I am femme. I know this because my feet hurt. All the time. And I like it. I gain my strength from the power that emanates from my stiletto heels. If my bra is not both itching me and poking me in the heart with a loose sharp metal underwire, then I am not complete. If my panties do not match said uncomfortable lace bra, then there should be a damn good reason why. (There is a lingerie of the month club—if you didn’t know this, then you should. There is also a shoe of the month club, of which I am a VIP Diamond Elite member.)
Jeans have never been a part of my wardrobe. A devout fan of the movie musicals of the 1930s and ’40s, I wore peignoir sets to bed at fourteen and once owned high-heel slippers with marabou puffs that I wore with deadly seriousness. Skirts are my weapon of choice. Pencil skirts. Mini-skirts. Skirts with a twirl. And they will stay above my knee until I am buried far below the ground. My makeup is never perfect but it is always applied before I leave the house. I can’t fashion a proper cat’s eye to save my life but I will damn well keep trying.
The high-femme power is genetic. My oldest daughter, whose first sentence was “Mommy, new dress? Not great,” has inherited a love of makeup and at the age of six sighed and chastised my overenthusiasm for a new lip colour: “Mommy, you cannot do a bright eye and a dark lip. You get one or the other. Here, let me do it for you.” I believe in my heart she is this way because when my Ob/Gyn came to tell me that she was to be delivered by emergency caesarean section, the first thing I did was to ask for my red lipstick, which I applied while in active labour, being raced down the hallway on a gurney to the OR.
Though a perfectly arched brow and waist training are currently on-trend, the trappings of femininity are often considered shallow and frivolous. But I have always been overt in my traditionally feminine appearance and I imagine I will always be this way. And it is not shallow to me. It is armour. Identity. A statement that I can be queer in whatever way suits me. That although I may appear to be straight-passing, I will continue to fight the stereotype that lesbians (in particular) only come in one box. I do not dress this way to appear straight. I do not dress this way because it is easier, or to make others comfortable with my presentation. I do it because it is who I am—who I have always been, and who I want to be.
Somewhere between coming out as a lesbian in a monogamous relationship at twenty-four and now coming out again at forty, this time as a divorced, single, queer woman, the options have wonderfully expanded. Back in the late 1990s it felt (with my limited understanding at the time) as if there were only three styles of “lesbian”: butch, femme, and androgynous. Pick one, find your corresponding partner, and move on. But now, facing the dating scene post-2015, many of the femme-identifying people I know choose to live a comfortable life, in jeans and chucks. Femmes with backwards baseball caps, fades and inked sleeves, but contoured makeup and microbladed brows. And they look damn good. There are so many ways to celebrate your femme style now.
High femmes like me sometimes feel on the wrong side of current fashion. There are femmes who viscerally reject my far end of the presentation spectrum. Femmes who suggest I am simply supporting patriarchal expectations of women and perpetuating a damaging cultural cycle and impossible standards. And they have a good point. I often feel antiquated when I walk into a dance in a black cocktail dress with a clutch instead of a cotton tank and ripped jeans. I fear that I am seen as flaunting the “costume” of woman without acknowledging the negativity that surrounds that portrayal. That I am positively drowning in my privilege (which I am highly aware of). I just wish that people could see what is in my heart underneath those opera-length pearls.
I was raised in a large family, a matriarchy, under the shadow of strong, powerful, glamorous women who were mostly widowed or divorced young and left to raise their children alone. Heels were never just an adornment in my family: they were a crest, a symbol of strength and woman’s independence. I am now in the same position—yes, a co-parent, but decidedly alone when I am actively parenting my children. There is no one to bathe one child while I’m tending to the other, feverish in bed. I am often cleaning, making dinner, doing homework, dressing Barbies, and coping, all while wearing heels.
My mother-in-law and I share a love of shoes and a mutual understanding of what they mean to us. When I told her after a recent accident that a doctor suggested I cut out the heels for good, I cried. She held my hand and said, “I know, I know. But don’t give up, just wear little ones for a while. You’ll soon see yourself back in your tall heels again. It might not be every minute of the day but you will be able to wear them when it counts.” She was the first person who didn’t laugh or ridicule me for the grief I felt over that news. Without the heels I wasn’t sure who I was. When my feet are flat, I feel powerless, vulnerable, ill-prepared to face the day in front of me. I often hear “you and those damn heels” with either a giggle or a wagging finger, but am rarely understood.
There are others who have a different appreciation for heels, who fetishize me and paint me into a sexually dominant corner. Not that it isn’t a correct placement—it just isn’t always accurate or perhaps as fleshed out as they expect. But I understand the heel-worship factor. They can see the strength in the shoe. As do I.
For the last twenty-five years I have walked the world over in knee-high, black, five-inch heeled boots. I delivered two children in classic black pumps with my heels clipped into the stirrups. But I truly didn’t understand how important they were to me as battle armour until I clutched my children’s small hands in mine, gathering strength as I walked, heel-toe, towards my ex-wife and her new girlfriend and handed my babies to them on our daughter’s birthday, thinking to myself, “Good luck walking a mile in my shoes: it takes a strong woman to walk that far in these heels.” There is something to be said for holding what often feels like the weight of the world on a thin heel that hides a steel rod down its centre. Something about being able to bear the pain that life throws at you and to do it while being impeccable from top to bottom. Much of the world rejects femininity in all genders as the essence of weakness and the antithesis of traditionally defined “masculine” strength, but to endure heels for sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, you have to be built from strong stock.
I am femme. I know this because I am strong and soft like leather, shiny and pulled together like a perfectly fitted zipper. I am sexy like the curve of my heel and sharp like my stiletto. I can carry myself and balance my two children in my arms on one thin pinprick of support. I am never completely grounded, hovering just a few inches above the world. I was designed to be adored, best when taken out for nice evenings on the town. And although loving a femme can be a little painful at times, if you can understand the reasons behind the efforts, it’s worth it. Even if I sometimes pinch.
Allyson McOuat is an all-purpose writer, both creative and corporate, with personal essays published in the Globe and Mail and various lifestyle magazines. An enthusiastic supporter of those wanting to make a difference, Allyson uses her writing powers for good by raising funds through grant writing for community programs. An inclusion advocate, Allyson also served as the general manager for the ReelAbilities Film Festival. Allyson is a currently a copywriter and corporate communications strategist at her family’s Markham-based advertising agency and lives in downtown Toronto with her two wildly adorable daughters and a mischievous little cat named Panda.