We pulled into the Steinmart parking lot that summer Saturday morning. “I wanna check in here, see what sales they got.” You gave me a budget, something like fifty dollars, something that would require me to get creative if I wanted to walk away with more than two items. It was my first time picking out my own clothes for school. In the tradition of your aunties and the girl-cousins before you, you could pass hours in a Hudson’s Treasure Hunt or a TJ Maxx or a JC Penny. As I got old enough to understand the joy and release of exchanging money for material good, we passed hours together in the aisles of every department store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and more than a handful of outlets across Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia.
You and I were about the same size by that time—about five-two in height and, one might say, average build. We could wear one another’s clothing. “You like this?” You held out a soft looking pink sheer blouse that didn’t appeal to me in the slightest, but not wanting to bruise your ego, I gave an unimpressive, “Kinda.” You seemed to have gotten the message, replacing it on the rack.
“You didn’t seem too enthused by that one,” you said jokingly.
I browsed through other nearby racks, looking for collared tops to pair with my school uniform khakis. I pulled one shirt that I thought had potential, but looking at it more closely, I set it aside because the low-cut collar would reveal more of my newly developed chest than I was comfortable with. I was only thirteen, yet shopping for new clothes was an activity that was already causing me increased anxiety. It brought into my acute awareness the ways in which my adolescent, female body was changing—tightening in some places, expanding in others. I had read all the pamphlets from the middle school clinic, the ones that walked me through the changes that I should expect as my body matured—developing breasts, widening hips, menstrual cycles. Changes I wasn’t fond of. Changes I tried to hide with clothing.
I sorted through more shirts, training my eye for ones that weren’t cut so low. In the dressing room, I tried on a button up that didn’t reveal much chest but was shaped such that it cinched at the waist and uncomfortably hugged my chubby midsection. “What’s wrong with this one?” you asked. “I think it looks nice.” I shrugged with indifference as I studied myself in the dressing room mirror.
All the enthusiasm I felt when we first walked into the store began to wane as the second hour inside the store passed with hardly any progress. Every top seemed to have a drawback— too low-cut, too form-fitting, or just plain out too girly. “Ma, can I go look at a different rack,” I asked after thirty more minutes of looking. “Yeah, go ahead,” you responded as you continued to finger through the rack that left me disappointed and rendered me invisible.
I found two Polo pullovers, one white, one navy. I tried both on, examining my body from every angle in the dressing room mirror. They were larger than the tops I had pulled from the other section but, studying my reflection in the dressing room mirror, I preferred the boxier, loose-fitting style to the form-fitting button-down I had tried on earlier. I went to report my findings to you, quite proud that I had found two shirts that were within budget and that I actually liked.
“Honey, that’s a men’s shirt. You can’t wear that,” you lulled, serenading me as if I’d made an innocent, childish mistake. Though I hadn’t noticed the section I wandered into, I knew I liked what I found there.
That was no mistake.
“How do I know if it’s a men’s shirt or not?” I asked.
“You look at the buttons. If they’re on the right side, it’s usually a men’s shirt.” What a dumb rule, I thought to myself as I went to place them back on the rack.
I began contemplating this thing called gender from a young age. My grandmother’s only granddaughter, I grew up playing with my family of boy cousins, and their boy friends. I used to ask my aunties in a mostly teasing way why they didn’t think to have girls so that I could have someone to play with. “Well, the coin toss wasn’t up to us, baby girl,” they would say. Being country kids, we played outside a lot. Depending on whose house we had happened to gather at, our game of choice depended on the size and layout of the backyard. Grandmother had the largest yard and after we finished our Sunday dinner, my cousins and I would go outside to run off a typical meal of collard greens, cornbread, and fried chicken. From hide-and-seek to touch football that inevitably turned into tackle, we could think up a myriad of outdoor games to occupy our time. I can attribute almost every scar on my body to some causality of being “one of the boys.”
At home, you never allowed my brother and I to watch much television outside of the channels you deemed “educational,” but as I matriculated to the eighth grade, I began to exercise my autonomy in a new way—when you weren’t within earshot, I snuck on the TV, flipped the channel to BET and watched 106 & Park and Rap City. I saw how the video girls dressed and carried their bodies—thick hipped, thin wasted and in shape, lips glossed for-the-gods, jeans fitted, and cleavage showing just over the neckline of their skin-tight V-neck crop tops. The images appealed to me though I never envisioned myself wearing anything of the sort. When the music video for Ciara’s “Like a Boy” hit the countdown charts, I was mesmerized. I felt seen and validated in my tomboyish ways. I kept a recording of the song on my Tracfone to play on repeat.
