriend clean out her wardrobe, he noticed that she was throwing out a lot of XL-sized clothing. Curious and perturbed, he tried them on, only to discover that they fit him perfectly.
Benjamin wears small to medium sized men’s clothing.
For women, clothes aren’t designed to fit on a body: they’re designed to fit a specific type of body, and if you don’t have that body type? Tough luck. You’re wrong. But don’t worry, by wearing this perfectly balanced ensemble, you too can be beautiful. You too can be confident, and powerful. You too will have people whispering admiringly about you in dark corners. You too can be ‘Stylish.’
It’s almost as if the fashion industry is purposefully constructed to make women feel horrible about their bodies, and from personal experience, I can tell you that it works.
But fashion is just as fake as the archetypes it tries to uphold.
Not long after my partner helped me choose my new work clothes, we went into another trendy clothing store, just to window shop. I tried on a violet coat on a whim, and realised (with some surprise,) I could breath. It was roomy in the shoulders, cinched around the waist, but not tight. It hugged my body: it didn’t strangle it.
My partner stopped and looked at me, her head cocked to one side. Later, I learned that she’d put it on lay-by for my birthday.
‘I couldn’t let it go.’ She said afterwards. ‘Not after I saw your face light up like that.’
Fashion shouldn’t be about supporting some unattainable ideal, and bodies are not archetypes. Every single body type, every single person, has the potential to be fashionable, to be stylish, to look amazing: me with my broad shoulders and slim hips, those whose bellies aren’t flat and faces aren’t airbrushed. Screw the winter catalogue and its cellophane jackets: what’s wrong with standardised sizes? I want to see a season where sizes don’t change from store to store, where you can walk in and ask for a skirt that can fit over a rounded stomach without feeling like a blubberbeast because, hell, a bit of a belly can be sexy too. All that matters is how you look at it.
So if you’re not the sort of woman who can fit into a size 10 (European size 8) skirt without holding your breath, don’t worry. Style isn’t about forcing yourself to embody something you aren’t, but wearing with confidence the person that you are.
And let me tell you, wearing the right clothes at the right time? Clothes that don’t stifle you, but embrace you? Walking into a room and watching your friends and lovers pause for a moment to take you in?
I don’t think I’m being shallow when I say it’s one of the sweetest feelings in the world.
Image: Unplash, Creative Commons
Callie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.