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The Gender-Affirming Power of Scissors


The party started at 8:30, and I was still in my bedroom, standing over a cream cabana shirt with a hunting knife.

One of my friends dubbed my penchant for showing up to parties with freshly cropped, often unevenly cut, tops or cutoffs, or both, “shipwreck-core.” Think: Cast Away.

Hacking at my clothes to find the proportions that make me feel right has been one of my best defenses since I bought my first inaugural gay piece of clothing: a short sleeve floral button-up shirt.  Sometimes I will show up to a party, and it’s clear by the jagged edges of my shirt’s hem that I am late, in part, because somewhere in the flurry of trying on outfits, I landed on a particular top but decided the moment I should be skipping out the door that it needed to land along my waist differently. And sometimes I’d make that happen with kitchen shears or the elusive pair of scissors that’s never in the drawer when you need it. This time, though, I grabbed a black and orange hunting knife – a gift from a menswear PR firm. It was sharp to the extent that it was certainly a danger to myself and others to own, let alone use to… crop my shirt.

As a queer and trans person, clothing is how I shape and mold myself into the person I want to be. The way I hack the sleeves off my t-shirts to create muscle tops signifies who I am to all I interact with: from my cool Williamsburg barber to other fellow transmasculine people. Chopping up our clothes to fit our bodies is simply part of the culture.

I didn’t really know that hip dysphoria had a name. I knew about chest dysphoria, and until I got top surgery late last year, it was all I could focus on. Hip dysphoria, for transmasc folks, derives from feelings of confusion, pain, or misalignment with one’s hips, thighs, butt, waist, or some combination of those body parts. For people assigned-female-at-birth that go through puberty and physiologically enter childbearing years, it’s no secret that this area widens and takes on certain shapes. These shapes aren’t inherently gendered, but of course, our society’s emphasis on an hourglass figure defining femininity makes it hard to ignore.

This dysphoria for me becomes loudest when I start comparing myself to the most outlandish mascots or non-human cartoon characters. Humpty-dumpty, Grimace, Syd the Sloth, Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, the list goes on. I’m fat and have paid bills writing about being fat, and even if I lost a lot of weight,I would still be fat. I actually have no interest in being thin or trying to be thin. However –  , and this has been hard to fit into the constellation of my body politic –  dysphoria pushes and probes at the edges of my body-positive mindset. 

When I became the proud owner of a Brother embroidery machine and a sewing machine, my relationship to my gender, my closet, and my body didn’t just magically change, allowing me to skip into the sunset and never worry about a stretch mark again.  However, learning to sew, alter, and embroider my clothes gave me some control over my wardrobe – and a priceless gift:  the ability to change along with my gender. Bodies change. That is a fact of life. They gain weight; they lose weight; they become disabled; they get surgery; they heal from surgery; they are hard to control and offer us the difficult, strange, wonderful opportunity to exist. In this life, we get one of them. 

Also, it’s not lost on me that these pieces of equipment are …expensive; I was, in fact, sent one of them to test for an article. But this ability to challenge my own physical boundaries began with a pair of scissors, and needle and thread. 

I always thought sewing to be as lofty as trying to learn a new language, but it’s much more forgiving than I realized. My first time using my sewing machine, I used a rotary cutter to slice off the bottom few inches of a shirt that was clinging to my belly in the wrong way. I then folded that deliciously straight line in and ran it under the sewing machine and, to my utter shock, was left with a shirt that fit and didn’t look like I’d adopted a volleyball named Wilson as my best friend. 

I honor this era of altering my clothes.  Dysphoria is a multi-headed hydra, a shadow that bends and folds into places I didn’t expect to find. I can pick up a perfect vintage bowling shirt that screams “butch Tony Soprano,”  only to get home and find that it fits me in all the wrong ways. Being able to alter my clothes not only frees me from that crushing, middle-school, shopping-for-jeans-with-my-mom feeling that no piece of clothing will ever fit me how I want it to. Instead of feeling somehow “wrong” in a shirt, altering my clothes, sewing them, cutting them, or embroidering them carved a door into that previously impenetrable brick wall. Now, I have a way out of this discomfort.

I never knew that the beautifully inventive ways trans people approach gender presentation could apply to my closet. If I don’t like something the way it is, whether that’s my chest or the way a shirt fits my body, I’m not destined for an eternity of pushing through it. I can cut slits into my shorts so I feel like I have hunky himbo legs of my dreams instead of feeling like sausage stuffed into its casing. And suddenly, they’re my new favorite pants. I can embroider sentiments like “Pedro Pascal is my baby girl” on frat boy polo shirts that were never designed with a Brooklyn-based fat, butch he/they person in mind. 

The biggest gift of all this? I finally feel the same way about myself as I do my closet. I am allowed to let the very human experience of changing happen to me; and by extension, I can change my beautiful shirts, pants, and gender to fit whoever I become. And then do it all over again.

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