Yes, I am a Man. Yes, I am in Heels. Yes, I am a MAN in HEELS.
This past November I decided to start wearing heels. I simply replaced my black men’s dress shoes with a pair of ankle boots that have a 2” heel on them, and I’m just now just starting to understand why I decided to put them on in the first place. It was an unusual thing for a man to do, but now I have several pairs of heels. I think they have become a part of who I am. I am confident when wearing them. I stand tall both literally and as a self-assured professional. I want to share this experience with others, both the struggles of showing up differently than the norm and the beauty of liberating myself from a constricted idea of masculinity. A part of my personal and professional journey has become to challenge gender norms and endeavor to dismantle the gender binary. I choose to do this by simply being me. I hope that my actions will inspire other people to engage with this positive change as well, most specifically other males like me.
I am a Man in Heels
I am a man. I also wear heels. I am a man who wears heels, and somebody who has become pretty aware of what it means to be male and wear heels. Let’s talk about being a man first, and then I will come back to wearing heels. I understand that being male means I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth (which means I am cis-gender). This means the doctor was right when they looked at my genitalia and labeled me as a boy. My hormones, appearance, biology, and identity all align with what it means to be a male. What I know to be true is that my male identity does not come from what I wear, how I act, or how I feel on any given day. This is my gender expression, which often changes, but is always an expression of my male identity. The Genderbread person info graphic has helped me understand the complexity of gender and come to this place of understanding. I want to explain what I believe to be a problem with having such a rigid idea of what masculinity is and how that perception reinforces the systematic power that all cis-gender males possess.
Sometime ago you would have heard me say, “Women have more options for what they get to wear.” I have come to realize that actually I have more options. I can wake up and put on my suit, tie, a pair of men’s shoes (my masculine uniform), and fit in throughout the entire day. I can do that without even giving it a second thought. That is my privilege, to show up and automatically be accepted as the norm. I do not have to think about how my presence needs to mirror others in the room so that I will fit in and be taken seriously. Why I think men have more options is because we can choose to wear “feminine” attire with little to no push back from colleagues. It is likewise our decision to continue wearing the same three piece suit on all business occasions. I keep italicizing the word choose because it is a choice that I make as a male (probably as a white, heterosexual male). I’m am not required to dress in a certain way in order to fit in, which is exactly why I hope to inspire other men to shed the shackles of traditional masculinity along with me. I want to come together to extend systematic power to all genders. I think this begins with men, like myself, using power to challenge the norms that are benefiting us and serving as a detriment to all other genders. I want to end a system of oppression where my partner is told not to wear sparkly business attire by a female colleague because they won’t fit in or be taken seriously. This hurts, and is why I want to engage men in this conversation. People should not have to assimilate to norms for which I can so easily wake up and utilize every day without even noticing.
What People are Saying
Often I walk around campus or Seattle and receive such affirming comments: “Nice shoes… I love your shoes… Where did you get your shoes?” The compliments really rain down upon me as if I have uncovered some secret way of receiving affirmations. I really get quite a few complements which is really not what most people assume is a common response to a man in heels. I tend to have conversations with people who care for me; they worry that people are making assumption about me that are incorrect. This hasn’t really happened. Instead I get other fascinating comments (mostly from other men), and all while having very perplexed expressions on their faces. “Those are different… How do you walk in those? I could never do it.” These comments make sense to me. If I had seen the same thing a year ago, I would have been just as confused. This confusion is what I want to invoke in people. I want to be a part of an uncomfortable conversation about what it means to be masculine, and yes, I do think I am just as much of a real man as any other man. Unfortunately though, the most common response is silence. There is not verbal remark but I know they are engaging in an internal conversation as I clearly see them stare at my feet as I walk by. This is what I want my impact to be. I expect confusion and their questions do not bother me. I like to think that most people are just surprised and if they process what I’m doing for a bit, I think that brief observation can lead to positive change.
Navigating NASPA & TPE
I decided to wear heels during the NASPA National Conference and TPE, where I participated in just under twenty interviews. This conference have over 2,000 Student Affairs professionals in attendance. I feel like I introduced myself to them, and the field, in a way that is most authentic to me. While I was there I actually received an overwhelming amount of support. Most people who commented on my shoes explained how happy they were that I was wearing them and others just complimented me as I passed by. One person even affirmed me during the interview days by saying, “There is more than one way to do this (referring to wearing my heels, pink shirt, and corresponding tie).” Most people I spoke to before leaving for the conference did not think I would receive so much support for wearing heels, and honestly, were afraid I wouldn’t find as much success in my job search process.
