There’s a specter haunting patriarchal beauty standards: the specter of tacky lesbianism. For the purpose of this article, I am going to self-identify as a someone who is:
a lesbian, and (in this case, most importantly)
I am not going to attempt to define tacky lesbianism in this article, as any attempt I make at a totalizing description is going to leave someone out. Instead, I’m going to list some tacky staples of my personal style. These include the layering of multiple clothing items of conflicting weights, colors, and patterns; loudly colorful socks tucked into my faux-leather Doc Martens; outfits in which half of the items come from someone’s grandma’s closet and the other half from the mens’ department of Target; and, of course, the humble flannel, which stylishly bridges all styles butch, femme, and neither.
There’s a distinct pleasure to looking weird. I have a pair of Crocs that are so obnoxious with their multicolored, neon, citrus-fruit-themed pattern that they have become my de facto “house shoes”. Yet when I slip patterned-socked feet into them and take in my body in all its flannel-shirted, mom-jeaned glory, I can almost find myself endearing (hopefully, in twenty years, my wife will feel the same). When I make the decision to take my delightfully ugly outfits out of the house, I might don my green and white baseball cap, on which is a vintage Girl Scout patch featuring a white goat. A soft tee shirt from a record store I’ve never visited, purchased for five dollars (or possibly less) from someone at college, on whose dorm room wall is the text of Zoe Leonard’s poem I Want a Dyke for President. My heavy mens’ flannel, an Abercrombie & Fitch production snagged fro the rack of a local thrift store, hangs loose round my shoulders. I used to pull it across my chest to hide the breasts that are no longer there; now I button it only for warmth.
In public, I can never be sure that I am being stared at for my outfit, specifically. But I do know the stares generally arise from confusion; occasionally hostility; and increasingly often, awe. Sometimes women will mutter, I wish I could do that. That? My near-hairless head? My facial piercings? My outfit? My spread-legged position on the bus that narrows only for the non-men who choose to sit beside me? You can. It is not a statement of permission, but merely a reminder of autonomy.
Before I was a tacky lesbian, I was an ugly unwoman. My chubby childhood wearing oversized shirts that once belonged to my mother, my once-frizzy hair, my pointed lack of makeup, even in high school; the shapeless body I dressed in old button-down shirts tucked into too-big khakis. There are the ever-shorter haircuts that replace my unruly mane; haircuts for which I had to switch hair stylists: my childhood hairdresser refused to take a pair of mens’ clippers to my long, beautiful hair. There are the wavy, fuzzy strands of leg and pubic hair (my underarm hair still itches too easily for me to grow long) that I believe fully compensate for the apparent lack of hair on my head.
Others appeared to come easily into the world of makeup, perfume, heels, and relationships with men. Those were very trappings of proper womanhood that pushed me further into no-man’s land. It was as if my lesbianism could be smelled on me, even (and especially) by those who would not dare say lesbian aloud. They detected the stench of outsiderhood that I had not yet (re)claimed.
Until recently I did not know that tacky lesbianism was established enough as a phenomenon to have a name at all. I was unsure of the significance of our collective love for garishly patterned socks; shaved heads under worn-out baseball caps; the look and feel of jeans that are, by all measures, ill-fitting; clothes that are too big and too small, worn at the same time; clogs once thought only to be the purview of nurses and/or women over forty. Many of us will tell you about freedom; the sense of freedom from obligation toward the gaze(s) and desire(s) of men. No two mens’ desires are identical, of course, but the truth of the male gaze remains: one is always simultaneously not-woman-enough (and must be improved by performing femininity to excess) and so-woman they must hide it (by wearing bras whose straps cannot show, shaving, and avoiding provocative clothing). It is a tightrope all feminized people –– many of us who might be subjugated are not women by choice, but rather simply interpreted as women, or come into womanhood of necessity and survival –– must walk. It is one that all must fall from as the realization hits that there is no ideal woman but that the gaze carries on anyway.
The radicality of tacky lesbianism, though sometimes unintentional, allows us to create safer spaces for non-men in a world dictated by patriarchy, just by using our bodies. Even the looks of disgust sometimes directed toward my genderweird, butch, tacky, lesbian body are an acknowledgement of possibilities outside conventional beauty standards. Tacky, loud, ugly, hairy lesbianism is courageous: not only is it a visible rejection of the men whose gaze we have been taught to value, but it also continually places us under threat of hostility, bullying, derision, and isolation. For lesbians of color, trans lesbians, fat lesbians, disabled lesbians, and all intersections therein, the reclamation of the body once-seen as worthless is an especially defiant one. The celebration of a body that has been multiply-excluded and continues to be viewed as subhuman by those in power pushes tackiness squarely into the realm of resistance. No body must be compensated for via the performance of proper femininity.
All non-men are subjected to certain expectations under patriarchy: some include hairlessness, a made-up look that appears non-made-up; the donning of feminine-enough clothing, the expectation laid upon us to tame the bodies we inhabit. Ugliness becomes sinful. But living lesbianism means living inherently outside of gender-conformity, because in the absence of men, womanhood, in the binary sense, disappears. It lacks an established opposite. This frees us from expectations surrounding being enough of a woman to attract a man: lesbians do not even have to be women, as such, never mind conventionally attractive women. When a tacky aesthetic is specifically chosen by a lesbian, it is as much a smack in the face to cisheteropatriarchy as is the butch/femme relationship; the existence of a non-man doing masculinity better than a man ever could, perfectly balanced by a feminine partner who does not dress or beautify for male attention. Similarly, the “because-I-can” and “because-I-like-it” ethos of tacky lesbian presentation functions as a revelation to oneself and to others that we can ignore or actively defy beauty standards and find love, fulfillment, and a sense of freedom.