Friday, March 18, 2016

Typical Shelly Fashion, part 2

Why do you wear the clothes that you wear?

The internet has had the wonderful effect of making people's digital pictures more or less permanent. And so today I thought I would use that fact to basically tell the story of the last decade of my life, primarily from the point of view of my fashion choices. While to some degree this feels mildly narcissistic, I feel like seeing something like this back when I was in the closet and convinced that transition would never work for me would have helped a lot. I like to think of this blog post as the photo album that I would love to travel back in time to show myself, back when I needed to know that life would eventually get better.

Behold - the slow and persistent transformation from gamer geek to...well, something else.

Pre-Transition (2005-2007)

The Pink Lady (2005): This Halloween costume would mark the first time I ever had the courage to dress as any sort of female in public. I was still very much at a point in my life where I felt completely judged and embarrassed to be seen wearing women's clothing, which I retroactively think is the reason I felt the need to go so over-the-top with it. If people thought I looked ridiculous, it would hurt less if I could argue it was on purpose. To give an idea of my confidence level, even thought it was Halloween I still needed to get extremely inebriated to even consider leaving the house like this. 
Purple Squares (2005): This is what I looked like pre-transition when it wasn't Halloween. Living as a male, I didn't really care much about what other people thought about my appearance. I basically just shopped at thrift stores and purchased colorful button-up shirts. I liked the color purple because it was in that perfect area between "masculine" and "feminine" - enough that I could express myself, but not enough that anyone might question it. I was terrified at the idea of people outside of my group of friends finding out that I was transgender. Don't let the fried chicken fool you - I was about as apathetic at this point in my life as one could be. My life was all about contentedness - a lot of time spent smoking pot, listening to music, and playing Magic: the Gathering online while I waited for time to pass and something to change. 
Hufflepuff (2006): I showed Cody this picture while I was writing this and asked for his opinion. His response was that I looked like Harry Potter. Sadly, he wasn't the first person to say this about me - even more sadly, it was my nickname back when I used to play competitive Dance Dance Revolution. All of my clothes ranged from men's size L to XL because I never really understood or cared what proper fitting clothes looked like, opting instead for comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. I also grew my hair out because I thought it would make me look more female, but I didn't take any sort of care of my hair whatsoever so it ended up being something of a wavy mess. 

Transition (2007-2009)

Muggle (2008): When I transitioned, I was working in desktop support for an insurance company. I told everyone in the company my intent, took a week off while I moved into a new apartment, and then came back from vacation as a woman. This picture was from that first day of back at work. Funny anecdote - I had one co-worker who had been on maternity leave through the entirety of my announcing my transition and had missed the news altogether. Her reaction two weeks later when she saw that I was now apparently female was to exclaim "What the hell?!?". Awk-ward. 

Lump of Kohl's (2008): After transitioning, one of the most startling changes was how aware I was of people judging my appearance. Once I gave myself a female haircut and started waxing my eyebrows and wearing clothes that fit, I passed as female most of the time. It was the first time in my life I consciously wanted to "just fit in and be normal". After years in the closet followed by more years focused on my transition, I started to pass only to realize that I had never really considered what my next steps would be. My wardrobe was largely built out of the clearance rack at Kohl's and could best be described as safe. Since I didn't really have too many female friends at this point, I was basically just basing my sense of fashion on lessons learned from watching "What Not To Wear" and "Project Runway". 

First Dress (2009): This picture was taken on the first sunny day of the year after I started living full-time as female. It was me at the peak of my dressing to look good while still fitting in. Passing as female was a huge priority for me - it was still new enough for me that every "she" felt like a success and every misgendering got under my skin. Thankfully, people for the most part had kind things to say about my appearance post-transition, which in turn boosted my confidence and self-esteem. It was the first point in my life where I was genuinely happy with how I looked. 

Party Shelly, low level (2009-2012)

Low-Level Adventurer (2009): Halloween weekend of 2009, I flew out to California for Festival 8 for my first Phish festival. I consider this the first true adventure that I ever went on in my life. I flew out by myself and ended up going very much outside of my comfort zone, as the extrovert in me was essentially forced to engage strangers and make new friends. Thankfully, I bonded really well with one specific new person, and by opening up about my past to him I realized that I didn't need to be so scared of people finding out about it. Awkwardly, I was so concerned with dressing in a way that would bring attention to myself that I only packed "normal" clothes, so when I got to this festival I felt more under the microscope than ever. Since there were plenty of vendors at the festival and I was still very much in the process of defining my wardrobe, I decided to purchase something new there and went with this poncho. Ironically, I was dressing off-beat in order to blend in. 

