I like clothes. I love seeing them hanging in my closet. I cherish each piece the same way someone cherishes a lock of their child’s hair, in that it gives me memories and sentimental value. Dressing myself gives me food; it offers me an identity; it helps me push back the outer expectations of who and how I should be. I view my style as feminism, so much so that I feel personally responsible for wearing what I want to wear, so that it sends the message that I love my body and feel free to express myself completely with him.
This was not always the case. I am a first generation Cuban-American who grew up in Miami. I was raised close to my roots and very religious. My upbringing taught me to have a sense of ambivalence towards clothing through the idea that women who love themselves don’t dress for themselves. I dressed modestly, and not without shame. Generally, Miami is the city of sunshine, and the stereotype is that women wear sexy mesh, high-cut bikini bottoms and skin-tight dresses. Coming from a religious, traditionally Hispanic home, this has always stuck with me; a consciousness of objectification is part of what has deterred me from having fun and seeking authenticity with fashion. Still, I often felt better when I was in a dressing room trying on light, somewhat revealing clothes.
Is my need to express myself through clothes a failure to be a true feminist?
Some of my earliest memories of dressing center around my Catholic school uniform. Girls were required to wear pleated skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and ties; our shoe options were tube socks with penny loafers or oxfords. This combination also had several rules: the top button of our shirts had to be permanently buttoned, our skirts had to fall just below the knees, and our socks had to be above the ankle. And girls — even those with straight A’s — were punished harder for breaking those standards when the norm was very lax for boys. So, from an early age, I learned that my body was a powerful sexual entity – but instead of embracing that, I thought the female body needed to be tamed.
And yet, there were so many times I wanted to explore how things looked on my figure. I wanted to dive into the Regina George era of a short pleated skirt and a shiny bra that showed through a translucent white tank top. I wanted to wear skintight leggings with a sports bra and shimmery eyeshadow to Britney Spears’ VMA performance in 1999. I wanted to wear cropped jeans with a daisy print top that showed off my midriff just like Hilary Duff in Lizzie McGuire. I wanted to wear big gold hoop earrings and a velvet Juicy Couture suit with a bandana holding my breasts like J.Lo did in her “I’m Real” music video.
But I also couldn’t tell if my desire to do these things was because I wanted to be apart of my family, or if that was when I felt most like myself. Since I didn’t leave myself much room for exploration, these were things left to fantasy. During this time, I dressed modestly so as not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.
My mindset started to change as I learned about the feminist movement in college, but not my style. I’m grateful to the women who taught me about equality, threw red paint on patriarchy and how to stand up for women’s rights, but usually they wore button-down blouses, combat boots and bootcut pants – a aesthetic that, while certainly different from my strict school uniform, I still didn’t feel like me. Sometimes their heads were shaved or very short to avoid any need for maintenance. Their outfits were mostly in neutral tones, like whites and blacks. But I could tell they felt comfortable in the way they dressed and didn’t have the slightest curiosity to change things up. They exuded confidence in their appearance, while I still exuded pure uncertainty.
I believed in all the feminist ideals I absorbed, but I also loved the clothes and didn’t want to keep my sense of style a secret anymore. So I asked myself: Is my need to express myself through clothes a failure to be a true feminist? Could a feminist reach her authentic self through clothing? Can clothes amplify a feminist voice instead of stifling it? Can you be a feminist only by dressing like a man?
It may surprise some to learn that I found my answers in fashion. When I graduated and moved to New York to pursue a career in publishing, my idea of style was to dress seriously if I wanted to be taken seriously. But throughout my nearly 10 years in the industry, what I’ve learned about women and the way they dress is that they should just do it for themselves. I had a colleague who wore a hot pink form every day. Another showed her midriff as it brought her closer to her Indian roots. And a colleague often arrived at the office in fishnet stockings and platform vines.
I felt lucky to be among people who used clothing as a form of expression. There was a sense of cultural belonging, and I saw people dress as a way of honoring their history and identity – not hard and fast rules. My tenure as a fashion editor solidified my love for clothes and took away the shame that came with it. Thanks to my experience in fashion, I have learned that clothing can be a deep sense of expression: it symbolizes one’s struggles, triumphs and, more generally, one’s vision of oneself.
Now, in full maturity, I have also begun to see the parallels between my relationship to my clothes and my relationship to my body. Over the years, I’ve built my stories of what’s wrong with my figure and what I should – and shouldn’t – wear. My body affected my sense of self and when I added the concept of clothing it gave me an extra sense of limitation. But these days, I’m at peace with myself and my appearance. It’s such a great place to come and accept, and I’m glad I came! I feel free in what I wear, whether it’s revealing, colorful, concealed or discreet. I look forward to expressing myself in new ways every day.
The idea that women should fit any specific style mold is a direct contradiction to feminism itself. Of course, dress modestly if that’s what the person inside you chooses to do. But don’t hide (literally or figuratively) if that only feeds the “ideals” you have been taught. By simply putting on whatever outfit I want, I reclaim ownership of my body and all the opinions that have been expressed about it. Feminism, for me, is about loving your body and adorning it with everything that brings us joy. Because what could be more feminist than a person who loves himself?