While reading the comments about The Incredible Importance of Boxer Shorts, I started to get a little jealous, I admit. I am jealous of women sleeping in less clothing than I do; I am jealous of women wearing tank tops. I am jealous of the casual, almost joyful flippancy of wearing nothing to bed. Jealousy might not even be the right word – perhaps consternation.
I used to think that people are, more or less, what they are innately. If someone is prudish, for example, it would be because they are a prude, because it’s just in their nature to want to cover up. If my exploration of the transgender and lesbian experience has taught me anything, it’s that those kinds of tendencies don’t usually arise on their own – generally, some event or circumstance brought them into being.
I have a reason why I find myself envious of women who can wear tank tops out and nothing to sleep in, and why it’s so confounding to me that I can’t.
It’s not that I don’t want to – that’s the thing. After years of various fitness endeavors (not always healthy, mind) especially the last year of lifting weights, I’ve got a body here I’m rather proud of. Broad shoulders run on one side of my family: my brother and father had them, my grandmother, a competitive swimmer in her day who was still ice skating on racing skates at age 80, had inspiring shoulders and often wore sleeveless tops. Bodyweight exercises and dumbbells have sculpted my own, and believe me, I’d love to wear a tank top and show them off. But I just… can’t.
It all goes back to my 10th birthday.
Before my 10th birthday, I hadn’t a care in the world what I had on. I grew up with 47 acres to run around on and throughout my childhood cast off shoes and tops and pants sometimes and it never mattered. I slept in my underwear just like my big brother and thought nothing of it, as neither did my parents apparently.
For my 10th birthday I had three friends over for my first sleepover, all girls of course. We did some crafts and went to a hibachi place for dinner and had cake and opened presents and took pictures of each other brushing our teeth with toothpaste foam running down our chins. It was all great fun. Then we got ready to go to bed, and the three girls changed into their nightgowns or pajamas or whatever they slept in – but they all slept in something. I just took off my clothes.
They thought it was hilarious or weird or remarkable in some way, that I slept in my underwear. They laughed and took up my camera and started taking pictures of me. I tried to hide under a blanket on my bed, begging them to stop; they didn’t, so I ran downstairs to my parents, in tears. I remember being curled up crying on my dad’s lap while my mom went upstairs to see what was going on. I don’t know what they told her because she doesn’t recall the whole event, probably just a bump in the birthday plans and kids being kids. At some point I must have put a t-shirt or something on and went to bed, as I don’t remember what happened after.
I do remember seeing the photos, though, once they were developed, my little ten-year-old body in flight, my hands holding up my yellow blanket, trying to cover myself. I remember seeing the photos and I remember throwing them away.
That year we all went into the 5th grade in the big Middle School building, and for the first time had to change for gym class. I was terrified of revealing my body to the other girls. I would put my gym shirt on over the shirt I was wearing then squirm out of the one underneath and pull it through the neck of my gym shirt. Twice a week of that anxiety throughout the school year, for eight years, firmly planted the idea in my mind that my body was not to be seen. In high school I tried to calm down about it, simply turning away like I could possibly crawl into the little locker beside me. Sometimes I would say I needed to use the bathroom and change more comfortably in the stall.
I always thought I would be laughed at. I always thought I should never show my skin. I was so excited when I bought my first nightshirt – Roger Rabbit on the front – because now I could be like them, be more accepted: they wouldn’t laugh at me now. I went to other sleepovers, always with a long nightshirt or two-piece pajamas. To this day I still wear two-piece pajamas over underwear.
That kind of conditioning is hard to break through, but for one short period of time I was able to. A year ago, convinced I was not a woman and I should possibly try to become a man, I told myself if I was a man, I could sleep in my underwear like my brother always had. In fact, if I was a man, I could sleep naked if I wanted to. I could do anything I wanted to – after all, I was reinventing myself. And I did. Just for a week or two I slept in just underwear or nothing at all, but for that time I broke through all of that childhood trauma, cast off the pajamas and allowed myself that freedom.
At the root of my experience with transition was a rebellion: a rebellion against my established sense of self and all the expectations ever imposed upon me. Just like a bloody revolution against a despot can lead to a more just government, my experience identifying as transgender allowed me space to dismantle that conditioning and recover myself as a woman and a lesbian. I was the despot and I was the revolution; I was the lesbian trying to express herself and I was the repressive thinking decades old keeping her in chains. It took something as radical as risking everything in order to find what was really worth saving, and I am grateful for it now.
I came out of it weary and weakened, and I did cover up again, if only to heal. But now the possibility of a different way of life shines before me; I may envy those women with their tank tops but now I can say to myself, “You know you can do it, maybe someday. You know you can – you’re just like them.” Perhaps I can take inspiration from my grandmother’s amazing shoulders, her confidence carrying them. After all, she never would have laughed at me, and only would have taken pictures to show how proud she was of her greatly-loved granddaughter.
Life is cruel, and ugly, and unfair, and we are so often cruel to each other in a thousand ways, from the ignorant mocking laughter of children to the harsh words adults throw at each other in judgement and defense. That is a part of humanity I’m not sure can ever be altered, no matter how much we wish for a kind and enlightened society that does nobody any harm. But that harm doesn’t need to be permanent, doesn’t need to fetter us our entire lives. We can learn to take our shirts off again. We can learn our own freedom was never something to hide.