A "Failed" Woman
A story of gender dysphoria
I have always felt at odds with my biological sex and had I known about being trans as a teen, I now consider whether I would have taken that route. It is only in retrospect at the ripe old age of 42 I can consider that my dysphoria has been largely but not entirely caused by external social contributions. (My first experience of gender non-conformity was Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and I even made a life size paper version that resided (randomly) in my parents’ boiler cupboard.)
My earliest memory of being aware of being physically female was probably when I had my first period, I did not put 2 and 2 together and realise it was in fact my period and vainly hoped I was ill, and this was something that could be fixed and would eventually go away. I remember my parents going out for the night and wearing my thick knickers, heavily wadded with tissue because I felt shame and disgust. Once I finally told my mother (I don’t remember that moment) she said she had to check to make sure it really was my period - and then proceeded to phone various family and friends while I cringed outside the living room door.
Throughout my teens I was frequently misgendered as a boy, this wasn’t helped by the very short haircut I chose around age 14 that led to girls being called from other classes to laugh at me from the doorway, and being told I looked like Kevin from The Wonder Years - for those of you who might’ve watched that after school!
I received many confusing introjects, from my father declaring “all real women carry handbags” - when I was determined to simply stuff my jean pockets full instead, to “you’ll never find a husband if you can’t cook” (this led to me surviving on cereal at art college, just to prove a point and him declaring the even more damaging “UGH, I’m SO glad I’m not a woman - periods and giving birth, who would want that?”. In addition he could never stand women crying, and always had to leave the room. He seemed disgusted by emotion and thus I became more disgusted at myself.
SINGLE SEX SCHOOL
I was badly bullied at my all-girls school which further exacerbated my hate of almost anyone female (at the time) and thus myself. I went home with bloody knees, had ‘kick me’ signs stuck on my back and closely held secrets that I had only told my supposed ‘best friend’ were quickly spread around the year group, resulting in vicious taunting.
My one salvation from school life was the school bus, where strangely I made friends (or attempted to) with boys slightly younger than me from a neighbouring school. I remember excitedly buying the FIFA football sticker book because I knew it would be an ‘in’ and how enchanted I was by the Heart of Midlothian team. Presumably in some ways I simply felt more connected to them than any girls my own age.
DRAG AND CLOTHING
I was also only cast in male roles - as Jacob in Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat, and as Marbini the Magician in Bugsy Malone. I distinctly remember also playing the role of waitress and feeling hideously awkward in a little black skirt and frilly apron, as though I was a lumbering boy in drag. And this is how I felt my whole life, in fact I often have days - which may surprise friends and family, where my 1950s dresses feel like drag. In fact I feel I went down that route simply BECAUSE attempting to replicate any ‘ordinary female stereotyped clothing’ such as a skirt and heels felt very much at odds with who I am so I ‘dress in drag’ (in fact I discovered a local drag queen actually owns one of the same dresses as me!). I have barely worn a bra my entire life, or lacy/frilly knickers and the sensation of nylon tights are akin to torture! It isn’t helpful that my main recollection of dressing like this was either Bar Mitzvahs or funerals, and I do recall being sent to my room to change many times when what I wanted to wear was seen as ‘inappropriate’ possibly not feminine enough or too revealing (shaming me for a slightly see-through top).
It was only during sixth form, free from the shackles of a horrid navy school skirt and smart scratchy blouse, that I could start dressing as I wished, mostly in a T-shirt and denim dungarees - even if it meant I was still ostracised. I later came to call my group of friends ‘the outcasts’ as we didn’t belong in any of the typical girl groups. At the time I was glad to have friends, and it’s only with retrospect that I feel a sadness that we were so severely rejected and mocked. Everyone in my group seemed to have (in retrospect) some kind of psychological issue, one was a pathological liar who painted bruises on herself and claimed her father beat her up, another was actually a victim of abuse, and another went on to have a breakdown with paranoid schizophrenia. But they were my friends.
Being an adolescent can be challenging without being a gender dysphoric girl in a single sex environment. Just as I was finally learning to accept myself and discover boys I had another huge challenge to overcome for my gender/body-sex dysphoria. I was diagnosed with Lichen Sclerosus, an auto-immune disease that affects the genitals - I was unhelpfully told it was unusual to be diagnosed as a teenager as it normally affected children or old women (that was not something any teenager at the cusp of her sexual awakening wants to hear!) and then I was told I was anatomically different, they tried to soften the blow by saying ‘neater’ but all I could focus on was I was different from other women - and it confirmed my suspicion that I was certainly a ‘weirdo’ in all senses of the word and would never be ‘normal’ (and making the joke ‘normal is underrated’ just denies a chance for me to be heard and invalidates how I felt/feel). I became obsessed with watching porn with my nose inches away from the TV screen trying to compare women’s vulvas to my own, but of course they all look different! I was given the usual regimen of steroid cream, I don’t even remember being warned about cancer but I know now the risk is certainly higher with this condition as I’ve since had a cancer scare.
