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.