by Bex Pendrak and Evelyn Kennedy Jaffe
The mythos of the carnival continues to follow you throughout your entire life. As a child, you’re entranced by the bright lights and the fried food and the big prizes and the rides that you’re not quite tall enough for. It’s a place of innocence, of exploration, but more importantly, it’s a place of longing. You yearn for the stuffed animals you’ll never win, rides that you’re too short for, rides that your parents won’t let you go on yet because they’re “too scary.” You ride the teacups until your parents are sick. You run just far enough ahead of your family to get lost in the crowd. And then you get older. The carnival begins to change, to morph in front of your very eyes. Now it becomes an ever-present reminder that you don’t have a partner. All the middle school kids parade their relationships around, complete with gangly limbs and awkward shuffling and horrible fashion sense and way too much tongue kissing. Suddenly the purpose of the carnival isn’t to get horribly nauseous on rides and throw up in the corner—the couples surrounding you make you nauseous enough. Now the carnival is a giant spotlight on your lack of romantic appeal. This sours you on the carnival forever. You can’t think about the carnival without feeling on display, seen. Seen from all your awkward angles and in your worst light – all of your failures laughed at by cackling clowns. And so you swear off the carnival. Even as the years pass and you no longer are an awkward middle schooler who has yet to hit puberty, you still can’t bring yourself to go there again. The carnival persists, mocking you. Laughing as your friends ask, confused, why you don’t want to go to the carnival this year. Or any year, for that matter. And so, you begin to wonder: why the hell am I so afraid of going to the fucking carnival?
The carnival itself is very much centered around observation and perception. The bright lights at night serve as a beacon to all around—ENTERTAINMENT HERE! The Ferris wheel provides a place to observe without being seen, a panopticon of sorts. Funhouse mirrors and the mirror maze seek to distort your perceived sense of reality for some sort of perverse enjoyment. The crowds themselves, packed so tightly that you can barely move, give you both a sense of anonymity and of heightened visibility. Everyone goes to the carnival and there’s a good chance you might see someone you know there—especially people you’ve been avoiding. While you never actually remember what any of the strangers you pass look like, you cannot shake the feeling that ten thousand eyes are watching your every move. Anything you do is not your action anymore; it’s become a public spectacle. This sense of observation that is woven into every facet of the carnival got me thinking. In a way, my experience of gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia throughout my life is the shittiest local carnival ever.
It started when I was about ten and became acutely aware of how people assigned female at birth are supposed to interact with society, especially male society. I never really had any attraction to boys when I was younger, but I didn’t recognize it as such. I really only had crushes once my friends had crushes. I remember long lists of boys I “like-liked” that were really just lists of every boy I knew. Compulsory heterosexuality, anyone? Looking back on it, I probably had crushes on most of my friends and just wanted to have something to talk about with them. And predictably, because I wasn’t actually interested in the boys my age, I didn’t know how to act around them. You certainly can’t get someone to like you if you’re not actually putting effort into pursuing them. And that’s totally fine. But when you’re absolutely convinced that you have to like boys because You’re A Girl, you interpret that lack of interest as a failing on your part. In much the same way that you long for being older or taller to go on the scary carnival rides, I longed for puberty to hit so boys would notice me and find me attractive. I felt like I was on the sidelines being younger and less developed than my peers. I thought all my problems would be solved if I just had Big Boobs and was More Feminine. If I could somehow get one boy to notice me in That Way, my life would be complete. I turned my struggles relating to boys in the way that I was supposed to into hating my body. I know, it fucking starts young. But since I thought that I must like boys, but boys don’t like me, it must be my body betraying me. I tried to fit myself into the mold of how I thought I should present, dressing more femme and trying to rush my body into Being a Big Girl. But I should have known—once you get on the Big Girl Rides, your relationship with your body doesn’t improve at all.
High school was just one big mirror maze. You know, the ones with alternating clear and mirrored panes that disorient you so much and practically bring you to tears by the time you find your way to the exit. I was just starting to hit puberty (although “hit” is a very strong term for the leisurely time my hormones had working their way through my body), but I still hated my body. Dressing feminine always sort of felt like wearing a costume. Playing a little dress-up, if you will. I loved going shopping for new clothes, and was always so excited to get new clothing that played to my “feminine” side. However, I would get home, and it would just go straight to the back of my closet, forsaken for however long until I realized, “Shit, I haven’t been catering to the male gaze lately.” I was constantly getting trapped in a cycle between hating my body and hating the clothes I had to wear. Putting on anything formal felt like making awkward eye contact with the other people stumbling through the mirror maze. I didn’t want to be perceived, but somehow I couldn’t escape it.
For real, whoever invented the concepts of skinny jeans and locker rooms has a duty to personally apologize to me. The amount of mornings I spent curled over on the bus, my head on my knees, overwhelmed with nausea about the idea of my classmates seeing the curves of my twig-like legs, the times spent changing as fast as I could with my eyes closed—there is no doubt in my mind that I am owed something for that excruciating experience. Part of it is that as a “woman,” you’re expected to have body issues. You’re expected to think about thigh gaps, flat tummies, bra sizes, who had the best ass—it took me so long to realize that there was something other than just pubertal awkwardness in my botched cocktail of a body. (It also took me a long time to realize why I had such strong feelings about who had the best ass.)
