“ Soft people have got to shimmer and glow- they’ve got to put on soft colors, the colors of butterfly wings, and put a paper lantern over the light. It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I-I’m fading now!”
– Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
As mentioned in the last post, I’ve spent just about the most unpleasant May in recent memory battling it out with a really rather dreadful spot of stomach lurgy that showed up and decided to make itself at home. Beyond the more prosaic misery attached to it, I’ve been feeling just about the least sexy I have in years. So it seems a good time to talk about body image.
A number of years ago I had one of the most frustrating conversations ever. I was just starting to try to intellectually work out this femme thing, and was opening up to an older gay friend about it. “Oh come on, you’re not femme,” he said. “Sure, you play at being femme like we all do, but you aren’t really femme.”
When I protested, he pointed out a hot guy across the street from where we were sitting. He had nice arms and was wearing a tight tank top and a sarong. “Well, for one thing,” my friend said, “to be femme you’d have to look good in a sarong, and honey, I’ve seen you in a sarong.”
I have a lot of body image issues attached to my being femme, and it really kind of bites. I’m 6’2″, hairy, and pretty physically imposing — I have a large frame, and while most of me is fairly skinny I have a bit of a gut that is very hard for me to accept. When I exercise I tend to gain muscle instead of lose weight, making the problem even worse in a way — the point is that the phenotype I have to work with is very obviously male, not at all androgynous, and associated with masculinity in a way that other men’s might not be.
I spent a lot of my 20s with pretty harsh self-esteem issues around my appearance, especially in a gay culture where a ripply-muscled shirtless torso is practically an alternative rainbow flag for posters and magazines and where male beauty is measured with the Imperial system. Gay men suffer terribly from body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and appalling self-esteem, and it’s no surprise with what we do to each other, right down to the local gay rag that once devoted the first half of its “health” issue to better self-esteem and the second half to all the wonderful products and services you could purchase and inflict on yourself to make you look partially acceptable, you hideous, hideous pig.
But more specifically, I spent a lot of time feeling that the way I look was out of step with my gender identity. Once (not quite realizing that it was pretty appropriative and sketch [ETA: as well as completely incorrectly suggesting that, as a cissexual person, I could know the experience of body dysphoria]), I described myself as a “butch-to-femme transsexual.” I felt like the canonical femme man is a tiny slip of a boy, and trying to be a gentle, faggy, flamey boy at my size was just ludicrous and there was no way I could fully live my gender presentation in the size and shape I’m in.
A lot of times this is seen by others as the femme body, too. I was once complaining on a message board about the lack of effeminate guy visibility in the media as anything other than walking punchlines, and a self-identified butch man dismissed me saying that femme boys were portrayed everywhere and that in his opinion it was the butches who got the short end of the stick. (Have you noticed how often the privileged group thinks that it’s the underprivileged group that’s everywhere and gets everything?) We went around in circles for a while until it became clear that he didn’t mean femme boys at all; he meant young, slender, hairless guys, regardless of how effeminate or masculine they might be.
Femme men are believed to look a certain way, to be embodied a certain way, and when we don’t, we’re even more invisible than we already were. And I end up feeling like I’d need to look that way as well even to have people accept that I am, in fact, femme and not just a butch guy playing at wearing a sarong.
One part of it, indeed, is the clothes. A lot of the things you can wear to tell the world you’re femmer than the av-e-rage bear are cut for the aforementioned small, slender guys. A few weeks ago I was in the Village and decided to try on this cute shirt I saw in a store window. I couldn’t even fit it over my shoulders. The clerk was completely unapologetic about the fact that this was the largest size in the store and if that didn’t fit me, nothing they had for sale would. (Did I mention that I am really not that immense? How many other guys were they excluding? If I couldn’t work my way into the thing, a huge-shouldered gym queen certainly couldn’t either.) Other clothes that are tight, glamorous, revealing, or brightly coloured are similarly out of my range, either because they don’t fit or I feel like I would look horrendous in them.
The fear of looking stupid is the biggest brake on me. I am firmly convinced that you can get away with anything style-wise if your attitude conveys with complete conviction that you know exactly what you’re doing. I am equally firmly convinced that there are a great many outfits that I simply cannot get away with. It would be like Eddie Izzard says: if you’re a girl and you trip in heels it’s embarrassing; if you’re a bloke and you trip in heels, you’ve just got to kill yourself.
A crack in that poise, that self-confidence, the slightest feeling that this looks stupid instead of awesome, it’s a little too revealing, lets my schlubby, masculine body show through too much — it’s not tight and sexy, it makes me look like the planetarium dome — and it all falls apart, and I’m left feeling like the transmisogynistic caricature of the linebacker in a dress. I like eye-liner and nail polish, but to this day I can’t stand to still be wearing it when I’m naked; I have to take it off as soon as I take off my clothes. The dissonance between that and my hairy, unconcealed appearance with my clothes off is too much for me to stand.
