Stephanie Sorter (she/her)
I’m thinking about my friend Kim. Actually, I’m thinking about hair and dresses and the word “tomboy,” but Kim is as good a starting point as any. Kim and I were friends in elementary school, in that way where I consider her an integral part of my childhood but I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about her life outside of school and the soccer team we were both a part of.
I started playing soccer in first grade, after telling my mom I would give up ballet to join the team. I don’t remember when Kim started. She was always better than me. We were both called tomboys, although looking back it’s easy to see the differences between us. I sent up bottle rockets and played capture the flag. Kim took piano lessons and played 4-square. She was a lanky sort of androgynous, with short choppy hair and basketball shorts on no matter how cold the Michigan winters got. I was tiny, with hair I tried to grow as long as possible. I was perfectly happy whether I was in jeans or a skort.(Normal skirts were forbidden due to my habit of climbing trees.) She was the one who sometimes got mistaken for a boy; I was the little girl with unladylike habits. One day, we made a pact during gym class: I wouldn’t cut my hair short until the day she came to school in a dress.
Time passed. We went to middle school. I stopped hanging out with my guy friends as much and started wondering if I needed to replace my normal wardrobe of t-shirts-and-only-t-shirts. Kim and I both tried out for the soccer team. She made it on easily, I had to convince the coach my skill on the field was much better than what dribbling exercises might suggest. Other friends started getting boyfriends. I was asked out by a boy from health class, and I ran away. Three weeks later I moved to a new town, never again speaking to health class boy. I didn’t speak to Kim again either.
I cut my hair right before Sophomore year of high school. A year later I saw pictures of Kim in a prom dress.
I hated my short hair. It didn’t look anything like I wanted it to, and I felt like my head was a beacon whenever I walked around my rural city. The comments and questions from complete strangers were enough to make me start growing it out after a year. Five years later, it’s back to its original length. And I want to cut it again. I’ve been feeling the urge since I could feel hair on my shoulders. The problem is, I also really like the way it looks now. It’s turned sorta wavy, and I like not having to worry about needing gel to keep my head from looking like a hedgehog. I don’t have to worry about anyone asking something I don’t have an answer for yet.
I know how much physical appearance can affect perceptions. I know I tend to straddle the line between granola and “I miss my emo phase.” I also know I have the ability to look like a cishet church youth group attendee at a moment’s notice. I’m not sure if I see that as a pro or a con. When I visit home I can walk around Meijers without feeling like anyone is looking. When I try to nod at the obviously queer person in the milk aisle they don’t see me. I stop to make sure my pants are cuffed before I leave the store, and I wonder whether I actually like my hair long or if I’m just too afraid of being visible.
Kim’s hair is long now too. I wonder what she thinks of dresses.
I’ve been cutting my own hair lately. Every time, I think about cutting it off. I thought about compromising with an undercut, then the weather got cold. There’s a pandemic. And there’s probably a really weird growing out stage. And I want to look good in case I have an internship this summer. I make excuse after excuse and then give myself bangs instead.
I joined a Discord server for butches, but I don’t think I really fit in. I don’t look very butch, even if I don’t always feel very femme. I know the middle ground exists, I just hate living in it. Everyone tells me labels are supposed to make life easier, not harder. They say I shouldn’t worry so much about forcing myself into a box. But when I’ve spent most of my life not having a word for myself, bouncing around from identity to identity, a box to call mine sounds like a welcome relief. What else am I supposed to do?
Cutting my hair once was an experiment. Doing it again would be a statement. I just don’t know what I want that statement to be. I recently got a girlfriend, and she’s currently in the process of growing her “boy cut” out. One of my roommates cut her hair off over the summer, another has asked if I’d know how to make theirs shorter. I don’t. I don’t tell them about the days where it feels like I won’t be able to breathe until I change everything about my appearance, even though I know they would understand. I made an appointment to talk with a therapist about how I bought a binder that I’m too scared to wear. Sometimes I add a “they” to my pronouns online.
Another friend just publicly came out as nonbinary. I haven’t gathered up the courage to ask them anything yet. I know I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends who probably know what I’m going through, but I’m hesitant to actually use any of the resources I have. My appearance has straddled the line between queer and straight for so long, even the act of acknowledging it feels as though it could upset the delicate balance I’ve spent years trying to perfect. But I’m getting really tired of balancing.
I haven’t been referred to as a tomboy in years, probably around the time I last talked to Kim. She’s someone I haven’t thought about in a long time, I’m not even sure I’d say I miss her. Instead, I miss the time period in which I knew her, and how easy it was to be seen as something other than a girl.