The events in this piece are written as I remember them. Names have been changed, except for my own (given and chosen).
Warning: Very personal content; read at your own risk.
Happy fifth birthday! What did you get? I got some cool stuff on my birthday. Mom and Dad got me a Hot Wheels set. Uncle Ted got me a dinosaur puzzle. Some people got me girlie things. That made me upset. Grandma gave me a Barbie. Aunt Betty gave me a pink sweatshirt. When I unwrapped the doll I said, “I do not like dolls.” When I saw the sweatshirt I yelled, “I hate pink!” Mom told them it was okay. It was not okay. She told me not to say things like that. It is not polite. Say thank you.
I need to have manners. Like when I burp loud and mom says it is not lady like. I did not want the pink sweatshirt or the Barbie. It is the truth. Sometimes people burp loud. That is also the truth. Birthdays are for getting gifts you like, not for getting the wrong things.
I think your mom does not have tell you to be polite. I bet you never get any dolls. I bet you never get anything pink either. Your grandma probably gave you LEGOs. Maybe your aunt got you some blue shoes, the kind that are good for playing tag on the playground.
Later at my birthday party, I heard mom explain to some people that I am a tomboy. I know this means I am a girl who likes boy stuff. I don’t know who Tom is though. I call myself an Allisonboy instead.
Alix, how do you feel when all your presents are good? Do you smile all day? Do you high five all your friends really fast? Are you so excited that you blow your cake candles out in one breath? That is my goal for my sixth birthday. I missed one this year.
It is hot here. Yesterday I read eighty degrees on the thermometer. My brother, Kyle, and I played outside on our slip and slide all afternoon until it was time for dinner. We took turns seeing who could slide the furthest. I’m pretty sure I won. Grandma and Grandpa watched us while they did crossword puzzles on the deck.
I was doing the slip and slide in my gecko shirt and soccer shorts. Then, when I was done I wanted to take my shirt off like people do sometimes when it’s hot outside. I could dry off my skin faster that way and my shirt could dry on the deck in the sun. I thought that was a smart plan.
When I took off my shirt and set it on the deck my grandpa chuckled at me. I looked at him and then he said, “Ladies aren’t supposed to take their shirts off.” I felt confused because he was still smiling even though he said I did something I’m not supposed to. After a second he said, “But it’s okay for you.”
I thought about it later and decided that he said it was okay because I am only nine years old. I realized that I never see older girls have their shirts off. It’s okay for girl babies but then it is not okay when you are older. I can’t figure out when it stops being okay. I think I better wear a shirt from now on to make sure I don’t get in trouble.
I don’t like finding out I’ve been doing something I’m not supposed to without even knowing. I try my best to follow the rules and be good. I also think it is hard to follow the rules if no one explains them to you.
I hope you are as excited as me that the Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl this year. I love to play football just as much as I love to watch it. Since I am a girl I don’t play on a team even though fifth grade is old enough. Instead I play with Dad and Kyle in the backyard. Dad throws the ball to us while we defend each other. There are some close games, but I usually win. I feel excited and satisfied after I win.
Since it is winter now it is sometimes too stormy to play outside. Also, sometimes Dad and Kyle aren’t home so I have no one to play with. This was what happened yesterday after the Seahawks won the NFC Championship against the Carolina Panthers. Dad and Kyle left to go to a movie. The game was good and I felt energetic. I started doing drop backs and tossing the ball lightly to myself. I was also saying out loud what was happening in my imaginary game.
Mom was watching me. I thought I didn’t care about that. I changed my mind when she asked, “Do you wish you were a boy so you could play football?” She was smiling like it was a joke. I quickly said no. It was kind of a lie, but I didn’t feel like explaining. Instead, I will tell you.
