How Lady Gaga Helped Me Find Body Positivity As A Genderqueer Teen Before Either Term Had Any Visibility
Like many Millennial queers, I got my first taste of body positivity from the music and the "born this way" philosophy of Lady Gaga. As a young, closeted queer who was still trying to find their feet with regards to style, self love, and identity, there weren't many artists of my generation who I felt really spoke to me. Being limited to the offerings of the pop radio station in my small town and my parents' music collection, nothing that I saw or heard in the mainstream quite resonated with me. I didn't know any pop stars who were queer or who reflected my own aesthetic preferences. Everything I saw was too straight, too bubblegum pop, too boring.
When I first saw Gaga's video for "Just Dance" back in 2008, I basically died. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen as she traipsed around seemingly intoxicated, and straddled an inflatable whale in a kiddie pool with unapologetic sexuality and a blue lightning bolt on her right cheek. I begged my mother for a disco bra for weeks. It wasn't until "Poker Face" came out, and when Gaga openly talked about her bisexuality, that my obsession with her was solidified. By the time The Fame Monster dropped in 2009 — and with it, darker, more bizarre imagery — I was a self-identified "little monster."
Gaga broke a lot of barriers, both musically and sartorially. But she also helped deconstruct the obstacle between my self-hating closeted teen self and my sparkling genderqueer unicorn identity. At a time when queer body positivity was much less prevalent (how I wish people like Hari Nef and Laverne Cox had been visible during my childhood), and the term "genderqueer" unknown to much of the public, Gaga was completely essential on the road to developing greater confidence about my queer body. The sex-positive, colorful, and gender-fluid images that she evoked in her videos and outfits came many years before those of current body positive icons, and she was one of the only mainstream artists who was presenting like that at the time. Gaga showed me how beautiful a queer body truly is, and helped me figure out the hyper-sexual, lipstick-loving, non-binary person that I was. Before body positivity was mainstream — before there were as many people telling me I should show my queer self authentically and proudly — there was Gaga.
Despite my solidarity with Lady Gaga regarding queerness, this time in her career affected my fashion sense more than anything else (Gaga's androgynous beauty looks would come later). It was through her "Bad Romance" video that I was introduced to, and quickly fell head over heels for, the avant garde designs of the late Alexander McQueen. Before Gaga, and before I obsessed over every designer she collaborated with, I was never really interested in or knowledgeable about style. But the musician's awesome outfits (like her machine gun bra in the "Alejandro" video and the meat dress she rocked to the 2010 VMAs) opened my eyes to art I could identify with, and style that was simultaneously confusing and empowering. Being empowered in my own queer identity — an identity that many were confused by — felt like an extension of this lesson.
However, I couldn't begin to claim this power until the release of her 2011 album, Born This Way, which was a love letter specifically to all her young, queer fans who felt out of place. "Born This Way" became my anthem, as I inched closer and closer to acknowledging my queer identity. I wouldn't come out until two years later, but I took the time spent listening to her third album on repeat to build me up. Her own body positive attitude, and her preaching about unconditional self love, saved my life, in a way. She helped me treasure my queerness, and begin to hate myself less.
Gaga's influence certainly had a similar effect on the other "Little Monsters" who I had come to know on Tumblr. Because of Gaga, a sacred space was created where we could all discuss and perform our evolving sexualities and genders without fear, and support one another through the rough patches. This Internet space was devoted to cheering one another on as we came out to our families, and to support one another if we were kicked out of our homes. We could express our beautiful, androgynous selves, and document radical haircuts and new piercings.
In this space, I was more of an observer and a supporter than an active participant. But it helped me develop and strengthen my own body positivity, and provided me with tools to deal with hardships regarding my queer identity. I wanted so badly to participate, and to actively live my life as queer, but fear held me back. However, listening to Gaga's "Hair" on repeat became a catalyst for my first rebellious and queer action: Dyeing my hair.
In the song, Gaga discusses her desire to be herself, how all the different ways she dyes her hair reflect her ever-evolving identity, and how her parents often get in the way of that self-actualization. As a hair dye virgin raised by overprotective parents, this resonated with me. And as a closeted queer who desperately needed some way to express their identity, I finally took the plunge at 17 and dyed my hair blonde and purple. The change I once feared became a habit, as I slowly altered my mane every few months to move closer to the way I was feeling inside.
And then, Jo Calderone was born. Gaga's alter (and male) ego, born from her "You And I" music video, took the VMA stage in 2011, and my genderqueer body could hardly handle the excitement. Through the swagger and masculine gestures Gaga so easily adopted for this character, it seemed like she was telling me to embrace and acknowledge my masculinity. It seemed like she saw the real me under all the hyper-feminine costumes I put on for high school every day. I was disappointed in the fact that Jo Calderone never returned after that night. He wasn't an act to me. But Gaga helped me figure out the true me by drunkenly stumbling around that stage as she lived out what was (I came to realize) my own fantasy. I knew I wasn't a man, but I wasn't a girl either. And I was ready to start living my truth.
I will forever be grateful for Gaga (or as I used to call her, Mother Monster). She created a strong foundation for what would later blossom into self love and living authentically. She taught me to claim my sexuality without shame, and wear as much makeup as I wanted. She taught me that liberation was as easy as changing the color of my hair or getting a new tattoo. And she taught me all these things before "body positivity" started trending on Twitter or popular shows on Netflix featured transgender actors.
Most importantly, she taught me never to be ashamed of my genderqueer self, and that I owed it to myself to present honestly. Thanks in part to her music, my days of chiffon tops and tweed pencil skirts are far behind me. I love button-up shirts, black lipstick, and have a vagina without the "woman" label attached to it. I was born this way, baby.