Spirit Animal (2010): While it's admittedly a little bit of an MtF cliche, I like butterflies. For a long time, I used to incorporate them into my style whenever appropriate. I've always appreciated the metaphor of an animal that underwent a significant period of being trapped in a cocoon, only to change into something both aesthetically pleasing and free to go fly wherever it wants. Although this was just a reasonably plain T-shirt that I got on sale at Target, I liked it because it was a shirt I could wear in public that, to me at least, conveyed the story I wanted my fashion sense to tell. This picture was taken at a music festival called Camp Bisco - while I was still far from completely comfortable with myself, at this point I was in love with the idea of concerts and music festivals because they were the best possible environment for me to get comfortable socializing with new people and making friends.

Game Changers (2011): I would say that this picture contains the two largest early influences on my post-transition sense of fashion. The first and most important is my best friend Kayla, who taught me how to be confident in my appearance and to focus my wardrobe on "do I think it looks good?" instead of "will other people think it looks good?". Despite the fact that she was 20 and I was 31 when we met, we were both in similar phases of our life and our personalities complimented each others extremely well. Also of note in this picture is that sweater - I fell in love with it because I paid almost nothing for it (at the Dollar a Pound store) and because it was my first taste of dressing in a less typically-feminine and more androgynous fashion - something I discovered I quite liked. 

Party Shelly, high level (2012-2014)

Dreadlings (2012): In the summer of 2012, Kayla put her hair in dreadlocks. This put me in an awkward position. I had long since thought dreads were a good look and entertained thoughts of putting my hair in them. At the same time, Kayla looked really good with them and I didn't want to bite her style. Plus, when it came to hair/fashion stuff I was largely clueless, so I'd require Kayla's help to put them in and felt uncomfortable asking. Months passed, and I finally swallowed my pride and told her how I felt - despite not wanting to feel envious, I did and couldn't help it. Being a top-shelf best friend, she understood where I was coming from and put them in for me. 

I.Tree Professional (2013): I was originally nervous to put my hair in dreadlocks - what if I didn't like them? How would I remove them? What if people judged me negatively for my hair? What if my job didn't approve? I shut down those trains of thought, realizing that they were the same doubts that stopped me from transitioning years earlier. It later dawned on me - people are going to judge me whether I like it or not, so instead of hiding from that, why not give them something to say? Unlike "tranny", which was a label that I didn't have any control over, "androgynous hippie" was one that I chose for myself. I came to an important realization - as long as I could proudly own the choices I made, fashion or otherwise, I didn't need to fear rejection from the masses. 

High-Level Adventurers (2014): When it comes down to it, I think the biggest single personality trait that Kayla and I have in common is a desire for personal growth and tendency to reflect on things. In the span of four years we lived together through multiple living situations (even sharing one small bedroom for close to a year), went on multiple roadtrips together, worked together at the same company, and essentially helped each other turn into our idealized selves. We went through some pretty amazing highs and some pretty challenging lows together! We liked to joke that every life lesson was like gaining a level in a video game, and the goal was to get as high-level as possible so we could go on epic quests to go slay the metaphorical dragons of life. And like in a video game, our senses of style evolved (we called our favorite outfits our "avatars") because they reflected the amount of confidence we had in ourselves. 

Shelly Moonbeam (2015-current)

Free (2015): For the duration of my party years, I struggled with one intense fear that I could never quite shake - that I was destined to die alone. I had been under the impression that dating would be easy once I got gender reassignment surgery, but if anything all that happened was that expectations went up while actual progress remained painfully stagnant. Although I made friends easily, when it came to physical contact and intimacy I was woefully alone. Thankfully for me, the character-building that I went through with Kayla motivated me to force myself to date, and in doing so I found Cody - possibly the only person in the world with a penchant for strangeness that matches my own. 

