Was just reading Gayle Pitman’s article on “The influence of Race, Ethnicity, Class and Sexual Politics on Lesbians’ Body Image” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2000: 40,2) and what caught my eye was her discussion on “passing” among the lesbians in her study. In her study, she came across a number of women who raised concerns with regards to their ability or inability to pass as White, as heterosexual, or as both as strategies for quotidian survival. In one particular vignette, Pitman highlights the experience of a young white college student who had categorized her anorexia as her “last attempt at heterosexuality” (54). Pitman suggests that the particular student’s issue with her body image may be linked to the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. Pitman elaborates: “by constructing her appearance based on mainstream standards of female beauty, she was able to protect herself from the opinions, assumptions,and prejudices of others, and potentially from anti-lesbian violence. The consequence of this protection, unfortunately, was a serious eating disorder that lasted for several years” (54).
While conducting my research among femmes (feminine presented women who desire female-bodied persons at some point/s of their lives) in Singapore, I too noted a fear toward claiming a lesbian identity. In this country, gays and lesbians are tolerated as part of the state’s neoliberal project to promote diversity in order to invite foreign investment. The liberalization toward gay and lesbian fulfills economic agendas without being accompanied by legal human right changes such as repelling the sodomy law of 377A that makes vulnerable a population of MSMs in the country, or given equal rights in terms of housing subsidies. In this context, gays and lesbians are tolerated only to be exploited to provide the appearance of sexual diversity. How has this political ambivalence toward sexual minorities affect the way a queer female Singapore identify and embody herself?
I met for instance, some Singaporean femmes who styled their bodies according to the latest global consumer trends by following fashion blogs, magazines, shopping at international brands such as Zara, Forever 21, Topshop, etc. By paying attention to mainstream beauty ideals, these women stated also their desire to be cosmopolitan- “ambitious and worldly” where being sexually “open-minded” and fashionable validates their cosmopolitan aspirations. At the same time, while their beauty regime presents the image of lesbian-chic and signals their desirability among other women, some of these femmes see their beauty as a strategy of passing. Looking beautiful was one of the ways in which these femmes attempt to pass off as heterosexual which may also reveal the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. One of the stylish femmes in my study identifies as “Pure Lesbian”–a label describing a feminine woman who sexually desires another feminine woman- but articulated being afraid to be discovered a lesbian by her family and close friends. I found her narrative fascinatingly ironic because while she dresses in the latest accessory and trends to attract feminine women, the lesbian-chic aesthetic that she subscribes to (she talks about The L Word quite a lot) is also utilized as a strategy to look “straight”.
The lesbian chic aesthetic in Singapore has also produced the sentiment that butch-presentation- masculine females wearing baggy clothing- is a fashion faux pas, and an embarrassment. Further having a butch looking partner, does not further a femme’s aim to pass as straight. Some of these femmes have resorted to androfying their partners to not only fulfill the lesbian chic image but also using their partners bodies to manage their passing strategies. It is easier to bring home an androgynous female as your best friend to conservative mom and dad than to bring home an overtly looking masculine butch- the latter would definitely raise suspicion toward being a lesbian- a confrontation that a lot of my femme interlocutors fear.
The lesbian chic aesthetic is possibly about managing the fear from being read as lesbian. My observations highlight how the “lesbian chic” physical ideal in Singapore is about looking less “lesbian” (by presenting a gender normative image of femininity) and more chic. It seems that among this crowd in Singapore, what is particularly “lesbian” about lesbian chic, is about trying to not look like one–yes, the “fashion faux pas”one.