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I wore a suit!

What dressing like a man taught me about masculinity, gender roles, and myself.

#TransparentTuesdays header

Hi friend,

Last weekend I attended a wedding, and for the first time in my life, I wore a suit.

Not a women’s suit, mind you. Not a suit that gives a flirty little nod to menswear while actually being cut, styled, and “fit to flatter” a woman’s body, and not styled or offset with feminine details.

I was, to the best of my ability, dressed as a man. Three piece suit. No makeup. Chest binder. Tie, pocket square, and Dr. Martins. I even had a pocket watch and chain! (Best $10 I’ve ever spent, by the way.)

A photo of someone looking at their pocket watch

This might not sound like a particularly big deal to you, and undoubtedly there are many people out there for whom it wouldn’t be. But for me, it was a Very Big Deal.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve hated getting “dressed up” for formal events. I justified my hatred by saying I just didn’t like uncomfortable and impractical clothes, and didn’t agree with the concept of mandatory formality for certain events.

And that was true enough, but below all that was a shit-ton of anger and resentment about getting dressed up as a girl/woman.

I hated the (particularly uncomfortable and impractical) clothes women were expected to wear on formal occasions.

First of all, I was expected to wear a dress, which I never felt comfortable in anyway, but formal dresses were always the worst… more form-fitting/structured, harsher/less comfortable fabrics, more of a need for stupid undergarments, and no pockets so you have to carry a purse.

Basically, the more a dress was considered fancy or “formal,” the more likely I was to hate it. Then there was everything else that went into it, like high heels, makeup, jewelry, nails, and hair!

I resented the extra energy, time, and money women were expected to put into the “dressing up” experience, compared to men. I resented the fact that “looking good” requires women to experience pain or discomfort, and to have their movements and breathing restricted. I hated how women’s formalwear is always designed to highlight or draw attention to her body in some way (like her cleavage or waistline), and that they always bare more skin, so the women have to freeze while the men are warm and comfortable.

My biggest issue with formalwear, though, is the fact that there are no gender-neutral options. While non-binary people like me can dress and express ourselves in a way that sits between (or outside) the gender binary in casual settings, formal events require choosing between two very gendered options.

You either wear a suit, or you wear a dress. You either dress like a man, or you dress like a woman.

And while I didn’t have the language to understand my own gender growing up, I did know that both options sucked.

I hated getting dressed up as a woman, but I felt disallowed from getting dressed up as a man, thanks to the subtly coercive way gender expectations and ideals are upheld. After all, we can tell kids to “just be themselves” until the cows come home, but there is often an invisible hidden cost to being ourselves– a cost that doesn’t feel safe, or worth it, to pay.

When my brother got married, for example, I was a bridesmaid. Refusing to wear the bridesmaid dress would have meant extra stress for my brother and his fiance, and I would have been perceived as being difficult, seeking attention, or choosing an inappropriate time to “make a political statement.” Then there’s the additional labor I would have had to do to endlessly justify my decision, and navigate other people’s shock, confusion, irritation, or disappointment.

It was easier to just give in and wear the fucking dress.

Photos of Jessi Kneeland in a red dress

Actually though, it was only easier for everyone else, not for me.

I cried so, so much about that stupid dress, and I think you can see in the pictures how uncomfortable I felt. (Also I engaged in some frighteningly disordered behaviors around food and exercise for months before the wedding, hoping that maybe if I was skinny enough, I wouldn’t feel so much wrongness in my body. I didn’t work.)

Now, every single memory I have of my brother’s wedding is colored by that feeling of wrongness, and by a deep somatic feeling of shame and exclusion.

Too many formal events throughout my life, I just gave in and wore the fucking dress.

Sure this means I’ve never once felt like myself during an important event, or felt truly welcome. But the truth is that you’re not really free to be yourself if being yourself requires you to do the emotional labor of facing and navigating the disappointment, confusion, anger, or criticism of people you care about. (Not to mention the outright exclusion, rejection, discrimination, oppression, hatred, and violence many trans folks face daily for just being themselves!)