Lady Luck (2015): Falling in love with Cody had an extremely positive impact on my sense of fashion. A lot of my choices in the party years of my life were, to some degree, influenced by my fear of being alone for the rest of my life. Once I removed that from my life, I truly felt free to dress however I wanted - and was living with someone with the ability and desire to make new clothes for me. Why waste that on boring stuff? I wore this outfit to the Mohegan Sun Casino on a few occasions. Just like in other points in my life, I went in knowing full well that there would be people staring at me - but at this point I'm way too high of a level to care about that sort of thing. That said, most of the people who engaged me had kind words to say. Oftentimes I would tell people that I had decided to wear "whatever I want, whenever I want", to which people would overwhelmingly reply that they wished they could do the same. For various reasons - bosses, families, life circumstances - they didn't feel like they were able to. 

Don't Be a Quitter, Be a Quilt (2016): Those conversations at the casino ended up having a pretty large impact on me. Why can't most people dress however they want, whenever they want? I mean, shit... I didn't think I was able to live my life as a female, until I did. I didn't think I could wear my hair in dreadlocks..until I did. I never thought I would fall in love with anyone...until I did. I probably wouldn't have any of these things if I hadn't been willing to put myself out of my comfort zone when the circumstances dictated it. The more I reflected on this, the more I felt like I have more to give to the world than working at a 9-5 job (even one that I liked a lot). I want to spread the message to the world that challenging ourselves is how we gain levels, and gaining levels is the only way to truly tackle important challenges that life throws at us. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Typical Shelly Fashion, part 1

Go make yourself comfortable because this is gonna be a long one.

I've told the story dozens of times.

"Why did I move here from Boston?  Well, I've lived there my entire life and have worked in the same IT career for more than a decade, and I felt like my life was missing new experiences.  Cody has been working on an Etsy store now for almost a year, and it started to get to the point where we realized that we could probably live off of it if we cut down on expenses.  Both of us wanted to leave New England and find somewhere out on the west coast where we could settle down and work on building out Misfit Cords together.

We were originally aiming for somewhere in the Portland area, but didn't know that most apartments on the west coast charge application fees to even try to rent there.  That, combined with our being a couple (strike one) with a cat (strike two) and no guaranteed employer meant that we were largely out of luck.  After 11 straight days of staying at various Motel 6s across the country, I was starting to genuinely fear that our whole 'take a chance' attitude was going to lead us straight into homelessness in a strange part of the country.  The fear of failure was entirely too real, especially given that I had told everyone I knew that I felt confident I could make it work.

And then...thank our lucky stars!  Cody called a landlord from Forks, and he told us that he had a house that he was trying to rent out.  He was a fisherman and planned to be out on the water for the next few days, but told us that the door was unlocked and we were free to head over there and stay there until he came back.  If we liked it, we could rent it.  And, lo and behold, we both really like it here!"

If only you guys knew what crazy thoughts I was having underneath this hat!
It was to be expected.  Telling the same story over and over again comes with the territory when making a major life transition, especially given that I'm an outgoing strangle-dressing woman with dreadlocks who just moved to a small town.  One of the first questions that I'm inevitably asked (after "are you here for Twilight?") is what brought me out here to Forks, to the point where I feel like I'm reciting a speech from memory when I answer it.

Today I want to flesh that anecdote out just a little bit.  There's a lot more to the story than the truncated version that I tell people when I first meet them.  In fact, when I think about it, a lot of what I'm about to write consists of things that are central to my life philosophy that I've never really shared to a large degree despite trying to lead as open of a life as I can.  It's the story of my relationship with concepts like "art" and "fashion" and "identity" and what they mean to me.  It's the story of the vision that Cody and I are forging together and the trials and tribulations that come along with it.

This is the story of Misfit Cords.

The love of my life <3
I'll start with another story that I've told dozens of times.

"Roughly a year ago or so, Cody was working at a dead-end job that he didn't enjoy.  We were working opposite shifts with opposite sleep schedules, so despite living together we were only seeing each other for two or three hours on any given weeknight.

From the start of our relationship, Cody would make me art to express his feelings towards me.  The walls of our apartment in Boston were lined with all sorts of paintings and drawings and little comic strips that he would draw of the two of us going on crazy adventures.  A few months into the relationship, he surprised me with a pair of patchwork pants that he had made for me.  Unbeknownst to me, he had been creating his own clothes since he was a kid and had an incredibly keen sense for the type of clothes I like.

