First of all – a note of thanks
In the past few months, since we started this blog, we have been receiving a lot of reader comments, both here and on our Instagram account. They have been overwhelmingly positive, friendly, wise, and encouraging. I want to use this opportunity to thank all of you faithful, sensitive and informed readers for your constructive feedback – which we know is not a given in the online world. Your insight and experiences are invaluable to us and keep fueling our motivation to continue working on this blog.
In your messages, many of you share your experiences with wearing skirts and heels at home or in public, and tell us about your lives and problems, particularly in your relationships. Unfortunately, not all stories we hear are positive. We read about understanding, support, and growing as a couple, but even more often, we are told about conflicts and fights, and even separation and divorce over the men’s skirts and heels.
And this is what I would like to address in today’s post – the question why so many men who enjoy wearing skirts and heels seem to find themselves at risk of losing their partners with whom they have sometimes lived for decades. I cannot help but wonder what happens between people that causes otherwise happy, mutually caring relationships to fall apart as if their bedrock foundation had suddenly crumbled. How many tears are shed, hurtful comments are thrown about, how many precious hours are spent arguing and fretting over particular clothing choices? If you look at it soberly, couples are separating over body coverings that are shaped slightly differently than others. Human beings are giving up on their best friends, lovers, and the co-parent of their children, together with the lives they carefully built over the course of the majority of their lives, and all this over pieces of fabric. Isn’t this crazy when you think about it that way?
Getting dressed – what your clothing choices reveal about you
Of course, we all know that a skirt and a pair of heels are much more than just the material they are made out of. They are practical, functional items of daily use, but they are also cultural artifacts as well as products of the complex web of norms and rules we exist in. They allow insight into how humans organize themselves in groups, and the social expectations, roles, and accepted behaviors that are considered to be the glue that holds these groups together. The choice of clothing a person makes on a daily basis shows others exactly how he or she moves about in this web and what values he or she identifies with.
A man who dresses in cloth that fully covers his privates while hugging both his legs with the help of an inseam; a man who protects his feet with flat pieces of rubber (or with even more “masculine” animal skin) that do not lift him beyond a certain “degree” above his actual physical height; a man who renounces most “superfluous” frill on his body coverings; that man is considered “normal” in Western societies today. A simple glance at other, non-Western cultures, or even at Western cultures in the past, illustrates just how arbitrary this is. Things might just as well be the opposite way – consider, for example, the fashion required for male aristocrats in the court of French Sun King Louis XIV.
A frequent assumption in our present-day Western cultures seems to be that “real” men should not “need” to walk on heels – aren’t they, after all, the measure of things when it comes to “tallness”? If they are not “tall” and “strong” by present-day standards (the latter, by they way, are not usually informed by actual statistics but merely by subjective and highly variable expectations), they vaguely lose some of the “manliness” that is expected of and ascribed to men. I think, many men who do not live up to this norm (and/or many others) may find they have to struggle harder to achieve social status.
Also, a modern-day “real” man does not decorate himself beyond necessary and useful accessories, such as the obligatory timekeeper on his wrist – that’s just “not manly”or “natural” according to some conservatives. Maybe some jewelry is allowed, but it has to be sparse and “masculine”, underlining a man’s muscular strength via its material, weight and heft. Again, a quick glance to the side, at other animal species for example, shows that this is quite an arbitrary notion. If male peacocks can sport beautiful, colorful, light-weight feathers, why can’t a primate of the Homo Sapiens species? Especially when, as opposed to most other animals, he has all sorts of decorative items at his disposal. Would ample and varied decorations then not symbolize other traditionally masculine attributes – financial wealth and the capability of dominating nature, more or less ruthlessly extracting its “resources” for pleasure? The answer is: No, because the culture he lives in today has agreed that it is women whose job it is to be mainly pleasing to the eyes and, therefore, decorated (frequently by the men who extract resources, even though many women today are not necessarily dependent on gifts by men).
Yet, most of us treat these arbitrary cultural choices as if they were rules set in stone, accepted without question. Rules that, when broken, often provoke an onslaught of social sanctions, ranging from shaming to ridicule, social outcasting, and even physical abuse. No wonder men are scared of wearing non-conformist clothing out in public, especially around other males who might react with aggression. Not that verbal abuse is less damaging, uttered by men or women.
Being with the people you love – can you “let your pants down” at home?
But what about life at home? Shouldn’t life in your innermost social circle allow for freedom of expression, even if the forms it takes are considered eccentric? I don’t think that either family or friendships work like that today. In some ways, we feel like we can be “ourselves” when we are around those that “know us” best and “love us” – we can share memories, stories and discuss topics we would never mention outside of that invisible wall that separates the private from the professional and/or public sphere.
