What I’ve Learned About How To Be A Girl
Being a capital-G Girl is something that works for other people, and does not work for me. But it took me a while to get there.
I am 4 or 5, preschool age, running around alone on a playground that only appears in this memory and no others. Two older girls (are they older or do they just seem older because they have long, beautiful hair and the right clothes?) ask me if I’m gay. They laugh, but together, at me. I think “gay” means “happy,” and I am, because it’s fall and I love fall and I am having a good time. I say yes. They’re so surprised, and they laugh more, scathingly, and my skin prickles with shame. “She said she’s gay!” They cackle. “You have hair like a boy,” they sneer, and I don’t yet understand why this is bad. The differences between myself and these girls seem very obvious, and very sharp, in a way they weren’t five minutes before.
I am in elementary school and I spend the vast majority of my time pretending to be someone else — anyone else. Characters I made up, characters I didn’t, versions of myself that I mentally insert into whatever I am reading at the time. Pretty much all of the versions of myself I envision have the following in common: They are older than I am, they are a thin version of myself I erroneously believe I will someday become, and they have Disney Princess hair that never has to be thought about or maintained. They are, essentially, the Perfect Girl version of me I really wanted to be. They’re exaggerated and do not allow for nuance. They’re the version of Girldom that just walked out of a 1950s ad for futuristic dishware. They still have an edge of hope.
I start middle school and my body feels separate from me. Nothing ever fills it, and I have no interest in adorning or primping it. I make a satchel out of felt and twine and tie it around my waist and ride my bike through the woods, pretending I’m an elf. My hair is long and tangles easily and I hate brushing it. My stepmother digs her fingers into it, picking as gently as she can at the rat’s nest it always becomes. I don’t wear jeans or dresses; I wear soft clothes that are too big for me. My mother picks at me — she wants me to be more feminine, she wants me to wear makeup and part my hair and wear nicer things that we can’t even afford, and I understand now that she wanted these things because she believed they would be armor between me and a world that hurt. She wanted them not because I wasn’t enough, but because she was afraid. It will take me 10 years to understand this. For now, I feel like I am not enough.
I am almost done with middle school, which has felt like a never-ending gauntlet. My body has shapes that I don’t like, that feel foreign and wrong. Other people notice. I’ve started wearing jeans and black oversize T-shirts with band names on them. I wear a lot of my father’s old clothing. Other people start calling me a slut in addition to a whale and a hippo. Once in art class a boy who never leaves me alone loosens the screws in my chair, and when I sit in it, it falls apart to a chorus of shrieking laughter. Two girls throw spitballs at me every afternoon on the bus; they jeer and snarl and I understand that this is what I deserve, because I am not good at being like them. I have friends, but only one of them is really nice to me, and even she sometimes caves. She doesn’t want to find herself outside, like I am. I forgive her over and over. I would do the same thing if I was her.
I start high school and I cut my hair short, short, short to my shoulders. I can’t hide behind it as much anymore. I make other friends; one teaches me how to put on eyeliner (incorrectly, it turns out). I start listening to music that makes me feel like there’s champagne under my skin, like I am understood. I learn that I can’t go without a bra anymore; I learn this by not wearing a bra and being quietly, snidely mocked all day. I still wear oversize things, but they’re bright. As time goes on, I find that I cannot be a girl the way that other girls are girls. I can’t find stylish clothes that fit me; I can’t afford them anyway. I start cutting up my old clothes to make them less ugly. They’re still ugly, but now I’ve made them that way, so it feels like a choice. High school is less overtly cruel, but there are still people who hate me on principle and make no secret of it. They are largely men. I don’t know what to do about it. I stop trying.
I am diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome when I am 13-almost-14. I start seeing a new endocrinologist when I am 15 and she puts me on a medication that will help with my insulin resistance, a symptom that baffles me. I understand that it has something to do with hormone production, but this understanding is fuzzy. I mostly feel like my baby-making parts are trying to kill me. I’m so bad at being a girl, I think, that being a girl is making me sick. She explains my weight is not my fault. It’s a symptom too. I feel complicated. It is not quite relief.
The medicine that helps with my insulin resistance makes me very sick.
I don’t tell anybody.
I figure: A doctor gave this to me, so it’s OK. She told me I need to lose weight, so maybe this is how.
I don’t feel like my body is really part of me. I don’t feel a connection to it. I don’t touch or look at it if I don’t have to, but there are mirrors all over my house, and I spend all of my time dodging them, because if I get caught I can’t stop looking, with the same kind of revolted fascination I recently saw on the face of a man contemplating a bad taxidermy website.
Everything I eat leaves my body almost immediately, leaving no footprint of fullness behind.
I start fainting.
Around 15 I dye my hair for the first time. I figure if I have to be different, I might as well be really different. All along, underneath this, there is a kind of level despair — a part of me feels anguished, always, even when I am happy. There is a war in me, and I have learned to ignore it. I dye my hair before my mother gets home one day. It’s red dye. My natural hair color is almost black. I don’t bleach it first, so what I wind up with is this sort of rusty auburn. I love it. I look in the mirror and for the first time I see someone that looks like me.
