I had all the best intentions to work on my book manuscript today, but then I checked my mail and my latest Stitch Fix package came. For those who may not know, Stitch Fix is a company that helps people shop by sending packages of five items to people who sign up. The main idea is that you pay a small “styling fee,” which then acts as a credit toward any of the items you choose to keep in each Fix. There is also a discount credited to the overall cost of the Fix if you decide to keep all five items stylists send you.
For a hairy, non-binary trans* femme like me, I was immediately drawn to Stitch Fix because I saw it as a way to save me from some of the stares and microaggressions I often face when shopping in person. In fact, I cannot think of the last time I went clothes shopping in person by myself due to some triggering and transphobic experiences I have had in the past. As someone who just accepted a new job, and who is beginning to do some speaking and is becoming more public for my work, I also thought signing up with Stitch Fix would help me build my wardrobe, which I had not paid much attention to while I was a doctoral student and candidate.
Before each Fix comes in the mail, you have a chance to say what you would want to see. I have used these Fixes largely to find pieces to fill gaps in my wardrobe as well as get some nice things for life events. For example, I have used Stitch Fix to find outfits for a dear friend’s Big Gay Wedding (my first wedding where I openly expressed my trans* femme identity), and have also found pieces that make me feel comfortable when attending and presenting at professional conferences.
For my most recent Fix, I decided to ask for a skirt for an upcoming trip I am making to a university speaking engagement. Now, for years I have said I am “not a skirt girl.” I have rationalized this statement by saying I am “too hippy,” or that “I don’t look good in skirts.” However, as I have worked to deconstruct my own internalized transphobia, and the years—literally decades—of gender binarist inculcation, I have realized that my aversion is more closely aligned with essentialized notions of who is (not) meant to show up in skirts. In reality, my legs are, if I do say so, quite nice (playing soccer throughout my youth certainly paid off). Wearing heels, which I love to do, accentuates my legs, and really, skirts should be no different. But for some reason (read: trans* oppression and my own internalizing of that oppression), I cannot seem to get over the block regarding skirts. I literally have a skirt that a friend gave me when I was living in Ohio that I love, but have maybe worn three times in public. Another skirt (the first one I bought alongside a very dear friend in Tucson), I have worn twice in public.
And here I am, an out and (supposedly) unabashed trans* educator, one who does work on affirming trans* lives and trans* resilience, one who loves, admires, and hold up my trans* community the best way I know how, and yet…
And yet I have this block regarding skirts. A block that I just cannot seem to allow myself to get over.
This past week, after some conversations with two friends about femininity and dating as a trans* femme, I went back and read a conversation between Reina Gossett and Grace Dunham called “Touch One Another.” In the conversation, Reina speaks about the place of mirrors in her life, and how these mirrors confront us with visions of ourselves as trans* people that are fraught with difficulty. Specifically, she wrote,
Mirrors have held so much power for me, and not in ways that have always helped me feel good about myself. There was a time in Boston maybe 20 years ago when I looked in a mirror and I started crying. I was so consistently navigating a racist and transphobic gaze that I couldn’t help but reflect that back at myself. I was overwhelmed by the me that existed through that lens.
Each time I read this post, especially this passage, I begin to tear up. Especially when I reach that last line: “After so long, and so much work, it’s still so fucking hard to be a public woman.”
It’s been so challenging. And I don’t mean that in the oh-poor-me-it’s-so-hard sort of way, but in the fuck-decolonizing-our-minds-and-genders-is-a-constant-struggle sort of way. I mean, I don’t think I am a slouch in the Smarts Department. I also have done quite well in terms of my life, my work, and have a small, committed band of people who see me as I want to be seen. But the number of times I have stopped from using the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs out of fear of people claiming I am not “girl enough,” and the amount of times I have looked in the mirror and seen myself not as I know myself, but as I have been crafted through the transphobic social imaginary (as a fake woman, as someone who is essentializing femininity, as a man in women’s clothing) are too numerous to count. I came into my trans*ness five years ago, and even though I have a strong sense of self, I cannot help but agree with Reina: it’s so fucking hard to be a public woman.
So my Stitch Fix came in the mail today and, given that I am not good with surprises, I immediately went to my bedroom to see what I was sent. The five items were: a woven infinity scarf, a pair of earrings, a necklace, a cuff bracelet, and…a skirt.
Before I even tried it on, I began making excuses for why I would need to send it back. It was a pencil skirt and I especially don’t “do” pencil skirts. My budget will be blown if I keep the skirt. Do I really need a skirt?
Then I tried it on…and it looks good. Like, really good. But more than that, it makes me look like how I want to look. It makes me feel sexy, confident, and like myself. I start envisioning going to the campus visit for which I bought it and pairing the skirt with a nice pair of heels, moving around campus arm-in-arm with my femme friend, and smiling.
