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Fashion, feminism & femininity

When I was a kid, my parents dressed me in what I called "number shirts" - generic, teamless jerseys that were popular among children in the mid-70s. I had a few Holly Hobbie dresses, but the majority of the snapshots in the family album show my pals and me frolicking in our 5s, 12s and 44s. I thought I'd wear numbers forever.

Imagine my confusion years later when the realities of puberty and the Reagan era collided in a fateful trip to the Southdale Dayton's. My mother steered me toward the juniors department, where she yanked Guess tops off the racks. "These shoulder pads will make you look fantastic," she announced happily.

They didn't. My mother howled with frustration every time she fished a pair of puffy ovals out of the trash. I didn't want to disappoint her (or my junior high friends; we were a heavily padded bunch), but the sudden insistence on feminine performance didn't sit well with me. I was a girl, but I didn't want to be girly, for girly style was not only fussy and impractical, it was weak. It was wimpy. It was dumb.

Instead, I adopted the grungy style of my favorite band, the Replacements: worn Levi's, thrift store tees and flannels, and Chuck Taylor sneakers. I finally felt comfortable - and more than a little superior to my high-maintenance sisters.

Two events conspired to knock me off my high horse: having kids of my own and reading a book by Julia Serano called "Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity." Published in 2007, it is a fascinating unpacking of cultural misogyny everywhere, including among feminists. As she writes, "... [W]hile most reasonable people see women and men as equals, few (if any) dare to claim that femininity is masculinity's equal."

Until I read Serano, I didn't realize how much I believed in the inherent superiority of anti-feminine fashion. I was a feminist who wouldn't judge a woman for her life experiences, but would make a snide crack about her high heels. And I thought shoulder pads were embarrassing!

Additionally, having children gave me the gentleness and compassion that my teenage self lacked. Is it possible that my mom panicked when she realized that the '80s weren't safe for androgynous children? In those days, middle schoolers thought AIDS was transmitted via mosquito bites and toilet seats. Tomboys existed, but they endured constant, relentless harassment. My mother's terror must have been profound, thus the mad rush to pad and ruffle me. If I knew of a product that would armor my children against social condemnation, I would put it on my Visa card in a hurry.

In the end, personal style is a partnership between what makes sense to your culture (national, social, racial, etc.) and to your body. Fashion, clothing and costume work together to create the identity that is understood to be you, both as recognized by others and by your own eyes in the changing-room mirror.

If I dropped my Chuck Taylors in favor of shoulder pads, my kids wouldn't recognize me, no matter how "fantastic" I looked. They probably wouldn't know me in a number shirt, either. I have settled into a style that is mine - neither good nor bad, but mine.

In "Whipping Girl," Serano declares: "A feminist movement that encompasses both those who are female and those who are feminine has the potential to become a majority, one with the strength in numbers to finally challenge and overturn both traditional and oppositional sexism."

Wouldn't you know it - Chucks are now available in pink.

Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis.


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