CW: gender identity, body image, fat phobia, dysphoria, high school experiences, depression and mental illness
When I was in high school, I experimented with gender and identity without really realizing it.
In high school, I had a good group of friends and was fairly well liked as far as I can tell, I had a good time. It wasn’t a ‘typical’ high school experience where I felt awkward and bullied and struggled with my own identity. I had some severe downs, of course, but for the most part I look back on it very fondly. My friends were all very silly and supportive and we shared a similar sense of humor and weirdness. It was the first time I felt truly accepted by a group of people, something that was distinctly absent in almost all of grade school, spare a couple of good people. It was like a renaissance to me, I was coming into my own person, embracing my weird personality and quirks and flourishing. I know that I faked a lot of my own confidence then, but faking it felt right. It felt like I was supposed to be a little obnoxious and loud and silly and excruciatingly optimistic. I stood taller than I ever had before. It allowed me to explore myself intrinsically and be someone I wanted so desperately.
It wasn’t all good, don’t get me wrong, especially the first half. I was also in a whirlwind of trying to figure out my mental issues at the time. My depression peaked somewhere during my freshman year, but it was a wake up call and lead to a lot of good decisions regarding my mental health. I won’t get into deeply because it was a difficult and frustrating time dealing with the clinicians and psychologists (I’ll write about this in a different post sometime because I recognize my experience was extremely important), but the key detail is that I was placed on medication that elevated my neutral zone out of mild depression. This helped me maintain a really stable level of enthusiasm for my waking life, something that I started to recognize as a key detail of my personality. It made me realize that depression and anxiety were not elements of my being, they were afflictions of them, inhibitions. Figuring out that I was a happy and optimistic person was a huge revelation that I still savor in these weird times today.
So, as said before, I was able to experiment with my identity in a safe environment. Another piece of this puzzle is that I had a thick layer of dysphoria all my life without identifying it as such, as I believe I’ve written about in previous posts. To elaborate, I had body issues that I thought were merely self hatred, but I had no solution for them. I hated how I looked all my life, feeling discomfort and completely at odds with my appearance without knowing why. I attributed a lot of it to my body shape, feeling that being overweight was what caused such significant frustration. It made sense to me, because I have always been overweight, and I have always hated my body. My stomach and breasts in particular were large and made me feel extremely uncomfortable, but the reasons were lost on me. There is a stigma towards fat women in particular, I knew this deeply, and in order for fat women to love themselves or ‘own’ their fatness, they often take on a hyper feminine (I.E. SASSY) attitude. I could not do that, it wasn’t me. I am overall an awkward and often gentle person regarding my own body, I could never become a ‘Queen’.
I hid a lot. Behind long hair, in baggy clothing, and under thick glasses. For a long time I thought I wanted to hide because I was afraid of what people could see in me: my depression, my self hatred, my need for acceptance. But I know now that I also hid because I was unsure of how I wanted to present myself. I didn’t know who I was. There was no identity I knew of that could fit me, no labels in my vocabulary that I could validate myself with. There was no one like me. I feel very strong love for my friend Katie who stayed with me and accepted me wholly during my preteen and early teen years. I don’t know who I would’ve become without her and even though I feel we’re growing apart now, I still cherish all the hours we spent making characters and dreaming stories together.
Then in high school I started dressing more like how I wanted to, or at least experimented a lot. I wore more blouses and frilly things than I ever had before, because they looked nice on me and accentuated my figure. I even wore dresses to class, playing along with the silly “No Pants Friday” event my lunch table crew came up with. And even though something still felt not quite right with the way I was dressing, I still felt I looked better than I ever had before and had greater confidence in myself. I looked okay, and that was what mattered. Showing off my breasts with more revealing blouses made me feel strange – perhaps a little more confident, maybe, but I felt sexualized in a way that I couldn’t tell if I was comfortable with or not. I got stared at a number of times. My mother told me to cover myself up because I was ‘showing too much’ of myself, a phrase I got unbelievably angry at. I had worked so hard to stop dressing myself in baggy t-shirts and I finally felt I looked good in SOME way, and now I was told it was too much. Usually my response was to ignore her or pull my shirt down lower in defiance. One thing was for sure, though, I never wanted them.
Even though I looked decent, I never felt that I looked right.
I had a trans friend in high school. I was fascinated with their experiences and also the way they treated me. I felt that there was a strange kinship between the two of us, that we were the same in an unspoken way, but I never put it into words. I liked the way they treated me, masculine and strong. I was in a cosplay group with them and I felt like I was doing something right. In order to make them feel more comfortable with themselves, I did something incredible: I created a world, through a series of drawings and comics, that portrayed our friend group as men (as opposed to our female-bodied selves). My friend group loved it. We had our own boy names for ourselves and I drew us in various comical scenes.
My name was Wyatt James – the name comes from what my mom wanted to name me had I been born a boy. I was obsessed with this idea, this other universe. It felt so right, so at home, like this was how I was meant to be seen. There was so much pleasure in drawing myself like this, like I was seeing myself for the first time. Even when our little group fell apart, I still kept that universe in my mind, haunted by it. Whenever I played video games, Wyatt was my persona. I especially spent hours and hours playing Fallout 3 and New Vegas under these guises, craving the feeling I got from it.
When I got to college, I spread this idea to my friend Sam and it began the cycle over again. Sam’s own boy version was Alex, and I drew the two of them together a ridiculous amount. I felt so incredibly giddy whenever I did, but I had no idea why, I never made any attempt to consider the implications of this universe in my mind.
When Sam had convinced me to play Guild Wars, Wyatt was the first character I maxed out. I distinctly remember one experience in which a stranger referred to me as Wyatt and I got this tremendous rush from it!
It’s so painfully obvious to me now. This remains a key piece of evidence of my own trans-hood, I was validating myself without even realizing it. To see myself, the exact same personality, the same goddamn hair style, the same piercing and clothing, everything was the same except I was a boy and suddenly it was a utopian paradise that I longed to exist in.
And it never occurred to me, until one night while I was studying abroad, that I could exist that way. I could transition. I could present myself that way, eventually. And everything clicked into place. I could never be Wyatt, though, because he was a cis man. He was a product of years of hidden dysphoria and repression, I could never be what he was. So I reinvented myself. Hell, by the time I realized I was trans I had already begun calling myself “Asher” on Twitter and Tumblr and requested people to use he/him or they/them pronouns for me, I had already had that for four months! It was as if my body had started transitioning without me even realizing it. People referring to me as Asher and the use of he/him pronouns felt so right to me, but I had still neglected to address why. When I finally did, I cried so hard for the self that I had been pushing away. I cried for the dysphoria I’d not recognized. And I felt myself splitting, unsure of who I really even was, where was the line between the self that I had forced and who I was meant to be?
“It feels like over these years I’ve put pieces and ideas and familiar things in this box and just labeled it as ME but someone took that box and just dumped it all over the place. And now I’m left struggling to organize it back.Like my identity is just scattered everywhere. I can’t tell if I’m happy or depressed or frustrated or anything, I just don’t know.
I can’t tell who I am right now.”
It took a while to come out of that depression, but I know it was a necessary pain. I only feel terrible for the child that didn’t understand what the hell was wrong with them, why they couldn’t fit in. I’m thankful to the people that helped me realize all of this and continue to validate who I am choosing to be: myself. I am incredibly grateful.