I've been hesitating to write this entry because I don't know whether to make it instructional or confessional. Perhaps it is neither.
A few months ago, I was gearing up for a series of interviews in a very conservative (socially, not politically) industry. I was planning to wear my dark grey men's suit with the lovely, unstructured shoulders, complete with a purple checked tie. But one of my mentors got to me first (not you, CB). I should add that this woman is queer, in case that matters to you. I'll call her "MP" for "Mentor Person." This conversation occurred:
MP: So... You're not going to wear men's clothes to the interviews, are you?
MP: Look, you want a job, right?
BW: Right, but at what cost?
MP: Look, when you're at my level, you can wear what you want. But at this point, you want a job. You want to convey that you're like everyone else. And you don't want the interviewers thinking about your clothes.
BW: I don't care if they think about my clothes.
MP: Yes, you do. You don't want them staring at you thinking, "Is she wearing men's underwear?"
BW: I'll just walk in, wink, and tell them, "Nope."
MP: No to the men's underwear?
BW: No to the men's underwear! Well... today, anyway.
Okay, so then MP--who, let me stress, is someone I trust and who is invested in my professional success--tells me her hypothesis about gender conformity and clothing. Basically, she says that there are four components to a professional outfit:
2. Something over the shirt, like a blazer or jacket or sweater
MP's theory is that of these items, at least two need to be from the women's department so as not to attract undue attention/speculation/consternation. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to order a "shell" shirt from L.L. Bean or one of those other places. I told her I thought it was absurd. I resisted. I argued.
And then I gave in--partly.
On my way home that day, I stopped at Macy's and tried on approximately 15 women's suits. I do not like women's suits because they tend to lack pockets, to have too-short jackets, and to be cut in weird ways that make my hips look extra hipp-y and my boobs look extra boob-y. Finally, I found one that was relatively inoffensive, except that the jacket was a little too short. Whatever. I bought two, in black, plus a women's Ralph Lauren shirt that was lovely and purple and striped and devoid of girlish frills. (Not a "shell" or--God forbid--a "camisole"--I'm talking about a regular collared shirt.) I took a picture of myself in the new getup and sent it to MP. Her response: "Don't you think it's a little narcissistic to send me pictures of yourself?"
Ha. From MP, that's approval.
The next day, unprompted, MP loaned me actual, real pearls, because she said rich people can tell the difference between real pearls and fake pearls and I was likely to encounter people who had grown up wealthy. I am extremely skeptical of pearls, but since these were small and looked shockingly non-dowdy with my new, very sharp shirt, I went for it.
So according to MP's formula I was more than sufficiently girly: pants, suit jacket, shirt. Three out of four! (There was no way in hell I was going to wear women's shoes.) Plus pearls!
Looking in the mirror the day of my interviews, I realized that there was still no way anyone would mistake me for straight: my ever-present tiny silver hoops, very short haircut, and men's shoes gave me away. Even with pearls, I didn't look feminine, but at least I was closer to Ellen's look than to Lea DeLaria's. (Point of clarification: I like Lea DeLaria and her look; I'm not knocking it, just saying that I didn't want to embody it that day.)
Among the sea of other interviewees, I was still by far the least gender-conforming person. I might as well have been wearing a rainbow sticker on my forehead. Still, the cut of my suit allowed me to look conforming enough for interviewers not to dismiss me, and masculine enough that I felt comfortable. In fact, I felt like quite the powerful dyke.
Did I "betray" my butchness by wearing a lady-suit? Maybe. Would I have been more "true" to myself in a men's suit and tie? Maybe. But at the same time, I thought carefully about the degree of "compromise" I was willing to make, and what I was and wasn't willing to sacrifice to fit in. More gender conformity would have gone over better with interviewers, I suspect. Still, I have to admit that I felt proud of finding a balance that worked for me in this particular situation, and grateful to MP for giving me the heads-up that I needed to make a few changes if I wanted to be in the ballpark.
As you can tell, I'm still wrestling with it. I loathe the idea of compromising to "fit in." But I also loathe the idea of not getting the job I want because I was too stubborn to take off my damn tie. At least for me, being butch is partly about being true to myself, and partly about finding a balance that will let me be myself while accomplishing what I want to accomplish. (And finally getting some power, so that I can not only put my own tie back on, but hire plenty of other tie-wearing women when I'm the one making the decisions.)
I bet some of you can relate to this. For those of you in industries where you're likely to be punished for gender non-conformity, what do you do? What kinds of balance have you found, and how has it worked?