Everyday acts in a gender-policed world

November 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

I’ve written before about the hazards of shopping while trans – and of the ways in which people who disrupt gender norms are punished by society for doing so. But I was in need of a sweater today, and the nerve-wracking task of trying to navigate through gender-segregated spaces got me thinking. Not about how hard it is to shop after transition (such as it was) – but about how hard it’s been since hitting puberty – because being out as trans has never really been the problem, as such, in this scenario. Having a body that doesn’t conform neatly to one idealised sex norm or the other has been – and that’s something hardly confined to trans people.


It struck me as funny – especially given the transphobic fear of trans people in cis changing rooms – that the worst experiences I’ve had whilst shopping have been when I was either too young to have worked out I was trans, or before surgery, when I looked far more feminine than I do now. That gender policing has been part and parcel of the ‘cis’ shopping experience. To explain: I shot up when I was a child, and hit puberty very early. 5’8” may be average to short for a man but, with my super long gangly limbs, it was something that a lot of people remarked on when they took me for a girl. Add that to the big hands and feet, flat chest and skinny hips, and the gender-based insults about my body were worse then than anything I’ve had since. From the ages of about 10 to 18, EVERY time I asked a female shop assistant for help I got insulted. “Look at your big man hands” said one. “We won’t be able to find you anything feminine” from one woman in a shoe shop. “You’re a bit straight up and down”, “there’s no point in you trying to find a bra”, “those shoulders are a bit big”, “nothing much up top, is there?”, “I don’t know where we’ll find a jacket that fits those arms” – again and again the eye-rolling, the tired sighs, and the clearly stated fact that my body was just not up to the job. Perhaps my favourite moment was accidentally ripping a blouse I’d been given to try on – my shoulders were too wide for the seams. A little later, in my early 20s, I hit the jackpot – wedding dress shopping (yes I was married, no I didn’t want a dress, yes I wore one anyway). The scrutiny and judgmental attitudes were something else – the fact that the seamstress couldn’t take the dress in far enough to quite suit my lack of bosom a joke amongst my friends. The confusion, from said seamstress and shop assistants – why wouldn’t I resort to padding and corsetry to solve the disappointingly ‘unfeminine’ nature of my shape?


Comparatively speaking, shopping since top surgery has been easy. I’ve mostly kept to the men’s department since I had a choice in clothing matters, and being even more flat chested and short haired makes things simpler still. One occasion of being stopped at the changing room door and feeling miserable because I’m not as hot as the male models – that’s it. Compared to years of rudeness and, sometimes, outright cruelty.


Which brings me to my point, such as it is: why do cis people keep putting up with this shit? Why does anyone? Why do some people pretend that breaking down assumptions of how bodies should be, and how they should be dressed, only benefits trans people? Why isn’t this a bigger fight? Why on earth, at the end of the day, do we keep up the fiction that there’s an ideal female shape, an ideal male shape, and that all the evidence to the contrary needs to be corrected?


I know the answers to those questions are both depressingly simple and incredibly complex. I know how hard many people are trying. But it all struck me, when I was shopping without harassment in a shop for men because my female-assigned at birth, non-hormonally altered body fits the typical male pattern better than the female one, how funny the whole thing is. And I just wanted to share.

§ 7 Responses to Everyday acts in a gender-policed world

  • Last time I shopped for frames for my glasses I picked out a pair and was told by the shocked assistant “But those are _men’s_ glasses!” I didn’t respond, just stood there open-mouthed because I was so condused by the concept that a bit of wire could have gender. As it happened, they were the only pair large enough for my eyes (I still find myself looking at the upper bar half the time), but when I tried to explain to her that what I could see was more important to me than how I looked, and that I had understood that to be the point of glasss, she became even more confused than I was.

    I haven’t shopped for clothes on the high street for a couple of decades, but I can still remember the stress of being taken out by my mother to buy the bras she’d decided I needed (more to do with my age than the shape of my chest, which was then pretty muscular). Nothing fit around my shoulders comfortably and everything I tried pinged up to my throat when I raised my arms. The shop assistants laughed along with her about how difficult I was being. Difficult, among other things, for looking after myself.

    • cnlester says:

      Insert general, weary kind of comment about how people coded as women aren’t meant to dress themselves for utility or comfort, and those coded as men can’t have pretty things.

  • Thank you for the share: I was fascinated to hear your experiences: my ex wife used to get read as male sometimes – mostly it amused her and embarrassed the shop assistants – she was tall and broad shouldered with short hair but had a feminine face – from behind she was often read as male but when she turned round people would get embarrassed if they’d called her sir or addressed us with “hello lads”. I was passing as male back then and clothes held no interest. Nowadays, as a genderqueer trans-female I’ve found clothes shopping more rewarding and it got a lot easier when I let go of the internalised guilt – once I gave myself permission to go buy nice stuff that was gender-appropriate I discovered that it was so much easier than I imagined. In fairness though, I don’t push my luck with the changing rooms – I take a tape measure to establish if something will fit. So, I’ve personally found shop assistants have always been fine with me and it intrigued me that when you were read as female you experienced such explicit prejudice and put-downs for not being female enough. That rudeness and punitiveness is extraordinary. Back then the only difficulty I had was finding things with a thin enough waist (even now its only 31″) – and ya know being 5’8″ with a small frame now finally works in my favour, albeit my snake hips still won’t fill out a dress properly. And as I don’t use hormones or padding -I just have to buy clothes to fit.

    I wonder if it says something about the difference in the ways cis-male and cis-female might relate to trans-male and trans-female people? That and the legacy notion of ‘males’ as sexual aggressors?


    • cnlester says:

      I wonder. I wonder if it’s to do with the supposed idea of ‘naturalness’, and about how much effort we’re expected to expend. That because you are feminine it’s somehow seen as conciliatory, that your body is ‘more feminine’ than a body assigned male at birth is meant to be – that it makes your transness somehow more natural? I’ve certainly had that attitude applied to me – that’s my more ‘masculine’ body confirms that my transness is ‘authentic’ (I’m running out of quote marks). Whereas, if I was a woman, then it was just a crappy body that needed help. The number of times they tried to sell me padded bras…honestly 😉

      • You have an interesting point – that the acceptance might be easier when the body meets expectations of the cultural millieu for the presented gender. I’m intrigued by the idea of the visual aesthetic and that cultural expectations have an influence on what makes for acceptable aesthetic. I’d love to see a fashion school explore the idea of transgender as a project creating clothes that fit the physical body and yet communicate the gender – interestingly, Superdry have a lot of gender-crossover with many of their designs cut on both male and female body forms whilst broadly retaining the same styling.

  • your post took me back, Shopping for women’s clothes since my teens was always that kind of nightmare..Nothing fit my body and it was my fault , never the clothes .They were all so wrong, Ergoi must be a man and other women really didn’t like me in the change rooms. managers an d security guards were often called.When i first took my butchiness to a mens store 40 years ago ,i worried i would be “spotted” as a women and asked to leave. But i needn’t have worried..that has never happened and everything fits so much better and has pockets besides. I love your appreciation of the irony of it all.

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