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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?

‘She’s disgusting,’ mutter the boys clustered round the school gates.

‘We’re worried about you,’ the year adviser scolds me.

Too much girl, not girl enough. I can’t get it right. At a sleepover, when giggles and teases became tickles and wrestling, a cold voice rings through the darkness.

‘Oh my God, you must be a lesbian!’

Hot with shame, I crawl back into my sleeping bag. Does tickling equal lesbian? I have no idea what lesbians do; I only know that they are wrong. Like me, again.

When Year Twelve comes around, I fall into friendship with a fey scamp of a girl. She’s all freckles and puns, topped off with an encyclopedic knowledge of Agatha Christie. During study periods, we walk, brazen, out the school gates and gorge on gelato at an Italian café down the road. On stormy afternoons the beach calls. We throw ourselves about in the rough surf for hours then sit shivering over hot chocolates. I have never felt so right.

As final exams approach, we shop for formal dresses. Her choice is a cheongsam-inspired gown, black with red panelling, a daring creation found at the city’s first designer store. I can’t wait to be seen beside her on the night. Next week in class, a message is conveyed: Sam – charming Sam, secret crush of all the girls – wants her as his date. At the formal, I sit alone and miserable as Sam twirls her on the dance floor, black dress flaring just as I’d imagined. My friend is giddy with joy, but everything is wrong. Wrong casting, wrong lines, wrong me. With my strapless aqua gown, I am no match for besuited Sam. The blazer has won again.

 Yves Rees (photograph by Susan Papazian)Yves Rees (photograph by Susan Papazian)

It’s the early 2000s in an oversized town populated by redundant steelworkers and their surfer sons. The streets are dense with empty shops, and a frothy cappuccino is the height of sophistication. ‘Gay’ is an accusation, not an identity. ‘Trans’ means only the drag queens teetering across the outback in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. ‘Diversity’ is the occasional Greek surname, or the solitary pair of Hong Kong-born sisters at school. Beneath the vacant blue skies that keep us ‘relaxed and comfortable’, my unruly body has desires I cannot name. Only at the beach, where the world is water and light, do I slip free from the wrongness that stalks me into each new scene.

‘How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?’ writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts (2015). In her telling, the ‘born in the wrong body’ trans narrative obscures the fact that many belong in the messy middle, forever betwixt and between.

When your gender is a dog’s breakfast, how do you know whether this is your own mess or the world’s? Was I always trans, part boy beneath my skin, or did I land in a place where ‘girl’ was a container so small it could break your bones?

The pallid feminism dished up in the Howard era told us that ‘girls can do anything’. They can be athletes, they can be doctors, they can run a business. They can even be prime minister. (That didn’t work out so well.) To be a feminist, I learn, is to challenge and grow what ‘woman’ can contain. You want to skate like your brother? Great, you’re a feminist. You want short hair? Feminist gold star for you.

But my guilty secret is that ‘woman’ never feels like home. I don’t want to be a ball-breaking superwoman, smashing glass ceilings with my shoulder-pads, while my husband tends the stove. I want that David Jones blazer and the body to fill it out.

Why, indeed, would any child embrace ‘woman’ when they are the seeming losers, the victims, the Penelopes who get left behind? The men in my life are the ones who jet off on international business trips, eat meals cooked by others, have their sexual currency increase with age. My father moves to a beachside apartment with his coiffed new wife, while my mother inflates with grief. She dishes up mid-week spag bol and watches reruns of The Bill; he buys a Bose sound-system and quaffs pinot noir against a backdrop of 1980s synth jazz and Japanese cologne. In the battle of the sexes, I know who will win every time.

Yet make no mistake: for all my cricketing exploits, I am no rough-and-tumble tomboy, running riot with the lads. That ‘born in the wrong body’ conviction is never mine. My shit is messier than that. For all that my aesthetic signals ‘boy’, I am the quiet child who gravitates towards books and make-believe – sedate, acceptably feminine pastimes. I have Barbies and I like them. Most days, it’s not so hard to pass as female.


Without a language to express this mess, I leave my body behind. I smother its unruly desires beneath textbooks, prizes, degrees. Photographs are to be avoided at all costs. Shopping is an exercise in drag. I buy the dresses, the skirts. I go through the motions of performing ‘girl’. I even go on dates when men ask me, half-amused they can’t see through the farce. I learn that a ready smile and a sympathetic ear are the only props required to impersonate a woman. The performance becomes so familiar I almost forget that it’s staged.

There are only occasional moments of rupture. Talk of marriage, breast fondling, beauty salons, being called ‘Miss’ – all induce revulsion and panic. At one big white wedding in Greece, I spend the reception shaking in the toilets while the other guests dance in raucous circles.

There’s only one possible explanation: it must be all my mother’s fault. Wasn’t she supposed to have taught me how to be a woman? Her blunt style and aversion to fashion and makeup must be the reason why I lack some essential understanding of femaleness. If only I had a different mother, a mother who wore mascara and kitten heels, I would have learnt the passwords, the secret handshake. Or so I tell myself.

The day before my brother’s wedding, Mum and I drive to a beauty salon for obligatory mani-pedis, a bonding exercise with the bride-to-be and the women of her clan.

‘How does it work? I’ve never done this before,’ Mum proclaims on arrival, announcing her ignorance for all to hear.

She doesn’t even know to be ashamed, to see that she’s failed femininity and failed me in the process. I turn to ice and refuse to look at her. In the car going home, arms crossed, I spit out her shortcomings, one by one. Anger provides a refuge from confusion and fear.

The next day, I watch my first YouTube make-up tutorial. Maybe I can acquire the secret handshake elsewhere. But I don’t go back to a beauty salon for years. Without Mum on hand to play the naïf, surely my own ignorance would be obvious. I can’t afford to be unmasked in the citadel of womanhood.

Through it all, I keep myself small and lean. No womanly curves, the merest hint of breasts, muscular quads – androgyny to the max. When I’m not studying I’m exercising; either living in my mind or keeping my body under wraps. Cake, ice cream, chocolate are all verboten. Even alcohol is suspect: too many empty calories. Feminism tells me this is patriarchy in action: women are not allowed to have large bodies that claim space. My body regulation is surely just another artefact of a sexist world. Yet it isn’t size I fear so much as hips, buttocks, and breasts, those expanses of flesh that scream ‘woman’ to the world. No J.Lo booty for me, however toned. Heroin chic is more my style.


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Comments (2)

  • 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