I daydream a lot about playing football for the high school team someday. I know this wouldn’t be allowed and I would probably get hurt with all the tackling by the bigger boys. That’s why it’s only a daydream. Right now, I can play touch football at recess, but those are not real games. Mom was kind of right because I do wish I could also get big and strong so I could play high school football. But I don’t wish I was a boy because then I wouldn’t be me. I like being me. If being a girl is part of me then I will accept it.
Are you going to play football in high school? I want to be your biggest fan if you do.
Have you heard people say “for better or for worse…”? It’s for when you have to accept something so people pretend it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. I think that it’s like lying. People shouldn’t be afraid to say what they don’t like. So here goes: for worse, puberty is here.
First of all, I had to go buy bras with my mom. It was so embarrassing. I only wanted to get bras because the sports one help make my chest look flat like it used to.
If bras weren’t bad enough, I am really writing to you now because of what happened this week. When I went to the bathroom before lunch at school I saw a brown spot on my underwear. I couldn’t figure out how it got there at first because I was 99% sure didn’t poop my pants or anything. When I wiped in the front and saw reddish-brown on the toilet paper it hit me than this was a period. It was so gross! I asked the universe, ‘why me?’ I felt like this was supposed to happen to other girls, but not me. Just like having to wear a bra. I stuffed toilet paper in my underwear to soak up the blood for the rest of the day.
Instead of paying attention to book report presentations after lunch, I thought about last week’s language arts lesson about conflicts in stories. We learned that conflicts have protagonists and antagonists. I started thinking that if I was in a story, I would be the protagonist and the antagonist would be making me have a period. I tried to think of who the antagonist could be, but my only idea was that it was my own body. I got this idea because in health class we learned that it is natural for a girl’s body to have a period when they are about my age.
Thinking about my body being the antagonist made me worry. If I tried to win the conflict against my body, wouldn’t I also be attacking myself? I don’t want to attack myself. That doesn’t make any sense. Are you confused yet? Help!
Your scared friend,
Apparently it isn’t okay to be a tomboy in middle school. My soccer teammates and I all used to wear sweatshirts and sweatpants to school, but now they wear tight jeans and fitted Hollister t-shirts. I want to keep wearing my sporty clothes, but it seems like there are some new rules against that.
These rules were vague at first, like my friends were just making hints, but last weekend cleared up a lot of the confusion. I was over at Sarah’s house for her birthday party on Saturday night. She got a couple of makeup items and people wanted to try them out. Eliza unpackaged some mascara and suggested giving me a makeover, but I shook my head and said no with a strong voice. Everyone else liked the idea though. Eliza brought the mascara brush towards my face and Sarah grabbed my head to steady it. I tried to run away to the upstairs, but they followed me.
“You’re going to look so pretty,” Eliza said when she tracked me down. Sarah pinned my arms against the rug while Eliza tried to brush makeup onto my eyelashes. She mostly ended up poking my eyes because I was squirming. When tears started gushing out of my eyes, Eliza stopped and told Sarah to let go. I played the tears off as irritation from being allergic to makeup. Actually, I was crying out of fear.
Alix, I don’t feel safe. My friends don’t want to let me be different. I don’t know why. I don’t know why every girl has to dress girly and wear makeup starting in middle school.
I don’t think it’s an option to keep being a tomboy even though I want to. I would rather feel safe than be myself. Everyone wants me to act like a girl so I guess that is what I will have to do.
I feel like we are getting too old to dress up and go trick or treating for Halloween. Since we’ll be in high school next year, this is probably my last time.
My friends all went as fairies, but I had no interest in joining them. Instead, I dressed up as a boy. I tied my hair up into a high ponytail and tucked it under a baseball hat. I wore my dad’s jeans, white t-shirt, and navy blue short-sleeve button-up, undone. His clothes didn’t fit me exactly right, but I thought the baggy look was cool.
Despite our distinct costumes, the fairies invited me to trick-or-treat with them. At one of the houses we visited, a woman complimented my friends’ costumes. “What a beautiful group of girls,” she smiled. “ — And guy,” she quickly added when she laid her eyes on me.