He followed it up with something else that I use to this day - a purse he made for me that matched most of my other clothes.  It started to become a tradition with us - we'd go to thrift stores together and buy loads of cheap stuff, and he would make me stuff when he had the time.  I loved going out wearing stuff he made for me!  And eventually it became obvious that creating art is where his skill and passion was - not only did I love my new wardrobe, but I got generally good feedback from other people.

So he quit his job and went full-time running an Etsy store.  It was a large risk at the time, but it ended up paying off rather quickly as it only took a few weeks before he started getting consistent sales.  He found a niche in making patchwork top hats out of upcycled materials from thrift stores - no one else was doing anything like what he was doing, and there was demand for it.  He started getting orders for custom-made hats from all over the world, and almost exclusively from interesting people.  Not only that, but he started getting 5-star ratings and repeat customers and good reviews.  It was clear that he was succeeding at it, and quicker than I ever would have believed was possible!

What every office should look like.
In fact, I started to get a bit envious.  Here I was, waking up at 6:30am five days a week and driving in two hours a day of traffic to go into an office to do what I was told, while he was home making original creations and forming a business from scratch.  He didn't report to anyone and was wholly accountable for his success or failure.  The timing of my burning out on IT coincided with the growth of the business - eventually there was so much work to do in growing out the store that he could no longer do it himself.  

A plan was hatched - I would be able to handle the web part of the business, which in turn would free up time for Cody to 100% dedicate himself to creating new things.  It would also give me time to pursue the things that interest me - specifically blogging.  So when the decision of "should we renew our lease in Boston?" came up, we decided not to.  And here we are."

Straight from the hood.
But life is never as simple as the stories!  There are a couple of simple realities that I don't think I was prepared for:
  • Moving across the country has a lot of stupid small expenses tied to it that add up pretty quickly.
  • Taking the store offline for a month killed a lot of the momentum we were having on all fronts - we could only take so many supplies, we had to stop creating for a month, and we took a corresponding step back from the sales numbers we were making before we left.
  • I am not nearly as comfortable as I thought I was going to be with trying to advertise Misfit Cords.  I thought it would be easy since I have 100% faith in the quality of Cody's work, but all of the same issues that I had with Facebook when I started this blog applied to the world of trying to boost pageviews on social media.  It all just feels so incredibly impersonal to me and outside of my comfort zone.
  • The freedom that I wanted to experience - working for myself instead of spending my time at a job - can be downright terrifying when I don't know what the next steps to take are and have no one but myself to hold accountable for it.
  • That terrifying feeling is even worse when there aren't any other distractions (like a steady job or social life) to get in the way.
I'm just going to admit it right here in my journal - there are times where it's extremely stressful to be in the position that I'm in.  I went through this when I transitioned - the idea of putting our all into something and potentially failing at it is scary as hell.  All I can do is to take that fear and to stop, understand it, process it, and then allow it to motivate me to work harder.  I like that I'm feeling like the semi-occasional moment of panic because that feeling tells me that it will be all the more worth it if and when we succeed.

"Just be yourself, yo."
I did some reflection on the trouble that I'm having advertising Misfit Cords on social media.  I don't like the idea of spamming people on social media for the purposes of trying to sell them something.  The idea of fighting on the internet to have our store be heard over all the others just feels incorrect to me.  As soon as the goal becomes selling instead of creating art, it becomes exponentially harder to remain inspired and motivated.  And the clock isn't going to stop ticking.

And here's the answer that I came up with - I need to bring my art to the table.

I mean...right?  One of the main reasons that I moved out of Boston is that I wanted more time and freedom to write, ideally for a living.  The reason that I like writing is that I genuinely enjoy the feeling of connection that comes with giving everyone an open invite to experience what we're actually going through as we try and build up Misfit Cords.  I'm doing this as opposed to paying Etsy or Facebook money to spam our advertising to as many people as possible - I would rather market the store by sharing its story and inviting those who are interested in it to follow along with us.  :)

Don't be a mad hater - be a mad hatter!
To everyone who got to the end of this post, I want to end things with a simple request to those who want to help support us:
There's always going to be a small voice in the back of my head that's worried that we made a mistake in coming here that isn't going to pay off.  We'd be foolish not to be at least a little bit nervous.  I write this with the full awareness of the fact that plenty of people won't like Cody's creations or my writing, and that's fine. But with great risks come great rewards, and to me a life spent doing what we want for an audience that wants to see it is as fulfilling a life as we could ask for.