In the summer of ’98, I lived in Harlem. There’s a longer story behind how a Midwest-raised black tomboi found herself in the Big Apple, but the short version is that technically, I was homeless, so my best friend offered me a place to stay until I started undergrad that fall.
For most of my life, I’d had an obsession with New York City, informed by images of 1970s New York. But disappointingly, New York in the ’90s was the beginning of the Disney era—no hookers on Broadway, no junkies on the Christopher Street pier in the Village. It was no dirtier than my own city; there were just a bunch more people who always seemed to be in a hurry.
What I soon learned was that everyone in New York City had at least a couple of hustles—and I was expected to have just as many. Soon my days were spent working, and my nights in the clubs.
Admittedly, though I considered myself a tomboi, I had no idea what it meant to dress like one. I bought my first set of Timbs that summer, along with a pair of baggy carpenter-style jeans that I wore out. My hair was still long, so I wore it in a ponytail, slicked down with whatever I could find. In short, I was a mess. But the thing I had reconciled about myself was that I was a butch/stud—I didn’t have the language for “masculine of center” yet—and I was interested in femme women.
One night, my crew was checking out a club infamous for celebrity sightings (no, I didn’t spot anyone). It was pretty much just a regular bar with a dance floor, but I spotted a beautiful woman across the room, and decided that I would try to step to her.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Hey, sweetie, I don’t mess with femmes.”
“I’m not a femme.”
“Girl, please, you’re a femme playing dress-up. But you cute, though.”
She turned her back on me and continued talking to her friends. I was devastated. I looked at myself and the other butch/stud folks in the room; we damn near had on the same clothing! At most, some were more dapper than I was, others a little bit more hood. But I did notice that many of the butch/stud folks who were with the types of femmes I wanted to date had more “male-looking” bodies. You couldn’t tell that they had breasts, hips or asses. They could be buff or thin but definitely had the ability to “pass.”
We know that “passing”—particularly racial passing—has a long, depressing history in this country, one that’s traditionally been discussed in hushed tones because of the possibility of violence if one is discovered. We also know that the idea of “realness”—which comes out of ball culture—is related to “passing.” If you can hang on the corner with the “real” brothas and not get harassed, then you’re “passing”; you’re real.
That experience in New York was the start of my on-and-off relationship with “butch envy.” Because no matter how much weight I lose, I’ll always have hips, ass and breasts. Those are just my genetics. I’ll never have that up-and-down, almost reedlike figure that allows men’s clothing to drape so nicely. No matter how much I perfect my stroll, or bind, or pack, I’ll look like a woman. And it’s not even just my body but also my face. While some of my fellow butches “pass” because their faces are either gender neutral or handsome, I have a soft-looking face, full on.
This envy is especially connected to the clothing I wear. For years it was hard for me to find anything to wear because I am fat (fatter in some years than others). And let’s face it—finding comfortable, quality clothing when you’re fat is just hard in general. With the rise of retailers like Lane Bryant, Torrid and Eloquii, femmes have options. Meanwhile, tombois like me looking for stylish, well-made clothes face not only a challenge to our wallets, but also the curious and sometimes downright disrespectful looks from employees when we walk into a men’s store and ask about men’s clothing.
A year or so into a friend’s transition, he hipped me to Casual Male. I’d resigned myself to finding most of my clothes at Sears and J.C. Penney because they had my size and I didn’t have to deal with glares or curious stares from the attendants; I could buy my clothes in peace. The downside is that they were often a bit ill-fitting and tended to fall apart or fade pretty quickly. My friend, who had a similar body type to mine, promised that Casual Male was different.
I remember my first time wandering into the store: I was greeted with a smile and welcome, and they immediately asked what I was looking for. Honestly, I didn’t even know what my style was yet, so I couldn’t even give them an idea. But they dove in and helped me pick out a few choice pieces. It was a hit to my wallet, but was worth the trip.
It’s still worth the trip. These days, Casual Male is now Destination XL, but it’s still a place where I can buy quality clothing that fits my style and who I am. As I was writing this article, I ran some searches for “butch clothing,” and HauteButch and TomboyX came up. They also have some great clothing options in extended sizes, and that’s honestly exciting to see.
Because being a fat tomboi is not necessarily unique. I know a lot of fat MoC women—women who have hips, asses and breasts who move through the world looking smooth in their suits, hoodies, Timbs and jeans. Part of being a butch/stud is having a confidence in the way you move through the world, and much of that confidence is directly correlated to the clothes you wear. When you put on your first suit—like I did last year—you feel like a million bucks. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t found a place willing to measure my inseam and treat me with decency.
I also think it’s important to note the difference between being androgynous and being butch. Many people used to think Shane on The L Word was butch, but she was androgynous. I’m wearing men’s clothing. I like the look and feel of men’s clothing, the comfort of men’s clothing. I’m not messing with my gender identity and presentation to make you wonder whether I’m a man or a woman or a blending of the two.
There are still times when I envy my fellow MoC folks who can “pass.” Sometimes people misgender me and call me “sir,” but I’m confident in what it means to be a woman not only wearing men’s clothing but moving through spaces with a masculine energy. My clothing needs to make a statement: I want it to be clear that I’m a woman wearing men’s clothing, and doing a damn good job of it!