We were swinging on the swings in my backyard. I had just figured out how to swing without adult help and was showing Debi how to “pump” her legs to go higher and higher, “Lean waaaay back and bend your legs, then lean way forward and put your legs straight out, then you can go higher and higher.”  She looked over her shoulder at me and declared, “We are both going to be Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders when we grow up, ok?” I shrugged and said sure. My four year old brain seemed to think this was as good as any career path. That night at dinner I told my parents that I needed to purchase some patent leather black and white saddle shoes and enroll in gymnastics in order to begin my destined pathway. They looked at me puzzled and didn’t ask too many questions, I knew they were confused and I took a breath and closed my eyes to begin explaining to them why this was the most important thing in my life. 

* * * *

I sat in the front seat on the bus next to Ricardo. He was teaching me how to read. I sat close to him as he showed me how the consonants and vowels blended to create new words. I allowed him to slowly sound out each word, while in my head I already read the entire page. I knew how to read before arriving at school, but I knew Ricardo was proud of himself for teaching me how to read on the bus. He bragged at recess at how I was such a good student and good listener. This was a shift from what I heard from my teacher who disliked me for various reasons. I wanted to be thought of as a good student and listener, so I allowed Ricardo to teach me each morning and afternoon on the bus. As we approached his stop, I would take a breath and say thank you before he got out of the seat. I would close my eyes after he left and think why am I doing this? 

* * * *

I yanked at my three week old bowl cut, the hairs beginning to cover my ears and eyebrows. I walked across the wooden floorboards as I entered my new fourth grade class. I heard another student whisper to another classmate, “Is that a boy or a girl?” “Shhhh…” as she snickered and shrugged. I stood at the back of the class drowning in an XL sweatshirt and leggings hanging on my 75 pound frame looking for the desk I could shrink behind. I held my arms in over my chest that was already beginning to blossom into breasts and took a deep breath as I closed my eyes. 

* * * *

For my 11th birthday I was allowed to learn how to wear makeup. I went across the street to Bonnie Cooper’s house. She was a Mormon, I didn’t understand what this meant other than Mormon’s are from Utah and they have large families. Bonnie had 3 kids, I babysat them when her and her husband would go out. Bonnie sold makeup out of her house, from one of those makeup companies, not Mary Kay, but the same idea. She showed me how to apply eyeshadow and eyeliner. How to put foundation on evenly and cover my pubescent zits with concealer. I wasn’t just allowed to learn how to wear makeup, I was allowed to wear it. Every morning before school I would apply various shades of purples and smoky eyeshadows, covering my skin with the coating of beige, and brushing powder across my nose. My full face of makeup must have been a sight with my stringy unwashed hair and flannel shirt and jeans that I wore everyday. My hygiene had not caught up to my makeup application. The work to “apply my face” always took precedence over anything else. In the evenings I would take a breath before splashing water over my face and close my eyes as I scrubbed off the purple encasement of my eyes. 

* * * *

I scurried into the bathroom before physical education. The locker room is empty of people but full of the smell of old sweat, dust, and forgotten showers. I had gotten my period that morning and my cramps were outrageous but I knew that my gym teacher wouldn’t care. I also would never have told anyone that I needed to be excused from anything for my period. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to this annoying monthly visitor.  I sat on the toilet and pulled the string to my tampon. It wouldn’t come out. My brain started frantically searching for an explanation. I had read the tampon instructions for as long as I could read – the tampons always sat on the back of the toilet. I should be able to just easily pull the string and the tampon comes out. It didn’t. I yanked again, except this time it felt like something was ripping. I stopped and tried to push it back in. I had blood all over my hands and was so sweaty. My white sweatshirt was not an option for wiping my hands on before going to the sink to do a thorough washing. I pulled up my underwear and jeans and carefully put the sweatshirt over my shoulder, knowing once my hands were clean I would need to tie that around my waist. I peered through the crack in the bathroom door to see if any of my classmates were waiting, the coast was clear. I got to the sink and cleaned my hands and carefully tied my sweatshirt around my waist to hide the impending blood on my jeans. As I walked back out to the gym, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes as I wiped the sweat from my brow. 

