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Shopping trips and sexual identity

An accumulation of recent events and activity has me thinking a lot about this long, circuitous journey that has become my personal and sexual identity.  Or maybe it should be identities; or, better yet, the spectrum of identities upon which I find myself traversing.

When I visited Max last month, we took a brief shopping trip along with one of his partners, Red.  There is perhaps nothing more innocuous than a shopping trip.  We were, specifically, shopping for a little black dress for me, along with a pair of wearable heels (the pair I brought were 4 inch monsters I managed to convince myself I could wear for 2 hours straight. Despite the fact that I overwhelmingly favor flip-flops and hiking sandals over any heeled shoe).

What began as nothing more than a fun outing became unexpectedly troubling and triggering for me.  It’s embarrassing to admit that here, that I let a shopping trip get to me.  Of course, no one chooses their triggers, but still.

I wrote privately in depth on some of the personal history I have with this, much of it related to family shopping trips and the way I felt like a dress-up doll.  In short, I grew to hate clothes shopping as a child.  And as I grew older and my various family members continued to press specific clothes onto me, I only felt more repelled by it, especially shopping for feminine clothing.  I decried the physical limitations of dresses and skirts, hated wearing bras, and opted to hide in bookstores on family outings to the mall.  I still get an immediate visceral reaction to being around clothes, and I swear clothes racks make me claustrophobic.

Related to all of this is the issue of self-image that I was struggling with at the time.  There were years where I refused to look at myself in the mirror.  There were the constant disparaging remarks about my weight, size, and skin, and constant comparisons made against my peers.  And of course, rather than achieving anything productive out of that, I just withdrew more within myself, and isolated myself from others.  I had no overwhelming desire to be more like my peers, and as my best friend also had an unfavorable opinion on most of the rest of our schoolmates, I did not feel compelled by any sort of peer pressure to assimilate.  I just never cared that much about what I happened to be wearing on my body, as long as it was comfortable, kept me warm or cool as the weather dictated, and allowed me to climb trees.  I admit, there was also the detrimental belief that pretty clothes and makeup could not fix what was not fixable to begin with, and the accepted belief that I just was not that kind of girl.

I probably spent all of high school looking pretty scruffy and disheveled as a consequence.  It wouldn’t be until halfway through college that I would start to care more about my clothes.  And this was expedited by my relationship with Tim.  I dressed up for him, because he wanted me to.  He bought me dresses, each a bit shorter and more revealing than the last, and encouraged me to wear skimpy outfits around campus.  And he encouraged me to wear makeup, and for him, I did.  I often wonder if I would know anywhere near as much about makeup application as I do now, if not for him.

When I broke things off with Tim, I felt like I’d lost a huge sense of self.  And there was no time for me to process everything because I had to go to Costa Rica for my study abroad program a month later.  There, amongst an intimate group of students and acres of rainforest and wilderness, I tried to keep myself together.  It was difficult to fully enjoy the trip with the weight of this recent emotional baggage, and when I could, I emailed or messaged with J and confided in him.  All the while, I was coming to love my trip and the people I was with, especially once we flew to Cayman Islands for the coral reef ecosystem portion of the study abroad.  There, I fell in love with long, flowing beach dresses and skirts (what my mother, in fits of anger, would call “gypsy clothing” derisively).

Once I returned from Costa Rica, I left almost immediately again for Taiwan, where I stayed for most of the spring and summer taking a class at a local university.  There, despite my aunts’ best attempts to take me shopping (for miniskirts and bras, no less), I strove for autonomy, found my own apartment, and started hanging out with expats, where I would meet and start dating M.  Luckily M approved of whatever I wore, and I felt free to continue indulging in my newfound interest in this particular style of dress.  And since I, the darker-skinned American, was already seen as the Other on the island, it was a given to my relatives that I would dress and act oddly anyway.

Once I finally returned to the States to continue my fall term at college, I had repieced together parts of my identity and felt freer to express it than before.  I began to enjoy going, alone or with friends, to the local thrift store in search of cheap clothing, where I often found dresses I liked (and discovered I looked good in).  I stayed away from anything above the knee, feeling still raw at the intentions that Tim had in encouraging that specific kind of dress.  I am reminded of a conversation I had with a close friend, D, where we were discussing dating habits and history.  She told me how she felt that each preceding partner influenced her choice in and attraction to future partners, and how she often looked for opposite qualities from her most recent partner.  This is how I felt about my clothing choices.

