navigating femmeininity

an old Photo Booth picture of me
There were many incredible things that my mother taught me, but feminine frippery was not one of them. When I realized at a very young age that my mother's make-up cache was limited to foundation, blue eyeshadow, pink blush, and black mascara -- that she rarely wore, mind you -- I decided that I didn't want any of it. In high school, I skipped make-up and focused on things like writing, babysitting, and boy worship. I wore white t-shirts and jeans almost every day, too. In college, I wore much of the same and focused on working, skipping class, and boy worship. And when I came out at 23, I focused on being queer and working to survive.

Having no lessons in what queer femininity meant, I decided to just sort of blend. I was given permission by my community to sort of take on an androgynous appearance. I cut my hair short, telling my hair stylist that I wanted something feminine, but not girly, and something clean, but not masculine. It was easy. I was interesting enough (red hair was really all it took) to stand out, but boring enough to blend. What I wore was a sort of utilitarian soft butch style for many years. I worked for Trader Joe's, so big muscles and the ability to not look like a slob were the only requirements. I wore boxy men's Hawaiian shirts and hiking boots all the time. When I went out, I'd ditch the Hawaiian shirts and wear Indigo Girls t-shirts to Melissa Ferrick concerts. I didn't have a gender identity beyond queer dyke**.

For many years I was in a circle of friends mostly comprised of High Femmes and because I was neither uber-femme nor uber-butch, they often pushed me into the role of token butch, probably because I liked wearing cargo shorts. I used to frequent, a social network for butches and femmes, but I was often shunned because my appearance and proclaimed identity didn't conform to their model. Once, a former friend of mine who fancied herself a trainer of "baby butches", decided she was going to train me. She taught me how to walk on the outside, she forced me to carry her coat, and so on. I raged at the experience. When I proclaimed that I had the heart of a femme, one of my femme friends said I was a burlap sack femme, all of the potential with none of the follow-through. What was intended to be a hilarious joke triggered me in profoundly deep ways. I met a butch online and we were set to meet up at a club. When he saw me, he ignored me. When I messaged him later and asked why he wouldn't approach me, he said, "you aren't femme enough."

Interestingly, I found that when I was in a relationship with someone, and generally a someone who was butch-identified, that I would slowly migrate to a more feminine aesthetic. I'd try mascara, I'd get a pedicure, I'd look at dresses, and sometimes I'd even share my décolletage with the world. These migrations to a more feminine appearance were always met with resounding delight from my friends and community, and while the attention from my beloved was always validating, I felt completely overwhelmed with the exposure (physical and otherwise). I felt like the world never saw me as anything more than a burlap sack femme, and I couldn't quite uncover the point of trying. A year or so into my relationship with Em, when I was comfortable wearing earrings and I had ditched the cargo shorts, one of my former friends at the lesbian bar told me she didn't believe what was going on with my appearance. She told me I was butch, and that what I was trying to pull off was ridiculous. This person is insignificant, but those words weren't. They spoke to all of the insecurity and confusion I was feeling inside. They validated those things.

Ten years since coming out, I'm in a position to more clearly articulate my identity, gender and otherwise, and I'm finding it challenging in the most exciting and daunting of ways. Like my mother, I am feminine, but in what I/we perceive to be a "practical" way. As I have moved away from my local queer community, both geographically (kind of) and psychologically, I have been able to find a balance, mostly, with regard to wardrobe and grooming. Recently, after attempting to grow my hair out in an effort to look more "girly", I decided to cut it all off again. Like the word dyke, I am reclaiming my burlap sack femme or femme-lite identity. I am giving myself permission to explore things like eyelash tinting. I'm taking better care of my skin. I'm considering make-up.

These things do not a femme make, and I know this, but these are things I have always wanted to let myself discover and have never given myself a chance to explore. These are physical manifestations of the person I know myself to be in my mind, heart, and soul. It's an interesting thing, as this is a complete reversal of what I have perceived to be the life lessons of a girl. I envy my peers, queer and straight, who are experts at femininity/femmeininity. At the same time, I feel like I am in a unique position. I can give credence to the fact that a femme-identity has nothing to do with make-up and pink and pretty things. What this has taught me is to have a greater understanding of the gender spectrum in general. It has taught me to also listen when people are speaking softly about themselves, and to believe people when what I see does not mesh with who they say they are inside. This journey, and my periodic blips of invisibility, have helped me become a warmer, more genuine person.

** Some people who read this might turn their nose up at my use of the word dyke. As a queer woman, I am in a position to reclaim that word, and I have. It is a component of my identity and occasionally, in safe space, I will pull it out to sort of clarify who I am to my community. Not all queer women use that term, or like it. But it suits me much more than lesbian.


  1. "It has taught me to also listen when people are speaking softly about themselves, and to believe people when what I see does not mesh with who they say they are inside."

    I swoon. You're beautiful inside and out, bucko.

  2. You are awesome. I don't think anyone can or should be put in a box based on who they are on the inside or outside. What i wear and how i how i do my hair should not define who i am as a person.

    I have loved seeing pictures of you and what you wear and your amazing jewelery, its inspiring me to be more colorful and wear things out of my own comfort zone.

    don't listen to those who say you should look like this or walk like that, you are perfect just the way you are!

  3. WHY do people classify others for their own comforts and then get upset when people express themselves in ways they don't expect?! Sounds like you've dealt with more than a few of those. They're asses and you're awesome.

  4. my dear friend erin is what we call a granola femme. she rarely wears make-up, sometimes wears skirts/dresses... mostly she rocks out the jeans & comfy shoes because she's outdoorsy and the mom of a 1 year old. but her femme identity is totally valid.

    the queer mean girls who try to bully everyone into their version of gender are just as bad as the straight mean girls who try to bully everyone into their version of gender.

    i think you're rad. <3

  5. Oh dear, this post is PERFECT. When I first came out six years ago, I went through a similar struggle with my own femmininity. I have never been (and likely never will be) a high-femme, yet that was what I would so often see femme portrayed as on the internet - where I turned for some community during that awkward coming out phase of life.

    It took a lot of experimenting and navigating for me to figure out what works for me, and I am so grateful for it all. I am fully content with the lady I am currently and welcome any changes that may come in the future. I love the fluidity of gender and navigating it all. I most definitely fit into that granola/burlap sack dyke category - I'm glad to share a space with you ;)

    Also, I love that you use the word dyke. It's my word-of-choice, as well, and I say it with great pride.

  6. I've been meaning to comment on this for FOREVER. First of all, beelisty is right - you're RAD. And warm and genuine and awesome.

    Also, I went through sort of a similar path when it comes to navigating my identity. I didn't really have to deal with feedback from other people, but I definitely felt pressured to figure out the "right" way to be butch. I finally realized that my way is the right way, for me.

    You're the expert at your own femme-ininity! I'm glad you're exploring it.


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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.