* * * *

I sat in the blue padded chairs in the waiting room of UNC with my mom. She looked at me and said, “I think this doctor is going to really help. He’s an expert.” My brain could barely comprehend, I was so tired of being in pain. We were called to the back with the nurse who weighed me. I could barely hear the numbers being read back to me. I felt like I was on another planet watching the whole experience occur. As we went into the examination room, the nurse was perky and taking the paperwork we had brought. She thanked my mom for bringing the images from the first surgery and made some small hmmms as she looked. I sat upright on the crinkly paper covering the table waiting for the inevitable instructions to disrobe and put on the hospital gowns. Having spent the past 6 months in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices I began to know the routine. As Dr. Steege arrived in the room, I began the same story I had repeated each time I met or saw someone new. I began to repeat my origin story, the identity I had begun to wear, the disease that became who I was. This disease affects the very essence of biological womanhood. In a time period when I should have been figuring out who I was, this disease had defined me as a woman. As I began, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes remembering the beginning of this hell. 

* * * *

I walked through the bar. Heading into the back of the restaurant as my head felt dizzy from the beer. I shook my head thinking I can’t be tipsy, it’s only 4 o’clock. I pushed open the door with the sign that said women. I stepped into the brightly lit black and white tiled floor bathroom. I glanced in the mirror at my cropped haircut as the door swung open behind me. A breathless waitress snapped impatiently, as I pushed open the stall door, “You can’t be in here!” My heart fell towards my stomach as the familiar prickly heat of shame encased my skin. I turned my body towards the waitress, almost to demonstrate to her that I have breasts, and say, “What did you say to me?” The dizziness has passed and I can feel the shame turn quickly into anger. The waitress stammers,”This is WOMEN’S BATHROOM, you can’t be in here.” I close my eyes and take a breath so I don’t yell. 

* * * *

I look down at my legs, now covered in soft hair, no longer stubble, but fully grown out. Why should I shave my legs if I’m not going to see anyone? The question is filled with socialization. Other people – these strangers without identities but full of judgment – define what I should do with my body. The amount of hair that covers my body has always been a source of shame for me. Hirsutism creates conditions where I have thick hair all over my body, while society requests that a woman has smooth, hair free bodies. 

Removing society from my day to day life has never been something I would have sought after. I would never have wished for a pandemic to occur, isolation for months, or the myriad of deaths around the country and world. This time of isolation though is what I imagine those who go on year long retreats or backpacking or hiking the Appalachian Trail go through – some elements of what feels like insanity, some elements of what feels like clear enlightenment. I have spent a fair amount of time in my life thinking about my race and what makes me white – what behaviors I have been conditioned to ignore and to draw upon in certain situations. I have spent a fair amount of time in my life thinking about my health and what helps my body and mind – what behaviors I need to engage in more often, which behaviors I need to release. I have not spent a lot of time thinking about my gender throughout my life. The feelings, the stories, the shame, the confusion all quickly get pushed aside because of what other people have told me I am. I asked a friend, “How does one know what gender they are?” There aren’t a lot of answers to this question except that if I’m questioning I am probably not cisgendered. When I sit and listen closely to my body, when I sit and listen closely to my memories I feel the disjointed nature of what my outward appearance is and the dilemma that I wrestle with in wanting my breasts to be gone – is this to fit better into clothes? Or because my body isn’t correct? Can it be both? Can I appreciate my vagina and the pleasure it brings both myself and others while also wishing for nothing? Can I be a woman while also wanting to be something more expansive, less restrictive? How can I continue to feel as though I am stuffed into a corset when I am able to vote freely? Understanding how gender labels and the binary tighten around my chest creating seductive cleavage while in the same shallow breath I ask for something beyond these labels, beyond this binary. I am genderfull, genderfluid, more than the words that currently define me, words that both no longer exist and haven’t been invented. I am all of the women before me, those kicking in the social expectations, and those who lived within them. I am more than what is possible within the word woman. I am they. 

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