Reading the Mess Backwards

June–July 2020, no. 422

Reading the Mess Backwards

June–July 2020, no. 422

Listen to this essay read by the author.

When I’m ten or so, my brother appears shirtless at the dinner table. Ever the eager disciple, I follow his example without a second thought. It is a sweltering January day, and our bodies are salt-crusted from the beach. Clothing seems cruel in these conditions.

As my brother tucks into his schnitzel, tanned chest gleaming, I grow conscious that the mood has become strained. Across the table, my parents exchange glances. The midsummer cheer of recent evenings is on hold.

I look down. Two small nubs peak from my ribcage, barely the beginnings of breasts. My torso is white and soft, a reptile’s underbelly to my brother’s hard brown exoskeleton. I realise: this chest of mine does not belong in public. It is somehow obscene, something to be hidden rather than flaunted. My brother and I differ in this crucial respect.

Excusing myself, I flee upstairs and don a T-shirt. Back at the table, there is a palpable sense of relief. Chatter resumes. All is well with the world.

When I am eleven, I cut my hair. The yellow river that poured down my back is snipped onto the white tiles of the David Jones salon. It’s a massacre of blonde. In the mirror, a new person emerges. Strong jaw, sceptical gaze, broad cheekbones no longer softened by a gold mane. Nothing feminine to see here. Here I am, fresh from the chrysalis of girlhood.

On the way out of DJs, Mum and I browse the children’s clothing department. In the boy’s section, the racks of navy blazers speak of an entire world, one where urbane flâneurs stroll through some nameless European metropolis. I want one. I fondle the silk lining, inhaling its promises. Here is all I cannot have.

That year, I graduate from family beach cricket to my very own team. Dad had been a star wicketkeeper before a car accident put paid to his dreams of a sporting career, while my brother is a Zeus on any sporting field. Now it’s my turn. In the absence of a local girls’ team, I join a boys’ club. I acquire the regulation cricket whites, and the whole family sinks into the rhythm of mid-week trainings and endless Saturday mornings beside a sun-bleached oval. I am bemused when the coach’s wife, febrile with good intentions, assures me that I am accepted alongside the boys. Why wouldn’t I be? I know where I belong.

It soon emerges that I’m an abysmal fielder (too afraid of the ball), a middling-to-poor batsman, but a dab hand as a bowler. Word gets round at school, and soon the Year Six boys allow me into their lunchtime matches. The day the invitation comes to open the bowling, I abandon my orange Sunnyboy and girl posse like so much trash. I’m one of the boys now.

One day after cricket training, I’m at the supermarket with Dad. We’re playing our favourite game: a competition to greet the most people we know. Not surprisingly, my father – a middle-aged professor – always trounces me, the shy pre-pubescent. The contest is rigged, but I love it anyway. This afternoon, as we wheel the trolley to the car, Dad pauses to chat with a colleague.

‘It’s lovely to meet your son,’ she says.

I see myself: cropped hair, blue shorts, white crewneck. My second skin. Does this equal boy?

Dad laughs awkwardly. ‘This is Annie, she’s going to high school next year.’

In the car going home, neither of us speaks.


That summer, my brother grows muscle, stubble, pimples. He starts sleeping until noon, and his sentences become barnacled with expletives. I am left behind. Frantic to catch up, I understudy his new role like a pro. I learn to make Warhammer sets, then listen to Jack Johnson on repeat. Next I buy a skateboard, spending afternoons cruising the foreshore in my cargo pants. I never manage any tricks, but my first online handle is sk8ergirl88.

At high school, I learn that I am wrong.

‘Why do you have a boy’s haircut?’ the Year Eight boys jeer.

A girls’ cricket team starts, and I join, but soon miss the boys’ easy camaraderie. Within a season, I abandon the sport for good.

The nubs on my chest turn into pillows, and overnight I become fat. My body is both too little and too much. Then I discover the answer: stop eating. My lunchtime sandwiches, oily with salami and swiss cheese, are replaced by a green apple, consumed in birdlike mouthfuls. I jog to and from class. Sometimes, as a special treat, I nibble a single rye crispbread. By summer, my shoulder blades jut out sharp and proud, trophies that proclaim my labours to the world. I sunbake facedown at the ocean baths, revelling in the dull pain of hipbone against concrete. Breasts disappear and periods dry up. I am right again.

Or am I?

Comments (6)

  • Very well done. My strongest feeling from all this is that it's all about not so much 'male' and 'female' as 'masculine' and 'feminine'. That is to say...the difference between human and gender. The latter is learned, and Yves's article shows the pain and distress when what is learned does not match with reality. Which is that we are human.
    Posted by Judy Crozier
    08 January 2021
  • Wow, really, really interesting! I now know, thanks to this essay, a little more about the extremely diverse spectrum of human (and probably other animal's) gender/sexuality. I can also imagine, thanks to your words, just how confusing it must be to try and figure out that you are something that society tells you doesn't exist, that is, something that is neither 'man' nor 'woman'.
    Posted by Steve Chivers
    14 December 2020
  • WOW! I've just read your story and can see why you won. Magnificent writing and with real heart. Congratulations on this outstanding story.
    Posted by Nicky Webber
    25 November 2020
  • Yves, your accuracy and honest stream of consciousness are refreshing. I especially love this passage: "Did I land in a place where ‘girl’ was a container so small it could break your bones?" Thank you for sharing your experience and inspiring others to question the systems. ⚡️
    Posted by Kate Pitches
    18 November 2020
  • Incredible writing. I just want to keep reading this fine work.
    Posted by Anni Doyle
    10 September 2020
  • Congratulations, Yves Rees - a well-deserved win. I can identify with your story and the 'messy middle-ground of gender'. I never did 'fit' and wondered why. Now, at the age of seventy, I believe there is no need to aspire to be ultra-feminine or ultra-masculine - in the middle is fine. In fact, it can be argued that this is the best place to be - where sanity reigns and anything is possible.
    Posted by Alison Gidley
    27 June 2020

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