A Study in Gender
I am everything. I have been everything. I refuse to define myself solely by this system that has been contrived for minds too small to think outside it. Ocean life doesn’t thrive in glass cages, and I am a series of waves, longing to feel everything in my current. I am fluid, easily sliding around; I am powerful as the entire ocean, breaking rocks into pebbles, then sand, and smoothing out the rough edges of broken beer bottles.
I am boy. I am girl. Sometimes I am part of one, and then there is nothing else. Occasionally, I am both. But more often than not, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I feel—and I’m grateful no one really remembers to ask. It would be a blessing to just simply exist and not define myself by the gender I feel and the gender others see me as. I am nothing—not as in unimportant or worthless, but there is no label on me at the moment. I do not exist quite fully, presently in this world. I am not living inside my own body, and the hair on my skin bristles because it knows there is a stranger living in this body. (My body and I are both trying to figure out who they really are. Right now, he has told us he is a boy, and that is all the three of us really know. We are not in the business of asking for more than we have been given. It is enough.)
I’ve looked in mirrors all my life. Despite the years of self-hatred, it was never really about turning away from my reflection. Often, I stare for too long, confused about why I look this way, why I am this way. And for so many of those years, I berated myself for not ever looking feminine enough, for not doing things that would make me look more like a girl should.
I’ve spent countless hours staring at my body, wishing I were the clay and the potter at the same time. But even if I had the gift to shape myself that way, I would never look like the statues in museums. I am not soft and supple and malleable in the way I am supposed to be. I don’t have the right curves in the right places. My lips are too thin, eyebrows too bushy, nose too big and hooked, making me the villain of my own story. It’s only recently I’ve been thinking that all the features that make me an ugly girl in my eyes look better on me when I feel like a boy.
People have always tried to help me, I think. They randomly tell me nice things about my appearance, like how long my eyelashes are or some other pointless thing. I always think they are trying to distract from the rest of my existence—a golden ring in a landfill is still someone’s garbage. People are always sliding me tips like bits of gold. I swear if you do this exercise your waist will be smaller, or if you do push-ups like this your shoulders won’t be so broad.
Really, I know my waist and butt and breasts and thighs don’t have the right slope, none of them, but I’ve never cared much for math in my life, and I find numbers unreliable. The curse of the curves women carry is what curls their shoulders down. The world would be simpler if we stopped thinking of people like algebra equations. X = y don’t you look like a model in a magazine after all the time and money you’ve spent trying to be them? Don’t you know you owe everyone a pretty face to stare at when you walk by?
My hair has always been on the longer side. When I was seven, it was cut to above my shoulders, and I wanted long hair back then, Rapunzel reincarnate, hair flowing and flowing and flowing. But my mother wouldn’t listen, and I can’t remember the reasons I was so hurt by the haircut, but I never cut it above my shoulders again. Now, I am worried there will never be a time I like my hair short. I’m afraid it won’t fit my face, and then it will have been too late. So I’ve been slowly cutting it shorter and shorter, but I feel as though my hair will only ever look feminine on me, no matter how I try. Somehow, dyeing my hair purple made me forget how to hate it for a long time—coloring was always supposed to keep the sadness at bay, wasn’t it?
I am always worried I don’t smell nice, like flowers and candy and pastel pink, like the things a girl should smell like. But it’s funny, because I think that stems from a different concern, of just generally being liked. Still, maybe I want to smell like firewood and smoke and mint, something that screams I am stronger.
I will never be the boy I want to be. I’m too short, jumping on counters to reach the cupboards, tiptoeing to feel a little bit bigger than my body. I see my jawline in the corner of mirrors and just see something too soft; I want a cutting edge razor blade, something that’ll scrape the hate I have for it out of my heart. My cheekbones won’t ever be prominent enough, my feet never big enough, my nose never the right shape or size; everything will just never be enough, and I will never be enough to be the boy I know I am, know I should be. I will never be—even though I’ve only worn sports bras my entire life. Even though I didn’t shave my legs for the first time until I was seventeen, because before then razors were for a different form of self-hate. Even though makeup nor skirts nor dresses nor dolls have ever interested me or felt like me. Even though my subconscious wanted me to know I was a boy in this society way before my mind ever caught up to the signs. Even though all of this—I will never be the boy I know I am.
I’m not feminine enough to be a girl, but I’m too feminine to be a boy, too, and it’s an odd sort of limbo to be stuck in, between the pull of two black holes, stretching and thinning. A game of tug of war where I am the rope and neither side ever moves me, just pulls and pulls and pulls. My body will never be something people will see and think oh, yes, that is him.
(If self-hate was a self-taught thing, I can only hope self-love is the same deal.)
She and Her
This is the glass wall I put up between myself and the rest of the world, and I wave through it, frantic, screaming loud that this is not and has never been me. I can scream all I want; they will never listen. When the glass shatters, it is icy pinpricks on my skin, a kind of acupuncture that bleeds me dry and keeps missing all of the nerves that would relax me. All I feel is the sting on my face, and they’re laughing, why are you hitting yourself why are you hitting yourself why are you hitting yourself.
They and Them
This is the neutral setting. The cease-fire. The middle ground. Because even people who don’t know me sometimes use this; it’s just natural, no matter how many people scream of the grammatical imperfection of its use as a singular pronoun.
This is me, going through life uncertain, unsolid, the shift from pinpricks of ice right to gas, the rush of sublimation. They / them is this gas, steam, and I am free as steam. I am free, but I only feel real when I have condensed on a cold window.
He and Him
The cold window.
My Birth Name
It’s funny what goes into a name. All these years, stuck with this name that I never really felt like belonged to me. I’d always wanted a different one, for so many years, for so many different reasons—but I think they all led up to this, my self-discovery.