Yet, as French philosopher and political scientist Michel Foucault knew and wrote extensively about, family is actually not the space of freedom and complete honesty we like to make it out to be. Questions of gender and relations between the sexes are so central to our concept of family and to all sorts of relationships. So, in some ways, families – the social institution founded around biological reproductivity – are just as or even more strictly governed by specific normative rules than other areas of life. We can’t “just be ourselves” because “ourselves” as such does not exist – who we are at any given time is the result of a complex process of identity negotiation that happens in context via our social counterparts. And, most importantly, who we “are” and what we do matters more in this sphere than anywhere else, to ourselves and to the ones who live with us. We are center-stage in ways that we rarely are in other everyday situations.
Most relationships, whether platonic, cis- or trans-hetero- or homosexual are based on very firm assumptions about gender and the appropriate ways of expressing that gender. Friends and especially partners are chosen based on assumptions about the stability of one’s own sexual identity as well as the other person’s. This is where skirts and heels for men become tricky, because of the social messages they co-communicate. Women who feel they chose a cis-heterosexual male as a partner find themselves confused to the core when this supposedly cis-heterosexual male suddenly dons traditionally feminine clothing.
What seems like a simple choice of material to cover one’s body actually questions the traditional norms of heterosexual, reproduction-centered relationships: the assumption of an absolute difference between men and women expressed by adequate and separate body coverings. And as a side-note: yes, it seems like we are culturally “over” the issue of women dressing like men – been there, debated that, pants for women won. However, let me underline that we are far from “over” women who “overdo” it – note that women dressing in men’s clothing always have to make sure they are still recognizable as women. If they try to “pass as men” and are found out, they might face severe social sanctions such as aggression. I personally know people who had to go through such traumatic experiences.
Why do people fight?
Partners who base their love for another person on the condition that this person conforms to the rules of the “other” gender find themselves confused and, on the grounds of their assumptions of what is “normal” and “acceptable”, utterly shamed. A man in a skirt and heels, a supposedly “feminized” man is the opposite of the image of the strong, protective, “normal” male that many women more or less consciously look for when choosing a partner. Even male aggression, verbal or physical, is traditionally more acceptable for women who enter relationships with men than male cross-dressing – simply because a tendency towards aggressiveness is considered “normal”, testosterone-dependent male and masculine “nature”.
Many women think that the logical consequence of finding their male partners cross-dressing is attempting to make the men step back in line. Not necessarily because they consciously want to “control” the other person but rather because they are helpless in the face of the problem and do not know any other way of “solving” it. They do so by increasing the social pressure on their partners in those many ways that women have strategically cultivated over the course of centuries and that have also become “normal”, accepted and even celebrated behavior for women within their masculinism-dominated social groups. The result is something we are all familiar with: tearful, grueling, hour-long fights ending in sleepless nights, sometimes peppered with door slamming and mutual verbal degradations, and even threats of dissolving relationship ties on the grounds that the shared basis of the relationship has been compromised by the person acting in a non-gender-conformist way.
What happens here might look as simple and natural as can be to some – a proverbial lovers’ quarrel, for many the “spice” of a relationship that keeps things interesting. However, really, it is very complex. Two individuals caught up in a whole system of norms and rules think they are freely arguing with each other on a personal level. Two individuals are caught up in the suffocating shortcomings of a vast cultural and ideological superstructure. The problem is that they are not necessarily (sufficiently) aware that their seemingly personal, individual problem with one another is vastly informed by their cultural belief system. They think they act upon personal “emotions”, probably feelings of shame, unease, fear and anger – yet never examine what is at the root of these feelings. After fighting and fighting with their partner in unproductive ways – often because the fighting is not about the actual core issues – many eventually make the choice to leave.
A bit of self-questioning can go a long way
Now, I am sure that most of what I am saying is pretty commonplace – I am not really saying anything new. However, for what it’s worth: I think that, in the context of the whole men-in-skirts-and-heels discussion, we should make it a point to consciously look at the possible reasons why some partners of be-skirted and be-heeled men react the way they do, and why a seemingly simple matter of fabrics and cuts is such a complex terrain to navigate and causes so many relationship shipwrecks. Is gender normativity worth losing your partner over, your lover, your best friend and most trusted companion? Or should we think more about what really accepting one’s partner for who they are could mean for and add to modern relationships?
I think if we become more aware of what is at the root of our expectations and emotions such as shame and anger, and of the resulting arguments between us and our partners, we can use better words and make more informed, conscious choices and decisions in our relationships. Maybe we can veer towards more real understanding of each other and more accepting, inclusive concepts of romantic love, family, and friendship. Of course, none of us will ever be perfect practitioners of tolerance and generous acceptance of otherness. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth trying, if only to prevent a lot of heartbreak and suffering and, instead, to promote our enjoyment of our lives as couples.