(Pink Floyd - Echoes)
It’s weird how I can talk about my mental health (or lack thereof) with relative ease whilst writing about bras suddenly feels personal and awkward. But I continue to be amazed by how one thing connects to another and so you might have to hear about bras, however uncomfortable that makes both of us.
A few weeks (months?) ago I read a book chapter on non-binarism (from Trans voices: becoming who you are, by Declan Henry, 2016) and wept profusely. I am not particularly in search of labels for myself (in my 40s, it feels a bit like a waste of time) but reading about the experiences of fellow humans who identify as non-binary brought so many flashbacks of painful moments in my life. Of seemingly endless humiliating sessions in unfriendly fitting rooms where I cried bitter tears over not having a flat chest (that started early and carried on well into my 20s). Of countless episodes of nonchalant denigration of my way of moving, talking, walking, being – usually by straight men who clearly wanted some of me, but not the threat to their masculinity that seemed to come with it. Men who needed to suggest I may be a lesbian to compensate for my admittedly very limited interest in alpha-male types, or to invoke all sorts of gender inadequacies on my part if I didn’t fulfill their pinup-populated fantasies. Anyway, none of this is news to anybody who’s ever had the opportunity -by need or by choice- to think twice about gender. People get abused and attacked on a daily basis for being true to their gender identities. My gender-related discomfort, in comparison, is a relatively benign -although painful- awareness of how complicated things can be.
No, the interesting bit is that my mum was visiting at the time and she caught me in tears and asked what was going on. There are plenty of reasons for tears at the moment, but she’s a very practical woman and it was sort of relieving to be able to just say “this book, it’s brilliant”. My mum doesn’t speak much English, but reading is easier than listening and I thought she might want to get a sense of what I was finding so brilliant. I left her in the living room with the chapter, whilst I made dinner for the little people I live with. She read. Came back. Began a sentence with “I have felt male so often when I was young – wished I could be a man. But then one gets into the ways of how one is expected to be. And just becomes used to it. Because, what are the alternatives?”
I had always thought my restless discomfort around gender had roots in the fact that my mother had never made it a mystery of how unhappy she was that her first child happened to be a daughter. “Women suffer more”, she had always dismissed any questions with. Not entirely wrong but a little too simplistic, I’m sure you’ll agree. And here was my mother, hinting at the fact that she had a lot of repressed feelings about gender and had never had the tools to even think about what that meant to her.
For some unexpected miracle or unusual planetary alignment, my (rather small) family got together over Christmas. I can’t remember what the conversation was about – over an abundance of food, of course – at one point, but my mum interjected with something like “…well, if even I have felt male at times…”. No, we were not having a casual chat about gender. I have no idea what we were talking about but this comment was so out of character, and so not quite fitting the topic (whatever that was). I wasn’t sure what had happened but nobody seemed to notice, so I just left it. Then the other day I decided to start the year by symbolically reclaiming my messy being, my confused self, the restless but lively me that five years of nastiness haven’t quite quashed. I walked into the only shop where I have never cried whilst trying underwear and swimming costumes on and bought a seriously technical sports bra that gives me the flattest chest I’ve ever had. (Why have I not thought of it before? Because they didn’t use to make them this good.)
I spoke to my mother that day. She said she, too, could do with a flattening bra. So here I am, a few days later and I’m only just beginning to get it. I can finally hear her. I can hear how she has been in somebody else’s skin all her life because none of this gender talk was available in her day. I can hear her telling me that maybe, but only maybe, her discomfort and frustration deserve acknowledging. That somebody, now, needs to hear her story. And I stand here, half baffled, half overwhelmed, and slowly realise how, well into my fucking 40s, I may have finally found what makes us so close and so far apart so much of the time.