Gender Outside the Classroom
ANNA POLACEK // NOVEMBER 9, 2018
Going to a school like Oberlin, where I can write entire essays about the intricacies of the gender spectrum, makes me wonder why I have no idea how to place myself on it. I can confidently explain all the problems with binary thinking, but once I leave the classroom I feel trapped by binaries I actively engage in on the day-to-day. Oberlin can be a comparatively safe environment to explore and express different parts of our respective identities. But as easy as it may seem to express identity publicly here, it can be difficult to settle on these identities privately.
I’m confused every day. It’s confusing when I get dressed in the morning and put on a pair of pants made for women and wonder if that means they make me look like a woman. So I take them off and put on a pair of pants made for men. It’s confusing when I grow out my body hair because that’s what I feel like I should do, and then finally shave it all off because that’s what I actually want to do. It’s confusing when I talk to my therapist about restricting my eating, and she tells me it’s because I want to look like a malnourished female model. Because I don’t. I want to look like an underdeveloped pre-teen boy. It’s confusing when I’m asked my pronouns, and I say she/her because all the other options don’t feel right, but all the things that come with she/ her don’t feel right in the slightest. The closest I come to feeling like I know who I am is when I can feel what I’m not.
I am someone who needs control over my life. Walk into my room, and you will see an impeccably clean and organized space. The only thing on my kitchen counter is a jar of coffee beans, a coffee grinder, and a coffee drip placed in order of the coffee making process. In my pantry sit three backup boxes of almond milk in case I absolutely cannot make the trek to decaf. My planner is filled out according to an organization system that has taken four years to develop. If one part of my three hour morning routine falls from the plan my whole day is thrown. Without this control, I am in a state of complete flux. For this reason, the fact that I don’t have a sense of control over myself and my gender identity has left me with an underlying feeling of instability for what might be my entire life.
Over fall break, I went home and got a desperately needed haircut. It was the same haircut that I had last time: the young Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the cut favored by many a young lesbian looking to take that next step towards full-on gay presentation. Each day building up to my appointment, I could feel my hair growing. As my hair got longer my face in the mirror looked more like it did before I started to overtly explore my gender presentation. All I could see was my suppressed femininity, no matter how much my friends assured me I looked fine.
I place a hell of a lot of meaning on my hair. All the discomfort I have with the feminine parts of my body and the feminine ways I carry myself are put onto it. If I can’t change those parts of me, maybe they can hide behind a short haircut. The femininity that plagued my life, that raised me into existence; like I can chop it all with my hair and it will go away. As much as I so badly wish it worked this way, I have to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t. I have to come to terms with the fact that even if a chest binder doesn’t cover up everything I wish it did, this and many other parts of my body don’t define who I am. This still leaves me constantly searching for a label to grasp onto. Some kind of word or pronoun that defines and tells me who I am. But because I haven’t been able to find one that truly feels like me, I always feel lost.
In most situations of introduction, we have grown accustomed to following our names with our pronouns . And this is important. For many, concrete pronouns are essential to establishing a sense of self. But sometimes it feels like there is such an overwhelming weight placed on pronouns, it creates the sense for people who are not struggling with their own gender that in order to know your identity all you need to do is decide your pronouns and announce them to the world. But what I’m discovering is there’s so much more to it. Gender is a process. Gender is stretchy and flexible and not even close to within the confines of my language abilities. Gender is I-don’t-know-so-I’m-not-going-to-try-to-give-a-concisedefinition. All I know is it’s confusing.
There’s more to gender than stepping onto Oberlin campus your freshman year and all of a sudden feeling comfortable changing everything you thought you knew about yourself. It’s years and years of taking an hour to get dressed in the morning. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing a body that falls short of everything you want it to be one day and seeing someone so handsome the next. Gender is wondering if the fact that you still tell people to use she/her while writing a personal essay about gender dysphoria makes you a fraud. Once again, it’s confusing; I’m confused.
There’s a unique social code at this school that attaches social capital to a certain queer presentation: white masculine-of-center. This has created a very specific image that is often associated with this identity; it may include strictly wearing work pants, sporting a carabiner, or randomly adopting Southwestern culture. The social capital that is sometimes attached to a non-normative gender presentation in concert with these and other random qualities confuses me even more. It creates the misguided feeling that if I happen to be of this very specific presentation, and finally “know” who I am, I have to adopt all the social images that come with it.
I know that knowing your true self isn’t finding your side of the binary, or your niche in a liberal arts college scene: it’s finding your place on the spectrum. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to transcend the binary thinking we have been taught to adhere to our entire lives. This goes beyond questions of gender. Most of us aren’t provided with the tools to look inward and interrogate the parts of us that fall away from binaries. We should allow more space for ourselves to be confused, frustrated, mind-fucked, lost. Let yourself be vulnerable about how little you know about the type of person you are and who you might become.
We aren’t always going to know definitively who we are. In fact, none of us do. We are 18-22 years old. If there’s ever a time these identity-related questions are likely to knock aggressively at your doorstep, it’s now. I’m trying to get to a point where I have a more mature, developed sense of gender as it relates to myself. I’m awaiting the moment where I don’t feel like I constantly have to choose anymore. Where I can exist comfortably within and between categories and not even think twice about it. But until then, I promise to let myself be confused and disoriented, and occasionally a little distressed in the process.
With love and support,
Anna P (she/they/ )*
*subject to change