Butch, Femme, Style, and Developing a Sense of Self


I remember climbing up the fence to scramble onto the roof, sometimes holding the hem of my skirt between my teeth while I climbed helped to keep it out of the way. I remember sitting in the apple tree reading my book, and how I jumped down and a branch hooked onto the hem and ripped a 2 foot gash in my skirt. My younger brother had a pair of combat boots that I would wear sometimes, just around the house or yard, they were awesome. I went on a trip with my grandparents, part of what made it so awesome was that I got to wear jeans and boots for hiking pretty much every day.

Style and sense of self weren’t so much a discovery in my childhood. What we could or could not wear was strongly defined.   The longer I live out on my own, I wonder if the reason I don’t really like to wear makeup is because I wasn’t allowed to try it out when I was young? Or because I just don’t like to. Did it feel weird to wear dangle earrings because of my modesty hang-ups? Or is it because I happen to prefer studs?

I remember one of the hand-me-down bags of clothing someone gave us contained several checkered shirts. I was in love, I wanted to wear them everyday. But I was told that they looked sloppy, like I was a lumberjack or truck driver. I was also told that butch women only dressed in masculine ways because they were ugly or fat and felt insecure in being female, so they tried to hide their femininity and look like men- because there was only one way to be a female. I was sure I was female, and I didn’t want to be fat or ugly. So I did my best to try and emphasize my daintiest features, and hide anything that made me insecure.

But guess what, after all those years I am still fat, and I still like plaid. I guess some things never change.

I cut my hair short back in 2010 and I love the practicality of being able to wash and go without having wet hair for the rest of the day. I love my curls being free and wild instead of always pulled back in a ponytail. After I stopped believing in submission, I found myself gradually eliminating skirts from my wardrobe. For a while I wore them only to church, and then finally phased them out entirely. I even kept a few in the closet “just in case” but when I didn’t wear any in over a year, I gave them away.

I have always hated shopping. I want things I wear to be comfortable. I want them to feel right. I’ve spent hours in store dressing rooms trying on shirt after shirt after shirt, and pulling each one off in frustration when the reflection in the mirror just doesn’t look like me. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried on jeans that look so cute on the hanger but in the dressing room won’t quite button, or they can fit my hips but gape at the waist. Talk about frustrating. I basically lived in sweats for a few years as a stay at home mom.

And then last year tried on a pair of pants from the men’s section, and they fit. The waistband was thick and didn’t dig into my waist, they had way more belt-loops than girl pants, and they had pockets! (Pockets that could hold my wallet and keys and phone instead of just a piece of gum) I was sold. And since they are sold by waist and inseam measurements, I can buy them without ever having to step into a dressing room. No more trying to squeeze into weirdly shaped jeans made for someone who looks and feels nothing like me. No more buying cute heeled sandals that I never wear.

I am fat as ever, but I feel healthy. After realizing that I had just run up a flight of stairs at work while carrying 50 pounds of chocolate, I skip the daintiness façade. I am stronger than I ever thought I was. I love feeling strong and capable, and I like picking clothing that reflects the way I feel about myself.

Am I “butch?” I don’t know. I loved my wedding dress, but I can’t imagine having to wear skirts again. I feel at home in my cargo pants. Maybe I am going through a “teenaged lumberjack phase” late in life.  Maybe someday I will love wearing dresses and grow my hair long again. I don’t really care. I am just happy to wear clothes that make me feel good today, clothes that help me feel like myself.


Gender Transition: Two Years Later
Re-post: A Mama’s Journey
Re-Post: I’m Not Afraid Anymore
Fundamentalist Approved Feminist Literature
  • Keane Sanders

    I’m glad you’re happy with what you wear! It’s rarely fun to have to wear things that don’t reflect yourself or just get in the way of doing what you want to do.

    You’re capable, and what you’re wearing reflects that–and that’s great!

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Thank you! I do feel pretty capable, and it’s a good feeling. :)

  • Michelle

    I don’t think you look fat, but maybe that’s just me. You’re beautiful. I’m glad you’re feeling more comfortable.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Thanks Michelle. I’m 5’2″ and the last 5 years I have always been somewhere between 165 and 200 pounds, so based on that I am considered overweight. But I am coming to understand better just how I am built and what is healthy for me.

      • Judith Laister

        Hm, guessing from the picture in the article, you look a lot slimmer, so excuse my last comment.

        • Melissa_PermissionToLive

          Meh, it depends on the picture. That just happened to be one where I was wearing plaid. :)

      • Volcheka

        When you swim can you float when you exhale? You could simply be really densely built, bone and muscle weigh more.

