Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
When I saw the video below of Beth Ditto live, performing “Standing in the Way of Control” with her band, Gossip, I was profoundly affected. I’ve been thinking about femininity, shame, and femme performance a lot lately. My latest forays into femme fashion as a genderqueer person have been inextricably tied up in the shame of being a teenaged girl, the pain of rejection by my peers, and the power of shame to shut me up as I move through adult society.
I’ve always been a loud, boisterous person. I tend to be proud of my accomplishments and sometimes a bit of a know-it-all. I love karaoke, dance performances, and anything else creative. But as I’ve moved through my teenaged and young adult years, the pressure of etiquette and embarrassment have had a painful effect on me. I read a lot about how it’s important to focus not on what girls’ bodies look like, but what they can do. Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I’m shamed by the realization that what my body can do is not as good as what others’ can do. I’ve stopped singing and dancing as much in public because of external ridicule and growing internal embarrassment. Throughout college and law school, clothes went from fun performance to a way to be invisible, proper, and fitting into what I saw as my role. I’ve been trying very hard to speak less and listen more. Sometimes, that’s a good lesson to learn, but it also has painful effects.
When I first saw the Beth Ditto video below the cut on the commuter train, I cried. On stage, Beth is joyful, radiant, and unashamed. She dances in a purple dress that fully exposes her thighs, in bare feet, fully occupying her space. She belts the song diva rockstar style, and certainly doesn’t look nervous or ashamed about the thousands of people watching. Though I may not exactly have Beth Ditto’s voice, I do want to use this video as inspiration. It reminds me so much of being a little girl, singing in my nightgown at the top of my lungs, dancing, crashing into furniture, convinced that my voice and my body were awesome. Whenever there was a chance to perform, I took it. There’s something to be learned from that. It’s also why cried when I saw this empowering video about girls and body image. You know what? I deserve to be a fucking rockstar.
There’s been a lot about children and gender identity on my radar screen lately, from stores with gender-neutral children’s clothing to the media ridiculousness surrounding little Shiloh to the tragic murder of a 16-month-old little boy whose mother’s boyfriend didn’t think the infant was “man” enough. I’ve also been tapping into my own inner-child potential as I try to resolve issues with depression and finding my gender identity.
Childhood, ideally, is all about play. Children who are given safe spaces to exercise their curiosity and explore their surroundings as they grow up are more likely to be well-adjusted adults. Adults, in fact, could learn something from children. It’s amazing how a problem changes shape and how solutions present themselves when you take a step back and approach the problem with your imagination guns a blazin’.
And that’s the thing about childhood. Imagination doesn’t do well with boxes. It’s about exploring possibilities, playing, learning. As we get older, society draws lines and we all learn where those lines lie. We learn that boys do this and girls do this, and we learn behaviors that society considers “appropriate” to our gender. And for those of us who don’t feel 100% comfortable with our gender, it may take years to unwrap those neat little packages we’ve been dressed up in and try to find who we are, independent of this thing called “gender.” It may take a lot of play.