It’s Christmas week and we’re all preparing for holiday time – which I want to be a part of too – so for the second last post of 2011, I’m going to refrain from getting heavy into research and instead bring you a little personal history. Why? Because people often ask me why I work with men only and this seems like a good time to share.
I was brought up with boys, namely, my two boy cousins, one of which was born 5 days before I was (we just had our birthdays over the last week). My cousins influenced me greatly, and when my younger brother came along, I was surrounded by boys, playing “boy” games, playing with “boy” toys, talking about “boy” things. I always had more boy friends than girl friends (still true). Consequently, this influenced my way of thinking and understanding, and I went out of my way to be accepted by boys and try to fit in with them, and I suppose this is where my interest in males in general began.
I can’t explain why, but I have always been fascinated with men’s clothing. During my late teens, I started understanding my build and found that men’s pants fit me better than women’s pants did (being 5’2 in the 80s, when women’s pants were high-waisted, was a recipe for disaster – pant waists went half-way up my back which made me look ridiculous). With a simple alteration to take in the waist, I found that men’s trousers were a much better fit, giving a roomier thigh and a better fit in the rise because I am short-waisted (“rise” is the measurement from crotch to the top of the waistband). I also liked the deep pockets. I really came to appreciate the simplicity and fit of men’s clothing by wearing men’s garments.
Back in those days, I guess I was an artsy kid who stuck her nose in philosophy books and listened to the original “alternative” music that was mostly British and definitely underground. I shopped at second hand stores that had a lot of clothing from the 1960s and loved to wear men’s sport coats from that era (with the sleeves rolled up of course).
In 1986, I graduated from high school and rented a tuxedo to wear to my graduation. I made a gold sleeveless top to go under the jacket and found a black matte satin shoe with pointed toes and a low heel. Most of the girls in my class wore puffy, ruffled satin dresses to the grad – many in white for some reason. I loved my outfit, the substantial feeling of the tail coat, the smooth look of the cummerbund, and the ease of the trousers.
The same year, I got a job in the men’s department at a prominent Canadian department store. This is where I learned a tremendous amount about men’s clothing, textiles, and care of fabrics (I wonder if anyone invests in training for their staff like this anymore). I was fascinated by the items in the “men’s furnishings” department – tie clips, hankies, socks, ties, Arrow dress shirts, underwear, and robes, much more so than the women’s stuff on the upper floors.
It took a long time, but eventually I got to wearing more women’s clothing than men’s and by the late 1990s/early 2000s, I got quite girly about it. Now that I work exclusively with men, I’m veering back to my love of menswear and having suits made at men’s tailors. I love the comfort and the ease of men’s clothing, and often wear shirts and ties with suits and heels to work.
One of the things that drives me is that I’m curious. Curious about most things, but not all things – math and hockey are the immediate examples that come to my mind. I did a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre design (costume) and started doing a double major in psychology until I hit the point when I would have to take a statistics class, and I was terrified of this idea. (Now I wish I had taken that class so I could understand the statistical information in the research I look at.)
The psychology classes really opened my eyes and helped me understand the social aspect of humans. Social psychology plays a large role in the masculine research I do, explaining the influence of nurture and how it affects us. This has helped me understand the ways in which men have existed in the past, how they exist in the present, the issues that face them, how society expects them to deal with these issues, and the consequences of social imposition.
The last time I took a science class was in grade 10, which I failed and had to re-take in summer school. Other than that, I just passed my natural science class in university (I took geology for some reason), and once I got through that, I abandoned the subject for several years. Now I find myself driven to understand WHY, and I look to science, social and natural, for answers (it’s much easier to digest now that I want to understand it and can choose the way it is presented to me). Since my favourite topic is the masculine condition, I like to read about neurology and endocrinology to understand how my favourite subjects operate in the world. Looking at men from scientific and social angles helps me understand them, communicate with them, and ultimately, helps me help them.
Another thing about me is that I’m not afraid. I like to do things that have never been done before. Becoming the first woman in Canada to specialize in men’s image is certainly among my trailblazing efforts and I’m quite proud of this.
I am also proud of the work that I have done with the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) , where I volunteered for several years. I had a very dear friend in the 1990s who was HIV+ and a client at ACT who introduced me to volunteer work. I loved the experience and dove deeply into volunteering, learning about HIV and AIDS, the stigma around the illness, and the issues that gay men face. I was the first “volunteer extraordinaire” recognized by ACT in 2002, and was the first woman in the history of the agency to volunteer for gay men’s outreach program, where I helped to mold the program, trained outreach volunteers, facilitated workshops, and spent 5 years out on the front lines handing out condom and lube packages at gay bars in they gay ghetto of Toronto.
It was here that I learned something about myself. During my time in outreach, I constantly engaged men about safer sex and social issues, and I was a good listener. On so many shifts, I was humbled by men opening up to me and pouring out their feelings and experiences because, I decided, they had no one else to talk to. Evidently, this didn’t happen to any of the other volunteers in the outreach program and I understood that I had something that could help people.
One of the best things I learned at ACT was about judgement, or what it is to judge and why we shouldn’t. I learned that as humans, we judge; it’s natural to us. If we didn’t judge, we probably wouldn’t have made it this far (as in, is the ice on the river solid enough to hold my weight, or is this week old milk safe to drink?). We have to be able to estimate how things will effect us, to form an opinion based on what we perceive, and move from there. So this type of judgement is fine, but acting upon our judgements of other people without fully understanding them is not.
ACT taught me that it is impossible to know everything about other people – the mental, emotional, and physical condition they might be in, where they come from, what experiences they have shaped them, etc., and without this information, our brain fills in the missing bits with assumptions that we so seldomly check out to get a better understanding of that person. For example, if someone rushes by and bumps into you on the subway platform, we might automatically swear at that person because of the way they have affected us without knowing why they rushed by without saying “sorry”. For all we know, that person could be on the way to the hospital to see their best friend who was just in a car accident, or perhaps they are ill and need their medicine, and this is affecting them in some way. The point is, we don’t know why that person bumped into us and we can’t possibly know why until we ask them, but we don’t often take the time to find out, relying instead on our preconceived notions that are often incorrect. Understanding this, I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt. It certainly makes things better for everyone.
Empathy, non-judgement, a history with menswear, and a strong masculine influence has helped shape my career and has fed my fascination with men, their clothing, and their condition; I am absorbed and rivited by you fellas. But now it’s time to rest – onto the holidays!