Up Against the Skirt: Reshaping the Gendered Body (Part 1)
Reduction—You Are What You Eat
In the fourth grade, my mother gave me permission to get the hairstyle of my two idols, my older brother and Eddie Furlong in Terminator II: the bowl cut. I wasn’t interested in mere tomboy play — from a young age, I was confused by the binaries and boundaries between male and female, because I felt like a fraud in both of those categories. I felt a deep injustice in the rigid rules that, for example, kept me (a biological girl) playing inside while my cousins (biological boys) played outside.
Like Madin Lopez, founder of Project Q, a nonprofit that uses hair as “a form of social justice” by giving free haircuts to queer homeless youth, I wanted to be able to press my “belly button to switch back and forth between boy and girl with ease.” As someone who didn’t fit the characterizations of the gender into which they had been born, but also didn’t necessarily not fit in, I wondered: Why can’t I have it both ways? Where was my happy medium?
For the purposes of this article, the term “gender” will designate the expressions, practices, and institutionalized repetitive acts that comprise the categories of females and femininity, males and masculinity, and transgender — or those who defy these fixed divisions. Biologically there are, of course, many more genders and sexualities, including those of indeterminate sex/gender, as well as intersexed individuals. I define androgynes as those who partake in the performance of both male and female genders.
As a word, androgyny — Greek from andro (man) + gyne (woman) — simplifies these complex definitions. In practice, the androgyne identity is integral to and indivisible from multicultural origin stories and mythologies. In Hinduism, the Ardhanarishvara signifies “totality that lies beyond duality.” In early Christianity, the third gender (or gender variant) is held up as a transcendent space, the perfect state between two opposites. In Greek mythology, Salamacis, a water nymph and vain lover of idleness, begged the gods that she belong forever to Hermaphroditus. Her prayers were answered, and the two were cast together as an inseparable fe(male).
Present-day third-gender communities include the hijra of India, the muxes of Mexico, and the mahu of Polynesia, the inspiration for many of Gauguin’s paintings. The Navajo word nadleeh, a half-woman/half-man member of the community, translates to “one who changes repeatedly,” suggesting a fluidity of choice, the possibility to slip into and out of performed genders.
In contemporary practice, these gender-bending traditions are filched by the fashion, film, and music industries, where bodies are capitalist material. The icon of the female androgyne, Marlene Dietrich, has persisted since the early to mid-20th century: angular jaw, cropped hair, and a beanstalk body in a smoking suit. Think Tilda Swinton or Annie Lennox or supermodel Andreja Pejic. Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Prince characterize the androgynous male: platforms, bell bottoms, and thick eye makeup.
Punk has long been a bastion of androgyny, as there is no discrimination between mohawks. The flexibility of a genre founded on antiestablishment principles allows artists such as Caleb Miller, co-founder of dimber, or Laura Jane Grace, founder of Against Me!, to find their way from painful gender dysmorphia into a identity that is fixed to their own self-perception by “exploring gender variance through punk’s fluidity” (interview with Caleb Miller, July 2017). Still, all these embodiments of gender variance perpetuate the criterion that ambiguously gendered bodies must be slim, flat, and lean. With, perhaps, the spirit of the origin stories expunged, the modern iterations of androgyny too often privilege the white male body as the center and thinness as the code.
As I upgraded from the playground to the locker room to the dorm, my own biology was short-circuiting this code and trumping my techniques to identify myself in a third, fourth, or upteenth category. I went from a chubby kid to a tiny teen, and thus for many years was able to “pass” in a liminal gender. My identity was validated through the perception of others upon my body. That is, until I left for college and my boyish body began to bulge. I was developing more flesh all around, and it was getting me noticed. My sports bras could no longer hide the disproportionate size of my breasts to the rest of my body, a feature that both men and women delighted in pointing out. For the first time, I presented as outright womanly. If, as Judith Butler, godmother of gender performance theory, claimed, “the body is only known through its gendered appearance,” I now saw not only my behaviors but also my body as putty in my hands — my body became my project.
I had a foolproof plan: I would stop eating and obsessively exercise. I watched my body dwindle to the exalted supine shape of my asexual, a-gendered role models. I lost my period, a side effect of the weight loss that became a banner of my success at achieving a neutral gender. It was not a Western ideal of thinness to which I aspired, but a lack of essentialist femininity. I didn’t want the curves; I wanted lank. I was perpetuating a stereotype of androgyny that it exists only for white, thin, masculine-of-center females. I put my body in danger because of this binary thinking and punished myself for failing to do my gender “right.” And, in fact, it is this one-size-fits-all attitude toward androgyny that erases its expansive power.
When I slipped past the point of androgyny into downright emaciated subhuman, I dropped out of college, entered a treatment facility, and piece by piece, my new, healthy body began to take shape. However, for years I have struggled with keeping my weight up, preferring to hover on the lower end of the scale to keep androgyny around me. My body is a message of my identity that I can manage in order to mix gender signals. I am inspired by artists like Eleanor Antin and Cassils, who also use their own bodies as sculptural material to comment on the problematics of rigidly assigned gender aesthetics. Whereas Antin crash-dieted to photograph her diminishing woman-ness, Cassils has built an entire practice on pushing their body to its limits and reshaping their form into a bodybuilder’s physique that breaks with all the conventions of the ideal woman, as well as those of the androgyne.
What we wear, how we cut our hair, the tone of our voices, our postures, our body shapes and sizes all project an image of gender borne of historical residuum. However, I am gradually understanding that there are volumes of ways in which one can express a nonbinary gender that do not require us to punish our bodies for not conforming to the rawboned images of female and/or/versus male. We have new language now, language we didn’t have when I was a young teen confused about my body, sexuality, and gender. These new words help to break the standards that keep female and male in opposition.
Like this new language, I am still a work in progress. I have a nutritionist who tells me the numbers that the diet industry gives me are irrelevant as long as I’m eating well and healthy. My body is smarter than my brain in that way. I’ve met and interviewed numerous other people who are also playing with visibly decategorizing themselves through creative outlets — from dance to music to acting to hairstyling.
As Miller says of her music, “We can use our art to progress, but with a spoon full of sugar…we can slip the message under the deck.” Each month that I get my period — both a symbol of my health and a stark reminder of my biological gender — I remind myself that biology can be both separate from and linked to how I move in the world. The line between male and female is no longer as thin. By expanding, both in mind and body, I am accepting that I can be genderqueer and still bleed every month, still have breasts and bulges, that I don’t have to get a bowl cut to feel like the human that I am, and that I can have it all and eat my cake, too.