We stayed in that Steinmart for hours before you came to find me so we could check out. On your arm, you carried a stack of white and navy collared shirts that you found for me. I was still empty handed, caught in the conundrum of knowing what I wanted and not being able to have it. “Didn’t find anything?” you asked, an eyebrow raised. I shook my head in defeat and followed you to the register. When we got home, I tried on the shirts you picked out and I cringed at my reflection—at the way the fabric clung to the baby fat around my midsection, at the cleavage-low neckline dips of each collar, at the narrow hems that prevented the shirts from gracefully hanging past the wideness of my hips.
I became angry with you for your adherence to gender norms that prescribed a way of being over my life without my say. Why, I wondered, did you hold those notions so tightly? As I got older, I tried to understand, and I imagined that you were just a woman of your time—a Black woman raised in the South where femininity and its performance was a culturally ingrained virtue. That “southern belle” archetype, though steeped in whiteness and patriarchy, was an idea that all women—white or not—were judged against. Those who failed to live up to that idea were “less woman” and, consequently, less worthy of consideration. You would never be Scarlett O’Hara, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t try.
Being a Woman of God, you took my brother and I to church every Sunday. Luckily, I didn’t mind church all too much. It wasn’t one of those “holy roller” type places. There were no edicts against women wearing pants and, except for specified Sundays, the attitude was come-as-you-are. On most Sunday mornings, I could get away with jeans or slacks and the most masculine-looking tops I could find in your revered women’s section, but the mood would often strike you to suggest that I “try to look like a girl” at least some of the time. “You don’t want to wear that new________? It would go good with those pants,” or “Why don’t you dress yourself up a little?” Though I attempted to resist, your persistence always led me to cave. The list of self-erasures I performed for the sake of your comfort increased, diminishing who I truly was more and more each day.
That time you and I pulled into yet another mall parking lot, I couldn’t help but be giddy. Finally, I had full autonomy over what I would buy, how I would come to present myself. It was the summer before I entered the eleventh grade and I spent all three months off from school working at the local pizza arcade, and I saved enough money to afford my own back-to-school shopping spree. Though you were with me, I was determined—I wasn’t buying anything that I couldn’t see myself wearing. And I certainly wasn’t going to be shopping at Steinmart.
For a relatively small shopping mall in South Mississippi, there were a lot of stores to choose from—Steinmart, JCPenny, Dillard’s, Aeropostale, and Hollister. I set my sights on the latter two. Their clothing selections were more modern and, I judged, would fit and flatter my body better than the clothes at Steinmart. Even in Aeropostale’s women’s section, the white button-downs didn’t cinch at the waist as much and the collars didn’t dip so low.
As we browsed the selection, I noticed you looking through the racks as if you wouldn’t mind picking up a few items yourself. I was amused watching you. After about thirty minutes there, I had spent sixty-five dollars on three pullover polos and a button-down for the days I wanted to “dress up.” Though my school district enforced a strict uniform policy, I was determined to personalize my school clothes in any way that I could.
Hollister, just one store over, was our next stop. My plan was to get a couple new pairs of khakis. That summer, I had lost a considerable amount of weight having finally shed the “baby fat” that had caused me so much insecurity in years past. My legs were now long and athletic looking and the new trend was the skinny, straight-legged look. In the dressing room, I turned and twisted my body in the mirror, excited by the way my new pants fit. “Do they fit okay,” you questioned through the dressing room door. “Yes ma’am, they’re perfect.”
Our last stop was Foot Locker. I had always loved sneakers and almost salivated at the thought of copping my first pair of Nike Air Max 95’s. In an attempt to be a good daughter, I went to the women’s wall first. Just as I expected, nothing there really spoke to me. “Ma, I’m going to go look at the other wall.” Though I braced myself for your disapproval, for once, you didn’t protest my daring to venture into the men’s section. As I scanned the wall of sneakers, my eyes found the perfect pair of Nike Air Max 95’s in purple and grey—my school colors.
“What size you need?” asked the guy helping us.
“Now, hold on, do you get a lot of girls in here buying men’s shoes,” you questioned before he could bring me the pair. I looked at you, your mouth agape. Embarrassed that you’d brought our personal conflict to this stranger, satisfaction shot through my body when he calmly responded, “All the time.”
We locked eyes before I cut them back to the sales clerk. Happy to be proven right, I smiled wide and spoke,. “8 ½.” No longer freedom-starved by women’s sections’ limitations, no longer erased by your preconceived notions of what girls’ fashion has to look like, I had finally found the permission to begin to be myself. And I was thrilled to imagine who she might become.
Illustration by Alexandra Beguez
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