  • LizMarie

    You be you, Melissa. That’s what matters in the end. :)

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      That’s what I am figuring out, it’s a pretty fun ride too. :)

  • jen

    I finally got my first pair of cargo pants at age 28 and immediately had to exchange them for a larger size when I got pregnant.

    I totally live in jeans though and I wish they made men’s jeans for my inseam (27 inches) because that would totally make my life easier. (I’m built like a guy thanks to my PCOS.)

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Yeah, I can hardly ever find pants short enough, so I just cuff them. I had the same problem with girl pants though, so that’s nothing new.

      • jen

        Glad to know I’m not the only one with that problem.

        • Lady Heather Cassandra Blessin

          I am 4’11″ – I am too short for petite and my body size is not petite. On the plus side mid calf length skirts are floor length and I have gotten a pair of capris that look like regular pants. Oh and I have PCOS too. You are not alone

          • jen

            This is totally my life. :)

  • http://Yamikuronue.wordpress.com/ Yamikuronue

    I love men’s clothes! I wear exclusively men’s clothing to work, because a button-down shirt and black slacks is always work-appropriate, whereas I have no idea what makes a blouse too casual or businesslike. And I love my pockets!

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Pockets rule!

      • Machintelligence

        Congratulations. Wardrobe wise you have joined the ranks of the pluggers (my favorite comic.)


        I can’t locate the comic, but my all time favorite caption was:
        “You know you are a plugger if your tool belt is so heavy that you have to wear sunscreen on your butt.”

  • Tanit-Isis Sews

    When I met my husband, I wore army surplus, red lumberjack plaid, and had a buzz cut. These days, I’m wearing a LOT of silly little dresses. (I actually think he misses the camo) It’s fun to try on different looks! Although strange how they can affect people’s reactions to you. Enjoy your evolving style story!

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      That’s so cool. :)

  • Judith Laister

    I’ve got the Jeans-problem too. The difference between my waist (circumference) and my hips is about 8 inches. The difference between low-waist (were Jeans usually start) and my waist is about 4 inches. If you look at Jeans in the store, the difference is about 2 inches. That can’t fit! I don’t want to wear a belt every day.

  • Judith Laister

    Another thing: I know you don’t use the word “fat” in a negative way, but just for the record: Your are not fat, you are not even overweight! In Hollywood and on catwalks, underweight seems to be the new normal.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      I 100% agree that underweight seems to be pushed as the “new normal”, I’m learning to embrace my curves and accept that I will probably always be bigger than a size 14. And yeah, the jeans problem baffles me. Finding clothes that fit and are comfortable is always a challenge. :P

  • Melissa_PermissionToLive

    I agree, reading in trees (and on roofs) is pretty awesome.

    • Considerer

      I never read on a roof before. I have ‘reading place envy’

  • Slow Learner

    My wife finds that mens’ shoes fit her better, a lot of the time. Wear what you find comfortable!

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Interesting! I’ve been contemplating getting men’s boots for work because I hear that they are more durable.

      • http://kathrynbrightbill.com/ KB

        If you can fit men’s boots, they are usually cheaper for better quality.

  • Maya Resnikoff

    I struggle with the question of how much of my idea of appropriate dress to teach to my (someday, G-d willing) children, because my sense of fashion doesn’t need to be theirs, but some things I think are valuable, and even if they don’t like them at certain points, are worth enforcing while they are still at home. Thank you for sharing the results of your own upbringing, even the uncertainty that comes with it- along with the growing pride in your body and it’s capabilities.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Thanks Maya. :)

  • ADB

    I too wonder if I would like wearing makeup and pretty clothes i I had been allowed to enjoy and explore them as a girl. Instead I got a weird mix of “makeup if for whores” and then when I did everything I could to not be “whore-ish” I got “you have no sense of style/beauty, you fail at being a woman.” Whatever. I’m fabulously butch now and happy with it, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been allowed to explore femininity on my own with no shame attached.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      I wonder too. But I am happy with who I am today.

  • Meyli

    POCKETS! Typical girl pants have such awful pockets. I’m always amazed at how much stuff my boyfriend pulls out of his – phone, keys, wallet, nail clippers, pen, paper, and even a water bottle. Crazy.

    I’m just becoming comfortable wearing dresses, after growing up feeling like dresses make you girly. To me, girly girls were dainty, and pretty, and delicate, and I thought I’d be a wuss to want that. I had to dress stronger than that (though not what most would call tomboyish).

    Its weird.

