Zooming Out

Unmasking My Identity

by Bex Pendrak

I sat nervously on my porch, staring out across the backyard at the line of trees shielding my house from the rest of Ithaca. What if I had made a mistake, if my impulsive decision would lead to months of regret? My legs began to bounce in a futile attempt to release my mounting anxiety. I tried to think of something else, to focus on the light streaming through the leaves as the sun began its slow descent below the horizon. No matter how hard I tried, all I could focus on was the soft hum of clippers shaving a new identity into my head. I hadn’t had a short haircut since childhood, and I certainly had never rocked a buzz cut. Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything, I thought as my hair gathered in larger and larger piles around my chair. When my housemate told me she was done, I was almost afraid to look at myself in the mirror. What if I didn’t like how it made me look? What if I wasn’t able to defend my decision to my mother, who already thought I looked too much like a dyke? What then, as I wait for my hair to grow out?

I wish I could say that all these questions disappeared when I looked in the mirror. I wish I could say that I loved my haircut instantly. My appearance had gone from feminine to fairly androgynous in under an hour, which at first made me dance around the bathroom in happiness. But later that night, as I was getting ready for bed, I felt quite a bit of dysphoria. I wasn’t sure how much I would like presenting to the world in this manner for a long period of time. I had always presented as a female that dressed androgynously, bordering masculine, rather than a person of ambiguous gender presenting as slightly masc. And even if I enjoyed presenting this way, how would it be perceived by others? I went to bed that night on the verge of tears, questioning my gender presentation more than ever.

Prior to quarantine, I had never seriously entertained the idea of drastically changing my appearance. Maybe it was a function of attending an all-girls Catholic school my entire life or members of my family being strongly averse to androgynous gender presentation. Growing up, I always felt that no matter what, I needed to present myself as recognizably female. Despite the fact that I was never femme growing up, the critical gaze of those around me helped me convince myself that the only way to exist in society was not to challenge the gender binary. The communities I was a part of obligated me to telegraph my gender assigned at birth, even if it made me uncomfortable. The comfort of others around me took priority over true freedom of expression. 

This feeling persisted, even after coming out as queer. My “baby gay” self was worried about appearing too queer or too outside of the societally accepted queer presentations. So I experimented with clothing, but not too much, and I cut my hair shorter, but not that short, and I let myself feel placated with the barest minimum of self-expression. And because of my upbringing and a carefully curated skill of repression that most queer people know well, I was satisfied with the limited freedom of being queer within the gender binary. Then quarantine hit.

There’s nothing like the complete and utter destruction of all forms of routine to prompt introspection. Normally, I was too busy for serious reflection. I would simply go to class, then cram in homework around activities and hanging out with friends, then go to bed and do it all again the next day. Cornell has a sneaky way of convincing you that you aren’t doing enough even when you’re spread so thin you hardly have space to breathe. And perhaps our capitalist society teaches us that self-improvement is only valuable when it’s adding value to things outside of ourselves. Nevertheless, the sudden and immediate shuttering of society left a massive void in its wake. When you can no longer turn to external places to occupy your time, you’ve got no choice but to turn within yourself.

In a way, quarantine marked a return to childlike exploration and discovery. As a kid, you don’t have a full-formed perspective of what society expects from you: how to act or how to dress or what hobbies you should like. For a brief window in time, you experience life and all its potential exactly how you want to. Unfortunately, this sense of exploring your world without the intense pressure of societal obligations disappears over time. You become more aware of your peers and what they think of you, and it begins to influence how you present yourself. Maybe you stop pursuing a hobby because someone in your class told you it was stupid. Maybe you start wearing a certain style of clothing because everyone else is wearing it and you desperately want to fit in and make friends. Maybe you turn to alternative forms of presentation to set yourself apart from your peers, but only an acceptable kind of rebellion. This takeover of societal pressures is insidious, like the proverbial frog in a slowly boiled pot. But the onset of quarantine removed all those external rules and guidelines that became internalized over time. No longer did you have to leave your house, to exist in places where you would be judged according to societal standards. This absence of a framework of how to relate to the world effectively placed you in a world where you were a child again, learning how to relate to the world for a second time.

It was perhaps this sense of re-learning one’s place in society that prompted my journey into gender expression. Since no one would see me (save for the few people in my Zoom classes), what did it matter if I radically changed my hair? If I got rid of the last remaining femme clothes in my closet and embraced a more androgynous or masculine look? There was no pressure to completely figure out my presentation before I entered into society, because there was simply no society to enter into. Unsurprisingly, this freedom of expression was liberating. I found myself enjoying the times I would be skateboarding in downtown Ithaca and the few little kids who were out would stare at me trying to figure out my gender behind both my physical mask and my masc presentation. This sense of anonymity, of complete freedom from social norms, helped me start to interrogate why my androgynous presentation felt so affirming, even if I didn’t quite have the language to name it at the time.

Later on in quarantine, I was talking about this exact phenomenon with my girlfriend (just in case you forgot, I like women). The conversation eventually got around to the fact that as a child, I never liked presenting in a particularly femme manner. I played a lot of sports, and enjoyed the strength and muscle definition that my body gained in return. I always had this desire to be mistaken for a man by strangers, to have people be surprised that I was female. I always chose masculine video game characters, or pretended to be a boy when I was role-playing with my friends as a small child. There was always an urge to be both pretty and strong, masculine and feminine, to exist in-between the stereotypical gender definitions. My girlfriend, after listening to my bumbling and awkward journey of my childhood queerness, brought up the words of genderfluid/genderqueer to describe my experiences. She described that tension I had felt so acutely within my childhood – of identifying as female but never quite feeling like that definition applied fully to myself. Although it took me another few weeks to really interrogate my gender, I felt seen in a way I had never felt prior. My lived experience outside of the gender binary finally had a name. I started trying out they/them pronouns in addition to the she/her I had exclusively used prior. I felt safe and supported by the people I was living with as I took the time to reflect and figure out how I wanted to present my gender expression to the world. For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I was able to express my fullest, truest self to others around me. 

After the big chop, my hair remained in the trash can on the porch for months. Every time I saw it, I would think to myself that I should take out the trash. But I never really wanted to. For me, the scraps of hair lurking in the trash felt like a final “fuck you” to heteronormative society. It was a physical manifestation of how I had stopped viewing my gender and gender expression as an obligation to others. I finally had the confidence to present to the world in the same way as I perceive myself. As time passed, my buzz cut grew out into a style best described as “discount e-boy.” And yes, eventually I took out the trash, discarding my old hair forever. However, I’ll always carry that March day with me, with its nervous tension and excitement and unlimited possibility. So if you’ve been wondering if you should shave your head, my answer is yes. Get a buzz cut and dance on the grave of the gender binary.

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