“Do you think I’m a girl?”
I demanded of my roommate Iris, who, until I interrupted her, had been casually sprawled on her bed, reading a fashion magazine.
She looked up with that startled, deer-caught-in-headlights expression and pondered my presence in the doorway, where I stood in five-inch Frederick’s of Hollywood stiletto-heeled pumps, a tight black vintage ‘50’s cocktail dress and bottle-blonde platinum Monroe-do, one wispy tendril falling into my sooty, smoldering, carefully lined and shadowed eyes.
Iris’ face registered surprise not because of my appearance – the look I was sporting was common back then, in mid-1980’s Hollywood – but because of the urgency with which I asked the question.
“Of course you’re a girl,” she stammered, puzzled, not knowing quite how to react.
“Why? Why do you think I’m a girl?”
“Well… uh…” she paused for a moment, biting her lip to think.
Sensing my growing panic, she rallied ‘round in that supportive manner Dorothy Gale had when she addressed the Cowardly Lion or The Scarecrow. Then she said, as though it made all the sense in the world,
“Because when you wash your fishnets, you always hang them over the bathtub faucet to dry!”
I promptly retired to my own room to cry.
I didn’t even cotton to the surrealism of the situation at hand – I was, for God’s sake, having my period! Yet it wasn’t about biological functions; it wasn’t that I was questioning my sexual identity, it was just that… I felt more like a person than a Female Person, and I couldn’t figure out why. And sometimes – like during menstrual related mood swings – it bothered me.
I never felt really “feminine” in that Tampax-ad kind of way, the way Maria in West Side Story felt when she sang I Feel Pretty, though I’ve definitely exhibited way more than a few of the traits our culture ascribes to girls and women. Although I grew up a rough-and-tumble tomboy, as a kid I also loved to wear white patent leather Mary Janes ,with matching, lace-ruffled socks. I played tackle football and caught frogs, but I love to carry a purse and kept inside it a little cloisonné powder compact.
In junior high, I was more interested in microscopes and science projects than in boys – and I thought all the other girls’ giggling and gossiping about them was kind of stupid. So were their “training bras,” bought in pastel lingerie departments in discount houses like Caldor’s: white polyester fiber-filled garments that were nothing but glorified undershirts, in sizes like AAA. I can't even begin to describe the disdain I felt for those poor girls and their dumb little bras and their hopelessly bourgeois aspirations... (“If I don’t make the cheering squad, why I’ll just die!”). I’m reasonably sure it had something to do with the way my mother conditioned me. Mom was what a redneck would call a “bra-burning feminist.” She was intelligent, outspoken and belligerent. She was a pioneer, radical even for the 1960’s college campus where she worked, where I roamed the student-strike/war moratorium-torn grounds.
The townie girls’ mothers took them to get training bras by the end of fourth grade. Not my mother. I had to shoplift my first brassiere.
I am woman, hear me roar/my breasts are too big to ignore.
That was how I felt, anyway, even though, by the age of thirteen, they’d barely manifested themselves, and it wasn’t like anyone would’ve noticed if they had: the fashion of the day was less like what Marcia Brady was wearing and more like what Seattle-based musicians in the 1990’s flaunted – loose Levi 501s and shredded, faded flannel shirts.
But I had to have a bra, goddammit!
I finally settled on a bra and panty set I’d seen in Woolworth’s, because it was so soigné and grown up. There was no way in hell I was going to wear a training bra. It was light, seafoam green stretch-lace, with ecru lace elastic and soft cups that were ruched to a V in the center, where a trio of little roses – one white, one pink, one lavender – sat atop a tiny satin bow.
I was swooning when I swiped it , and I even remember how much it cost - $1.99! Once I got home, I raced into the bathroom and changed into the set, standing on top of the toilet to get a look at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. God, it-- no, I -looked so beautiful! The bikini panties were the first I’d ever worn (until then, it was waist-high cotton Carter’s) and they felt so daring and adult and… I could hardly stand myself.
From that moment on, there was no looking back.
I moved swiftly into the realm of hot pants, dangly earrings and Maybelline Roll-On Kissing Gloss. At my first job as a 14 year old waitress at The Farm Shop, the manager routinely yelled at me because my flowered bikini panties were visible under my white uniform. To me, that was the whole point…I wanted everyone to see that I had on Foxy Lady Underpants!
By 1972, I discovered net stocking and garters, having seen the movie Cabaret a number of times. My mother was appalled.
“That’s bondage clothing!” she hollered in frustration, “Don’t you understand?”
She wasn’t even talking about BDSM, just panty-girdles! I didn’t understand, because I’d never lived through the days where women had to look and behave a certain way or be branded a “bad girl.” Actually, I adored the concept of Bad Girls. I continued blissfully and blithely exploring outré and exotic fashion statements until my mid-twenties, when I began to feel more like a person than a female person.
“Now, I know exactly what you meant back then,” Iris said, recently.
“Sometimes, I just feel sexless! I mean, I really empathize with women, but I had three brothers and all my role models were men. Why do you think I was so crazy with the high heels and the lipstick? Because I didn’t feel like a girl… I always wanted to outdo the men…out-drink them, out-fuck them. It was constant competition, I’d wear my rhinestones and fishnets, but I’d feel like a drag queen! I’d always feel like, deep down inside, I was pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes.”
Personally, even at my slinkiest and most seductive, I still feel like the same person who used to fall out of trees or build forts on a regular basis. Even after exercising the full power of my “feminine wiles” on some hapless guy ( or on stage) underneath the fishnets, my knees to this day have bruises or scabs on them, and under my acrylic nails, I still get a tad scummy from painting or playing with my kitties in the dirt. At the core of my soul, I know the entire notion of “femininity” the way we Westerners see it, anyway, is pure Madison Avenue, invented by the media to correspond with their warped notions of what a woman should be. I love everything sparkly and glamorous, but I’m also not afraid to get…a little scary!
I remember walking down the street with my friend Renee, who’s a really attractive redhead, when a guy coming towards us gave us a typical leering come-on.
“Oh now, come on!” Renee said in a tone of voice that was more perturbed Cub Scout Den Mother than it was rankled Riot Girrl,
“Is that any way for two human beings to talk to one another?”
The poor bastard did a triple-take and his face reddened as he slunk away, feeling the universal emotion known as humiliation.
No matter who we are, girl, boy or in between, we have to remember what we all have in common:
the fact that we are human beings.
If you liked this story and want to read more, you can get my book “Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage And On The Road” here: