Girl to boy. Boy to girl. Boy to man.

Me at my 6th birthday party.

I’m at American Eagle, where exposed brick walls, hanging strings of lights, and a floor made out of bleach blonde wood reminds me I’m only investing in an overpriced image of Californian perfection. Pictures of beautiful young men — shirtless so as to reveal their chiseled muscles, sweat and sand clinging in between the valleys of their abdomens, their Adam’s apples casting delicate crescent moons on their necks in the beach-side sunlight — mock me alongside their gorgeous female counterparts. These photoshopped, sepia-toned couples are a bleak reminder of everything I am and am not.

At five feet, two (and a half) inches, I am measly compared to these men. I wear a 5 in men’s shoes, but most stores only go down to 8 or 9. My waist size is a 27 or 28, but if I find a pair of shorts that small they usually drop to my shins. Even small sized t-shirts are usually baggy, not enough to be a huge problem but enough to accentuate my tiny stature, in a way you only really notice if you’re paying attention — which I do, all the time, glancing at my reflection in windows; car doors; and the glossy matte finish of advertisements, my soft face caught within the night sky draped around strong, broad, male shoulders.

I’ve always thought shopping was boring, ever since I was a kid. My mom would drag me into The Children’s Place where I’d try on matching dresses with my sister. I’d get pink, my sister would get green or purple. I liked pink, I just hated having to spend eternities messing with buttons and hangers in cramped stalls and end up only taking home one item. As I grew up and explored my identity this annoyance turned into animosity. I’d angrily snatch a few random androgynous tops from the girl’s section, eye the boy’s clothes without understanding why, and argue with my mom over having to try the tops on.

She’d leave to help my sister find something and I’d sweat and nervously, quietly, ask one of the employees to unlock a room, please. I’d step inside, shove myself into the shirts, then rip them off and return to the comfort of my camouflage shorts and a shirt I bought at Kohl’s that had a ninja dinosaur on it. I wore this outfit nearly every day; it was the only thing I felt comfortable in, with my frizzy hair and stupid pimples and crooked teeth and feminine, female, failure of a body.

Time passed. Discovering who I was — a transgender boy — both helped and worsened my experiences at the mall. Knowing what was happening gave me tools to cope with, but also brought the stark reality of it all that much closer to home.

I was a boy, but the wrong kind of boy, a girl-boy, a he-she, and I thought I would never be able to compare to the rugged men in the posters surrounding me. I was skinny, never once weighing over 99 pounds, with an airy voice, long eyelashes, and an anxious hunch in my shoulders.

Shopping always left me angry and depressed, until one day I worked up the courage to do something I’d never done before. I remember it clearly.

I was at Aeropostle, and there was something like a $10 t-shirt sale. I picked up a brown shirt from the men’s display. It had soft, white and yellow lettering: “AERO ’87,” or something like that. I walked up to my mom, clutching the fabric in my hands. “I want this one,” I said.

She frowned. “There’s brown girl shirts over here.”

I swallowed. I thought about chickening out. But I didn’t. “No,” I replied, “I just want this one.”

“Okay,” my mom consented, shrugging and turning away.

Once her back was toward me I shakily exhaled and held the shirt tighter to my chest. When I got home I ran up to my room and put it on in front of the mirror of my magenta closet door. The shirt still smelled like the cologne that permeated the air of the store. The fabric was thick, the collar wide and right underneath my neck, so it squared my jaw. The sleeves reached the middle of my arms, instead of bouncing off the top of my shoulders.

I looked like a boy. A skinny, short, awkward boy. But a boy — for the first time.

Looking back, this moment reminds me of playing dress-up as a little girl. I used to have big cardboard boxes stuffed with cheap dresses, plastic heels, two-dollar tiaras, and large necklaces that dropped to my knees and sounded like Newton’s balls when the beads smacked together. I’d throw on everything I could, plaster leftover makeup from my mother’s supply on my face, and strut into the living room with my hands on my hips, my regular clothes riding up underneath my sequined attire.

I liked dress-up. I thought it was fun to look outrageous. I thought it was funny. As the years went by sometimes I dressed up again, but it wasn’t as entertaining. When I was fifteen I found a dress I wore to a wedding reception years before, stole some of my little sister’s lip gloss, and strung all the clunky jewelry from my childhood around my neck. Another time, when I was sixteen and chose to skip school, I put on some deep, fuchsia lipstick and spent an hour staring at myself in the mirror. I found a skirt from sixth grade and put it on.

For awhile these occurrences confused me. I didn’t know why I did it. It wasn’t like I enjoyed looking feminine. After I’d run downstairs, laughing, and my family shook their heads in exasperated amusement, I’d be back in the bathroom, necklaces off, the straps of my dress slipping off my shoulders. I’d scrub my face with water and scowl at the remnants of lipstick at the corners of my mouth. I’d get so angry, gripping the edge of the sink as tears formed in my eyes. Why did I do this to myself? It only made me upset when all the “fun” was over.

