Searching for Me
“…and I have been dressing like DaBrat since pre-school,” — Denise, Netflix’s Master of None.
I was always a tomboy. This thing called gender has always confounded me— (presumably) girl parts meant wearing (presumably) girly things, yet I gravitated to the men’s section like a moth to flame. I saw those sneaky side eyes from the men who watched me, of all characters, browse their selection with intrigue — double-taking at how out of place I looked and felt.
I was very astute in the ways that men’s clothing hid the parts of my body that caused me mild dysphoria for a time. The seams weren’t tailored to be so form fitting, there tended to be more room in the chest and midriff. Boys started to like the way my body changed and I began to resent it. I’d wear a hoodie in 90 degree Mississippi mug heat in protest.
Childhood is such a socially awkward stage in our evolution. I enjoyed our seasonal contests in Auntie’s backyard and remember them fondly, but I also longed for a slightly more sophisticated company where body contact was on an as needed basis – never needed, in an ideal world.
“Go outside and play with your cousins…” This was the form of my dismissal every time that I tried to linger around the “grown folks business,” that my grown up cousins, aunts, and uncles were indulged in on those late afternoons when we gathered to be a family. Too young to fraternize with the “grown folks” yet much too sensible to think a knock-down-drag-out game of hide & seek was the epitome of a good time. And it may be those “more feminine sensibilities” that Wollstonecraft wrote about that began to show themselves as those teenage years waned.
Depending on whose house we were all at, our game of choice depended on the size and layout of the backyard. From hide-and-seek to touch football, that inevitably turned into tackle, we could think up a myriad of outdoor games to occupy our time. I can attribute almost every scar on my body to some causality of trying to be “one of the boys.” I judged that there just wasn’t as much pretense interacting with boys as there was with other girls. The guys thought farting in the middle of class was a hilarious stunt, the girls acted as if it were an indicator of my moral character or lack thereof.
I wasn’t aware of the toxicity of the habits that I had internalized in trying to be “one of the boys.” Being one of the boys meant dismissing any pain I felt— if tackled in an after-Thanksgiving-dinner game of what always started as touch football, I wouldn’t dare let them see me cry. If I couldn’t take being tackled, then I couldn’t hang. That age old adage of boys don’t cry was reiterated in smaller, nuanced ways.
“Aw, you gon’ go tell TT, Lo?” my cousin, Kam, would taunt if I turned my back on him and the rest of my cousins.
“You ain’t hurt. Get up!” if I stayed on the ground, or caught my breath for too long. “Tori’s a cry baby.”
“Aren’t you going to wear some earrings?”
On the surface, the question was harmless but, coming from my mother, it was always highly distressing. She liked to dress me up in dresses and frills as a child, but as she began relinquishing control of my wardrobe as I got older, our aesthetic sensibilities did not quite align. I’d always gravitated to the men’s section when we would go shopping, much to her chagrin. It was clear from a very young age — 8 or 9— that I gravitated to more masculine clothing, never caring for clothes that were form-fitting or revealing of anything other than my arms and legs. “Girly” things never interested me. I hated dresses and loathed putting on makeup.
Whenever I visited home from college, I was required to attend church and I was rarely allowed to leave the house without earrings, for those tiny pieces of jewelry were the last shreds of femininity that remained in my possession. Through a gradual purging that took place between the ages of approximately 14 and 18, my wardrobe became— with the exception of a couple dresses for family gatherings— considerably more masculine-of-center leaning. In the seasonal Salvation Army sweeps my mother would conduct, I could get rid of two or three items that felt “frilly” and no longer compatible with my personal tastes.
There is a myth of femininity to which southern culture, in particular, subscribes. That genteel southern belle — never speaking out of turn or drawing attention to herself with bad behavior. Picture Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind in her sweeping antebellum gowns and hair bonnets. Then there were movie characters like NuNu in ATL who presented an antithesis to a kind of Gone With the Wind picture of femininity.. I did know many NuNu’s but I had no interest in appropriating her brand of femininity either. NuNu’s brand was just as contrived only more sexualized — in every shot, her short, curvy frame fitted in Apple Bottom denim and midriff tops. Yet still no matter how sexually suggestive, both maintain the allure of the girl-next-door, still sweet and meager, never one to wantonly make a scene.
“You’d be so much prettier if you…”
“Why don’t you ever wear make up. It would be so pretty on you.”
“That’s not ladylike”
What was this thing called “ladylike” and why must I always be seeking to embody it? It annoyed me how tightly friends and family held on so tightly to notions of acceptable feminine behavior. Around the time that I started middle schoolI began to sneak and watch programs on BET & MTV and I saw that same notion of femininity exponentially inflated – “hair done, nails done, everything did.” Thick hipped, thin wasted and in shape, lips glossed for-the-gods. In high school, the other girls, I noticed, began clique-ing up and having their nails done and caking on makeup. Most days, I sat alone at lunch, not as much in protest as it was indifference to all the standards that were implicitly enforced within the zeitgeist of high school and that of southern Mississippi and all the things that I was “supposed to” be.
“Being gay isn’t something black people love to talk about. Some black people think that being gay is a choice… Everything is a contest with us and your kids are like trophies and me being gay is like tarnishing your trophy.” I don’t think I’d ever felt more seen than while watching the “Thanksgiving” episode in Season 2 of Netflix’s Master of None. Finally, a new kind of femininity in the canon that did not defy the old definition, but rather stretched it. A new character who embodied the idea that neither masculinity nor femininity belonged to a single gender. Though I wish I could’ve seen that sooner, there is no time like the present to begin loving all the things that I am.
Victoria Collins is a writer & student. They are currently finishing their MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. They reside in Crown Heights, Brooklyn by way of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Victoria writes heavily about growing up queer and black in the Deep South and how that experience shapes the way that they see the world and navigate through it. Their hobbies include people watching and updating their Instagram stories.
Photo credit: Alicia Bertomeu