Unfortunately affirmations were not the only comments I recieved while I was interviewing. Although they were the only comments I was directly receiving from people, I have to wonder what everybody else was saying after I left their interview tables or breakout sessions. Were they seeing a male in heels and rethinking what they understand as gender expectations or thinking about how they weren’t going to offer me a second interview? I found out just recently that at least one university that I interviewed with was indeed having trouble understanding why I was wearing heels. A past mentor of mine was chatting with some professionals that I had interviewed with. Those professionals were confused about why I, as a male, was wearing a pair of heels. It sounds like there was even a larger conversation going on among many of the universities I interviewed with at TPE. One of the professionals questioned my heels, “What the hell? What’s up with that?,” and my mentor told them they didn’t know but had a couple of guesses. They said Justin is either trying to challenge gender norms or possibly just figuring out what his gender identity is. I really appreciate my mentor for addressing the situation and I mostly agree with those two statements. That mentor was told that I just didn’t fit in overall at their institution. My first thought was of course I don’t fit in. That is the point: to break the mold. My second thought was what that particular institution boasts about their high diversity. I wonder if I indeed do not fit in or if they do not. This just illustrates how some people don’t fit in and that is why the gender binary does not work.
That same mentor later checked in with my partner, who they knew as well. They wanted to make sure I was okay and that our (marriage) relationship was doing well. This third point is the one that worries me. I truly appreciate my mentor for supporting me, especially when I was not in the room to explain why I wear heels myself. However, this last question about my relationship is what I think one of the larger issues are that I am trying to address. When I put on a pair of heels I do not become any less of a man. As I wrote above, I think I am a more confident man with a strong sense of positive masculinity. In this comment I hear fear that my gender expression may mean that I am straying from my heterosexual orientation and my female partner should worry. Needless to say, this question caught my partner by surprise, since she has been my largest support throughout this entire process. She knows that this idea is one of the largest ones I am looking to dismantle. Displaying feminine traits does not make me less of a man. Actually engaging with what is traditionally not masculine has been what has made our relationship the healthiest. I would argue that I am able to express a deeper level of love now, than I ever could while I was confined to the rugged individualism of traditional masculinity. I think this is why homophobia is so pervasive. I grew up being told not to do so many things or people who think I was gay. That kind of conversation needs to stop, because it is not good for anyone.
My partner has been a phenomenal support from the beginning and enjoys helping me explore new ways of challenging gender norms. We now get to go shopping together. It is fun to walk into stores with Susie and look at clothing at the same time. The only downside is that we are one shoe size off from one another. Usually when we go to a store, we will begin to look at clothes or shoes and almost without fail, a sales associate will let me know where the men’s clothes are. At first this tended to dishearten me, especially when I went shopping alone. However, now I tend to thank them for letting me know and I continue shopping alongside my partner. Recently I picked up some clothes and went to try them on. When I got to the dressing room I was met with an apology because I needed to go downstairs to the men’s dressing room. I understand this. Clearly the world is not ready for this transition and it was no big deal to go down stairs. I just wasn’t even thinking about gender until I was asked to use a different room. It was pleasant to not have that weight on my shoulders. I choose to shop everywhere in the store and these kinds of inconveniences don’t really phase me anymore. That being said, I have been thinking a lot about how people feel when they don’t have the ability to make the choice I do. What do people do when they do not fall into the gender binary or when neither dressing room works for them? I’m guessing these subtle inconveniences have a much larger impact them.
Why I Wear Heels
It is actually a relief to realize I was known as “the man in heels” at NASPA. I love this and I would put on heels if for no other reason than that. It is motivating to know that people are having conversations about my heels, hopefully even about gender norms and the binary we live in. My one additional hope is that one day it alters to “a” man in heels and other men follow along. Maybe it will then become a person in heels so everybody is welcome to wear whatever best expresses their gender identity. Until then I will continue to put heels on and imagine what it will look like. I don’t wear them just to help reduce barriers faced by marginalized communities. I also do wear them to help other men liberate themselves from the box we that confines us, and most importantly I do this for me. I am a man who will wear heels some days and a pair of men’s dress shoes the next. I do this while always being just as much of a man as I was the day before. I want to get to a point where others see that in me. My gender expression, clothes or behaviors are not what makes me a man.
