This post is for the Hack Gender project, a collaborative online exploration of gender.
The Wrestling Buddy was the first hint I was doing gender wrong. I was six or seven years old, and I had "Wrestling Buddy" at the top of my Christmas list, because hey, Wrestling Buddies! They were these awesome stuffed dolls in the shapes of WWF wrestlers, and you could pound the crap out of them without them complaining (unlike my little brother) or get a pony ride from them while Dad was watching TV (unlike Dad). On Christmas morning, I tore into my presents, fully convinced that I'd have my very own pro wrestler BFF in minutes. But no, there wasn't a Wrestling Buddy under the tree for me.
There was, however, a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy under the tree for my little brother, who hadn't even asked for one.
How could life (and Santa) possibly be this cruel?
I asked my parents how come my brother got a Wrestling Buddy and I didn't, and they said, "Because he's a boy."
I sat with that thought. The unspoken corollary was quick to sink in: "Because you're a girl." Girls, evidently, didn't get Wrestling Buddies. We also didn't get (if my Christmas list vs. Christmas loot was any indication) Tonka trucks or Ninja Turtles. We were also supposed to wear (if my family's Christmas photos were any indication) skirts and dresses for formal occasions, whether we liked them or not. There were rules to follow - rules I didn't get.
Being a girl wasn't something I thought about much as a kid - beyond the toy-related injustices, anyway. I lived in a patch of nowhere just outside a suburb, I was shy and awkward, and I'd much rather draw during recess than play with the other girls in my class. Gender didn't seem all that important at that age.
Then middle school hit, and gender was everything. Boobs happened. Dating happened. Cliques happened. Suddenly, if you came to school presenting any kind of flaw, it was like asking to be pecked to death by a flock of chickens. The flock saw a laundry list of flaws in me, which they picked at daily, most of them relating to my gender presentation: I was slouchy and uncomfortable with my overweight body, I wore boys' jeans, my haircut was utilitarian instead of trendy, and I didn't wear a bra.
I wasn't a tomboy; I just didn't care enough to present myself as A Girl. And so they pecked.
Secretly, I wanted to run away with my brother's Wrestling Buddy (which he still slept with every night), bind my boobs, and live the rest of my life as a boy.
Even more secretly, though, I wanted to be a girl - and not just any girl, but a capital-G, trend-setting, epitome of femininity, datable, respectable Girl. I had the right biological accouterments. I had the right level of socialized self-consciousness. Thanks to my parents' unintentional sexism around the holidays, I had the right toys in the back of my closet. What was wrong with me that kept me from being a Girl?
Near as I could tell, other girls had access to some sort of mythical well of girliness - some ace in their perfectly pressed sleeves that I didn't have.
I felt like I must've been out sick on the day they taught How To Be A Girl in school. Once I found that missing element, I thought, I'd be just like them - a perfect Girl.
And I tried. The funny thing was, every time I thought I had finally had it down, the definition of Girl seemed to shift. Gender was like fashion, and I was always a year or two behind.
There was a secret no one was telling me, but it wasn't what I thought. It took me a few heavy Women's Studies textbooks to figure out, and years after that to really examine in terms of my own actions:
Gender was just a performance. There was no binary boy/girl system, but rather a whole spectrum of ways to present gender.
I was putting on a show, hoping to mimic the people I thought represented the mythical Girl. There was no one true Girl - the girls I'd looked up to as examples were just putting on a show, same as I was. They had their own idea of what being a girl meant to them, and they shaped their appearances to reflect that. I didn't have to share the same idea - I could invent my own idea of my gender.
Slowly, I learned not to compare my version of my gender to other people's in a critical way, and slowly, I stopped feeling like I was somehow doing it wrong. I'm still developing my own presentation of gender that's just mine. I'm not femme. I'm not butch. I don't really identify with any sort of label - and not because I'm hard to categorize, but because I'm still figuring out how I want to play this part. I care about how I look because my presentation of gender is a way that I express myself, not because I'm worried that I won't fit someone's Girl mold.
Or at least, I'm trying. Gender is weird and amorphous, like so many other intrinsic parts of human life, and I find it difficult to talk or write about. Maybe someday I'll feel confident writing about it without illustrations to distract from my only partly-coherent written observations.
Maybe someday I'll buy my own Wrestling Buddy on eBay and we'll skip off into the sunset together, like it was always meant to be.
Nicole grew up to collect cute secondhand skirts and do crossplay at conventions.
Her brother is twenty-two, and the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy still lives on his bed.
No one has heard from the unicorn since the makeup party at WisCon.