The Song of the Girls Who Don’t Wear Dresses


By Esther Emery | Twitter @estheremery


Ask me what I know of beauty, and I’ll tell you about black boots and spiky hair. Ribbed tank tops and belts as thick as highways. The color black, and weight, and thickness.

I come from the tribe of girls who don’t wear dresses.

It’s subtle now. These days, you might not even notice. But in college I shaved my head clean, wore extra weight on my hips, fought my body for its insistent femininity. When I went to a pizza joint, at 18 years old in my usual get up, I made the pretty girls whisper and stare. I know this because one of them told me about it later.

I know how it seemed. I have been told. To one person like I was trying to act out, that it was all about getting attention, as if it were my heart’s desire to make people turn and stare in grocery stores. To another that I was perversely expressing some kind of ugliness, putting myself in service to the enemy of light and peace. To another that my life choices were a threat to her Christian values. She covered her children’s eyes.

Since then I have had more than a decade of passing as straight, minding my own business, bearing three children and wearing nursing bras. This is an easier chapter in many ways. Mostly free of the finger wagging, and church ladies finally know what to do with me. But also it has been a harder one. Straight people are almost universally not as fun to dance with.

When I was in college, the drag shows were on Friday nights. Not every Friday night, as I remember, but enough of them to get us through. There were lots of us, of course, even in a tiny college town in Idaho, deconstructing gender for all the reasons. We all dressed up, each the way we liked to dress up, we sang the anthems; there was a little show. Mostly we just danced ourselves silly.

I miss those days—not because they were easy, mostly they were not very easy—but for that beautiful sound of our triumph, of our surviving. I miss the way we kept the will to live, singing along with Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive,” while the boys wore glitter enough to chase away the dark.

Ask me what I know of beauty, and I will tell you something about fear: of calibrating risks, and keeping secrets. I will tell you about wearing other people’s clothes like costumes and about all the shades of authenticity. But mostly, I will tell you about the song.

This is not the song of Gloria Gaynor or The Village People. Although I love these things more than toast with butter, that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean the song that all creation sings together: the song of authentic expression, that becomes a symphony when every soul and every creature sings their note.

My own sexuality and gender identity is fathoms deep and complicated. If I don’t talk about it in this space it is because we have not the depth to do it justice. But I can express it, sometimes, in a tank top and my spiky hair. Or, better yet, in a kind of resting vibration, an integrated wholeness that has no name because it doesn’t need one.

This is the song of the girls who don’t wear dresses, who are not on the attack, not trying to ruin your day, not trying to make you point and laugh, who are not trying to get beat up or raped. This is a song for the girls who are not girls, and the girls who are girls but don’t act like girls, and also the boys, and everybody in between. There is a note for everybody. Everybody sings.

If this song sounds to you dark and strangled, if it is expressed in what you call bizarre behavior, or destruction or dishonesty, I think that’s only because you haven’t been in the right places at the right times. Maybe you weren’t wearing enough glitter. Because I have seen this song beautiful and strong and free and full of hope. I have seen it just one shining strand in this whole glowing web of a world, and nothing really worth fighting about.

Ask me what I know of beauty, and I will tell you about glitter. Lots and lots of glitter. And whatever kind of hair you want. And dancing.


About Esther:

estheremerywriterEsther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. Now she is pretty much a runaway, living off the grid in a yurt and tending to three acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at


Image credit: Matías