I wear heals and challenge the gender norms because it helps me feel the power that I have become so accustomed to. The privilege I often I don’t even realize I have. When I didn’t put on a tie for my most recent presentation I did feel less powerful. I felt as if I wasn’t wearing what I was supposed to. I felt like I wouldn’t be taken seriously and may even be dismissed. These are the moments that help me realize what a privilege it is to be a cis-gender male. I want to explain how this has helped me realize how the gender binary is perpetuated. When I hear the words professional, executive, CEO, etc., I automatically think of a man in a suit and tie. Those are the identities, among others, that I see. For example, as if somebody said a professional walked into a dark room and I couldn’t actually seem them, I would picture a man in a suit. This is why I believe it is the norm and that systematic power resides in the three piece suit, specifically the tie (but that is a topic for another time). Until other men and I acknowledge this unearned advantage, people of other genders will not have access to this privileged space. This is what happens when I wear heels. I’m not giving up the power I have as a cis-gender male; I’m just staying aware of it.
On the contrary, I do feel a little bit of that discomfort when wearing heels as well. It is hard to continue to put on heels and wonder if I am going to be dismissed or not taken seriously when I attend professional events. This speaks to the privilege of being able to wear the same thing every day, always fitting the mold of what is professional, and never having to feel uncomfortable. I wonder if this question is in the mind of people of other genders when they are preparing for the day. It has become especially salient in light of my job search. I’m trying to find financial stability as I finish up graduate school and it is a conflict of interest to challenge the systems that are going to give me that opportunity. I even debated wearing heels to my 2nd on-campus interview after I didn’t get an offer from the first one, worried that I will create just too much discomfort for employers to see all of the other promise inside of me.
Do I hate knowing that on some level, wearing heels to interviews may set me back just a little in a candidate pool? Yes I do. I mean I want a job. I don’t want to make claim that wearing heels is why I am not getting jobs. I don’t feel that way at all. I did apply to over forty jobs though and got only a couple of 2nd round interviews in return. I do trust a process that is based on comparing applicants based on fit. I am brand new to this whole Student Affairs thing and am fully aware that there are other reasons why I may not be the best fit for an institution. I don’t feel entitled to a position at all. I just have to wonder how many offers I would have if I showed up as people expect a man to show up. The good news is that I have been interviewing with one university while wearing heels and they are checking my references now. It may only be one out of forty, but I will truly fit in at their school. Regardless, one that that has been in my mind throughout this entire process is the following: I hope that pushing the norm will provoke others to expand their understanding of what is accepted as the norm and not instead just label me as somebody who will be a pain in the butt for a new department. That is not me. I just want to help myself and all others break from the boxes that society has placed us in.
Concluding Thoughts and Motivation
I want just two things. I want everybody, including myself, to have the same access to safety and security regardless of how they express their gender and I want to continually wears heels on the days when it expresses who I am. This is the beauty of my mutually beneficial relationship with challenging gender norms and living authentically. I also see my one action influence so much positive change in communities around me. I see very inspirational conversations happening. For instance, the professionals talking about me at TPE were not talking about me. Sure they were talking about “the man in heels,” but I think they were actually talking about themselves. The conversation was about masculinity and their understanding of it. It was not about Justin Zagorski who wears heels. It was instead the constructive conversation I want other men to have about what it means for them to be men.
I also have very life-giving conversations with students about gender as if my authenticity somehow makes them feel more comfortable. I have even been around when other men put on heels and we wear them together. All of these changes are what motivate me to continue to imagine a future where gender expression is fluid and gendered attire does not serve as a way to reinforce systemic oppression. It still blows my mind that all I need to do in order to surround myself with this much positivity, is to put on a pair of heels. Even though I have spoken about struggles, wearing heels and engaging with what masculinity means for me has been very rewarding. I hope other cis-gender men (especially white, heterosexual men) find their ways to challenge the systems that oppress people of all other genders while also confining themselves. I have personally found that it takes so little effort from me, but can in turn have a huge impact.
- Justin Zagorski