Dressing my Daughter, Dressing Myself

Dressing my Daughter, Dressing Myself

I'm honored to share this guest post, written by my sister, Emily Cramer.

Dressing My Daughter, Dressing Myself

Last night, while out for pizza in my neighborhood, we got it three times:

Server: “What’s up my little man?”

Fellow restaurant go-er: “How old is he?”

Couple on the street: “Have a great night, guy!”

Each comment, the friendly remark of a well-intentioned and kind person about the sweet little toddler in our midst. Each comment making my heart sink just a bit … because my baby’s a girl.


A 15-month old girl without much hair who tends to be dressed in pretty neutral stuff. Maybe a flower here and there, a pink stripe or two, and the classic white Saltwater sandals that I think totally peg her as girl. But overall, fairly plain and obviously not doing much to distinguish her from the other sweet little dudes in our hood. 

When we get comments like these, which is pretty often, my husband Bren typically waits until we’re out of earshot and then says something quietly like: “She’s such a girl, though.” And I wonder why I just.can’t.put.the.bow.in.her.hair. It would take two seconds and allow us to avoid sooo many tiny moments of sad. (I want to place the emphasis on the tiny here, because we’re all-around happy folks with a happy kid.)

But the thing is, I can’t bring myself to put the goddamn bow in her hair. Not because I don’t think bows are adorable, because I do. And I have this sort of wistful envy of some of the moms I know (mostly moms I think) who manage to clothe their baby girls in ways that seem both feminine and effortless. Those moms aren’t thinking about dressing their babes in “just the right amount” of girl. But I am. All the time. Why?

The reason is because I am always thinking about dressing myself in just the right amount of girl. I have to remind myself to add mascara, a scarf, or a bracelet--some simple adornment to demonstrate my femininity. I’m always glad I remember the accessory, because for the most part I enjoy feeling feminine. But it has to be just right. Too much flower, color (especially pink), matchy stuff, makeup, jewelry and I feel like a clown, a phony, an object.


The feeling goes back to when I was a little girl hashing it out with my mom on a weekly basis before church on Sunday. We were supposed to dress up and I had this closet full of cute stuff with ribbons and patterns and sparkly things. And I didn’t mind looking at my clothes, seeing them hanging in the closet, even dressing up with them for pretend. But I hated wearing them for real. Like it made me kind of sick to my stomach, and embarrassed.

Sure enough, the dress-on-Sunday issue became much worse when I hit puberty. My mom used to say to me: “Em, you don’t want to dress up because you don’t feel good about yourself.” And while I’m certain my mom (who’s a psychologist BTW--kind of a nightmare for an adolescent) was correctly sensing a generalized low self-esteem, she wasn’t getting this one quite right. It wasn’t that I wanted to dress down because I felt bad and wanted to look bad. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I think I can now: I didn’t want to wear a dress--not because I didn’t feel good about myself. Dressing like a girl didn’t make me feel like myself.

I heard this interview with Jill Soloway that helped me figure out how I feel about gender and dressing up. When the interview aired--2014--Soloway was introducing the new show “Transparent,” which is about a family in L.A. whose father begins transitioning to a woman. Soloway based the show on an experience with a parent coming out as trans. But Soloway was also coming to terms with--at the time--her own feelings about gender and expression. She says in the interview:

I constantly struggle with how femme do I want to look? How pretty do I need to be? What makes me feel the most comfortable? I struggle with it every day. Every morning I have to ask myself, you know, how am I going to dress to get out of the house? And I remember, you know, a few years ago, before my parent came out actually, like, crying before an HBO Emmy party because I was wearing clothes that I hated, but I felt like I had to wear to dress up. So whatever it is - Spanx, pantyhose, bra - you know, like, all that stuff that means lady dressed up. If I’m not the right mood, it can make me just start sobbing. And I know a lot of women who feel that way, like that they feel that they’re putting on drag when they’re getting quote, unquote ‘dressed up.’
— Jill Solloway, Fresh Air, 2014

That was it. Dressing overly feminine makes me feel--then and now--like I’m in drag. And, like Soloway, I notice that wearing neutral or masculine clothes, like jeans and a blazer, sometimes feels more like me … or like I can access different parts of myself that I enjoy.

And I think I’ve always had that struggle my whole life of feeling a little bit more gender-neutral, feeling more comfortable as a creative person when I’m dressed like a boy, when I’m dressed more masculine. So if I’m doing comedy, if I’m writing, if I’m working, I really like to be, like, in jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and feel kind of masculine because it makes me really focus on what I’m doing. And it puts the work first, which is odd to even say that, to even realize that little codes and cues like I don’t need to be looked at, I don’t need to be appreciated, I don’t need to be pretty, allow me to be more creative.
— Jill Solloway, Fresh Air, 2014

Sometimes I wonder if the old adage that “Clothes make the man” actually holds even more insight than it purports. Could it be that the simplicity, the neutrality, the unadorned getups of guys allows them to be more creative and productive? Can dudes access these parts of themselves with greater ease because they don’t have to worry about being bejeweled or accessorized?* Perhaps when I want to dress in a less-than-feminine kind of way, I am just wanting to connect with those parts of me that are harder to get at when I am all dolled up.


Thinking through how I dress myself and my daughter brings me to this thought: these public conversations about gender identity and expression--which sometimes feel far away from me and my family and friends, who generally know, for example, which bathroom they can hit up when they gotta pee--come closer to home than I previously thought. Turns out, I’m one of those people that struggles to balance my gender identity and expression. I identify as female, but I’m not sure I always want to dress like a girl. Sometimes, in fact, too much feminine brings me down and stymies the best parts of myself. I guess I can’t help but transfer those feelings onto my daughter, over whom I have complete outfit control--lucky for her? Meh.

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What I hope for Maisie is that, when she’s ready, she can figure out for herself what feels right. Whatever her gender identity is, her expression of that gender might be ribbons and tulle and sequins and stardusts--if so, get it, girl. But until that time, the bow stays in the drawer.



**I’m sure the reverse is true as well. I don’t know many men in my acquaintance who feel more like themselves--creatively, expressively--in traditionally feminine garb. But it’s way tougher for men to experiment with stereotypically female dress than the other way around, which is pretty sad. Needless to say, I’m grateful that I can try figure this stuff out and not have to hide it--which should be the reality for everyone.


All photos by Brendan Moore

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