My birth name was never really mine. It was given to me in the shape of my mother, as if I was supposed to fill her shoes (I always trip and hurt in her heels; we have never had the same shoe size anyway). This name, the one on my birth certificate, is only one form of me and not a form that I have ever really liked. This name is the scraping down the back of my throat, an itch I can never reach. It is the constriction in my rib cage, every individual rib fracturing with every blow when I’m forced to tell people, “Yes, this is my name.” I think everyone is pretending they don’t see the blood pooling in my mouth when I spit the words out.
This name is me, my father’s daughter at church, good religious girl, helps out all the time, has never taken drugs or smoked a cigarette or kissed a boy (and definitely not a girl), who never goes out and when she does, comes back when she’s told. The girl who collected scholarships and acceptance letters like they were all that defined her. The girl who will always put her grades first.
This name does not belong to me. This name is for my family. This name is the daughter my mother wants me to be, perfect and kind and nice and will—one day—act like her best friend. This name holds a promise to her that I never had any choice in committing to.
This name is the daughter my father thinks he loves. The one who will be interested in science and math one day. He claims my beauty shines from the inside out. Most days, I search the void inside me and wonder where he is coming up with this bullshit.
There is a deeper reason I am uncomfortable when my family calls me beautiful, and it’s not because I don’t think I am, but I don’t think they would still see me that way if they knew who I really am.
This name is not-me, the girl with obvious “secret” plans to grow up, marry a boy, have ten kids, a house, a dog, and a job—even though we laugh when she says this is not what she wants. This name does not tell them that I think I love girls, that I have too many trust issues with boys, that I am a boy myself, that I don’t want kids or a big house. This name does not tell them what my dreams or wishes or desires are.
This name, this is my False Image. And it’s no wonder I can’t find a way to love myself when this name carries the weight of the person I am not; yet all they do is tell me how much they love me when this is the name they use.
I can’t help laughing, because my parents chose my birth name on the basis of me not having a nickname. I loved it at first, truly. My nickname is the name of a character from a popular franchise, and I was in awe that I could be associated with him. He is so endlessly strong and selfless and kind. It took me a while, but I couldn’t help but wonder—how can people look at him and see any characteristics that we share besides our endless guilt over things that are not our fault? I cannot understand how they could see all of the things in him that I do and still believe we are worthy to share a name.
This name is cowardice. Not for me, necessarily, but for the people who know my real names and still refuse to bring them into the world, as if they are afraid of the light it will bring me. They know and continually call me by this name, when it is not entirely me.
This name is my safety blanket. This name is “if you can’t call me by my real name because it’ll harm me or you’re unsure, you can use this name because I will still respond, and it won’t raise any questions, and my parents won’t accidentally kill me if they hear you use it.” This name is “it will do for now; at least it’s not my birth name; I’ll take what I can get.”
(Maybe this is what I deserve.)
My Real Names
They kind of started out as pen names, just a silly thing to keep in the back of my mind for the day when I’m The Up-and-Coming Writer with my debut novel on the bestseller list! (What big dreams names carry in them.)
One of them is my middle name, and this one will always feel like me—this feels like the person I should have been able to be my whole life. It feels a whole lot like freedom, and love. This is the name I do not have to grow myself around or into or shape myself to fit. This is me, as honest and true as can be.
My other name came on a spur of a moment, flitting into my head as I was packing my chest down to feel more comfortable in the skin crawling with flies that I had to carry around all day. It came to me like sunlight, in a fraction of a second, and it just felt warm, and right. That was two years ago, and this is still the name I am always going to be reaching towards.
Some days it feels less like me than others, but mostly I think that’s because it never really flits into my ears from the world around me—people rarely use it around me. And I think they are scared; I am worried some part of them thinks I am a phase, a trend, and if they use this name, it will solidify that I am real, and that this is truly me. So the days I have to scrunch myself to fit into it, I have to remind myself of the times that people have told me it is good. My name is good.
This is the name that will bring me happiness one day, a general sense of comfort in my skin. This name is my future, and one day, it will be my present.
My name is good for me, and that is enough.
It always starts in the chest. I want flat flat flat, I want weightless, I want free. So I’ve devised a way to press my chest back into itself, and that feels right, takes some of the weight off of my shoulders. I breathe better in zero gravity.
Truly, there’s not much I can do to express my gender the way I want to. There are too many complications—money, fear, just the way I am. But I don’t wear makeup, don’t do my eyebrows, don’t wear dresses or skirts or flashy jewelery or anything traditionally feminine.
All I have ever really wanted was comfort—sweatpants and hoodies and band shirts and flannels. Simple things that just make me me, separate from the gender binary of the world. I won’t wear makeup because it’s expensive, takes up time, and doesn’t fit my face. Most importantly, I can’t afford to rely on it to feel okay because then I never will, and it’s really hard enough already.
On good days, when I can manage the anxiety that constricts me, I can push my hair back into a hat, and I walk with my head a little higher and my shoulders a bit more squared. It feels like me—I think people see someone different from the person they usually do when I dress like this. I look like a boy, and it feels good, and right, and so much like me that I am not certain I haven’t returned home to the stars that made me in the first place.
I have grown more and more comfortable with the idea that I don’t have to express myself in a way that tells the world who I really am inside. I am not in a safe position to do that anyway, but as long as I know who I am, my clothes will reflect me and not the gender the world is forcing me into. I am holding out for the day that I will be able to be fully, unapologetically me, without looking over my shoulder, waiting for the shadows to catch up with me, and without hoping the floor won’t drop out from under my feet at any given moment. There is an image of me in my head, of the real me, as I should be, and one day the person I find in the mirror will be the person I know in my head, and I won’t have to tilt, scrunch, and balance myself to make them fit together. I will be as I have always been—color and light, a star reborn.