During my youth, it seemed as if we only went clothes shopping once a year; back-to-school time. Any time outside of this, mom said we didn’t need anything. This was true, even when we outgrew our shoes. I did want anything new, I wanted my brothers hand-me-downs. That was never going to happen; not in her house.
I recall puffy paint shirts with cutesy animals, glitter, and more pink. I always had a bad haircut. Bangs threatened ostracization beginning in elementary school. Sprinkled in along the path of bad hair was a moment my sister chopped one side of it off while we played barbershop.
The imagination game turned painful when she ran and grabbed a real pair of scissors. It wasn’t painful for me to have short hair. It was painful for my mother for me to have short “boy” hair. It wasn’t boy hair, it was a terribly horrible bob. Though, even just the little time, having short hair made me feel so normal and seen. I got in trouble for that. I apparently should have known better, then to let my younger sister grab the scissors without my knowledge and chop my hair.
Clothes were and still are a trigger for me. I had this awesome pair of overall shorts. It was the early nineties; it was a thing. I tried to wear them like my friends; one shoulder clipped, the other hanging. I tucked shirts I hated into their waist, hoping my mother wouldn’t say anything about the way they made me look.
It never ended, the incessant scolding of my mother. “You look like your brother, go take off his clothes.”
I wasn’t wearing my brother’s clothes. I was wearing the very clothes she picked out from the girls section. All I wanted was to shop in the boys section, but that was never going to happen; not in her house.
She hated that I looked like a boy all the time. My hair grew out; against my wants. That summer between 4th and 5th grade, she did it, she made the last decision for my hair; a perm. No, not just any perm. The was a crown perm on the top, with a spiral perm on the bottom. There I was, a mullet-wearing tomboy, stuffed into the clothes that didn’t fit me…for me.
After much anguish, arguments, and rebellion, my mother would finally come to compromises. I could pick out a few things that I most definitely wanted, as long as it was not in the boys section. The trade off was that she could continue to pressure me about maintaining my hair. I ascertained there had to be a loophole somewhere here.
So, it came to me, the ability to finally pick clothes that weren’t pink and glittery. They were still girls’ clothes and they did not fit me, but they were what I picked. Still there had to be something I could use to get my way in this new-found space of compromise with my mother.
I didn’t want the perm again. I wanted more choice in my style. I needed to fight fire with fire. Ah ha! I found the loophole; I stopped brushing my hair. This only came as an ingenious plan when I imagined someone couldn’t do a perm on me if I had a rats nest. So, I stopped maintaining my hair.
There it was. The idol threat of a mother telling her pre-teen “she” couldn’t get her hair done if “she” didn’t brush it out. Sure, I continued to be bullied in school. It didn’t stop them before the messy hair. So why would I think it would have stopped them after the messy hair. I just wanted to not have clothes that didn’t fit me.
She stopped forcing the perm. I stopped caring how I looked, because the war between my mother and me always came back to her final answer.
“You’ll not look like a boy. Not in my house.”
Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.