My aversion to all things "girly" was never conscious. Opting to wear slacks instead of a dress, preferring blue to pink, and wearing my hair up were choices that I made out of comfort and preference, not rebellion. As an adult, I’ve come to put terms to the feelings of anxiety I felt as a child — one such term being body dysmorphia. But the toils of braving the summer time in Mississippi as a closeted queer proved to be an experience, to say the least. The heat that accompanies a typical summer in the Bible Belt is, frankly, ungodly. Public pools and water parks are the preferred method of cooling off, and for that, you need a bathing suit.
I remember shopping for bathing suits with my mother. Even from a young age, I was very conscious of the way my body looked and the way others saw my body, and felt men's clothing a more comfortable choice. She didn't care much for my affinity for the men's section. Girls weren't "supposed" to wear boys' clothes, but if I pressed her by complaining about the fit or the color on something she'd picked out, she would acquiesce. I always opted for board shorts, thinking the cut of a bikini bottom too embarrassing for my adolescent body. I had short, fat legs and a chubby torso — I wanted as much of my body to be covered as possible, and desperately wanted one of those waterproof shirts that surfers wore. They would be tight on me and show off the parts of my torso that bulged and poked, but it was far preferable to those frilly looking tankini tops that my mother would pick out.
My first memory of feeling uncomfortable in that kind of swimsuit in a public space was when I was eight or nine years old. Intuitively, I knew it was way too hot to be fully clothed in a graphic T-shirt and jean shorts at the neighborhood pool, but I was still embarrassed and uncomfortable to be in the bright pink one piece swimsuit that I wore layered underneath. I tugged at the annoying swimsuit strap that chaffed the back of my neck and I resented wearing it. It felt like a torture device.
In fifth grade, my mother made the decision that I would join the Girl Scouts. Every summer, the troop would take a trip to Geyser Falls water park in Philadelphia, Mississippi. My scrutiny grew to encompass not only my own body but the bodies of the other girls around me, a byproduct of the self-conscious anxiety of queer adolescence. I noticed that the other girls were starting fill their tiny, brightly colored two-piece swimsuits in the places that needed filling. In that crucial stage in development around 11 or 12, it seemed like the other girls were taking their changing bodies in stride. Their swimsuits were cute, and though my board shorts and surfer top were not, I felt better knowing that I had managed to obscure the things that made me insecure about my own changing body.
In the presence of my mother, on family vacations, I would wear a frilly tankini set, usually one that she picked out. They were always so low cut, but I was never keen on the idea of cleavage. Those nagging totems of womanhood that protruded from my chest were my greatest source of discomfort. Swimsuits were so easy for boys: They could slip their shirts off with abandon, their only care being that they didn’t catch a woody in their swim trunks. I was envious. For a while, I thought exercising and focusing on my upper body would shrink my breasts. After months of no results, a Google search revealed that my hypothesis was wrong. I abandoned my plan in frustration.
As I got older, I came to appreciate some of my feminine characteristics — I didn't want to fight my body anymore. I realized that could not do anything to change the way my body developed, so I resolved to at least try to work with it and not against it. College brought more exposure to queer culture. Through magazines, podcasts, and social media, I discovered terms like "androgyny" and "genderqueer," along with a whole new world of men wearing makeup and skirts and women sporting buzz cuts and Timbs. Though still mostly clothed at the handful of pool gatherings I went to, I would unbutton an extra button or two on my colorful Hawaiian shirts, exposing my collarbone, and roll my jorts up higher on my thighs to dangle my legs in the water. It was progress.
When I was 21, years after those Girl Scout summers had ended, my mother booked a cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate my brother's high school graduation. The thought of donning a typical bathing suit all day, every day surrounded by strangers still gave me tremendous anxiety. To add to that, my body had matured past the point where tankini sets and board shorts looked fitting on me — too girlish on my grown (ish), very feminine body. I looked to Instagram to find something that would make me feel comfortable.
Though many of my favorite queer Instagram pages advertised new lines of genderqueer swimwear, many of them were out of my price range. But I took note of the styles in selection and tried to find alternatives that were still more-or-less gender neutral but not as expensive. I settled on a bikini. All black, of course, with mesh trim on the top that, while trendy and femme according to Instagram, and also hid the cleavage that I still loathed. More than anything, I was eager to finally get an even tan, front and back. I even bought an expensive sunscreen enriched with a laundry list of vitamins and minerals that would guarantee the ultimate bronzing effect.
In that moment lying out on the top deck of the ship, the only thing keeping me from being completely naked were the two tiny pieces of black fabric covering my lady bits, and I was completely fine. I realized that the source of my anxieties wasn't my gender itself, but the performance of gender. It was the fear and embarrassment of not performing "girl" correctly that kept me fully clothed while poolside all those years. I was finally performing "girl," to my mother's satisfaction — but on my terms. Though it wasn't what I had in mind, after a few glances in the mirror, I could admit to myself that the bikini looked good on me and that I was comfortable with my womanly curves being on display. Once I gave myself that approval, I could not have cared less what anyone else thought. I did not feel as if anyone was watching me, even though I was surrounded by people. There, lying on a deck chair on a ship in the middle of the ocean, I had no qualms about the parts of my body I disliked. I was here, queer, and looking fierce in the bikini that I bought, in the body that I had finally come to accept. I felt free for the first time.