Honestly, the funniest part about high school is all the pictures I have in dresses. In every single one I look like I have a back issue: shoulders hunched forward, stance leaning forward in a way that’s definitely not casual. Looking back at it, I definitely did NOT want anyone to see that I had titties. Ironic, considering I spent most of middle school desperately wanting them only to get the littlest mommy milkers you’ve ever seen. Attending formal events always felt like a public spectacle. My mom would always want pictures of me with my friends. I didn’t know how to tell her that I felt like one of the oddities in Barnum and Bailey’s circus. Dresses put the spotlight on me, but not in a main character way. It felt more like the way a stranger looks at you after they just caught you picking a massive wedgie. I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time; I just thought everyone else really, really hated being perceived as having any sort of feminine qualities. (Turns out that’s a sign of an impending gender crisis, but we won’t uncover that for another few years…)
One of the most hellish recurring experiences of my high school career was the concert that happened once a semester. Having to choose not only a dress or skirt combo but also a DIFFERENT one every time turned me into a sweaty, bony pile of fear. The only good picture of me at a concert where I’m not hunching or hiding is the photo from senior year, where I convinced my mother to let me wear a classy pair of pants instead.
When I was fourteen, I redid my bedroom. When I did so, I chose to get my folding closet doors fully mirrored. Four full length mirrors, running the length of a whole wall. Still, to this day, I have no idea why I did that, because it made my room a hellhole. I woke up and had no choice but to sit up and look at myself. I’d choose whatever flimsy cloak of cloth I wanted to wear that day and do my very best to avoid looking at my own body. It was even worse when I had to go to a concert—or the carnival. I would spend hours trying on different dresses, different outfits, trying desperately to find something that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place: the expectation of womanhood, of femme presentation, and simultaneously the absolute lack of willingness to see my own body like that. It wasn’t until so much later that I found I could care about myself without performing femininity, that I didn’t have to dress “like a woman” to love or be loved, that my body didn’t have to be the vessel for others’ expectations.
Coming out as queer and then nonbinary really helped me escape the mirror maze of femme presentation. Once I realized that I did not have to cater to the male gaze because I was not into men and not a woman, my relationship with my body improved. I still felt like I was staring into a funhouse mirror, but in a less “my body actually looks like this distorted version” manner and in a more “my body is an amazing gay disaster” way. That’s not to say that I had escaped the Body Dysmorphia Carnival, oh no. I had simply just stumbled into playing one of those rigged carnival games: the Perfectly Androgynous Ring Toss. You and I both know that every carnival game is rigged so that you lose money and feel inadequate about yourself and everything that you have done up until this moment. But you’re driven to try anyway—the ring toss looks so easy, and the garishly large prizes are so alluring in the sweaty June evening light. I try and you try, spending and tossing and failing, and the game attendant only chuckles and wishes us better luck next time. Like carnival games, I will never be able to achieve “perfect nonbinary expression.” What does it even mean to be perfectly androgynous? Being gender nonconforming means existing outside the binary, but why is the ideal then existing perfectly outside the binary? I find myself constantly policing my body and my clothing in order to try and look perfectly ambiguous. Neither masculine nor feminine. Somewhere in the dead center. But it’s a foolish task – there’s no winning that prize. And I know it’s not a game I should be playing. I know that I don’t owe anyone a perfectly androgynous appearance. And yet here I am, paying more money and tossing more rings trying to hit the one bottle in the center that will make me a Perfectly Androgynous Person, and counting every missed ring as a personal failing.
All the time, I see people on the internet enthusiastically reassuring me that “there’s no one way to be non-binary!” and that I don’t owe anyone androgyny. And that’s nice to hear, but it’s hard to reconcile those messages with the me I see in the mirror. When it’s just me and me, everything makes sense. I can, in the right moment, look into my bathroom mirror and feel nothing but happy. It’s the issue of being in front of everyone else that makes a difference. I often spend several minutes in the morning deciding whether or not I want to put on my binder—because I’ve reached the point where I’m happy with my body, regardless. I couldn’t give less of a shit what my flesh shell looks like. But the minute I step out of my bathroom and onto that Tilt-A-Whirl, my balance will be off, and I’ll see the little facets of my body the way others do—they’ll see my waist, the curves of my chest, the way I walk, and they will think they know exactly who and what I am. Every “ma’am” will roll off their tongue easily and worm its way into my ears, where it’ll bounce around for hours, days, weeks. My sweaty hand, tight in their grasp as they pull me from ride to ride, screaming “Isn’t this fun?” when all I can see is the distorted version of me in their eyes. Every ride becomes the Haunted Mansion, where nothing good can happen and you worry you’ll be stuck forever.
So what the fuck is gender, huh? Maybe for some, it’s easy. A leisurely whirl on the teacups perhaps. For me, it’s been more like an old, rickety rollercoaster—a wooden monstrosity that definitely violates multiple safety codes. After spending years bumping around its track, eyes shut tight in fear, maybe I’ll finally be able to raise my hands at its peaks and lean into its heart-pounding, exhilarating rhythm.