While that’s true in every aspect of life when it comes to non-traditional gender experiences, I’ve always felt it most acutely in formal spaces. It felt like I had to don a mandatory costume, and pretend to be someone else, in order to be welcome. And ultimately it felt like a violation– not that I was being violated by someone else, but that I was crossing a boundary inside myself.

At this point in my life, I’m no longer willing to do that, and I decided this time was going to be different. And since there are really only two options for formalwear (suit or dress), I decided to try the other one for once.

I wanted to rock a men’s suit though, and to eschew all “obligatory femininity” in my presentation. I wanted to follow men’s fashion rules, and hold myself to men’s expectations and ideals. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t trying to subtly resist or opt out of gender expectations in a formal space, I was willingly opting all the way in.

Having opted in, however, I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was doing! What even are men’s fashion rules and expectations?? I’d never given myself permission to explore such things before, and therefore never realized how much I didn’t know!

Granted, many cisgender men don’t know this stuff either, but I was committed to learning. I googled everything, and read dozens of articles on men’s websites explaining things like how to choose a suit fabric, the different options for jacket styles, lapel shapes, and dress shirts, and what kinds of dress shoes and accessories men can choose from.

I decided the look I was going for was “Sherlock Holmes, but on the cover of GQ.”

I wanted to look and feel like a well-dressed British dandy or, as I started calling it, a “dapper prince.” Tweed. Houndstooth. Elbow patches. Immaculate details. I even decided to make my shoes, tie, and pocket square a rosy pink– not to femme up the outfit, but worn the way confident and stylish men sometimes rock subtle feminine or flamboyant details, displaying such an unshakeable certainly of their own masculinity that these details only seem to highlight it, rather than detract from it.

Once I’d gotten all the details of my outfit together, I was really excited (and a little nervous, actually) to wear it. And before I tell you everything else I learned from this experience, I want to take a moment to tell you how fucking euphoric I felt in my outfit. I’m getting emotional just writing this, thinking about how this was the first formal event I’ve ever attended where I felt like I was truly expressed, truly acknowledged, and truly welcome.

Photo of Jessi Kneeland

You can see it in the photos. I looked fucking good, and I knew it. I felt like a dapper prince. I felt like myself.

To my surprise, however, the actual wearing of the suit was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to everything I would notice and discover about gender that day.

A few hours before the wedding, for example, the groomsmen were getting ready at our airbnb. One of my partner’s friends, who was particularly skilled at certain tasks, was going around helping and teaching others to do things like ironing a suit, using a steamer, and carefully ripping the seams in a jacket packet. When I asked him for help tying my tie, he spent a few minutes explaining and demonstrating the different knots (I had no idea there was more than one kind!), and then teaching me how to get the right length, do the knot, and adjust the neck.

Ties have always made me feel a bit stupid and frustrated, and I found myself deeply moved by this man’s warmth, patience, and encouragement as he walked me through it. I felt like a little boy being taught by his dad; like at 36 years old I was finally being invited into a tiny-but-important rite of masculine passage that I’d always been excluded from. It felt like an initiation, of sorts, into something I’d always admired and envied from afar.

I would later realize that a good word for this thing that I’d always wanted to be a part of is brotherhood.

It wasn’t really about the tie, of course; anyone can tie a tie. It was about the energy this man brought to the moment. He wasn’t treating me like a girl who wanted to wear an item of men’s clothing to be cute, ironic, or subversive. I didn’t feel patronized or condescended to. He wasn’t treating me with kid gloves, and he didn’t take on the subtle manner of saviorism that a lot of guys embody when sweeping in to Solve a Problem For a Woman. He was just teaching me the rules.

In short, he was treating me like a guy. Like a guy who had simply never learned a skill they would need many times in the future. Like any other guy in the house.