As we walked away from the house, my legs felt squishy like gummy worms and I got this goofy smile on my face. Luckily, no one noticed because it was dark and they were looking at their candy stashes anyway. I couldn’t tell whether the woman was just going along with my costume or thought I was actually a boy trick-or-treating without a costume. I wasn’t sure which option would be better, but I felt happy the woman noticed that I was something different than a colorful fairy.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about getting my hair cut short. Even though I know I’d look good from the times I tuck my hair under a baseball hat at home, I haven’t done it because I’m scared of what people will say at school. I’m scared that people would think I looked too much like a boy since my clothes are mostly baggy and I don’t wear earrings or makeup. The length of my hair is what lets people know I’m a girl. It’s like my safety blanket.
I figured that Halloween would be the safest time to show off my short hair. You’re supposed to look different on Halloween, so no one will be surprised when you do. I don’t know what the point of this letter is other than to tell you I liked wearing my costume this year. If it is my last year trick-or-treating it was a good way to go out. Hopefully I can hear about your costume sometime. Talk to you later.
Your boy (for a day),
Are you still there? I think it’s been about seven years since I last wrote to you. By now I’m 22 years old and about to graduate from college. I’m embarrassed to say that as of a year ago I had all but forgotten about our correspondence.
Let me introduce this letter by quoting Rebecca Solnit’s book, The Faraway Nearby: “Elaborate are the means to hide from yourself, the dissociations, projections, deceptions, forgettings, justifications, and other tools to detour around the obstruction of unbearable reality…” I was first faced my forgettings about a year ago when I heard a personal story from a transgender person for the first time.
I was listening to a podcast called Snap Judgment when I heard Tristian Whiston’s audio diary about his transition from female to male. Tristian opened his piece by talking about his childhood. He fought against his mom over how she dressed him, recalling how “mortifying” it felt when she tried to make him wear a barrette to preschool. After feeling rejected by his peers during adolescence, Tristian had to face that he was a girl, and not a boy. He lived with this as fact until his mid-thirties when he started to question and explore his gender.
Tristian’s childhood experience was eerily similar to my own, but I felt that I had heard his story too late. I had left my tomboy ways behind long ago and was comfortable being a woman by that point. Sure, it took me all of high school and a couple years of college, but you’d be surprised to know that by now I’m not afraid to rock a dress, earrings, and a little bit of makeup. I resigned myself to the fact that the opportunity had passed for me to figure out that I was transgender.
I shoved Tristian’s story into the back of my mind until a couple of months ago when I set out to write a personal essay about rejecting feminine social norms like marriage and motherhood. I included many of the moments that I remember writing to you about so long ago: hating dolls, not wanting to wear makeup, dressing up as a boy for Halloween. As I assembled all those stories into the narrative of my experience with gendered social norms, it became impossible for me to avoid the thoughts that I had pushed aside as I listened that podcast.
I chewed on a hangnail nervously as I focused on forming a forceful closing for my essay. I finally pried one out of my brain: “Just because you were born a girl, doesn’t mean you have to act like one; it’s okay.” It sounded great; the paper was ready to submit. I just wanted to proofread it one more time. The final sentence reached out of the screen and punched me in the diaphragm. With my breath held and my jaw clenched, I realized how that last sentence should read: “Just because you were told you were a girl, doesn’t mean you have to live as one; it’s okay.”
When I landed on that sentence, I gave myself permission to explore my gender identity. I gave myself permission to reconnect with you. Embrace you. Be you. I wrote to you because you were the version of myself I imagined I might be if I were free from others’ ideas about my gender. For more than twenty years I assumed you would always be a figment of my imagination. I never thought it would be possible to become you. But here I am. Because I heard Tristian’s story, because I took that writing class, because my old pen pal refused to be forgotten.
Alix, it’s great to finally meet you.