What I didn’t understand then was that I was regressing back to my six year old self. I had no clue that playing dress-up all over again was a real psychological concept, but sometimes when our minds are overloaded with problems we revert back to childish impulses, unable to cope with the stress. Well, being depressed, being trans, and being in the closet (plus all the confusion that came with it) just mounted up sometimes, and I couldn’t deal with it. So I played dress-up. I laughed at myself and treated looking like a girl as a joke, so maybe it wouldn’t have such a grip on my happiness.

When I was a little girl I dressed up to look like a princess, a movie star, or whatever my crazy vision of a beautiful, adult woman was. And, when I was a vulnerable, scared boy, I dressed up again.

I just wanted to be the pretty young woman I was born to be. I thought if I dressed like one, I could pretend I really was one. I’d stare at myself in my closet mirror with long, unshaven legs, a few new scars on my right wrist, and stains on my teeth from not brushing well when I had my braces. Despite all of these additions, I only saw a small girl staring back at me.

I looked at her eyes. We had the same kind. One a light brown, the other a deep green, with long lashes. She blinked when I blinked, so I never saw hers close. She just watched me, forever.

And then I would turn away. I’d change into basketball shorts and a t-shirt, wash off the makeup, and when I looked back, the girl was gone, replaced with the reflection of a scrawny boy.

I struggled to return to the girl I used to be while, at the same time, fighting to become the kind of man I saw in magazines and catalogs. Long brown hair, soft hands, and missing baby teeth battled sun-kissed skin, sexy stubble, and toned arms. It was a game of dress-up with paradoxical proportions.

But I was just chasing ideals. That’s what dress-up is, isn’t it? Transforming yourself to become something you aren’t? I wasn’t a little girl anymore, nor did I ever have the potential to snap my fingers and instantly grow another foot in height. Unable to accept my current self, I sought after dreams which could never be actualized.

Recently, I’ve started to observe the cisgender men I see in everyday life. Most of them look nothing like the models in advertisements, and I’m sure the few that do have some insecurity within themselves. No one is perfect. If cisgender men don’t hold themselves to impossible standards, why should I, a transgender man? What makes me so different? The answer is, of course, nothing.

I have learned to stop my insecurities before they take root. I remind myself that marketing isn’t the same as reality. Of course society is going to shove perfection down my throat — it’s not a reflection of my failings as a man, but instead a cheap advertising trick. The stores that have the most beautiful models attract shoppers like moths to light, who have been basically brainwashed into thinking they are ugly by the same companies that they believe will help them look gorgeous. It’s an endless cycle, and the sooner you realize what a gimmick it is, the better.

I also don’t look at old pictures of myself with a mix of envy and disgust anymore. People change. I will become a multitude of different versions of myself over the course of my life. Change comes with time, and time comes with change. If I was a girl who liked to play dress-up growing up, so what? That doesn’t mean anything now, because I’ve become a new person — for the better. We all do. We are not the same people we were at six, nor sixteen, nor sixty.

Transgender people are so afraid of change we want to stay oblivious forever. We are scared our true selves will be rejected, so we handcuff ourselves to our past. But allowing change is an act of self-love. It offers new possibilities and new opportunities and new doors to open.

I no longer hold myself to the standards I used to. My days of dressing up in makeup and old clothes are over (unless I choose to dabble in drag). I don’t scrutinize my appearance for any “shameful” feminine features, either. I am a man. I’m feminine and masculine. But I’m not a male model or a little girl.

Through accepting my current self I am planting the seeds of self-esteem and chasing out the roots of self-hate. The only person I will ever compare myself to anymore is me. And, compared to who I used to be just a few years ago, I have already made vast improvements.

Becoming a man is so much more than muscle and a nice smile. It is believing in yourself, gaining confidence, and choosing the path towards growing into a healthy, responsible adult.

To any trans person dealing with dysphoria: understand that the corporate messages around you are all fake. They mean nothing. No matter how hard you try, you will never achieve their level of perfection, because it simply does not exist. The cure to dysphoria lies within yourself, not in clothing stores.

Dysphoria is a discomfort with who we perceive ourselves to be compared to the majority of society — but our perceptions of society are inherently skewed by deceptive marketing, so there is no true ultimate image to adhere to. Once you let go of these make-believe expectations, you will realize all you need to do is grow into yourself. Follow your goals, embrace your flaws, and stick to your passions. As you find the beauty inside of yourself, the beauty outside won’t seem as important.

Alternatively, there are resources for us all — surgery, hormones, clothes, certain add-on appendages, and much more. Figure out what is comfortable for you, and take time to make sure it’s not because you feel pressured to do something, but because it is what will make you happy and help add to a fulfilling life.

Dress-up is a game of impossible ideals, but transitioning is growing into who we know we are supposed to become. Think of yourself as a caterpillar. Transitioning is your cocoon. Soon, you will metamorphose and become more beautiful and free than ever before.

Stay strong. Your wings are coming soon.