On a recent Saturday, Ari Fitz sat inside Farley’s, her favorite cafe in Oakland, wearing ripped blue jeans underneath a fashionably baggy shirt, that fell far below her waist, paired with short heeled boots. Her long braids spilled down her shoulders in a way that made the casual outfit look elegant. It was past noon, but the fashion blogger was only just eating breakfast. She had been up until 4 a.m. the night before preparing blog posts for her various channels, she said.
Fitz’s personal Instagram (@ItsAriFitz) has more than 29,000 followers, who eagerly await her daily outfit posts of streetwear looks that effortlessly disregard normative gender expectations. Often, they feature baggy, low-cut jeans that showcase her toned abs; and flirty, tailored, collared crop tops; or slouchy muscle tees. Big boots and sneakers are also a staple. On her YouTube channel with the same handle (and more than one-hundred-thousand subscribers), she posts weekly diarylike updates about her love life and professional endeavors, as well as playful themed entries such as “How do I pick up girls?”
But those are just Fitz’ personal channels. She also runs TOMBOYISH, a platform devoted to creating more visibility for tomboy style amid a fashion industry that insists on separating the mens and womens sections and a suffocating societal stigma against blending the two.
“I want TOMBOYISH to show people that we’re all out here,” said Fitz. “And that to embrace your masculinity is a very sexy thing, and there are people doing that out in the world, and they look really fucking good.”
On the TOMBOYISH Instagram, which has more than 62,000 followers, Fitz highlights looks by women and other non-male identifying people that also like to dress in the area between mens and women fashion. She features between five and ten people a day, who she either finds through exploring pages or who direct message her their photos — a huge, inspiring variety of styles, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexualities.
On the YouTube channel, she posts weekly themed fashion videos for androgynous dressers that offer tips for styling gender fluid looks with clothes that aren’t necessarily designed to be unisex. Titles include everything from “How I Style Shorts” to “Promboyish,” the latter of which is a guide to dressing for prom, featuring one look that skews masculine and one that’s a bit more femme — because androgyny has a sprawling spectrum of its own. Fitz also features videos for tomboyish people with specific body types, like large-chested or short and petite. And at the end of each, a quick reminder of what the series is about: “The tomboy in all of us.”
Fitz was clear that her purpose is not to imply that there is a definitive tomboy style, but rather to showcase how nuanced and variant that playful in-between area can be — especially because it’s rarely represented in popular culture and the day-to-day fashion industry. (She’s also adamant about the platform not being exclusively for queer people, she said, because it’s just as much for straight girls who like to wear their boyfriend’s clothes.) And, most importantly, she hopes to show people who identify with the pages that there are others out there like them.
“Somewhere in, like, Michigan a girl who’s watching all these videos right now is like ‘I matter! I belong somewhere!'” said Fitz. “That’s fucking dope.”
Earlier this month, TOMBOYISH finally reached a point at which Fitz felt confident enough to quit her day job. So, she did — and also moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, although she plans to return frequently. She was able to do this partially because, about four months ago, she registered TOMBOYISH on Patreon, an online subscription platform primarily used by artists and writers. On Patreon, people can sign up to give her anywhere from $1 to $50 dollars a week to produce videos — in exchange for access to exclusive material. As she unlocks new level of patronage, she plans to hold TOMBOYISH meetups all over the country.
Earning a living off her media output, and developing a style that made her feel attractive, were both long journeys for Fitz. Immediately after attending UC Berkeley on a scholarship, the Vallejo native moved to New York and started her own company, a blogger-marketing platform called GenJuice. But it eventually “imploded,” causing her to trade in her swanky NYC apartment for a small one in Oakland. Not long after, she started modeling and video-blogging. That’s when she decided to respond to a casting call for a 2014 season of MTV’s longrunning reality show Real World, on a whim. Within days, she was officially on the cast.
Fitz happened to be on a season with a plot twist: After weeks of filming, the producers brought one of each resident’s exes onto the show. Lucky for Fitz, hers was ready to get right back together. And they only really had one big blow up — although it turned out to be an important one:
In the past, Fitz typically dressed traditionally femme. But in the time that Fitz and her ex had been broken up, Fitz was beginning to embrace her female masculinity — often picking through her male roommate’s closet. But her ex wasn’t into it. So, a fight ensued. And, in turn, the Internet took sides. By the time Fitz was off the show, she had become an internet icon for androgynous style. Six months later, she started TOMBOYISH.
“I’ve never gained so many followers, I’ve never had so much support and emails. … I was like ‘Maybe there’ something behind this.'” she said. “Especially because I was ish. I was tomboyish. I was definitely still pushing it on both sides and trying to figure out who I was.”
That’s when Fitz recognized that there was a lack of androgynous icons within the fashion world. The industry has for a long time showcased androgynous figures, she pointed out, but typically in a way that frames them as an alien rarity. Fitz, however, offers a more casual, comfortable, and relatable gender-fluid style. Plus, she’s open about how difficult, but empowering, the process of finding your personal style can be — especially in a world where people who appear ambiguously gendered are often denied the ability to be seen as sexy.
“To look the way that I do is already a very radical act,” said Fitz, adding that being Black adds to the difficulty. “To walk out into the world and be like, ‘Yo, I feel great right now. You’re going to accept this and you’re going to love it and be about it,’ that’s a huge, radical, powerful act to me. And it took me a very long time to get to that point.”