As far back as I can remember, which I assume is the same amount as most people, I’ve been someone who loved words. I could speak before I could walk, and I learned to read on Roald Dahl and Harry Potter. In that sense, words have always moved me—to other, more fantastical worlds, or to tears. I love some prose because of the way it sounds, the way the vowels curl off my tongue or evoke images of a world like ours but romanticized in a way that can only occur in our minds. Other words I enjoy because of the meaning behind them, profound musings on life or just really good jokes. Rarely do I appreciate a word solely because of its definition. After all, no one cites Merriam-Webster as their favorite author. But some words have reached a point where they become more than a combination of letters. They become concepts that dictate every area of our lives in a way that ink on paper shouldn’t be able to. It is one of these words that has moved me most profoundly.
About a year ago now, I was applying to an online program that asked me to describe what being a girl meant to me. It took me a while to figure out what to write, and what I wrote was that I wasn’t sure what it meant to me. I had written many essays like it, talking about what it was like to be Jewish, to be a New Yorker, to be a writer. But this one gave me pause.
Girlhood wasn’t something I thought about frequently or at all in my daily life, and to have it thrust upon me in the form of a question was startling. Being a girl was never a question before but an answer, a tidy solution to my genetics, mind, and social treatment as sure and unmalleable as the answer to a math problem.
The only answers I could think of were ones prescribed by others. The way I was treated in the world, the opportunities I was afforded, my supposed maturity and tendencies towards drama. What I couldn’t find was anything real, any intrinsic sense that yes, I was a girl, whatever that was even supposed to mean.
I had thought for most of my life that everyone felt this way. Gender was a performance, a complicated dance of social cues and self expression that everyone carefully arranged based on arbitrary factors. The more I pondered this question, the more I thought that maybe I was wrong, and that I was the exception to this unspoken rule.
As I thought about the word “girl,” I became increasingly uncomfortable with it being applied to me. It implied a specific sense of self that I didn’t seem to have. It was scary how much this one word paralyzed me that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about why it had felt so wrong.
I had had my doubts before, but this was the moment I truly began questioning my gender. It shattered my perceptions of what gender meant to other people, which forced me to realize that it meant nothing to me.
This realization led me to a slew of other words, some that I searched for, others that I encountered by chance. These words came with relief. Here was a way to quantify what I was feeling, to understand my experience through the context of others that used the same words. They also came with their own problems, though. I worried I would never be able to find the right one, or that once I finally picked one I would one day realize it was completely wrong, the same way I had rejected the label of “girl.”
It is ridiculous that words like these have so much power; words that, in the end, can only serve as vague approximations of the complexity that is the human experience of gender. Until we can live in a world where such rigid quantification isn’t necessary, we have to use what we’ve got. And I’m glad that what I have is true to me.
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