I spent a lot of my early life wanting to be a tomboy. Though I didn’t always understand what exactly that meant from a presentation standpoint, I associated it with the results it got in the books I read—being sporty, popular, and seemingly effortlessly gorgeous. For awhile, the label really didn’t stick, but I spent fourth through sixth grade playing soccer with a bunch of boys, and by the time I hit middle school, I felt like I belonged more with them than with my own gender.
I navigated this in-between fairly well in middle and high school—I did largely male-dominant things, but I had enough female friends to keep me going. It worked out. But college arrived, and with it came an entirely new set of problems. I didn’t just happen to be around women anymore. Most of my friends were guys. Most of my teachers were guys. And in a matter of months, I went from a well-adjusted girl who liked everything from basketball shorts to ballgowns to a young woman who didn’t understand why her image suddenly conflicted with how the world around her expected her to act.
Before I continue, let’s be clear—while I was young, bold, and a little awkward from time to time, the issue here wasn’t that I just wasn’t mature enough for my peers. If that were the case, I would’ve been able to wear what I want without being conscious of my shorts and tank tops (thanks, misogynist conducting teacher). If that were the case, I wouldn’t have constantly needed to analyze how I was treated versus how my female peers were treated. I wouldn’t have concurrently worried about the potential for being hypersexualized and what it meant when my friends were subject to this treatment and I somehow was not. I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to stop wearing dresses (for those who don’t know: I adore dresses) because they either heightened my risk of hypersexualization or prompted snide comments from colleagues and teachers. I wouldn’t have grown to hate the words “tasteful black” because somehow looking good in an outfit that fits my body well is a sin in the performance world. This is not about my maturity.
This is about the end result of all that. This is about how I have to talk myself into wearing dresses these days, even just for fun. This is about how I want to keep the wings of my eyeliner sharp but constantly feel like decorating myself in a way I see fit will be frowned upon by my peers in the greater musical community. This is about how I stop being myself when I walk into a room full of male musicians and start being the person they’d rather see—someone who embodies enough male qualities to pass as “one of the guys” (what an awful phrase) while disavowing the girly, feminine things that bring joy into my life. As a friend of mine recently put it, when we step into these male spaces, we essentially have to strip our femaleness away and exist in a nonbinary space that is not of our choosing.
And because this is different than identifying as nonbinary because that’s what your soul tells you is true, because this is different than discovering that your labels and feelings are different than others with your designated-at-birth gender, it is an act of violence. We are not allowed to be peppy and flowery and excited about the work we do, because the male-coded definition of professionalism is being stoic, being gruff, reserving emotion for the virtuosity and “genius” that women are so rarely allowed to display in these spaces. And even though I and others may not be 100% female 100% of the time, we need access to a space that allows us to be the version of ourselves we want to portray, not just the small cross-section of qualities and behaviors that’s deemed acceptable.
Because I want to spend more time in the skin of the woman who wanders around Los Angeles in a dress because she feels like it, the woman who is an outward embodiment of both determination and enthusiasm, the woman worthy of the teenager nicknamed Bright Eyes by her teachers. I want to be visibly happy about the work I do, and I want to express that with bright colors and makeup and dresses just as much as I express it with skinny jeans and flannels and band tees.
I’d like to spend more time being me. And LA, Phoenix, I hope you’ll understand when I start trying to win that back again.