I'm so nerdy that I dressed as a sociological experiment for Halloween

I'd planned for months to dress as "a girl" for Halloween. I don't remember exactly how I arrived at this decision, but I remember it was something I came up with while talking with a coworker a while back and thought it would be fun. It was. And much more informative and educational than I'd really imagined.

When I bought the clothes and accessories, I purposely tried to put together a "normal" high-femme outfit. I didn't want to look like I was in drag or look overly theatrical. The idea was that it wouldn't look like a costume to strangers. I think I succeeded in this aspect. Part of the fun was that I tried to have the outfit be made entirely out of things I would never wear. Pearl earrings, knockoff Tiffany necklace, filigree headband, fake nails, makeup beyond lip stuff, boucle skirt, pantyhose, and leopard print flats. The black t-shirt is something I'd wear (and do...) as is the black cardigan (which is usually worn over shirts with band logos or similar on them). Oh, and the sequinned purse is something I already had, which I do carry. You have to look closely, but it actually has Hello Kitty on it. It's usually an ironic accessory when I carry it normally, but it blended in with the outfit quite well.

What really intrigued me was the reactions from people who do know me and have seen me every day for years. Most of them realized immediately that it was a Halloween costume and thought it was creative and fun. A couple people didn't immediately realize why I was doing this, but immediately got it when I or someone else explained it, and thought it was clever.

A few people just really didn't get it, which is where the "educational" part comes in. I had several people at work ask me if I had court or something to go to. Someone actually said, "oh, I figured you needed to look professional for something." This remark was a bit weird, and pretty revealing on, well, societal attitudes. Despite the trainings I've done in my workplace on gender, in which I've used myself as an example quite frequently when discussing the gender continuum, there are still people who think nothing of the idea of me wearing fake nails for the first time in my life, pantyhose, makeup, and a little purse in order to look "professional." Why wouldn't they assume that my professional attire would be more androgynous? Like, similarly gendered to my normal clothing, just a little snazzier? (Which is pretty much what my professional wardrobe amounts to; androgynous blazers, sweaters, clogs, etc.) Similarly, I got several really nice compliments from coworkers who said I looked really good as a girl, but with acknowledgement that it's just so not who I am. A few others though made comments along the lines of looking "a lot better" with my girl outfit on, and said they've always wondered why I "don't bother with makeup." Hmm, maybe I'll put a little more emphasis in my trainings on how offensive it is to put identities into a hierarchy and to decide how other people ought to identify.

I didn't actually anticipate getting any different reactions from strangers, because I wasn't presenting any differently than a lot of people do. Yet there were some marked differences. I usually notice that police officers and construction workers in particular will say hi to me when I walk past. It's frequently in a somewhat "interested" way, but not disrespectful. I usually greet them back in a "this-is-just-a-greeting-and-nothing-more-ok-bye" manner, and all is well. But when I walked around in my Halloween costume, a group of construction workers actually talked about my boobs and my legs as if I wasn't right there a few feet from them. And I'd always thought this sort of thing was infrequent, or just an urban legend. So at lunch, I walked past several of the other neighborhood construction sites, and at about half of them, I got either blunt "compliments" ("you look real nice!") or the same talking-about-me-as-if-I'm-not-there. Dayum. I'd somehow thought we, as a species, were slightly more advanced than to make such blatantly objectifying comments on the street like that. It frustrates me, because apparently I present as less assertive or weaker or something when I'm doing the femme thing. I definitely believe that women who want to identify this way should be free to do so and should be respected just the same, and it's upsetting that this isn't necessarily the case. It kind of makes me question, well, who exactly has the power on the female gender continuum? If some people think we're "supposed to" wear makeup and present as femme when going somewhere where we need to look nice, then this is apparently the ticket to power with these folks, yet it's the ticket to objectification and not being viewed as having rights by others. Is it a matter of choosing with whom we want to have power, rather than pursuing mastery and competence in a more general sense? And if so, how do I feel that the way I feel most comfortable in the world is the one that seems to garner the respect of a particular construction crew that feels it's appropriate to say really lewd things to people who don't present the way I usually do?