    Hooray for wearing what you LIKE! :)

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      A whole water bottle? lol! I haven’t tried that one yet. :)

      • Meyli

        Yeah! You can definitely tell its squished in there but it FITS!
        Comes in handy going to somewhere where you don’t want to carry a bag, like a museum or zoo (that might just be me though…)

      • melissia

        I have a number of baggy black jeans in my closet that I wear whenever it gets cold (this is Texas, mind you), and I love them so much just for the contents those pockets can hold.

  • Lady Heather Cassandra Blessin

    I spent my teen years and 20s looking quite butch at times and now I love dresses and love being femme. For me I finally found my power as a female and my comfort – but you need to be comfortable in yourself whatever that means – for me it used to mean looking butch. Oh and the whole pockets thing – still my biggest complaint on women’s clothes – with everything women are supposed to carry why the heck do designers think we do not need real pockets.

    When I was a young girl my mom used to make some of my dresses and clothes and she put big pockets in my skirts! If I ever have a clothing line it will include pockets – useful ones in skirts and dresses and pants!

    It is important to be who you are and not care about your label. I was very butch when I was married to a rather femme bioman – now that I am with a very masculine transman – I am very femme – but I am not worried as much about labels as being who I am.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      I think different fashion can have different function at different points of our life as well, like how we wear maternity clothing for pregnancy for example.

  • Sara Lin Wilde

    That story about discovering men’s pants really resonated with me. I had to buy a pair of khakis as part of a volunteer uniform last spring. Over and over, I tried on women’s khakis that were shaped all wrong for my body, looked awful and felt uncomfortable. I checked every store I could find. Finally I gave up and looked for men’s khakis. I found a perfect pair in the first store I checked. And the pockets were wonderfully huge.

    Usually I am a very femmey dresser – I love skirts and dangly earrings and makeup and lots of jewelry and glitter. But I find that women’s clothing is created to work with only certain body proportions, and I don’t fit their preconceived notions of ‘female shape’, especially during the current ‘skinny pants’ trend. Getting over the idea that I had to wear women’s pants has made it so much easier to dress myself.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Ugh! I hear you. I have been on shopping trips where I have literally tried on 70 pairs of pants and none of them fit me, and I am very curvy too! Women just are not all the same exact shape.

  • http://volunteer11.blogspot.com/ VollyfromtheBlog

    Your remark about pockets certainly resonates with me. I’ve been aware for some time that women always end up carrying stuff! This in turn seems to give men an opening to say that women are too dependent upon things. But the things are almost always needed, sooner or later. The difference seems to lie in the mode of carrying — purses and bags were a “girl thing” for such a long time. I remember the episode of “All in the Family” in the 1970s, when Michael bought a shoulder bag and shocked Archie by referring to it as his purse. I know that using one’s pockets to carry things frees up the arms and hands. You don’t have to worry about your purse getting stolen or lost, or killing your trapezius muscle, or having to keep it from slipping down your arm at the wrong moment. Cargo pants are the best! It’s too bad practicality has become such a gendered thing. Maybe the idea is that if women had total freedom to do what they needed to do in the most convenient way, we wouldn’t “need” men. The religious right loves to make a point of that… [disjointed thoughts today -- must be because it's a holiday!]

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Yes, I have done all those things, killing my shoulder, losing my purse, dropping my purse etc. I totally agree, practicality should not be gendered. If you ever start your clothing line, let me know! lol!

      • melissia

        Pockets are awesome.

  • Saraquill

    I like the bouffant hair you have in your photo. It’s how you hold yourself though, that really makes your look.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Thanks, my hair has a mind of it’s own. :)

  • Lana

    This so much. I don’t know if the reason I don’t wear makeup and dress up is because of my childhood, or personality. I may never know. But I just know I don’t have a clue how to be stylish.

  • Amethyst Marie

    It’s funny; I’ve often wondered if I love makeup so much because I wasn’t allowed to use it growing up. And while I’m so glad to have the freedom to wear pants and shorts when it’s practical to do so, I feel happiest and most “me” in miniskirts and sundresses. My brain doesn’t associate them at all with the frumpers I wore in my teens. I have constant mood swings about my hair, but whatever length it is, I like my overall look to be interpreted as “girly.”

    All that to say, who knows why we like to look the way we do. All that matters is that we do what makes us feel the most comfortable, the most happy, and the most ourselves. Whatever you want to call your look, you wear it well, and you are beautiful!

  • melissia

    Hey, if it makes you feel more empowered, go for it! Everyone has their own style and way of living.

    I don’t think I could manage that– I love long hair, even as much trouble as it is! But what works for me isn’t going to work for everyone else, you know?