This brief moment of brotherhood made me feel more seen, understood, and welcome than all the times I’ve gotten ready for a big event “with the girls” put together. I wasn’t even wearing the suit yet, but it was a moment of gender euphoria.

Photos of Jessi Kneeland in a suit

Those moments happened throughout the rest of the day and night, too. When the other partners-of-groomsmen (both women) in the airbnb exclaimed “you look so cool!” instead of “you look so pretty!” for example. And when men at the wedding offered me a firm handshake, instead of a hug or kiss on the cheek.

Interestingly though, my biggest source of gender euphoria wasn’t the result of an experience, so much as it was the result of an absence.

It was the absence, all night, of foot pain and blisters. It was the absence of managing and adjusting my clothing all night. (No strapless bra to keep pulling up!) It was the absence of feeling cold, when I stepped outside and saw the women in dresses shivering. And it was the absence, most importantly, of the male gaze.

There is a certain “on display” element to formal occasions.

Because the outfit, accessories, and hair are special, and because we don’t often get to see each other all dressed up and fancy, there is a heightened attention to appearances for people of all genders at formal events, and that was true of this one too. Everyone took delight in seeing each other dressed up, but it was the first time I’ve experienced people taking delight in my appearance without feeling sexualized or objectified.

I didn’t feel like people who looked at me were assessing me or my body, or ranking my attractiveness or fuckability. It’s hard to quantify the difference exactly, but people just didn’t seem to feel invited or entitled to view me as a decorative or sexual object the way they normally do.

Maybe it’s because I was covered up from head to toe, or because people took my presentation to mean I was uninterested (or gay). Maybe it’s because I didn’t fit as many conventional beauty ideals as normal so I didn’t look as “attractive.” Or maybe it’s just because people unconsciously perceive bare skin and femininity as a reason to treat someone not as a human, but as a woman, and feel unconsciously entitled to view and assess women as sexual objects.

Whatever the reason, its absence was notable.

And actually, it's not just that I wasn’t being sexualized or objectified that night. It’s also that I wasn’t being gendered at all. Nobody was treating me “like a woman,” which is an experience easier to define by what was absent than by what was present.

  • I felt it every time a man didn’t hold a door for me, offer me their arm as I walked up a stair, or try to help me in some way.

  • I felt it every time a woman didn’t compliment my accessories as an icebreaker, or engage in diet talk or body bashing with me.

  • I felt it every time a man didn’t invade my personal space or touch my body when talking to me, scooting by me in the hall, or while I was dancing.

  • I felt it every time someone didn’t hit on me, compliment my body, or tell me I looked beautiful.

This feeling of genderlessness was delightful to me, as a non-binary person. But it’s interesting to consider that I had to dress like a man in order to just not be treated like a woman; that I had to give up all visible markers of femininity in order for people to take me in without automatically assigning me a gender role.

I define body neutrality as the practice of stripping away all the false and inflated meaning, morality, significance, importance, and associations we’ve learned about bodies. Often this means dismantling the things we’ve learned about what a person’s size, shape, race, age, and ability mean about who a person is, and what they deserve.

But as a society, we are still obsessed with the idea that a person’s gender is one of the most central and important aspects of who they are. We imagine a person’s gender communicates a whole bunch of useful information about their personality, their character, their value, their role in society, or their hopes and dreams. First we use a collection of visual cues to assign a person a gender, and then we use that label to determine who they are, and how we should treat them.

Just like body size and shape, however, visual cues around gender can’t actually tell us anything about a person!

Anyway… now I can’t stop thinking about how badly our society needs to apply the body neutral lens to gender in an in-depth and nuanced way, stripping it of all this false meaning and significance, and decentralizing its importance, so that we can start seeing the human first, with their gender as an afterthought.

Whatcha think? New book idea? ;-)

Hit reply to share your thoughts!

Big hug, Jessi

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Mike Heflin
Mike Heflin
12 oct 2023

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