I went to the library after work and sat down to read for a bit. I had three males walk by and greet me. One sat down at the table across from me and tried to talk to me, and the other two stood there and loitered and tried to talk to me. This struck me as strange, not because I've not had strangers approach me and try to talk to me, but because I was sitting so they couldn't see what I was reading, and I otherwise presented in, well, a really boring manner. I wasn't sending anything out. My outfit wasn't even an interesting or colorful high-femme outfit, and I didn't have on interesting jewelry or anything that most high-femme women probably would at any given time. I just looked flat-out boring and nondesrcipt. I don't mind at all when people notice something I'm reading, or a t-shirt I've made, or want to know what brand of purple hair dye I use, or want to read the buttons on my bag. This strikes me as pretty normal human interaction, that someone notices someone who looks like someone they'd want to get to know. But what was I sending out? Nothing, other than being female, and apparently "pretty." Judging from earlier construction worker interactions, possibly that I was not particular assertive and therefore was safe to make objectifying comments about? The "conversations" these guys tried to have with me were so desperate and lacking in substance that they were creepy, too. "Hi, how you doin'?" "You look nice." "Where are you from?" "Are you reading a book?" (Yes, one of them seriously said that. I thought for a second about saying "no" to see what would happen.) One of them left after I muttered "hi..." and engrossed myself in my book. The other two actually persisted to the point that I flat-out said I was busy and didn't want to talk.

Ew. And here, I would have thought that my typical presentation would attract a lot more attention than the high-femme presentation, just because I tend to have clothing and possessions that are somewhat of conversation pieces. I never would have thought that a boring outfit would lead to people coming over and talking to me. I guess the biggest thing I came out of this with is that, damn, is there anyone who it's safe and comfortable to be in this world? It seems like all identities have upsides and downsides that I'd never have imagined.


Molly said...

I'm guessing a lot of people don't read you as "butch" because you have long hair. Yes, it's stupid, but people have this idea that butch women have short, masculine haircuts and wear flannel. All of them. All the time. Maybe mullets, but definitely not long hair.

I'm probably read as more masculine than you, when we both know that I'm way too girly for my own good.

Eve said...

You rock, BTW. That's the best idea for a Halloween costume I've heard in a long time.

Just based on that pic, I read your costume as "librarian."

Rich said...

Good post - I really enjoyed your experiment. So how did it feel to have men wanting to make contact with you?

Rich said...

Oh one more thing... I know a lot of women who LIKE getting comments from construction workers etc. It gives THEM power to be able to get a reaction out of men and go on their merry way.

Molly said...


I find your first comment somewhat curious, as it assumes that women who dress more towards the butch side never get random male attention, and I can assure you, that's just not true. There seem to be men who will hit on anything with boobs, and it's not flattering; it's creepy and weird, since they're not discriminating AT ALL.

It also assumes that guys don't ever flirt with women they know are not interested in them. They do, and depending on the guy, that can be fun. Especially if it's a gay guy, but that's a whole 'nother story, isn't it?

eeka said...

Hi Rich! Yeah, as I've been trying to point out here, gender is totally a spectrum. As I've said, I don't feel like I'm as-far-as-possible onto the butch spectrum, and even if I were, I just don't have the physical features to be able to present as "holy shit butch" even if I tried my hardest, so I definitely don't fall into the category of females who get absolutely no construction worker attention. The difference I noticed was that it's usually a fairly respectful kind of "hey how's it goin?" greeting, with somewhat of an air of "I'm a stud, talkin to the ladies!" But when I was all femmed out, several of them made really blatant comments about my anatomy, talked about me as if I weren't there, and shouted really obvious advances at me. Usually construction workers don't bother me, and like you said, it's kind of a flattering thing to be appreciated in that way but to have most of the power in the interaction. When they were responding to me as a femme, it felt disempowering, to me, at least. I feel like blatant discussion of my anatomy is way over the line into violating my personal space (not physical space...I guess, like, psychic space? Either way, way too into my business from a random stranger!) In my case, this was a result of an action I had taken, since I've never had this kind of stuff happen when I was presenting in my usual way. This is where it felt powerless, because I should have the right to dress however I want and not have to deal with people who suddenly have no manners, yanno?

Also, this might just be a personal thing, but it felt reaaaally objectifying to have guys come up in the library and want to chat with me when I wasn't putting anything out there that was remotely interesting. Which means the only thing they were reacting to was that I'm female. What is it about these particular guys that makes them think I'm going to want to talk to a guy who has absolutely no reason to come up and talk to me? (And who was too lame to even cook up some excuse to come talk to me -- couldn't you lameoids at least ask me what time it is or where they keep the books without any big words, or SOMETHING?) It doesn't bother me at all when guys come talk to me, even when it's clearly flirtatious, but they're at least approaching me because they want to know where I got my Super Mario Brothers backpack or something. I guess I'm just really put off by the presumption on the creepy guys' part that, yes, of course I'm going to welcome their attention no matter how lame their attempt, as if they see my role as being obligated to go along with whatever they initiate. Hey, at least it made it extremely obvious who the creepy guys with no respect were!

Sis B said...

Ok I didn't make it through all the comments, but I think your Halloween experiment was deliciously nerdy and intriguing. Your posts on gender always make me think and evaluate my views of myself and others, and I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you write.

I'm still trying to figure out what being female means to me and how I relate to all the other members of our species. You make my brain stretch in all sorts of good ways.

Thank you!