Peeling Back the Labels: ‘Femme’ By Default
I hate wearing heels. I forget to put on eyeliner every morning. I don’t always sit with my legs closed and shaving my head was probably the best decision I could’ve made. I’d much rather spend extra cash on video games. I love tennis and soccer, preferred remote controlled cars over dolls as a child and most of my childhood friends were male. I’ve been a tomboy for the majority of my life. Boyfriends pressed me to wear skirts. I obliged occasionally but nothing beat a good pair of shorts or jeans. Back then I didn’t realize how much clothing had to do with someone’s sexuality and gender expression.
I made conscious decisions about the way I dressed, from punk-rock style in high school to bright colors and fitted caps in college. I had always dated very feminine women and during those times I was always in jeans, sneakers, blazers—the least feminine clothing I could wear. I dressed the complete opposite when I was with men. And, well, that didn’t work out for a number of reasons.
In college, I immersed myself in the queer community learning as much as I could about it and subsequently about myself. I stopped dating men, finally admitting I didn’t really want to, and sought to form a committed, romantic relationship with a woman.
I met my current girlfriend, Sil, in 2010. She doesn’t use labels but admits to the masculine qualities in her presentation. Her comfort and pride with that is inspiring. But when we first began dating two years ago, it was almost terrifying. I made a lot of assumptions about her, what she would want in a partner and squeezed myself into a box. I eased into tighter clothing and started folding my legs when I sat down. Sil has never demanded or even seemed to expect anything out of me in terms of dress or behavior. But for some reason I found myself ambling around like a clumsy teenager, trying to figure out how I wanted to present. She shined a harsh light on my own heteronormative views of relationships.
Like Sil, I had never labeled myself. Unlike Sil, however, I never fit inside of one. When we walk down the street a stranger would easily label us “stud” and “femme.” While being called a “stud” leads to unfair and often incorrect assumptions and connotations about who she is and how she acts, it does put her in a position that connotes dominance. I had never been submissive or aware I was seen as such until then. I wasn’t so much frustrated with being unable to pick a label, I was frustrated with having become a “femme” by default.
That largely stemmed from knowing nothing about femmes at all. I’d been taught about the breakdowns of butch lesbians: studs, bois, stems, stone, hard, soft, etc. One Google search would give you articles for days. But I had placed femmes into a tiny box, which consisted of pillow princesses who loved high heels and dresses. When I looked into the breakdown of femmes, I found only a few titles: femmes, stone femmes and lipstick lesbians. Even in queer communities, our society leans toward masculinity. Femmes have long been under the radar, and America’s views of “gay”—or anything else—is white and male centered. Even the lesbian stereotypes lean toward masculine-dressed women. Two feminine women are only for porn—that’s a whole different article.
While my limited reading was fantastic and interesting, it wasn’t helpful. I still didn’t fit into any categories. Old Me, a few friends and even Sil herself insisted it didn’t matter; I didn’t need a label—other than awesome. Sweet. But I still searched. I loved the butch/femme dynamic of our relationship. I wanted a label less to plaster it across my body but more for the comfort that it existed. I knew I had long since grown out of being a tomboy and that there had to be a step between soft stud and high femme. Then a friend introduced me to a Tumblr devoted to hard femmes.
These were the women who looked like me; shaved heads, piercings, tats—still wearing short skirts, heels and my beloved combat boots. These were women with all sorts of bodies, looking at the cameras with such intense eyes you could almost hear them cussing. They stretch the lines of “pretty” and expand the view of beautiful. Few moments have made me as ecstatic as when I saw that blog. But then came the awkward part; modifying my wardrobe and slipping into my new skin—kind of. The only reason it was awkward was because I was so very aware of my purpose. And so very sure no one would understand its importance—especially my girlfriend.
Suddenly here I was coming out all over again. I haven’t at all figured it out. I’m not sure I even need to now that I have, for a few moments, felt a complete sense of belonging. Sexuality and identity is all fluid—I might decide in a few years I want to wear men’s clothing because, let’s face it, ties are fucking awesome. I hope word gets out soon so there are more tweets under the hard femme hash-tag. I’m sure I’m not the only woman struggling with her mid-femme identity, trying to peel back the label and see what lies beneath. Discovering hard femme meant discovering a new label, sure, but it also reminded me I can do whatever I want, however I want. I can now break the bond I’d formed between “femme” and “weak.” I can love my curves and still be queer. It’s okay if no one knows it. I feel pretty badass in my fishnets.
Photo copyright of F3arl3ss Photogr4phy. To see the rest of the shoot, please visit the Facebook page and don’t forget to click “like”.
- Becca Dickerson
One day, Becca will be a novelist living in a big house in suburban GA. For now, she works in real estate, writes on the side, and shares a studio with her girlfriend. Becca is the Featured Artist Manager for the Brown Girl Love writing project which publishes women writers of color.