I was 10 the first time I really remember being misgendered. I was by myself at the salon assigned to foreigners in Beijing in 1979, to get my hair cut before going home to Canada for the summer vacation. I was in shorts and a tee shirt, a lanky-long slip of a thing not quite at puberty. As the stylist cut my hair shorter and shorter, and more hair fell down on the floor, my Mandarin fled. When she finally pulled the clippers out, I shrieked, “Wo bu shi baba! No, no, I am not a father!” Soon I had a flutter of platitude-murmuring, middle-aged ladies about me, trying to rectify my gender with kiss curls around my ears and as much height as they could possibly put in my now-shorn hair, while I wept hot tears of shame into my Barbapapa t-shirt.
The lesson there was that all white people look the same. It’s true. We do.
Yet it wasn’t the last time I was gendered by my appearance, and it also wasn’t the last time I was desperately confused by the conflicting messages we are taught about gender, particularly as I grew into a round, full-hipped, full-breasted small-fat adult. Be feminine. Too feminine is weak. Be strong. Too strong is butch. Be direct. Too direct is masculine. Be flirtatious. Too flirtatious is slutty. Wear a skirt. Wear pants. Don’t be confrontational, it’s bitchy. Be assertive. But not too assertive.
All of this messaging became confused with, and immersed into, the size of my body. My body was never my own. It was a weapon in a centuries-long discourse about sexuality and the commodification of the female body. “Good child-bearing hips,” I was told by more than one person. “You are going to be such a good mom,” by more than one date. I should wear more skirts, I was told. “You have such nice legs, you should show them off.” “Why don’t you show off your boobs?” “You’re so intimidating.” “You should wear prettier colours.” Friends set me up on a blind date, and then were visibly (and verbally) mortified that I didn’t “make an effort” to be more feminine.
Yet “feminine” seemed to come with a manual that I wasn’t given. I assumed it was because of my size. I was awkward. I was tall. I was fat. Smaller, straight-sized friends knew how to flirt, how to be adorable, how to wear skirts without being called a mom, how to grow their hair long, how to put on makeup. At one point, my sister dragged me to the MAC counter: “Fix her! And teach her how to use the damn brushes!”
At the same time, the clothes worn by the women I secretly worshipped, like Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith, were off-limits to fat bodies like mine. What was androgynous on them, was butch on me. And god forbid I should look butch. Those were THE RULES in that manual I didn’t have, the one I followed blindly all the same. Fat bodies were supposed to be feminine – but mine could never seem to be feminine enough. Outfit after outfit, style after style, I internalized the message that how I dressed could offset my height and my fat, but only if I followed those rules.
Turning 50 has been a revelation I wish hadn’t taken me 4 decades to see. As I become more invisible in the public eye – no longer of child-bearing age, no longer considered a viable sexual partner in our youth-obsessed society – and my body becomes fuller and thicker post-menopause, I feel a freedom and a power in my tall, fat, aging body I never knew I could have. All that coding I associated with “fat” was wrong. Yes, you can be fat and gender-fluid. You can be fat and straight and gender-fluid. All those rules about figure-flattering, “mom” style femininity can get chucked out the window with most of my makeup. What was threatening in a younger body is just weird in an older body. They write you off…and mostly leave you alone. It has allowed me to come fully into my relationship with my gender in relative peace and quiet – and I feel myself blooming into a second spring. What I know now, is that there IS NO MANUAL, and that yes, you can wear whatever makes you happy. Some days for me it’s a dress, and some days it’s pants and a tie. Sewing is helping me to get there. I can make what I cannot find in the shops. The irony is, there is a sexual, intellectual, and emotional power in being who you really are, in not hiding that part of yourself. When society wants to write you off, for your gender, your size, your age….you find your power.
Emily is an English professor and writer enjoying a whole new outlook on life and pronouns at 50. They live with their partner and sons a short drive away from daily lake walks with the dogs, and spends their off-time knitting, sewing, and plotting to escape civilization in a little trailer. You can find them on Instagram as loveaslug2.