I have always had a fascination with transformation. With taking incongruent parts to make a whole. With cutting and stripping and building up from the bottom and the artist as self-portrait. I could easily be found in childhood obsessing over the arrangement of furniture and décor of my Laura Ashley doll house. Today this is a dining room with a red velvet tablecloth and a chandelier light that chimes a segment from the Four Seasons because my Polly Pocket is the queen and she’s having the tour group Bratz over for tea. Tomorrow it is a miniature of my family’s dining room with boxes and old paint chips and no tablecloth and striped walls that look like silk and show damage easily.
Most of my toys were dolls, the easiest to buy for a girl, the easiest to buy for a child who liked to imagine new worlds. I remember the Betty Spaghetti dolls with neon bodies and plastic hair whose arms and torsos and heads could pop out to be interchangeable. To be made anew. How many times did I snap and unshape the forms of girls to get the end result I wanted. How many times did I teach myself what is, is not always. I remember the What’s Her Face dolls with smooth, blank complexions I could stamp their expressions on. This one is surprised. This one is happy. This one has stars for eyes and an eye for a mouth. The stars were permanent marker, the eye easily removed. My mother did not buy me anymore of those dolls after that. She would tell me not to cut Barbie’s hair because it did not grow back; I could not understand her anger when I cut my own bangs with clunky construction paper scissors. I thought we both knew it would grow back. It must have been the shock, of my swift reveal from one face to another. She must not have recognized me. I was not allowed to cut my hair again.
There were many things I was not allowed to do. I was not allowed to wander into the boy’s restroom or to wrestle with my cousins or to adjust my stance, stuff my hair under a baseball cap, and pretend to be a boy. That day I wanted to see what it meant to not be a girl; I did not get farther than the front door. I thought it didn’t mean anything, I thought it was easy to make my eyebrows bushier with my mom’s mascara, to borrow a tight sports bra from my older sister for my non-existent fifth grade chest. To wear sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt and one earring. At ten it made sense that clothes made the gender. It didn’t make me. I was a person, not just a girl. I told my younger sister to call me Mak and she told my mom I was being weird. I had to wash the make-up off and put on a different shirt. I had to say sorry. There are many ways to tell a child that they cannot change, least of all is saying the words outright: Easter Sunday dresses, ballet classes, Nora Roberts novels, floral wall paper, Disney princesses, gold nail polish, French braids, Sadies Hawkins dances, low rise jeans, American Girl™, senior year superlatives, Seventeen and Cosmo magazines. There are many ways to block a child off from themselves. I’ve had to realize this. I’ve had to realize the manifold of ways people do not like change.
Hair for one, as the first seen and easiest signifier. My hair was long and untouched for seventeen years. It’s what I was known for, it’s what I hid behind. It’s what I wanted to leave behind so I could know I didn’t have to be afraid of my own face. My mother loved my hair, its length and its unspooling. She practiced braids and knot work every morning, locks to keep me tied to her. She must have known there was always something in me trying to escape. My first drastic cut was a total of five inches, still well below my shoulders, and it was the first time I broke my mother’s heart. Maybe just a small shattering, but she didn’t speak to me for two days. The first time I shaved my head, I didn’t speak to her for two weeks. I was at a loss to explain to her that I had transformed into me; that I hadn’t cut off anything integral. Just unneeded weight. It’s not easy for people to hear what they love about you is not what you love about yourself. It’s not easy to tell people I like to be in flux, to feel differently and present that difference, or to just carry it around like a note in my back pocket addressed from me to me. Gender expression is not gender identity is not fixed.
Aesthetic is transformative, the other quickest signifier. Often I have been taken for a man solely because I had on a beanie and a button down. I will not use the word ‘mistaken.’ The first time women wore pants as a fashion choice, they were seen as obscene, subversive, evidence that the woman was a lesbian, or unmarriageable. Women who could no longer be easily parsed as traditional women. Something ‘other.’ This moment does not take into account women who wore pants out of necessity, who wore them as disguise and freedom from society. Without a skirt, a woman could be unrecognizable. She could no longer be a she. Sometimes I desire no points of recognition. No curves. No soft parts. I want to avoid the discomfort of other’s assuming I am known. Other days I want to be blown out of proportion, I want to act a body gone virile, act absurd femininity. Drag lets me edit and take the script I am forced to know, to turn it on its head, and ask, am I what you want now? Am I what I want. I haven’t found a face or body yet for my anger, my sense of displacement and objectification, but I know this megalithic ‘she’ will take all the double binds, all the limitations, laugh around red lipstick, and refuse to be judged.
I am feminine, but I can’t quite find my sense of self when I think of what is a woman. It feels too static, too confined. I like occupying the outer most edges, the liminal, there’s more room to move. I know that only sometimes this is visible, that generally I look like I’m not chafing against ‘girl,’ against ‘woman.’ For me, there are too few words to describe my dissatisfaction, my fluidity, particularly when I find it’s considered too small to make a distinction. What does it give me. To be a woman but not a woman. To pull apart what I dislike and to scribble over what’s accepted; to do it again. Gender is a spectrum, one that has no fixed point like my dolls had no fixed bodies. What is, is not always. What’s my face? It’s stars for eyes and an eye for a mouth. I need to remember: so much is unnecessary weight.
Makensi Ceriani received an MA in English from the Pennsylvania State University, where she served two consecutive years as poetry coordinator for the student-run literary magazine, Kalliope. She is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech.