My Orange Dress

One February day in 2017, I got bored. My mind gets wild when it gets bored. I decided to be scandalous, so I put on a loose, bright-orange, knee-length dress and let my partially damaged, and therefore half-curly, half-straight, hair go. As I left my dorm room, looking like a crazy tomato, it was excitement and honest-to-God fear that gripped me.

You might be thinking, “She’s just wearing a dress. What’s the big deal?”

Well, let me tell you.

Growing up, I’d hated the fact that I was a girl. I was under the impression that the opposite gender had it easier and I really resented the fact that that wasn’t the case for me. People were always telling me what a little girl was supposed to do and not do. And I just could not stand it when people looked at me for too long because it felt like I was breaking some kind of rule. I became a “tom boy.”

Everyone I knew in middle school was a tom boy. All the coolest girls and all the other girls who wanted to be like them made sure they looked the least like girls and tried to do what the boys did. The girls who played volleyball with the boys, or ate lunch with them, or sat with them in class, were the cool ones. We all agreed boys in the 8th grade were gross—really—yet we couldn’t help ourselves.

That habit wasn’t something I shook off easily. Dresses were inconvenient. They hurt…my thighs rubbing against each other when I walked. I tried my best to like action movies because it meant I could sit with the boys and have something interesting to say; other girls always appeared like my enemies. They were such a competition. I was convinced that my guy friends would be more loyal to me than my girlfriends ever would.

On that February day, when I wore a dress out (with comfortable converse of course, you know, incase I had to run away from something) it was sort of like an act of defiance against myself, daring myself to be brave. I wasn’t choosing to dress that way because it would help me come to terms with some psychological need that I had. It was kind of like a bad dare.

Mekelle is mostly empty on Sundays so there weren’t a lot of people out in the streets, but I still walked with nervous prayer and caution that the wind didn’t blow my dress up. I started thinking about all the other girls who did that on the daily. It didn’t take much for the bravery that left the dormitory with me to break.

I sat down to contemplate why things my environment considered girly were such a taboo to me: things like wearing makeup and naturally curly hair and the color pink. I mean pink is a great color. Why was I always trying to hide the fact that I was a curved creature buried inside large hoodies and a burly exterior?

I remember everyday after that, catching site of every girl that passed me by, thinking how brave she must be to hold her head high the way she did because in spite of my attempts to not face it, I was still her comrade and I knew catcalling, I knew period shame, I knew discomfort under judgmental eyes, I knew what it was to be “one of them.”

By February 2017, I certainly knew better. The world had broken the bad news to me about how cruel life could be to women. My resentment at the nature of things didn’t go away but I became a bit more empathetic. I was working hard, in my own way, to become a better comrade to other women. I carried an extra sanitary napkin just in case I or some other woman needed it. I gave cat callers the stink eye in defense of other women just to let them know someone was watching. I tried to be a friend to women, but I still could not forgive the world for making me a woman.

Immediately after coming to terms with the fact that my life as a woman was something I was going to be okay with, I became such a woman that my goal shifted from wanting to be like men to vowing to defeat them at every turn. I was showing my guns telling them I was strong, too. I was getting into arguments where religious zealots told me what pants meant and how by wearing them, I was in defiance of my true nature as a woman. Little did they know….

I always like to look back at my little, orange dress because to me it has come to symbolize a moment of learning in my life. It took a couple more years for me to stop trying to be a boy or a girl and come to terms with the fact that I was a girl who dressed like a man for comfort but sang like a woman because that was just the voice I was given. I was a woman who embraced femininity, but a woman who’d learned to live in a man’s world. I mean, I hold my head up now. I guess I’ve learned to choose my colors better but occasionally, I wear dresses and no longer for empty streets.

Written by: Kalkidan Fessehaye