Of all the things I did as a little girl, none of them were right. This is, of course, hyperbole. I’m sure I occasionally or eventually must have managed to do things right, if only by accident. This is also an accurate summary of my girlhood experience. There was nothing a person does with their body that I could do correctly, by which I mean: to my mother’s satisfaction. Considering that I turned out in the fullness of time to become a larger-than-average man it’s not too surprising, but that’s the grace of hindsight. In the long moments of my childhood and adolescence, my body, and all the things I did in it, were cause for a global alarm and consternation.
None of this alarm was mine. I know we’ve all heard story upon story of young trans people cursing their genitals, fearing their secondary sex characteristics, ashamed to the point of staying indoors and swaddling their proto-trans transgressions in layers of sweats. Some of us are revolted by what we see and some exhausted by the impact our personal topographies have on the emotional and political climate, but that wasn’t me. My vagina was not the problem (and gosh oh golly, is that a sentence I never imagined writing) or at least it wasn’t my problem. We got along okay.
My shoulders, however, were a problem — broad, broader than the boys and this was the 80s besides so everything came with shoulder pads I learned to snip carefully out and save (for what, who could say). My barrel chest was a problem and taken together with my shoulders, an exponential problem — the nexus of a million Laura Ashley disappointments, but not mine. I was making eyes at the mannequins in the Chess King next door and would have been perfectly happy to forsake Laura and her ilk forever. But for my mother, my barrel of an upper body was an utter disaster, made all the worse by the fact that I was a little chunky and therefore no delicate swoop of a collarbone was ever visible under the neckline of a flimsy top or anywhere else, ever.
I never fit anything I was assigned.
Despite that, I wore things that make me grateful beyond measure that my parents simply stopped taking photos of me after a while, because they were horrified and shamed. I distinctly remember the white miniskirt and white patent leather pumps that went with it, topped off with a teal sweater my mother picked out and teal mascara I was issued and instructed to apply as tenderly as Army recruits are issued their sweat socks. I used my round brush and my aerosol can of AquaNet and my hairdryer with the diffuser screwed on to annoy my hair until it puffed itself up in warning like any sensible animal. I put them all on and left the house that way, against my better judgment but without any other options I could see. Food and shelter came from the same nicely-manicured hands as the teal mascara.
In the few photos that still exist from that time, I look like a freshman linebacker on Spirit Day, attempting to take my hazing in stride to show I’m cool enough not to be upset. Around my eyes, though, you can see the toll it takes. There is an evident exhaustion from all the outfits, the makeup, the jewelry, the perms, all the things my parents threw at the problem that was me, in the hope that something would stick, that some spark of femininity would kindle and ignite, that I would come home one day properly dedicated to being better at girlhood. My relatives and adjacent adults obviously hoped someday a magic would occur, and out I would step with all the right things properly applied, in the correct shape with the appropriate interests, as if I could go on some sort of Pimp My Ride program for the gender-nonconforming and come out the other side a completely different person (and perhaps with some things chromed for good measure).
I was routinely judged to be failing because I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Reader, I tried pretty fucking hard. I dieted when told to diet. I sat complacently in the office of the quack “nutritionist” who put me on a regimen of supplements and the quack “dietician” who told my parents there would be no harm in putting me on a heavily restrictive low-calorie diet in the throes of my adolescence (no spoilers, but that’s a dangerous lie). I accepted everything I was handed in the hope that I could be not-a-problem someday, somehow. I did what they said until I got so hungry and dizzy I fainted at school and got branded a faker by the nurses because there was never anything verifiably wrong with me. I wore what I was handed and I learned to do the thing with my hair that made it look like there was a cobra ready to attack perched on my head, with tremendous wings on the side that everyone agreed were “so slimming.” I nurtured a pouf of venomous majesty over my eyebrows. I tried very, very hard to develop any enthusiasm at all for the clothes I was allowed, which looked terrible on me. But I couldn’t change by body, my big and broad conformation.
Conformation is a word used to describe the way a horse or a dog is shaped when they judge them, at shows. When we talk about humans we usually say “build” or “shape,” but I never felt like anything other than a disappointing animal, and when I went to the doctor it might as well have been the vet for all anyone listened to or cared about what I had to say about anything. My body was utterly and obviously not like those of any of the other Bat Mitzvah girls, and so like an animal I was brought, weighed, measured, discussed, deplored, and prescribed to but never, ever consulted. I had already proven myself untrustworthy.
I tried even harder to sit and stand, move and walk in the correct way, or even an acceptable way, anything to stop the telltale, muscular bulge of furious teeth-clenching my father displayed whenever we went anywhere together. I couldn’t put on my jacket correctly; my method was too bold and took up too much room in the world. I couldn’t lean correctly or pick something up off the ground correctly or tie my shoe correctly. All of my attempts were unacceptably masculine. I could not cross my legs with one knee over the other, my top leg lithe and languorous in its drape, despite being encouraged to and instructed to and eventually ordered to. Some years later I discovered that (yes, like a dog) I have hip dysplasia — I can lay my legs perfectly flat on the floor with the soles of my feet touching, but trying to sit with my knees pressed tightly together for even a few minutes is an agony. My father also has many hip problems, probably for the same reason, but at least no one ever tried to make him sit with his knees demurely together while he shook with the effort and cried in pain.
Nothing worked. At least, nothing worked in the way my parents wanted. I was excoriated for being fat, for being brutish, for my wholesale failure at being a young girl and none of the remedies prescribed or applied helped the situation one bit. What helped was getting away. At Concord Academy, my artsy, Quaker-infused boarding school, no one cared if I wore jeans and a sweatshirt to class every day and left the cute blouses and carefully coordinated earrings in my drawer enjoying an early retirement. After high school, and seven excruciating pantyhosed weeks as the breakfast hostess of the restaurant at a Holiday Inn, I gathered up my awkward limbs and burgeoning belly, my queer sensibilities and my rapidly expanding indignation about the concept of gender roles and took them to university where I was greeted as a comrade by an array of freaks and misfits and nerds and queers so marvelous, so magnificent in their plumage and their adornments, that my parents began to suspect they’d gotten off easy. I bought Timberland boots and wore them every day, and when I sat I crossed my legs ankle over knee, like my father did, like I am sitting now as I type, possibly the last person left who routinely uses his laptop on his actual lap.
It’s true that I am no longer subject to any of the gender policing or fat shaming of my youth. My partners regularly praise my shape and movements and I have suits and ties and formalwear and casual writer looks, but I can’t shake the shapes of disapproval I used to see so often, no matter how carefully I coordinate my tie with my glasses or my pocket square with my shirt. My early understanding that my body was a failure broke my confidence in it completely, and I am still picking up the shards on my knees with a headlamp and tweezers. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to collect them all, and even if I do I much doubt that I could do anything useful with them anyway.
I haven’t stopped trying though. Every dog has his day, after all.