“But where am I in the stories I tell?”
– Dorothy Allison, “2 or 3 Things I Know For Sure”
I washed my body, polished it til it shone on all things that were not housed inside of it.
I became a mirror; reflected what I saw and called it my own image.
Part 1: Blood
I was told how much I looked like my mother.
I was told how my sister looked like twins.
I was told how much I act like my father.
I was never told how I was like myself- my story only existed in comparison to others.
I only existed in comparison to others. That was a universal truth in the years of my life when my body was younger than it is now. My body was never mine.
My mother used to dress myself and my sister in matching outfits. The pictures speak for themselves- we were adorable. Toothy grins and pigtails stretching towards the sky, my sister and I were the perfect image and almost mirrorform of the other. She was porcelain with firey hair and lake-soft eyes. I had hair that was as inbetween as I felt; an amalgam of brown and red my family designated as auburn. My eyes were mutation-squared; hazel with a chestnut sectoral heterochromia patch. More proof that I was not right- Emmie was the pretty one, I was the misfit -so mom used to dress me up to be more like her, more indistinguishable, more like how little girls were supposed to look- all smiles, all soft, all precious. It didn’t work with my clumsy nature. I ran towards the next disaster that would disfigure my frills and mark me as different.
It was only in scrapes and bruises when I was able to engage with myself, wearing them like badges. They reminded me I was real and that this body was mine. This blood slipping past cells to taste the earth originated inside of me. This swatch of purple-stained skin felt like painting, felt like permanent though I knew they would fade. It was simply a reminder I was the cause for what bloomed from me. I was my own creator in a world where I existed as an echo of those around me. I could make myself different.
To my mother’s credit, she did allow me to buy pants from the boys section when I was seven. I think my hair had grown out long enough that I would not be mistaken for the boy my father wanted me to be.
Part 2: Hair
I took fate into my own hands for the first time in my life when I was 5. Understand, I was a child you had to keep eyes on. I found bruises the way some kids found presents on Christmas morning, which is to say, I went looking for them. Therefore, I learned early how to hide things. Like myself. Like scissors. Like locks of hair til morning. All my gorgeous hair, gone. My mother wept. My father wailed. I didn’t get it. I liked my new short hair, it was what I had wanted for a while. I wasn’t allowed to touch scissors unsupervised for years. I wasn’t allowed to have my own idea of who I wanted for years-
but I waited. I was patient. I was good. I was allowed to have a haircut once it past my shoulder blades. I was 10. I had it all planned out -super short and close to my ears- I would look elfin, like I half expected myself to be. Something about me had to be a changeling, right?? I didn’t fit into the idea of how I was supposed to act, of who I was supposed to be: it was the obvious answer, to be the child of someone else. I like to believe that most of us wished we were someone else’s child, at one point or another, I just took a step farther since so much of this world didn’t want me.
I longed for that feeling of my hair brushing against the apples of my cheeks again. I forgot how much I loved that feeling, of not being trapped by my hair. Long hair got in knots, in the way; it was more of a burden than an attachment of myself. It never felt like a part of me unless it was cropped close to my ears, tickling the underside of my chin like my mother used to. It ushered the thoughts of flight, of peals of laughter, of brightness and lightness- I delighted in shaking my head to feel the fringe bat at my face not unlike my eyelashes. And then we got home. As laughter tends to do when it reaches the front porch of that house, it muted itself.
My father called me a dyke. I didn’t know what they word meant then. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was something I already was. My father screamed at my mother for allowing a hairdresser to make me look like that. My mother screamed back at him for using those words, but the damage was done. My father had made it clear that I broke the unspoken rule of his house- I usurped the status quo of being a woman. I broke what little veneer had kept the rule together because I wanted to be something other than docile and silent- my hair was too loud.
I knew that I would have to practice at being a better mirror. I went through cycles of growing out my hair, trying to correct myself. Look like the other girls, act like the other girls, be less like yourself. Be a better mirror. My hair grew. And kept on growing. The longer the hair, the longer the lies, the memories trapped in the strands. They replayed over and over at night instead of my dreams. All the times I was told I was a lesbian, but sure don’t look like one. Where in the locker room I was treated like a disease, as if I could focus on anyone else’s body but mine when I was still so fat. When I was called a bitch over and over and over again for rejecting any and all advances, fearing confirming or denying any aspect of my sexuality since performing one action enabled the other. Being taught my love is a sin, being told I was one, all the cruel speculation-
I told everyone I was growing out my hair for Locks for Love. I told no one the curtain of hair was to try and hide myself inside of it. I was 16 when couldn’t take the weight of living with it. I chopped off 17 inches. I still hand enough to style in a long bob. I didn’t have to wait. I didn’t have to plead. I didn’t have to put up with the comments of “But you looked so good with long hair!”. I was able to create my own image. I was able to begin to reclaim myself.
To his credit, my father told me years later that I look good with short or long hair. He just simply won’t ask about my love life. Upon having a conversation with my friend about our fathers walking us down the aisle, I had to correct myself that he wouldn’t if I was marrying a woman. He would because he feels like it’s his right.
Part 3: Appear
No one told me that reclamation is a process. No one told me how process isn’t linear. This is a concept that still escapes me. Anger slips in between the statements like it belongs. Sadness seeps into the periods when progress has stagnated. They oscillate and take turns at rearing their heads in my chest, and they are in me, they are me, they bleed out into the space that is not my body-
Owning them is the hardest thing I’ve had to do.
Owning and accepting are two different things.
I do not know what acceptance looks like.
I do not know what I look like. I do not try to look at myself.
I am scared of what I will see. I am scared of what I won’t.
I’m hoping that one day I’ll be brave enough to find out.
I’m hoping one day I’ll be brave enough to accept what will appear when I look.