And so it was, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own body, having small breasts meant I felt like I perpetually had a ‘boy’s body’ and now I didn’t even have proper women’s genitals (from my own perspective, I’ve since realised they are fairly normal and nobody seems to notice otherwise!). I didn’t enjoy wearing any typically feminine clothes, I adore having very short hair (comments about how lovely I look with long hair make me baulk, because I’m torn by the desire to be attractive (validated externally) versus what makes me feel confident and comfortable. I was also shut down any time I tried to stand up for women or equality at home with ‘stop that feminist nonsense’ and unfortunately I did not have any strong female role models (I have until recently idolised gender non-conforming men such as Grayson Perry, Bowie, Frank’n’Furter etc etc).
At art college I remember learning about penis envy and discussing this with a tutor, about how I ached to have a penis - I had the perhaps naive assumption that sex was so much simpler and more satisfying for men, and I wanted to wish away my ‘faulty’ vulva. I did however go on to have a full and satisfying sex life, and surprisingly have not been too self-conscious until relatively recently. The young men from my 20s were equally awkward and keen in bed, and weren’t as selfish or hung up on body hair (on themselves or their partner) as the men I’m encountering in my 40s.
And what of sexuality? With it’s close connections with gender dysphoria? It’s interesting that Debra Soh’s book implies that more masculine girls tend to turn out to be gay, and yet I am certainly almost 100% heterosexual although I have enjoyed being with women. It might’ve been easier to embrace my identity as ‘non-feminine lesbian’ rather than androgynous/non-conforming straight girl similar to the experience of ‘feminine’ straight men who might find more acceptance in the gay community.
PREGNANCY AND PND
The next blow to exacerbate my gender dysphoria was becoming pregnant. Fortunately during my first pregnancy I was full of energy and could continue with work as usual. But after years of ignoring my gynae condition with very few symptoms, the discussions around a natural labour once again threw up all my self-hate and dysphoric feelings. I was told I had to have a c-section (I’ve since discovered plenty of women with LS give birth naturally) and at one of my scans was told I had a bi-cornuate (or heart shaped) uterus, and the baby may not be able to turn to be head down in any case. And so my ‘confirmation bias’ of being a faulty woman was further exacerbated. Sadly from the day my son was born I sunk into the depths of post-natal depression which I believe was a combination of hormones, sleep deprivation and perfectionism. I was determined to breastfeed (to prove I had what it takes to ‘be a woman’) but after a week we were rushed to hospital as my son wasn’t feeding enough and almost died, and so another failure to add to my lengthy list. In addition he was never comforted by ‘the presence/smell of his mum’ or my cuddles as I was told he would. He spent many hours screaming and barely slept, he has since been diagnosed with autism although it has been commented to me that I ‘caused his autism’ due to my post-natal depression, I know that isn’t the case.
Throughout my upbringing I was led to believe the highest esteem for a woman is to be an excellent mother and housewife. This might sound laughable and old fashioned and yet it does not feel laughable when you consider how it has contributed to my dysphoria and depressive episodes. I did not and do not feel a natural mother, even though I am ‘good with children’. Or rather I feel I cannot aspire to the lofty values placed on ‘ideal mother’ as someone who cooks organic food, takes their children out regularly for nature walks, doesn’t let them have too much screen time and ALWAYS puts them first. Instead I am fiercely ambitious and want to study and read, although this feels intensely selfish and I often consider that I am currently self-sabotaging in a perverse masochistic way to enforce the ‘ideal mother’ role on myself, while my mental health suffers. I still don’t know how to balance the ambitious, business minded side who does not want to cook pasta every day, or sort out odd socks. I am home-educating my 10 year old, is this in part to show what a ‘noble woman’ I am, to show how much I have sacrificed for my children or simply out of an act of love. Probably both. I have since had another child, a girl, and this has made me acutely aware of how differently I wish to parent her to how I was brought up - and how I want her to feel she can behave however she wishes. I’ve also witnessed first hand the effect school and the media have on a child’s sense of gender. My son, since leaving school has grown his hair extremely long and my daughter went from a ‘rejecting anything girly, while still loving unicorns’ phase, to embracing the pink (which I am finding challenging but am committed to letting her find her way, while reinforcing the ‘girls and boys can wear whatever they like’ message)
If only I had simply been accepted for who I was - simply a gender non-conforming girl.
If only I’d been told all vulvas are different and there is no ‘one’ normal.
If only I’d been told I can be however I wish and THAT IS OK.
If only I’d been told having short hair is fine.
If only I’d been told I don’t have to sacrifice my identity to be a good mother/woman.
If only I’d been told women are entitled and can have just as wonderful sexual experiences as men.
Over the past few years I have started dating a whole spectrum of beautiful people, both trans and gender non-conforming, probably because on some level I feel a connection.
It pains me greatly that there is still so much intolerance towards anyone ‘non-conforming’. People should feel free to dress and present however they wish without being mocked. I recently said I was gender-queer, because I am tired of the expectation of performing ‘being a woman’ and even when I describe how I feel inside ie. the discomfort and awkwardness, I feel totally invalidated by well meaning people who say ‘but you are so feminine’ like I have passed some kind of test. I have since left that label behind because the issue is about acceptance by society, not about avoiding the label of 'woman' or about being feminine, or not.
It's time to celebrate simply being this kind of woman.