Growing into “She”

I haven’t been comfortable being referred to by feminine pronouns for very long.

I remember the first time I consciously understood my discomfort with being referred to as “she.” I was 17 and in my high school musical. The lighting designer couldn’t see me clearly and didn’t know who I was, and as he referred to my position on stage, he flipped between “he” and “she,” squinting at me to get a better look. When he finally settled on “she,” I felt like an imposter.

If you have known me for any length of time, you may know that I have never dressed ambiguously. I’ve had long hair since I was 13, and have always shopped in (or have been bought clothes from) the girls’/women’s section. But “she” and “her” seemed to belong to a different kind of girl. They belonged to the beautiful, to the girls who could use their faces and their bodies to advance their positions in the world. I have not ever been that kind of girl, and thus, being referred to as “she” felt false. Being called a “her” made me feel like I was supposed to be pretty when in fact I was painfully plain. I never felt like a boy, but I didn’t feel like a girl, either.

I began to grow used to being called a girl when I was 21, when I was a senior in college. (I’m still not used to being called a “woman,” but that’s a question of my lack of age-appropriate maturity that has nothing to do with a question of gender prejudice.) What changed was not my definition of what it meant to be a girl. What changed was me. Through a process I do not precisely regret, I began to dress differently, to wear make-up, and to choose my shoes with more care than, “This one fits!” Eventually, I felt, if not pretty, at least feminine. It was a conscious shift in outlook from, “If I make it clear that I am not trying to look good, then I will not be blamed for failing” to, “I am going to look like I am making an effort.”

I do not regret my changes in outfit and comportment; I like my body better this way. I do regret my need to change in order to feel comfortable with being a girl. I do regret that for all of my life, being called a girl has implied being considered pretty and feminine. I do not precisely regret living in a society that differentiates between men and women, but I do regret living in a society where what makes a man or a woman is not biology but behavior.

I’ve mostly stopped making a daily effort in my appearance. This is partly because I’m now comfortable enough with my body to call myself a girl even when I’m wearing sweatpants and glasses, with my hair swept up in the loosest approximation of a chignon. But I won’t forget spending the first couple decades of my life feeling too inadequate to be referred to by the pronouns of my gender because society taught me that I was.