And then I am hit by, as Reina described, a wave of embarrassment. I felt shame, and hatred, and hurt, and pain. Years of pain that began before I was even born that trans* women and trans* femme people have been sifting through. Pain that others have encountered that have made my standing in front of the mirror, wearing this skirt, possible in the first place. And then that pain doubles in intensity, as I fear that my fear somehow reflects a discomfort with other trans* people, and trans* femme people specifically. It’s as if my telling myself I “don’t do skirts” is a statement that other trans* femme people shouldn’t wear skirts either. And that hurts. And I begin to cry.
I take off the skirt and leave my room. I leave my house, which has become stuffy and hot. I walk outside with my dog, who had previously been sniffing the hem of the new skirt as if to signal her approval. I text my two friends with whom I have been talking about femininity and dating and tell them I don’t know what I need in terms of support but I just need to tell them what I am experiencing. I cry more.
I was meant to spend today writing my book manuscript. And then my Stitch Fix came in the mail. And I was reminded again about how fucking hard it is to be a public woman.
And so here I am, blogging instead of working on my book manuscript. I am trying hard to remember I asked for this skirt, and that it looks good. But despite my asking for it to be sent, and despite it looking good, Reina’s words still resonate: “This feeling is why I haven’t worn a dress in years…It’s still so fucking hard to be a public woman.”
As I type this, I am reminded of one of the reasons I asked for the skirt in my most recent Fix. I have been trying hard to decolonize my mind regarding gender-normativity. I do a pretty good job with that most days, but as I mentioned, I am struggling with skirts. I have been taking inventory of my life a bit more these days, and have been actively working to decolonize the way I think of love, friendship, partnership, and education. I thought asking for a skirt would be one small active way I could work to decolonize my mind further; it would be one way to continue decolonizing my gender.
So I am going to keep the skirt. And I am going to wear the skirt when I go to my campus visit in April. And I am going to walk arm-in-arm with my femme friend and smile and feel sexy. I am going to show up as the public woman I want to be, knowing that it is hard for all of us, but also knowing that the only mirror I need to pay attention to is the one in my mind that is telling me I am good enough. I am going to go into this campus looking good, and I am going to know that the shame and embarrassment I am continually working through is a form of state-sanctioned and state-encouraged transphobic violence rather than any indication of my being transphobic.
And when I look into mirrors, I am going to see all the #GirlsLikeUs who radiate beauty, strength, love, and resilience, not because of what we (don’t) wear, but because we ourselves are beautiful, strong, loving, and resilient.
Recently, I finished Dr. Sara Ahmed’s (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life for the third time.* This time was different, though. When I kept trying to sort through why exactly this read-through was different, I thought—as ethnographers are prone to do—about the sociocultural moments in which I have read this book. The more I thought about it, what struck me was that although I read the book at different times, the times also seemed relatively the same. We seem stuck in time. Ahmed talked about this sense of being stuck, of the stickiness of words, attitudes, and behaviors, and of how one can get stuck and how things can stick to someone. This, I thought, was it. This is what was different about this third reading. I felt stuck, and I felt stuck because things have stuck to me.
Let me share a couple stories.
Last week, I came to my Critical and Feminist Pedagogies class (in which we are reading On Being Included) ready to talk with students about the Introduction and first two chapters of Ahmed’s book. My class is fairly unique in that we are all queer. I know this may be the only time in my career this happens, and I know it creates an opportunity for us to convene and talk in ways that we may feel are otherwise foreclosed to us in non-queer spaces. Ahmed wrote in her book about affective weight of entering “seas of whiteness,” and I understand that our sea of queerness provides a haven from the constant cisgender/heterosexual labyrinth through which we as queer people must navigate daily.
We come together and as we talk about Ahmed’s book, we begin to tell stories. We share stories about times when we have run into brick walls. We talk about being perceived as brick walls, and how the perception that we have each been brick walls creates a brick wall toward progressive action on campus. We smile and we joke, not because we are glad that we have these shared experiences, but comforted by the solidarity that we have been stuck because things have stuck to our bodies. Words have stuck to our bodies (e.g., queer, trans*, person of color) and those words have carried with them affects (e.g., angry) and orientations (e.g., nothing is ever good enough). Those words, because they are sticky, get us stuck. They make for a difficult time getting unstuck and being seen as anything other than those words. We feel lifted through sharing. Usually exhausted after teaching an evening class, I go home smiling. At least we are stuck together.
Another story. This time I am in a virtual presentation discussing student protest on college campuses. There is a Twitter feed where presenters are engaging with listeners as they talk. Less than an hour before the presentation, it is released that Sam DuBose’s murderer will not be brought up on charges. I tweet that I hope the presenters will discuss this, that they must discuss this. That to talk about campus protest and unrest without discussing the latest murder of a Black man on a college campus is a gross oversight, in every sense of the word.
