Out look: Queer women worry about fashion choices

For some people, choosing an outfit each day awakens anxieties about their appearance. For queer women, new research shows, fashion choices create a unique set of worries: Will I look too queer in this shirt? Does this dress make me seem straight?

Assistant Professor of Apparel Design and Merchandising Kelly Reddy-Best

Assistant Professor of Apparel Design and Merchandising Kelly Reddy-Best

The study of queer women, conducted by Kelly Reddy-Best, assistant professor of apparel design and merchandising at SF State, revealed that participants embraced fashion as an important way to reflect their sexual identity -- with stressful consequences.

"You use clothes to tell people who you are, particularly when it's really meaningful to you," Reddy-Best said. "A lot of women have issues with clothes because of the general pressure to have an ideal look. But on top of that, there is another layer of sexual identity that adds pressure."

For the study, to be published in the forthcoming issue of The International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education in October, Reddy-Best and her co-author, Elaine L. Pedersen of Oregon State University, conducted in-depth interviews with 20 women age 18 to 35 who self-identify as queer. The participants discussed their sense of style and how they express their sexual identity through fashion choices. They were then asked to keep a daily diary for two weeks, documenting the levels of stress they felt about their outfits in different situations.

Nearly all participants said they changed their appearance after they came out because they wanted to be more visibly queer. Typically, this meant adopting a more masculine style of dress or a short haircut. One participant, for example, said of her long hair: "I was like, 'This isn't working, I have to show the world that I like girls.' So I cut my hair, and immediately people would pay attention to me."

The study also revealed that, without exception, participants felt distress related to their choices to reveal or conceal their queer identity through their appearance. All 20 said they focused more on their looks when wearing clothes they felt marked them as queer. "Even when I'm walking to the bus stop and no one sees me, I'm like, 'Oh, I'm wearing my lesbian shoes,'" one participant said.

Most of the women reported that they frequently shifted between styles of dress, from feminine to masculine and back, depending on the context. Multiple participants said they wore layers, allowing them to quickly change their look throughout their day, according to Reddy-Best.

Thirteen out of 20 participants said they made an effort to alter their appearance so as not to look too queer in certain situations. "It was a constant negotiation of what space they were going to be in, who they might be around and how they would be perceived," Reddy-Best said.

Eight participants worried that they looked "too queer" or masculine at work, and seven reported a high level of distress at family events for the same reason. On the other hand, half of the participants worried about being mistaken for straight by other members of the queer community. When going to a Gay Pride or similar event, one participant said she "hauls out the shiny purple metallic boots or rainbow jewelry" so other members of the queer community won't think she's "just a straight girl hanging out."

Four women, or 20 percent of the participants, recorded in their diaries nearly constant feelings of distress about looking either "too queer" or "not queer enough" -- a phrase used by multiple participants.

As part of their diary, participants photographed themselves in every outfit they wore, as many as four a day, including gym clothes and pajamas. The participants and researchers then discussed each photo and how the participant felt at the time. "The point was to get at everyday experiences that most people don't think about, not moments of blatant discrimination or harassment," Reddy-Best explained.

The professors also conducted research on the level of stress queer women feel when shopping. In that study, to be submitted for publication in November, Reddy-Best learned that most survey participants felt frustration with finding clothing that fit and matched their desired styles. Participants also had stressful experiences dealing with sales associates, particularly when choosing to shop in the men's department.

While society generally has grown more accepting of the LGBTQ community, Reddy-Best said it's important to continue to shed light on these issues. "In an ideal world, we don't want people to have these moments just because they're queer. We want equal rights for everybody, an equal feeling of safety and comfort."

-- Beth Tagawa