Skirts, gender identity, and assumptions

Dear Pope Francis,

For four years now, I have attempted to go from the Saturday of the Victoria Day Weekend until Labour Day Monday without wearing pants. (The period of time theoretically known as summer in Canada.) Inevitably I end up working in a job where pants are part of the uniform and must resign myself to capris and Bermuda shorts, which although an improvement, can never offer the same freedom as a well-made skirt.

Toronto-20121025-00398I have a lot of reasons for disliking pants. It started with always needing to hem them because the standard sizes were about 4 inches longer in the leg than I was and the petite sizes (when they existed) were an inch too short. When at 19 I acquired a bum and thighs, I discovered there was no such thing as a pair of jeans which fit both my waist and my butt and became accustomed to always needing a belt.

After I turned 20 and moved to New Brunswick, I started wearing skirts a lot more. During the school year my only job was schoolwork and extracurricular activities like choir and the paper. But then I realized some of my classmates, male and female, seemed to be taking me more seriously when I was wearing pants.

The skirts wore because they were pretty and I liked them, the skirts I wore because they were more comfortable than pants and the skirts I wore because the more desperate my laundry situation the fancier I dress; these skirts took on a whole new meaning.

People choose to represent themselves to a degree with the clothing they choose to wear. Some people choose to express aspects of their identity through tattoos, others through the jewellery and makeup they decorate themselves with. At some point during my first year of university, wearing skirts became part of my declaration of femininity.

It wasn’t just a reaction against the pressure to wear pants, it was a reaction against what pants symbolized. What had once been a symbol of equality had taken on a feeling of sameness. In an anthropology course in my second year, we discussed the concept of gender as a social construct independent of biology. Through the course and my involvement organizing and performing in The Vagina Monologues, I was introduced to this idea that there are no real differences between men and women.

Fredericton-20121002-00373I can get behind the idea of gender as a social construct because I think the way we think of what makes someone male or female beyond their biology is determined by the roles and characteristics we grow up assigning to those biological sexes. Mother and father are the gendered names for the role of parent, traits like being aggressive or being nurturing, skillsets like cooking or being handy with tools can be found in people of both sexes. None of them really make sense as being purely for men, or purely for women.

Despite this understanding, I still think there is something essential to me which is not the parts I was born with or the roles of sister, babysitter, friend, and baker I grew up with. It’s a sense of female-ness. I can not understand what it is to be male simply because I am not one. I do not want my femaleness to be what differentiates me from everyone else, but I still think it is an important aspect of my identity. For me, skirts are a way of expressing that.

In my third year of university, when I had established a reputation both as a skirt-wearer and as a bit of a keener in class an acquaintance was floored to learn I was Catholic and not Pentecostal as she had assumed. I was floored to learn she was not in the minority of my acquaintances to think this.

meredith george stroumboulpoulosWhat I learned from the conversations which followed were a lot of assumptions people make about a woman when she wears skirts, assumptions which fed back into the recognition people had initially taken me more seriously on an intellectual level when I wore pants. The assumptions started as a benign recognition of my gender identity as expressed through my choice of clothes, but morphed into ideas about my interests, beliefs, and lifestyle. Some of these ideas people had about me were wildly incongruous with the reality.

I do not for one millisecond support an outright ban on women wearing pants, but it bothers me to realize avoiding pants is counter-cultural. Now, when I wear my skirts and dresses I do it as both an expression of my gender identity and as a way of challenging the assumptions people were making. Yes, I like books and baking and handcrafts. But I also enjoy fixing things with my tools, watching hockey, playing ultimate frisbee, and listening to punk and hip hop and classical music. I am a Catholic and I hope to marry and be a mother one day, but I also intend to have a career of my own. And as much as possible, I want to do all of these things in my skirts.

Free from the tyranny of pants,IMG-20130529-00540

Meredith

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6 thoughts on “Skirts, gender identity, and assumptions

  1. Keen

    I love this post. It sucks that people are treating you different over your clothing choices and still trying to force people in these archaic gender boxes rather than taking you as an individual, judged on your own merits alone.

    Also, skirts look seriously comfortable. I just don’t think I’ve got the legs for them. 😀

    • It’s frustrating, but that’s why I keep wearing skirts. I like them. It shouldn’t be strange for me to go to Canadian Tire and talk toilet repairs while wearing one. (True story.)

      Re: comfort — they’re much less restrictive than pants, easier to make with patterns and bright colours, and can be dressed up or down for the occasion without much fuss.

  2. Roy Gillis

    That people can make a judgement on your character, beliefs and personality based on your desire to wear skirts makes me question the meaning of higher education, ‘Education does not necessarily equate with common sense or intelligence. Both Lauren and yourself are brilliant young women that inspire me and make me proujd.

    • D’awwwww. Excuse me while I get all mushy over here. The fact is that a lot of people don’t consciously treat someone differently because they’re wearing a skirt or a dress. The reason why it’s such a big problem is because the bias is unconscious. When I spoke to people about it, a lot were shocked to realize it was something they were doing. But unless people realize the assumptions are there, they don’t do anything to combat it.

  3. Pingback: Masculinity and Femininity and Complementarity! Oh My! | Letters to the Pope

  4. Pingback: Skirt length and respect | Letters to the Pope

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