The presentation starts and I wait. I keep waiting, and I cry, silently, in my house. Nothing is said. Sam’s name isn’t mentioned. It took 43 minutes—out of an hour-long session—for his name to be brought up, and even then, it was by one of the panelists (not the convener), who is a Black man. I tweet that I am fed up, tired, and angry by the continued disavowal of Black lives, despite the claims made by many in my field that #BlackLivesMatter. I tweet these things publicly because I am not interested in hiding my distaste.
After the presentation, the main presenter, who is a White woman, messages me privately to apologize. She says she is sorry if what she did (by not talking about Sam) upset me, and that she doesn’t want to disappoint me. She says she is committed to “doing better,” and if I want, she would be open to talking with me. I don’t connect back with her.
So here it is…and here we are. Two stories, both about being stuck and things sticking to us. In the first story, we are stuck because things stick to us. In the second story, the main presenter demonstrates the stickiness of wanting to “do better.” That is to say, the desire to “do better” acts as an always already failed promise, or what Ahmed referred to as a “non-performative.” According to Ahmed (2012), a non-performative “is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but is actually what the speech act is doing” (p. 117, italics in original). By saying one wants to “do better,” one is protected from actually having to do better.
In fact, stating one wants to “do better” has become a bit of a best practice in the field of student affairs. However, as Ahmed (2012) stated, “Commitments to antiracism can be performances of racism: as if to say ‘you are wrong to describe us as uncaring and racist because we are caring and committed to being antiracist’” (p. 145). The White woman couldn’t possibly be racist because she was committed to “doing better.” It’s a cyclical argument, that one is not racist because one says they are not racist. And it becomes even more insidious when taken alongside the public nature of the offense and the private nature of the response. Why was she contacting me privately for something that occurred publically, I thought? Why was she so concerned that I would be upset with her, rather than worried about colluding in anti-Black racism and White supremacy? But I didn’t ask these questions. I was tired. I was hurt. I was sick of being the one to “bring up” these pains, which is also something that both Ahmed (2012) and Henderson (2014) discuss about race and gender respectively.
Over the three times I have read Ahmed’s book, time has marched forward, but I feel stuck in these situations. I am stuck in the repetition of hearing commitments to “doing better” and of being made to be sore because I bring up sore points regarding racism, trans* oppression, and compulsory able-bodiedness (using Ahmed’s language here). I am stuck by being made out to be The Angry One; the angry trans* person, the one who is never satisfied, the one who is always the killjoy. I encounter brick walls, but am encountered by others as a brick wall, probably because I describe the brick walls that I encounter. Ahmed (2012) referenced this when she wrote, “Social categories are sediments: they go all the way down, and they weigh some of us down. They might even appear lighter and more buoyant to those who can float, as if they are ‘above’ them. Perhaps the experience of aboveness creates the impression of overness. Perhaps lightness and buoyancy are affects of privilege—the affective worlds inhabited by those whose bodies don’t weigh them down or hold them up” (p. 181). The students in my class are similarly stuck, and although there is a sense of solidarity and camaraderie in being able to enter a sea of queerness in our classroom, each time we leave class, we walk into brick walls.
And then there is the stuckness of the field of student affairs; a stuckness that is rooted in the phrase I have increasingly grown to groan over: I want to do better.
Here’s the thing: the language of wanting to “do better” acts as a buffer from actually doing better. Saying you want to do better becomes a best practice, and as I have written about elsewhere, best practices may be necessary, but they are wholly insufficient in changing structural oppression. Best practices individualize situations, hiding how systems of oppression (racism, trans* oppression, classism) are embedded in institutional ways. And so people say they will “do better,” but nothing better is done.
And time marches on, without times changing. And so I will go into class today and likely we will share similar stories of being stuck because things stick to us and not others. We will talk about the brick walls we encounter, and how people encounter us as brick walls. We will join in solidarity and have a moment of release.
But what will happen when we leave class this time? What do we do when we keep encountering all these brick walls? What will we do when we are positioned as impatient, angry, and are told we need to appreciate that others are committed to “doing better”? Far from being a tragic tale of being content with malcontent, Ahmed (2012) gave us a clue of what we can do when she wrote what I find to be the most beautiful line of her book:
“Sometimes we have to take the risk of fulfilling the fantasies other people have of us” (p. 179)!
So here’s to fulfilling the fantasy of the angry trans* person, the impatient critical educator, the person for whom “quick fixes” may be quick, but never fix. In honoring Ahmed’s (2012) closing maxim of her book (“don’t look over it, if you can’t get over it” (p. 187, italics in original), I will close this blogpost with my own maxim: don’t talk about doing better, just do better.
*For folks who have not read this book, please do! It is truly one of the best higher education reads I have ever had the joy to complete. It would also make an amazing professional development/office shared read.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.