“Why can’t you just be a girl?” my therapist recently asked.
I did some ‘girly’ things this week. I painted my nails, shaved and put cream on my legs and arms. I never put cream on and I haven’t shaved or put nail polish on in a very long time. It felt really good.
Then I thought: if this is being ‘girly’, then what do guys do? What do they do to feel ‘boy-y’? So, it’s not about doing girly things per se; it’s not about doing something specifically gendered. It’s about doing something that is specific to the gender you identify with. But more than that, it’s about taking care of your body; more specifically, inhabiting your body. If you inhabit your body you will naturally take care of it, do what is good for it.
I have a very long history of not inhabiting my body and thus not taking care of it. Not only did I not inhabit it, but I loathed it and did everything I could to punish it, destroy it: the over-eating, the lack of exercise, the obesity, the bulimia, the smoking, the casual sex, the tattooing and piercing, the cutting and burning. These were all aggressive acts of body loathing. The need to punish and destroy the body arose out of the body’s betrayal of my need for it to be invisible, to be tame, to shut the fuck up and stay out of my way.
The symptoms of aggressive body loathing grew out of an even longer history of simply not inhabiting the body; ignoring it.
Not only was my body not invisible and tamed, it became the source of much attention and I became this freak who was led by the hand into specialty bra shops, my mother telling the assistants that we needed help because, sigh, her daughter “had a problem.” And asked what size she was looking for she would reluctantly whisper, “G” and the assistant would reply, “G?! Oh, gee!”
Shopping for clothes was also a painful nightmare. I would be dragged by my mother to the overtly feminine clothes in which I felt like a drag queen, but they wouldn’t fit anyway. The anger of having to try them on, and then the humiliation of them not fitting…. So my refrain for years was, “Just leave it, we’ll buy stuff when I’ve lost weight.” So I lived for years with a minimal wardrobe, mostly picked out by my mother, or stuff found in church jumble sales, or hand-me-downs from large church ladies and their large daughters.
I remember a particular incident clearly where we were at Bruma Flea Market and my parents wanted to buy me a pair of Nike’s or Reeboks and I burst into tears and refused them because they were expensive and I didn’t deserve them.
I still have a minimal wardrobe; that which is tried and tested and which I feel comfortable in. I don’t shop for clothes. I rely on gifts from my mother, who, thankfully, has to some extent given up on a feminine daughter. I wear men’s underwear, men’s deodorant and only accept clothes from the men’s section or that from the women’s section which passes for androgynous. That which does not fit into either of these categories I accept and thank her for and then relegate to the cupboard where it gets given to someone when I next move out of that particular flat..
So all of this in a body with breasts that were so freakishly and hugely female; like some enormous and larger than life blow-up-doll or űber-mother which attracted the excruciating sexual attentions of pawing men.
Yes, now that I’ve had the reduction I’m able to inhabit my body more, take care of it more, punish it less. I’m rehabilitating my body and my gender identity. I’m renovating a building which has been derelict and abandoned; useful only to vandals and seedy men looking for a place to spend the night.
But how the fuck do I rehabilitate a gender identity without knowing who I am and what I like? How do I know that I authentically prefer black and pants over pink and skirts, tattoos and dreadlocks over a tan and salon’d hair? How do I know this when I can’t untangle what’s me and what’s a symptom of my body pathology? How do I, at the age of 33, experiment with colours, styles, make-up and hair when everyone else did that as a teen and in their early 20s? How do I play dress-up when everyone else is playing house?
Since writing this piece a month ago, I am actually having fun with playing dress-up. I am inhabiting my body more comfortably, and I am having quite a lot of fun playing around with what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve allowed my hair to grow for the last year, I’m beginning to wear more feminine shirts, I’m playing with make-up when I go out. More importantly, I don’t feel like a drag-queen when I do these things. I don’t feel inauthentic anymore. And while I’m still uncomfortable with compliments, I’m starting to enjoy it when people tell me that I’m looking better (physically and in my self) than I have ever looked. And when people tell me I’m looking ‘more girly’ and ‘pretty’, instead of cringing, I accept what they’re saying, because I know they’re right.