The pandemic, gender, and me | Feature | Chicago Reader

The pandemic, gender, and me 

How a year inside changed my outward expression

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click to enlarge "On any given day, I wake up wanting to wear a dress. Or makeup. Or my Doc Martens, of which I have three pairs. Or my hand-painted leather jacket. Or all of them! That’s kinda the point."

"On any given day, I wake up wanting to wear a dress. Or makeup. Or my Doc Martens, of which I have three pairs. Or my hand-painted leather jacket. Or all of them! That’s kinda the point."

Adam M. Rhodes

Like a lot of privileged people I know, I’ve been able to make sweatpants a new staple in my work wardrobe. My general appearance, whether it be polished or not, has very little to do with my job anymore, save for the occasional shave and haircut for the benefit of my coworkers. My clothes are mostly for comfort. And when I want to dress anything but the most casual, it’s for myself. And that freedom is indescribable.

In the age-old tradition of treat yo’ self, I indulged in more than a little shopping as quarantine set in. I bought joggers I had admired, an Instant Pot for the comfort food I promised myself I would cook daily, skincare products and bath bombs for much needed self care.

But I also bought things I was too afraid to ever be seen wearing in public: a pair of rainbow heels from New York City-based gender-free clothing company the Phluid Project, a makeup palette from drag queen icon and makeup mogul Kim Chi, and other gender-bending accoutrements that would undoubtedly earn a turned head or surreptitious glance in The Outside.

But those looks don’t penetrate the brick walls of my apartment building. They don’t reach beyond the living room mirror where I was trying on my daring new purchases. Or the bathroom where I have tried in vain to attempt a cut crease.

It’s not the first time I’ve experimented with gender-bending fashion. In college, a friend who spent their free time as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, a type of activist who uses drag and religious imagery, went on a shopping trip with me to Marshalls where I bought my first pair of heels—hideous camouflage stilettos with metal studs and rhinestones on the toes. They were excruciating, unwearable, gaudy, and I loved them. I wore them exactly twice, and they spent their life in the back of a closet until I tossed them some years later.

People’s opinions of me have always stopped me short. Fear of looking foolish and fear of ridicule were my motivators. There are few things that make me feel worse than being laughed at. I told myself that if I couldn’t wear it well, I wouldn’t wear it at all.

But that fear fell away as lockdown set in. No more would I have to fear sideways glances on the way to work or the bus or in my apartment building. Who gave a shit if my makeup was smudged? Or if I stumbled in my heels on the way to “lunch,” my name for the three-step trip to the kitchen to microwave something. The prying, judging eyes couldn’t get me here. So I was free to wear, dress, and be how I wanted.

And as I felt more comfortable in these clothes, I started to love my body more as well. My belly felt like less of an affront, my love handles and stretch marks more lovable and less shameful. I learned to love all of me, something that, as a thicker (thiccer?) person, still feels radical in a community that oftentimes exalts six-pack abs and veiny arms above all.

As my quarantine-grown comfort grew, even minimally, words like nonbinary and genderqueer started to make sense. Their freedom gave me solace. I can ascribe to them the meaning I want, tell people what those words mean to me. I have never been particularly fond of limits, in fashion, language, or identity. I imagine myself wearing red-carpet looks that make both the men’s and women’s best dressed lists—though you can only be inspired by so many tuxedos.

For the longest time, I would admire people like Alok Vaid-Menon, Jacob Tobia, Indya Moore, and Sam Smith with starry-eyed aspiration. I almost felt not cool enough to be nonbinary, that it was a world of freedom and expression and joy that I wasn’t meant to experience. I so desperately wanted that feeling, but couldn’t figure out how to achieve it.

But for the first time, these words don’t feel foreign. I don’t feel like an interloper, or like I’m playing dress up. It’s almost like that feeling you get when you learn the name of a song that’s been stuck in your head, or you eat that food you’ve been avoiding and secretly like it. It fills a hole you didn’t know you had. You didn’t feel empty before, but you feel more complete now.

I feel cocooned by the word nonbinary. It feels like the safe middle between boy and girl that I have always longed for.

I know there are people reading this that will automatically think they’ll only be seeing me in dresses and makeup from now on. And to those people, I say, you might! On any given day, I wake up wanting to wear a dress. Or makeup. Or my Doc Martens, of which I have three pairs. Or my hand-painted leather jacket. Or all of them! That’s kinda the point.

So, moving forward, if you get an e-mail or phone call from me, there’s a good chance I’m wearing heels with my sweatpants now. But I’m still working on that smokey eye.   v

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