It was when I was in my early 20’s while still living at home, right before the intervention that resulted in me leaving the homestead.
I realize now this phase was my silent, extreme reaction to growing up in a patriarchal environment. My version of “fuck you!” without daring to talk. Talking was too dangerous, too scary. Too many repercussions. This, on the other hand, was my quiet way of taking a stand and rebelling. Although I didn’t know it at the time and didn’t even realize it until recently.
It started with clothing. Pants were taboo, and jeans even more so. But by age 22, I was tired of getting stared at out in public wearing long skirts or the infamous culottes with tights. So I started going on a few covert shopping trips for more suitable clothing. Unfortunately, each pair of jeans I tried on made me cringe. I had never seen my legs in jeans, and the feminine cut that showed my hips and thighs was literally scary to someone like me who had never quite seen this outline in a public place. I hated the way my legs looked. The funny thing is that I was thin while still being curvy… I just hated my female curves. I didn’t know why then. It didn’t even click for me until the other day. Those curves were a reminder of my femininity, and I hated being a female. Because as a female, I was severely repressed and unhappy.
After several failed shopping attempts, I left Macy’s in tears, feeling disgusted by my body and angry that I couldn’t even shop properly.
After that, I decided that men’s jeans were the way to go. They made my curves disappear, and I quite liked that idea. There’s no way I was going to try on and purchase my own pair from the men’s department. So I went fishing in the family dirty laundry bin and began to surreptitiously ‘borrow’ both of my brothers’ jeans. I knew it would be suspicious if I borrowed a clean pair, wore them, then put them in the laundry. They would be out of circulation from my brothers’ closets too long. Somehow I didn’t care if I even smelled like a guy wearing their jeans. Men were powerful, unfettered, not abused. I longed for that kind of freedom, even if I could only get a taste of it through a pair of unwashed men’s jeans.
This is why guy’s jeans made so much sense. They made my legs look long and straight like a man’s. I could look and smell like a man. No other men would be looking at me and oogling me. I hated the responsibility I was supposed to feel for men’s eyes lingering on me when they weren’t supposed to be. It was so much work, I was always on edge looking out for it, trying to look down, trying to hunch over, to slink away quickly. I hated trying to shield myself from their gaze, and hated the distaste I was supposed to feel. Dressing as a man was so much easier. I could let my guard down. I could breathe. I would be safe. I could be invisible.
Around this time, I was digging out both of my brothers’ white T shirts to wear with their jeans. This kind of gagged me to wear them unwashed, but I got over it quickly enough. Thankfully, I had two brothers, so the chances of either one noticing their clothing missing was cut significantly in half. After a while, they unfortunately did notice and I did get in trouble, but I still kept borrowing them. I wore bras that made my small breasts even smaller, and I felt quite unaccountably safe. I had perfected a modesty hunch by this time, rolling my shoulders forward to hide and make even less apparent my breasts.
I remember the first time I wore my get up out in public. It was to a bowling alley where my freshman phys ed class met twice a week my first year of college.
I matched the outfit with newly cut short hair. I had found a pair of scissors and locked myself in the bathroom one night, trimming my hair into a boy cut in the back with longer pieces in the front. And I got away with it. For some reason, any of my sisters would have gotten the third degree and more than a tongue lashing for attempting this. But me? He didn’t say a word. I had always been the good girl, the quiet submissive one. He didn’t ever need to discipline me. He only hated me from a distance because I reminded him of what he did to me when I was little. He didn’t dare discipline me when I got older because maybe he knew my anger could trigger something and I could remember what he did and spill his secret.
So I flew under the radar with that haircut. And paired with my new boyish outfit (which was hidden under a long skirt and sweater until the appropriate time), I arrived at the bowling alley nervous as heck. I could barely get out of my car for fear. I sat for a half hour before going in, and arrived late. But as I walked in, I glowed. No one looked at me. And that just felt amazing.
I got partnered off with a kid that was about my height with hair sticking up, jovial, a bit crass, not my type, but so talkative. And suddenly, we were best friends and I was making conversation with him easily, and I was having fun. Me, who had never spoken to a boy before, let alone in such an unguarded way. But I was able to get on with him so well because I felt like a guy and saw him as a fellow pal. We continued this way for a few weeks into the class, when he offhandedly asked me to be his ‘girl.’ I must have made an offended face, and he backed off and apologized.
I was puzzled… wasn’t I dressed as a guy? Didn’t he see? I didn’t realize then that it must have been my self confidence that drew him in, not my clothing.
My dressing as a guy phase lasted a couple years. I wasn’t able to grow my hair long until many years after that. But even after all this time, I was never able to go back to wearing dresses, even short ones. Well, I do have a few short skirts I wear, but only if I wear tights and tall boots with them. The loud decisive click, click of the boots when I walk show I mean business and am not to be crossed. This toughens my look enough to make the skirt acceptable by me. My favorite outfit of all, though, consists of tight jeans. I don’t mind who looks at me or who doesn’t. I simply love the way they feel.
I’m much more comfortable being a female now. But I am not, nor rarely have been attracted to men who show the typical masculine traits. I like a man with a soft voice, gentle demeanor, warm spirit, a nurturing personality, long hair even. Someone decisive and firm, yes, but someone who is intuitive, empathetic, and in touch with their feminine side.
The effects of patriarchy have reached past clothing issues and gender identification, in my experience. Growing up in a home with absolute male control and abuse of that power has caused me to be gun shy of men in my adult life, to put it mildly. I have been constantly alert in relationships with men, and run at the slightest hint. I haven’t been able to stay in a relationship longer than two years. To stay longer is to not be able to breath. Even now I feel suffocated. I’ve resisted the whole idea of of marriage and family for so long, like it’s a curse. I don’t know what a healthy model of that looks and feels like, and I’ve been terrified of having kids with K in case he goes patriarchal on me. I couldn’t subject any of my future kids to that. Honestly, there is no reason for me to be afraid though. He dropped religion and the patriarchal spin off that he used to embrace. Reason is telling me there is no cause for fear. I see the way he is so laid back, indulgent, and lax about rules with Maggie and Sparky. Yet the fear is still there. I also am constantly on guard, defending myself from perceived threats often when no ill intent is there.
My perspective on relationships, marriage and family is warped in so many complex and convoluted ways. It has made me go into a tailspin currently in the way I relate with K. I can’t unravel it. But I’m not going to stress about it anymore.
It is what it is and I will simply let it be.
While wearing my favorite pair of tight jeans. Which are clean, and haven’t ever been worn by a guy.
Hi! I’m AJ. I grew up in a spiritually abusive cult. It was based on the teachings of Bill Gothard and was heavy on patriarchal control. I have two brothers and three sisters, so six of us in all. We experienced emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual abuse, but thought it was normal because it was done in God’s name. When I became an adult, I moved far away from home and finally was able to breathe and live a fairly happy life. But because I feared what would happen to me (God’s wrath and my family’s judgement), I still held onto the beliefs I grew up with.
Over time the stress of repressing the trauma from childhood built up in me and I developed severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Fatigue, and Adrenal Burnout. I had to move back home, but my parents turned their back on me and wouldn’t open their doors to me or help me. I was shocked. I was the black sheep in their eyes because I wasn’t going to church or following the rules of the cult, but I was their child. I couldn’t believe the cult had them so blinded that they couldn’t help their own child. At that point, I started seriously evaluating this religion of theirs. Over time, the blinders fell off my eyes and I began experiencing truth. I am now so free and joyful.
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