Spencer was the most glamorous person I’d ever seen. The first time I met him, he was in five-inch heels and a pencil skirt, his curly brown hair dancing around the crown of his head. His makeup was minimal, like he put in effort, but knew he was already working with a better-than-solid foundation.
I was walking through the atrium on our college campus when I first spotted him. He was sitting alone at a table, reading, sipping a drink, and even doing that in an impossibly pretty way. Because I am who I am, I sat down beside him and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I think you’re beautiful.” He blinked his bright blue eyes several times before revealing his equally bright teeth to bless me with a smile. “Thank you,” he said.
We bonded over our mutual inclination to burst into song, appreciation for good off-campus food and enduring love for Dr. Maya Angelou. Despite my initial observation, it quickly became clear Spencer didn’t see himself as particularly attractive. He considered himself somewhere between man and woman, and was loathe to pick a side. He was both and neither, and frustrated his body couldn’t be altered as quickly as his outfit. He felt he should pick a side, that wherever he was in the middle wasn’t a sustainable option for his identity.Any compliment came with a side of who knew?
Still, his sense of style was a constant. Being stylish was something I’d given up on years before, but I knew what style was. I’d studied fashion, I could tell when someone else was dressed well, but clothing my own body was a mystery. Spencer vowed to help me with that, and because he knew me well, I believed in him.
Less than year later, we became roommates.
Living with Spencer was like living with a human paradigm shift. He didn’t just dress up or “put his face on,” he played. He didn’t wear traditionally feminine clothes every day, he didn’t shave every day, but he was always beautiful because he wanted to be.
Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by well-dressed women. My grandmother was a cosmetologist and seriously fashionable old lady, and her daughters followed suit. I was the grandchild who spent the most time with her and, therefore, was the one kept under her critical eye. When I was small, I easily bent to her will. She could dress me however she saw fit, even when it meant I looked like a seven-year-old going on 60. As I got older, I wanted to assert my own style, which posed a problem because I didn’t have any style. Grandma would shake her head at me and say, “Someday, baby, you’ll really understand how to dress. I’m just going to pray on that for you.” For her, style was all about following rules. No white after Labor day, no mixing black with brown, your bag should match your shoes and no dress didn’t require a slip beneath. There was no room to be playful. Because I couldn’t see how I fit into those rules, I refused to play the game.
Before meeting Spencer, I didn’t try to be stylish. The few times I did, for special occasions or at the behest of my grandma, felt unnatural and like everyone could see how uncomfortable I was in my skin. Any compliment came with a side of who knew? Ashley Ford didn’t dress this well. I didn’t dress badly, just well enough to be mostly invisible. And being on anyone’s “style” radar made me feel like I was only seconds away from ridicule..
When I was 24, Spencer introduced me to real makeup. He could make me look pretty in a thousand different ways, and still, none of them felt like me. He would go through my closet with me, picking out clothes I never wore, forcing me to spin them into something new. Sometimes, I looked like me, but I also looked like I was trying, and I was still afraid of looking like I was trying. He would get in my face and say, “You’re fine. This is fun! You’re having fun! We’re just playing!” He even called doing my makeup “painting,” something I’d never heard before. He inspired me keep looking for my look, so I did, privately and mostly only with him.
Some nights, when we sat in my room, watching our favorite childhood movies, he’d tell me how cute he was as a child, and I would remind him how cute he still was. Then he’d ask why I couldn’t be that nice to myself. Eventually, I couldn’t even fake an answer.
I don’t think anyone moves to New York City and doesn’t assume they have to up their style game. I was no exception. I moved here, on crutches, in May of 2014. My exploring choices in fashion and geography were limited. Almost eight months later, once I was perfectly mobile and got to know the city better, I lamented my lack of knowledge about makeup and how to dress my body. How could I not? I was constantly surrounded by beautiful people, and beautiful in so many unique ways. There were women with intricately braided green hair on the train, fat women in curve-hugging wrap dresses and four-inch heels, and women in perfectly-tailored suits. They were bold and unabashedly themselves. They were all making up their own rules, and they all had style. Just like the old cliché, the city inspired me.
For the first time, I felt like I was in the perfect space to figure out this personal style thing, where no one would bat an eye if I chose to play.
And I played.
I bought lipsticks in pinks, reds and purples. I watched tutorials, and let myself try things on I assumed “didn’t work for my hips,” like long skirts and A-line dresses. I tried filling in my eyebrows and sent photos to Spencer for help and encouragement.
The last time I saw my grandma, I just turned twenty-eight. I’d spent two nights in the hospital sleeping beside her. Before I left, I put on a white sweater she’d given me months before and my favorite purple lipstick. She was hardly able to speak, but she put her hand on my face and said, “Baby, that lip color looks so good on you.”
After she passed away, I took a sweater from her closet. It was something I loved, but would have been afraid to wear before. It was black with silver buttons that clasped all the way up to my chin. The sleeves were ¾ length and cape-like. It smelled like her. A week ago I did an on-camera interview about my queer identity, and I wore the sweater with a bright lipstick, the same one from the hospital, the one that was now part of “my look”.
I sent the video to Spencer later, and he replied with a simple and affirmative, “Yes.”