Growing up, I was very thin. Not just typical prepubescent, fast-metabolism thin, but please-eat-a-hamburger-or-you’ll-fly-away-with-the-next breeze thin. My body had little shape to speak of—unless you consider a straight line a shape.
My tiny body and I reached maturity during the Katy Perry cupcake-bra era, and I spent my college years under the reign of the Kardashians’ corsets and Nikki Minaj’s buns. What I’m saying is, I spent my adolescence and young adulthood learning that to be curvy was to be womanly, and the curvier you were, the hotter you were.
Though I spent that time living with basically no curves, it never bothered me. For the past couple of years, I’ve considered it a blessing, because I’m nonbinary.
While I was figuring out my gender identity, having an AFAB body that was far from the “womanly” standard helped me validate the idea that I was not a woman.
But then I graduated from college and my life slowed way down. Turns out, so did my metabolism. So the next thing I knew, my body was holding onto weight in new places: my hips, thighs, boobs, stomach, even my face. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to create curves in all the places that had been flat for decades. And it was enough to send my sense of self into a tailspin.
How could I ask people to use they/them pronouns for me when everything about my outward appearance screamed woman?
Sure, I could stop wearing makeup and cut off all my hair, but my bare face was still feminine, and men’s pants got all caught up in my hips and thighs and refused to make me look more androgynous. I went into a minor panic, thinking I didn’t deserve to be nonbinary if I didn’t look nonbinary.
Now, you may be thinking that this train of thought is ridiculous. Gender identity is internal and individual—it can’t be altered by gender expression and it certainly has nothing to do with how other people perceive you.
Let me say that again: Gender identity has nothing to do with how other people perceive you. It’s part of your overall sense of self, and that’s all yours.
So why is that such a hard concept to learn, even as a nonbinary person myself? Like a lot of our culture’s problems, it has something to do with stereotypes. I’ve already mentioned one in this piece: the ideal woman with an hourglass figure. She has thick thighs and a tiny waist, and she’s all perfectly proportioned and cellulite-free and hairless and tanned to perfection. That’s an ideal that can’t be achieved in real life by most, yet media of all kinds perpetuates it and taunts women when they can’t become that image.
In my experience, my body image has been affected by a couple stereotypes. As I mentioned, I’ve felt that I needed to reject the stereotypical “feminine” body type, one with curves and soft spots, in order to be seen as “less” of a woman. I felt like I needed to negate all the feminine aspects of my AFAB body, to make up for them in a sense, in order to look more gender-neutral as a whole. That’s because the stereotypical nonbinary person I came to picture in my head was an androgenous waif. Someone shapeless, hidden beneath loose layers of black clothing, with short hair and just enough makeup to make you question how they identify.
It took my body not living up to that stereotype for me to question it, but I should have known to call bullshit on that image sooner.
No one fits perfectly into the ideals of any category, especially a category based upon not fitting into the other categories.
Of course there wouldn’t be just one way to be nonbinary!
But media and cultural pressure are powerful things. In my daily life, I’ve seen my nonbinary partner and friends constantly misgendered, even after explaining their pronouns, because other people can’t see “proof” that they’re nonbinary. When I’m mistaken for a woman at first glance, I hesitate to correct people. After all, don’t I look and dress a lot like a woman? Have I, from my safe position as someone who passes as cis, earned the right to assert myself as nonbinary, when all the out-and-proud nonbinary people I’ve seen on social media have much bolder, genderqueer expressions?
Maybe if I saw more nonbinary people like me, I’d feel more confident telling others who I am. Maybe if the most famous nonbinary influencers weren’t only AFAB people with short hair or AMAB people with makeup on, more people would understand that gender identity and expression can fit into more than three categories—or that the categories themselves are broken.
Maybe if we all saw more women dressing “masculinely,” more men dressing “femininely,” and more nonbinary people dressing however they please, we would learn that gender expression doesn’t define gender identity or vice versa. Maybe we could learn, as I needed to in order to feel comfortable with my identity, that the only person that can define someone’s gender is that person, and no one else.