I’m trying, though. It’s been a long and difficult road for me to find ways of expressing myself in dress that I actually feel I can get away with. I wear a lot of hoodies and Chucks and little fedoras, a lot of purple and magenta and bright blue, and I can comb my current haircut into both a cute floppy look and an emo-boy effect, to the extent that my hairline wishes to cooperate. Currently, my favourite power-femme outfit consists of tight blue jeans, a bright magenta shirt, a black sleeveless hoodie, Chucks with pink-and-black chequered laces, and matching pink-and-black-chequered elbow-length fingerless gloves.
I especially love my coterie of femme lesbians because those girls know how to dress. They come in all different shapes and sizes, including ones that are neglected by clothing manufacturers and are oppressed and undervalued by society, and they all of them always look absolutely, unqualifiedly gorgeous. They don’t just conceal or diminish their supposed “flaws,” they play up their considerable assets to the max. I can only hope some of their influence is osmoting on me and I can achieve that level of confidence and ease in dress. (This is another example of a constant theme in my life: everything I know about being a fag I learned from lesbians.)
(Let me say, too, that I’m not unaware of what my frame lets me get away with. I am almost completely unintimidating in temperament, but I’m also aware that however much I might like to be 5’6″ and delicate, it would very probably lead to a lot of toads who don’t currently tangle with me thinking they could tapdance on my cranium as they saw fit. Despite my radiant fagginess I have never, touch wood, been physically attacked for my sexual orientation or gender presentation.)
Of course, another major question in the realm of body issues is sexuality, and we get into a whole other set of problems. Effeminacy is already undervalued, tarred not just as unattractive but as inconceivable that anyone should be attracted to us — it sometimes seems as though every other type of gay man has their devotees or at least their fetishists and objectifiers, but despite our numbers, there is nothing at all that suggests that a queen, soft boy, or flamer could be attractive to any other gay man under any circumstances.
In Opposite Sex: Gay men on lesbians, lesbians on gay men, Lawrence Schimel writes:
The very idea of a femme man violates some nebulous and unrealized social construct of masculinity. We’ve adopted the heterosexual mindframe of femme men as undesirable, emasculated antimen. The gay personal ads reading “no fats, femmes, or druggies” are as innumerable as the grains of sand on the shores of South Beach or P-Town. …There are no “male” words to describe the attraction to a man who does not fit this high-steroid profile.
I am a man and I am a femme. I am still young enough that my femme qualities are classically attractive to gay men as youthfulness. I am thin, lithe, smooth…. What will happen to my desirability, my sexuality, when I am an older man and still a femme? At some point I will cease to be a boy…. Is there no room for an adult femme male… to be sexually desirable in this queer culture that so prioritizes the butch male[?]
In a dizzying kaleidoscope of male/male erotica and pornography of seemingly every other kind and quality of guy, of scene, of situation, of uniform, neatly labeled and marketed to whom it may concern, nelly boys are totally, totally invisible. Certainly, there’s twink porn à go go, but with very rare exceptions which practically seem to have happened by accident, the desirable part is not any non-masculinity but their boyishness, slenderness, athleticism, or perceived naïveté, innocence or inexperience.
This hurts badly. When I want to be loved and desired, I want to be so as femme. I don’t want to butch it up or tone it down to attract guys. In a lot of ways for me, being femme is about being desirable, alluring, tempting. Femme lesbians have this to a science or an art, but it goes completely unheard-of with reference to effeminate men, and it hurts worse than I can put into words.
And needless to say, the total exclusion of my desirability as a femme interacts with the overwhelming exclusion of my desirability as a non-twink, non-buff, non-canon-of-gay-hotness type. If I were some adorable boy, I tell myself, I could get away with being femme. Conversely, if I weren’t femme, maybe I could work the body I have — I could be a bear, or at least an otter or something. And the disconnect between my appearance and my gender just grows.
Conversely, on those occasions when certain wonderful gentlemen have let me know that they find my effeminacy beautiful and desirable, I melt. It does more for my self-esteem than I can express to have that part of me seen as I’d like to see it myself, not put up with or overlooked but actively valued and loved.
And it’s remarkably similar to the way I feel when someone goes into detail about how he’s attracted to my body, and not just the things that everyone compliments, but the very things I’m insecure about. (Nothing, by the way, irritates me quite the same way as “Oh, you’re so interesting! You’re so smart!” I’m not just a pretty mind! I want to be loved for who I am on the outside.) The first lover who told me that he thought my midriff was cute — that he found desirable and sexy something I had always been told and told myself was revolting or at least to be played down as much as possible — was a revelation, and I don’t think any single incident has done quite so much for my self-esteem.
As with the clothes, I’ve been working hard to try to improve my self-perception. I’ve long been attracted to other femmes, as well as more masculine guys (although not macho dickheads), and in the same way I’ve cultivated a taste for guys who look a little more like me, and I let them know. Hopefully it improves their day, but it helps me retrain my eye and see myself — not just see myself as unspecifically attractive, but to see in just what way the things I’ve thought of as flaws are desirable and beautiful.
And then maybe I can see them as femme, too.