Body Language: I wanted to be one of the boys, but fashion had other ideas

Body Language is an essay series that speaks to the ongoing conversation about beauty standards around the world—an exploration of where we came from and where we’re headed. 

I was raised by a mother who raged against the strictures of 1950s femininity by lacing up her Converse and sprinting in the other direction. She wore Levi’s 501s and flannel shirts and dressed her two young daughters in kind, a second-wave feminist sartorial backlash that became rigid in its own right. Find your uniform, she preached, and get on with the important things in life. Makeup was anathema, as was any effort to enhance one’s appearance. Clothing was valued, coveted even, but only if it was classic, durable, and, in large part, purchased in the men’s section. In our family, we intuitively understood boyishness to be better than girliness. To be boyish was to be natural, serious, athletic, scrappy—yar in that WASP-y Philadelphia Story Katharine Hepburn way, never mind that we were bookish Midwestern Jews.

When it came time to take control of her own appearance, my older sister, from birth smaller, more delicate, and more femme than I, eagerly broke with the house style. But I took my mother’s rejection of all things girly and ran with it. She took great pleasure as a middle-aged lady in showing up at my lawyer dad’s work parties in Annie Hall-ish tomboy drag. I, a child of 1980s Chicago, where the discourse very much did not yet include any notion of raising one’s daughter gender neutral or non-conforming, desperately wished to be a boy. So, I kept my hair short—save an ill-begotten rat tail that was more bewildering than masculine—and committed myself to a wardrobe of sweatpants and Dickies, swaggering slogan tees, and oversized Chicago Bulls jackets. I played on boys’ sports teams, made almost exclusively male friends, and attended boys’ sleepover parties where, late at night, my horny, young comrades used their parents’ dial-up connections to scour the internet for the kind of pornography only adolescent straight boys might like. My presence did nothing to deter this, nor did I have the wherewithal to express my discomfort. But there was also something so deeply satisfying about being invisible in their midst, truly one of the pack. I equally thrilled to the bus driver who once mistakenly called me “son” as I paid my fare. What a feat to be so self-invented! It helped that I was the tallest person in my grade, always at the back of the school photo, and slow to puberty. I wore swim trunks to the beach right up until the moment that my sister glanced down at my 12-year-old bare chest and informed me that my nipples had gotten puffy, and please put a shirt on.

It was around this time that I, still a twiggy, prepubescent featherweight, assumed my full height of six feet tall, and perhaps you can now see where this story is going. It was the mid-1990s, and a certain kind of terribly thin, unkempt, androgynous look was very much in fashion. Even the rat tail was suddenly working for me, if one assumes I was pleased about the abrupt crush of attention from model scouts, photographers, and casting agents who seemed always to be loitering on the streets of my leafy neighborhood, waiting to press their business cards into my sticky palms. But I wasn’t happy. Modeling was as unsavory to me as makeup was to my mom, something only a girl might do, and it felt like a breach of my careful disguise that these adults saw something in me that I hadn’t wished to convey. The story from that era that sticks out was the time, around my freshman year of high school, that I accompanied a friend, a fierce vegan activist, to a protest outside a furrier on Michigan Avenue. There were six or seven of us marching in a loose ring, chanting “fur is murder” and waving signs pasted with images of sad, skinned little minks and rabbits. But I was the only one the store’s owner came out to pull aside. Would I be interested in returning the following week to shoot their new campaign?

The author in her early teens.

Courtesy of Julia Felsenthal

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