_Last week, I received an email that brings up some self-presentation issues many of you have asked about. This version of the email is slightly edited (for length, and--at her request--to protect this person's anonymity). Androgynous Advocate writes:
A few times per week, I'm mistaken for a child. Since becoming a lawyer, the situation has gotten worse, especially in court. Today, in preparation for my first upcoming trial, I decided to go to court to see what a trial is actually like. I asked the court officer (a fairly strapping butch) for permission to observe and she granted it. But I guess she never informed the judge, because the judge made attempts to figure out who I was, including: "I see we have a 'little person' over there waiting. Does HE belong to any of you?"
I pretended I didn't know she was talking about me. After all, I am not a small boy so why should I answer? But to add salt to the wound, the court officer got up and ambled across the courtroom to whisper to me: "Not only did the judge think you were a kid, but she called you a boy!" At this, I turned bright red and almost broke down into tears (but held it together).
Later, the judge inquired again and I told her I was an attorney observing (I was wearing a suit, pink button down, and even some makeup). She apologized for the mistake about my age but omitted the whole gender error. This leads me to my question: I recently got a pixie cut. I love my super short hair; it's easy to deal with and feels totally freeing. But I've had to take a bit of shit about it. My grandmother gave me a long talk about how long hair is more "becoming" and "feminine." An ex and I even had a huge fight over my short hair, in part, because she felt it was unfeminine (though she later clarified that the fight was about more than just the hair).
Even though I love short hair, it bothers me when people lament my not being feminine enough. It's not like I want to be perceived as super feminine (I feel very androgynous on a personality level) but I don't like when people see my lack of femininity as a liability. For whatever reason, being mistaken for a pre-adolescent male distresses me, and I wonder if it might be less likely to happen if i suck it up and grow my hair out a bit. Or should I embrace this characterization? If someone thought I was a man it might not be so bad but regressing to age 10-12 is tough when you're trying to prove yourself in court. Have you ever been tempted to change something about yourself so you fit more easily into "the institution" (for me, the courtroom)?
Dear Androgynous Advocate:
First of all, I feel your pain! Yes, I think most of us butchy/andro types have felt pressured to change something about ourselves to blend in with some kind of institution: school, work, family, etc. I've written about the wisdom of doing this at various times, and it's never an easy balance. As I see it, you've got multiple questions, so I'll try to break my answer into parts.
Professional life first. Re: the little person comment: OMG wow. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. If I was in your shoes, I'd have been just as flustered as you were! Good for you for keeping it together. The judge was probably mortified (I sure hope so), and I suspect that the butch court officer was trying to commiserate, not to make you feel bad, since she probably knows all too well how irritating those kinds of mistakes can be.
In your professional life, you need to be respected as a professional. Once you get established, people won't make these mistakes anymore (and they'll correct each other). But in the meantime, you need t to be taken seriously. So on first impression, it would be nice if they didn't think you were a boy-child. If I were you, I'd take measures to minimize this. You could always dye your hair grey and go to court as a little old woman--that would be kind of awesome. But here are some better ideas:
I hope one or two of these approaches won't be too odious for you. Yes, I've been tempted to change for an institution. I finally started wearing ties, but it took a long time before I felt like I wasn't being stared at. And just walking around my workplace, I still get stared at sometimes. At one of my old jobs, I wore a girl-suit and hated it. Basically I'm now convinced that as long as it doesn't compromise my reputation or clients or anything, the institution has to tolerate ME, not the other way around. But it's incredibly situation-dependent.
As for your more personal dilemma regarding short hair... so many butches deal with this at some point! Don't all our grandmothers think we look more feminine (and thus, better) with short hair? I think that most people are so steeped in gender norms that they don't know what they believe. They just think girls are supposed to have long hair. And you are a girl. And when you have long hair you more closely match their idea of what a girl is "supposed" to be. So they say things about how long hair "frames your face" or whatever. But you know what, Androgynous Advocate? Screw their opinions. It's your head, not theirs, and they don't get to choose. They'll get used to it and eventually stop bothering you (or you'll stop caring). But it's a big deal that you find short hair "freeing." Even if you decide to make some compromises about your professional appearance, in your personal life, you get to be you.