I was a sophomore in college when I bought my first garter belt, a black lace contraption with adjustable closures, so I could lower my stockings and bare the straps beneath my micro-mini. The frozen tundra of Ithaca, New York presented a less than ideal climate in which to advance the cause of "underwear as outerwear." But what was a pair of frozen thighs compared with Revolution? With the frilly scaffolding stretched across my hips, I thought I was--in the late '80s Cultural Studies jargon my parents were paying $20,000 a year for me to learn--"appropriating the signifiers of my objectification," and "exposing the masquerade of femininity." If I was simultaneously vying for "babe"-dom, it was under the assumption that under patriarchy, I was always already seen as one. I was willing to live with the contradiction.

Not a year before, I'd been a sorority girl enrolled in Great Books 202. On initiation night, I had been taken, blind-folded and beer-besotted, to an unspecified fraternity house where I was ordered to lick whipped cream off the sweaty torso of a football player named Doug. I've forgotten most of the pivotal events of that fall, my first at Cornell University. (Repression has its benefits.) But I do remember that at a certain point I found myself escorted to a formal dance by an accused date rapist (the reputation of whom my so-called sisters had obligingly kept secret from me); at another I stopped eating; and at still another, I took to strolling a certain snow-laden suspension bridge overlooking the infamous Ithaca gorge at odd hours of the night, overwhelmed by the breadth of my late-adolescent misery, and in half-serious contemplation of the prospect of becoming another campus cliché.

I lived long enough to surrender my pledge pin and move to a friend's off-campus apartment. My reinvention as a self-described feminist followed suit over the next year or two. No doubt life was simpler in those days. Identity changes could be enacted with a few add/drops to one's academic schedule--say, the substitution of French Feminisms 401 for the Founding Fathers of Philosophy 202--and a few new outfits to match. But then, among my small group of friends, "dressing the part" was taken very seriously. If Madonna's ever-changing outfits were the pop inspiration for our shopping sprees, our classroom exposure to Post-Structuralist theory-- from Lacanian Psychoanalysis to Culture Studies--provided the intellectual justification. We were taught that in our late-capitalist technoculture, "signifiers" (words) were attached to their "signifieds" (concepts) with thin glue, if at all. Our culture had come to consist of a series of floating signs, all of which were open to constant reinterpretation. So we "appropriated" the seemingly regressive trappings of femininity--bustiers, fishnets, stiletto heels--convinced that these signs could be "re-inscribed" with new and empowering "signification."

As for femininity itself, we saw it not as the essential expression of femaleness, but as an act, a costume.

"The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and "the masquerade." My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing."

Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as Masquerade" (1929)