So for the most part, I stayed away from anything that could be described as revealing.  I was also tentatively working in the concept of clothing as a part of my identity.  It was still incredibly vague and formless, but I think it was around then, early spring of my senior year, that I began to realize the power and messages that clothing can convey.  And I was doing my hardest to convey a sense of independence, freedom, and purity to fend off the guilt and shame that lingered around the latex skirts, collars, and garters and stockings that defined my time with Tim.

Then, lo and behold, a year later I discovered the public kink community.  Specifically, I fell in with the Bound in Boston crowd, met Dov, even went to a suspension-themed play party in NYC.  I dusted off those garters and stockings and a little black dress, the only fetish-y articles of clothing I’d kept, and found that I was no longer reminded of Tim just by looking at them.  I wore them one last time, to that NYC play party, before I finally threw them away.

And now?  Now, after moving to San Francisco, discovering the immense kinky community here, and attending IMsL, I find myself drawn and attracted to a new aesthetic, yet one reminiscent of my childhood: leather, jeans, and boots.  Thanks to the increased exposure to the leather community, Max introducing me to bootblacking, and working at Wicked Grounds, I’ve come to embrace my love of boots with gusto.  Since purchasing my first pair of Frye’s harness boots, I feel like I’ve found a part of myself, as utterly clichéd as that sounds.  I’ve never felt so compelled or attracted to any piece of clothing, much less any kind of footwear.  But when I walk around in these boots, a jolt of thrill courses up my legs with each step, and I feel a strong sense of power.

At this moment I still oscillate between the easy comfort of soft, breezy cotton dresses that I can quickly slip into and the harder, angular lines of jeans, boots, and leather jacket that fill me with such satisfaction.

So, how does all of this tie into the visceral reaction I had to shopping for a little black dress?  I guess, in all of this, I’ve still kept away from adding both formal dresses and fetishwear to my wardrobe.  And so, while I have a fairly clear idea of what I look like in my gypsy dresses or in my tank top and jeans, I still don’t know how to pick out fancier dresses for my body’s shape and size.  I don’t have any experience wearing nice dresses and heels, and rarely have I needed to.

Perhaps that was enough uncertainty and doubt to bring back all of that history in one solid punch to the gut.

Perhaps my aversion to short black dresses specifically has to do with Tim, and the way he was trying to change me, as a person, through what I wore.

I’m not sure.  I certainly wasn’t happy about the way I was feeling, and it was affecting the way I acted with Max, which made me even unhappier.  Despite knowing, logically, that Max did not have the same intentions as Tim did, I could not stop the emotional doubts regarding the purpose of the trip from racing through my head.

I knew from when I first agreed to be in service to Max during Folsom that I would have to deal with an abundance of emotional baggage.  Yet I never expected that baggage to rear its head, nine months later, at a thrift store in Seattle.

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  1. May 25, 2010 at 5:37 am

    I totally get how this stuff can happen. I once found myself sobbing trying to put on a pair of stockings, and R had to comfort me and then help me. (It was more of a body-image issue, but still.)

    Can I ask what happened on the trip, and what you were feeling? You said you had a strong reaction and it colored how you behaved toward Max–would you feel comfortable expanding on that part? I’m probably just pruriently curious, so no need to answer if not!

    • May 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm

      I felt…defensive. I felt my walls going up, probably because trying on all these different dresses and not liking most of them made me self-conscious. I also felt a bit clunky and awkward, as I am not that graceful to begin with. Having two pairs of eyes on me didn’t help either, despite knowing logically that they weren’t scrutinizing my body.

      All in all, it was an exceedingly uncomfortable situation, and I could feel myself withdrawing and losing my focus on Max. And since being in service to him is the highlight and purpose of my visits, I also felt badly that my own negativity and reticence were intruding on our (limited) time together.

      As far as outward behavior, there were changes in my body posture and in the way I talked that Max picked up on, but may not have been otherwise apparent. And we’ve talked about this a bit, but I take a while to process these things – this took me two weeks to write!

      I sympathize with the body image issue – it’s a completely sucky thing to deal with.

  2. May 26, 2010 at 4:19 am

    Ugh. I can totally see why’d you’d feel defensive and self-protective given your history. I also sympathize with this stuff. But as you said, part of being in service (or being owned, or submitting, or whatever) is slowly unpacking all this emo stuff we often don’t know we had. I totally get that it takes time to process. Glad for you that you were able to find the source of the distress . . . and great post.

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