By Lizz Schumer
I don’t own any “stripper” heels, but I do own one pair of six-inch platforms that shine iridescent under black lights. I don’t dress to impress, but I wear skirts and jewelry, cat-eye makeup, matching shoes and handbags. I’m not dressed for the job I want, but for the life I do: as a high femme cisgender woman who owns her presentation as much as her spirit. In the age of “locker room talk,” and taped-down ties, presenting as high femme feels radical. I want to teach my daughters their feminine side is powerful, even as society strives to convince us otherwise.
“When you were old enough, I got you two toys,” my mom explains. “Your brother too. A truck and a doll. You made the dolls and the truck talk to each other, and your brother put the doll in the truck bed and drove her around. But we never pushed you to ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ toys.”
But I didn’t need any prompting to become what was then called a “girly girl.” As soon as I got home from school, I shucked off my uniform and put on my best dresses. I played house and dress-up and begged to take dance lessons, not because I had any balletic aspirations, but because they came with frilly tutus and bedazzled leotards.
I was all girl from the top of my pigtailed head to the bottom of my sparkle-shoe’d toes, until I wasn’t. Somewhere between elementary and middle school, the attire tides shifted. My classmates put away their dolls and took up baseball bats and basketballs. Names like “Abercrombie” and “Aeropostale” appeared across their red and blue T-shirts. Pink was no longer in fashion and accordingly, neither was I. It was the late 90’s, and power suits were in. Our mothers put away their tie-dye and sequins and dressed for success in shoulder pads and polyester, blouses and heels in muted colors. For career day, my mom found me a polyester pants suit in charcoal gray and handed me an old briefcase.
“What are you going to be?” my classmates asked, with stethoscopes around their necks, firefighter hats on their desks.
“I’m a businesswoman,” I explained. “And I’m going to run the world.” The jacket itched around the collar, and the pants were too tight around my hips. As soon as I got home from school, I threw on a sundress and mud boots, heading out to the field behind my house to lose myself in wildflowers. Each of them waving their brightly colored faces to the cerulean sky.
By eighth grade, I’d had enough hiding. Maybe it was the Spice Girls’ outrageous costumes or my sense of self bursting through puberty’s binding. Maybe I’d figured out that my parents couldn’t afford the name brands my classmates wore, and if I was going to stick out anyway, I might as well stick out as far as I could. But that career day, I pulled out a pair of black-and-white checkered pants and covered a pair of suspenders with protest buttons from the back of my parents’ closet. I decorated a plain white T-shirt with magic markers. “Artist,” I wrote next to a scribbled paintbrush and palate. “Dancer,” I wrote next to a pair of ballet shoes. “Me,” I wrote next to a bright, yellow smiling sun.
“I’m an individualist,” I proudly told my fellow students. They looked me up and down, with skeptical looks I’d soon learn to recognize.
“Is that a job?” someone asked.
“No,” I answered. “But it’s me.”
No one told me then that I didn’t have to compromise my personal style with my carer ambitions. In the early 2000’s, my penchant for wild colors, roll-on facial glitter, and silver garland as ponytail ties looked more at home in an art studio than an office. I assumed I’d relegated myself there, and that dressing for the workplace meant black and gray, blazers and sensible shoes.
“Dress for the job you want,” said a poster in our guidance counselor’s office. Our private school uniform forbade short skirts and high heels, even on dress-down days. Bright makeup and “unnatural” hair colors were equally verboten. We were free to express our personal style, as long as it didn’t stray too far from the administration’s interpretation of acceptable. Jeans and modest T-shirts made the cut, sweaters and scarves that covered our burgeoning, hyper-sexualized bodies.
What didn’t: Covering my uniform skirt in silver glitter. Fishnet tights with combat boots. Glitter eyeshadow as blush, or really, at all. Pants I painted with silver and blue, how I imagined the Milky Way looked if we turned off all the city lights.
My first job, I worked for a government entity that didn’t have a dress code, unless you wanted a promotion. My boss dropped Anne Taylor Loft coupons on my desk and complimented me when I wore suits that mimicked her own. When I cut my wild waves into a shorter, face-framing style, she told me I looked “professional.” Hilary Clinton’s signed portrait hung in my boss’s office, smiling out above her conservative suit. In my boss’s closet, a succession of similar attire with labels on them denoting when each had been worn, and where.
“As women, we’re scrutinized not only for what we say and do, but how we dress,” she told me. “Men can just put on the same suit every day and switch out the tie. We’ve got to work harder, in everything.”
And so I bought power suits and low heels. I learned to shadow my eyes in “nude” and not to nod along when men spoke. I learned not to fold my arms, to use “I” statements, to stand when the men stood and sit when they sat, because sometimes subjugation was necessary to make a deal. Just like I had as a scared sixth-grader, I relegated my favorite clothing to the back of my closet and my sense of self with it. When I looked in the office bathroom mirror, I looked like the women in the Lord & Taylor catalogue, but I didn’t look like me. My voice felt flat coming from that body, and I didn’t feel the power those suits were supposed to inspire.
That was a decade and a lifetime ago. While that first boss mentored me positively in so many ways, I've had to disagree in one. I am more powerful when I’m myself, and I reject the establishment that demands otherwise. Pantsuits have equaled power for so long because they’re a derivative of what men have deemed “office apparel.” As women marched on Washington this past November, I realized something my eighth-grade self approached, but hadn’t fully conceptualized. My femme presentation isn't just a personal choice. It’s a statement. If the men in charge are going to grab us by the p*ssy and a woman in a white pantsuit is unelectable, I’m going to march in my highest heels and frilliest dress and reclaim it as my birthright.
Today, I’m still an individualist, or I am one again. I wear my glitter eyeliner like armor, the better to deflect the male gaze. My neon lipstick is aggressively not intended for anyone but me to enjoy. None of me is. When we send our girls to the office in interpretations of what society deems acceptable, we tell them their own femininity isn’t. Once upon a time, I anthropomorphized a toy truck because even as a toddler, I knew being proudly feminine wasn’t a weakness. It still isn’t, no matter what the establishment says.
Lizz Schumer is a writer and editor living and working in Queens, NY. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The New York Times, SELF, Salon, Greatist, XOJane, and others. She can be found online at lizzschumer.com.