When I wash it out in the tub, it looks like the tub is full of blood. I think about what it would be like if it was my own, but idly, without any active interest. My scalp itches.
I lose around 70 pounds in six months. (This is a very dangerous amount of weight to lose that quickly, for anyone playing along at home.)
One day I notice my clavicle. I can fit two fingers in the hollows of it. It feels like an achievement.
“You’re doing so well,” everyone says. “You look so good.”
I am doing absolutely nothing to hide the fact that there is something very wrong with the volume of food I am taking in versus the weight I am losing. I am hungry all the time. I am so hungry that hunger begins to just feel like something that always has been and always will be. I am the human equivalent of the sound of grinding teeth.
“You’re doing so well,” everyone says. “How much weight have you lost?”
Eventually I see a doctor. I see two, actually — my endocrinologist and a cardiologist, to see if there’s something wrong with my heart. There isn’t, and I’m surprised, because something feels very wrong with my heart.
I start gaining the weight back before we all leave for college and I gain the rest back during my freshman year. My boyfriend — we are trying long-distance because we’re idiots — tells me that I’m beautiful, and maybe we should work out together. (We live two states apart.) I’m stunning, and am I sure I want to eat that? I have never fully believed that I am desirable, and I can feel whatever tenuous certainty I have start to shrink.
I cut the rest of my hair off when I go home for winter break from school. I dye it red again — I had stopped, I hadn’t felt the need, I hadn’t wanted to. But I don’t feel like I have control over myself; I feel myself slipping. Desirability and femininity are so entangled in myself that I feel I can’t have one without the other; if I am failing at one, my attempts at the other must be laughable. Everyone must know. My hair looks terrible, but that’s mostly because the person who cut it didn’t know how to cut short hair on girls. I don’t hate it. I don’t like it, either. I feel, very carefully, not much at all.
When my boyfriend breaks up with me it blindsides me in the way only very obvious things can. I eat two meals in seven days. I want to shrink myself into nothing.
I grow my hair out. I grow my hair out for the better part of two years, thinking that all I want is to look like someone he never knew. I want to finally win at the game of Girldom I have been half-assing for my entire life. I wear dresses, I wear makeup, I get layers and Zooey Deschanel bangs and I blow-dry them. I wear things that fit. I paint my nails. I am aggressively, determinedly Normal. I am sick of being outside. I am sick of fighting.
Being a Girl is so much harder than being a girl and it feels like a Sisyphean task, because no matter what I do I take up too much space. There is too much of my personality, too much of my body, too much of my feelings. I am always, internally, a glass about to spill or a boiling teakettle. This is unacceptable if I want to be a Girl, so I learn to never talk about it. I almost never think about not eating. I almost never think of figuring out a way to make myself sick. (I think about them all the time.)
I get a job immediately out of college because I am very, very lucky. I feel good; I feel better; I have done a year of therapy and I am not in therapy now but I think maybe I can manage. This is a new feeling. The anguish that has been my constant companion, a tight knot in my chest, a little voice chanting you’re wrong you’re wrong you’re wrong, is not gone, but is quieter.
I dye my hair a couple shades lighter than normal. I don’t have a bathtub in the apartment I’m renting with three friends who are still in college, so I do it in the shower. The color stains the old grout the color of old blood for a couple of weeks. I stop trying so hard to be a Girl and try a little harder to figure out how to be myself.
I move to New York. I relapse — sort of. I pre-relapse. I prelapse. At first I blame the summer sun and the smell of garbage for my lack of appetite, but I know I’m deluding myself. I get my shit together and find a therapist — quickly this time, before I can really hurt myself, and I learn that recovery is not a straight line. It will take me another year and a half to understand that recovery isn’t even a circle; recovery waxes and wanes, goes in and out like a tide.
I learn that being a girl is not a straight line, either. And I learn that being a Girl is something that works for other people and does not work for me, and anyway, such a narrow definition feels like a cage. I decide that I can be a girl, and that sometimes I will be too much, and that’s OK. (I sometimes need to repeat this to myself; I sometimes need a reminder.) I start cutting my hair again. Every time I cut it, I am shocked at how much lighter my heart is. The shorter it gets, the freer I feel.
One night I feel like one of those coiled springs with a fist on the end of it. I feel like I could hurt. I itch everywhere, in my marrow. I feel like there is a tiny goblin sitting on my shoulder hissing in my ear about how disgusting I am, how horrifying, how too much, how not enough. Nothing I do will shut him up. So I dye my hair bright blue. It takes four hours. I don’t do it carefully, and I end up burning part of my scalp (by accident) with bleach. When I’m done, I feel quiet and eased. I feel like enough.
Lately, I feel like this more and more often. It feels normal to feel like enough, and not an anomaly whose end I have to defend against.
I do not have it all figured out, but I am here now, and I am trying.