Monday, 28 December 2015

Wishing for a different body

Content Note: Weight, gender dysphoria

I remember the time before I had breasts. I used to stand in front of the long mirror in my parents' bedroom, made sure to keep the door shut. And with a bare chest and skinny legs, in nothing but a pair of shorts, I'd hit out at my reflection. This was before puberty hit, back before my body had curves from stomach to legs to hips to breasts. I was a tiny little kid. I pretended I was a boxer.

My body grew up too fast for me. By the age of 11 I'd started my period, and by the age of 12 I had a bra size of 32D. I quickly had to grow out of pretending to be a boxer, or at least I felt like I did. I pushed breasts into bras that my mum helped me pick. I cringed in horror as hairs began to spike across my legs. I started waxing when I was 13. By this point I had switched from boy's clothes to women's clothes. And even though I cut my hair short and only ever wore the trousers of my school uniform, I was still hurt when strangers called me he.... I have huge breasts, and I shave my legs - I'd think. I was never all the things they told you a woman should be on TV, but I was half of them.

I was always into comic books. I grew fond of half creatures - centaurs and mermaids and werewolves and valkyries. Even years into the feminist campaigning, singing power to the women at marches and protests, I still felt like an odd half. Like my words were void because I wasn't a stereotype of a woman - a proper woman. I always saw other women as more of a woman than I was. I didn't want to devalue their experiences.

I stood in front of the mirror. "She" I'd say out loud, and shake my head. "He" I'd say out loud and shake my head too. I've tried other pronouns, but none of them seem to fit. The language doesn't feel right to me. But I still correct people - it's she. I feel more she than he, anyway.

Femininity and masculinity are complicated things. I don't really know where I stand with gender, but I do know that I've always wanted to be physically more masculine and mentally more feminine. Does our gender reside in our mind or our body, or both? Which is stronger? What gender is my soul?

I stand in front of the mirror. I'm wearing a bra, and boxer shorts. I've sewn the front of the shorts together because I don't have a cock to fill out the space. This is a masculine feature I'm fine without. I love my vagina, I'm a hardcore feminist in that sense. But as I look at myself I poke the curve of my stomach, and I notice how I notice it.

I had this dream when I was a teenager, that I'd have a six pack like so many of the comic book characters that I worshipped. More muscle, more muscle, more muscle.

I don't remember when I first started struggling with weight. Everything else sits neatly on a timeline, but this doesn't seem to have a beginning - or an end. I didn't want to lose weight because it was seen as feminine. I wanted to lose weight to be less feminine. The flatter my chest, the flatter my stomach, the smaller my hips and butt and thighs - the more androgynous I'd look.

But as I thought about weight, it wasn't really weight I had a problem with - it was fat. I wanted my body to be flat and straight, like they showed men's bodies to be in magazines. But I didn't want to be thin. I'm a short person, and I often feel weak, and I still look a lot at my tiny body and think, I wish that I was stronger.

My body doesn't really want to be much stronger though. It has always been tiny. And it constantly tries to remind me that strength doesn't equal muscle and muscle doesn't equal strength. And I should really stop worrying about not looking androgynous enough, or masculine enough, or feminine enough. Because I just am.

I'm about to go on a trip. 10 weeks in South East Asia, miles away from where I'm writing this, in my bedroom in London, sitting next to my cat. I've never been away from home for this long before, but I'm not worried about many things. Except already I'm worried about my body. About not getting enough protein, and how wearing a swimming costume will inevitably highlight all the curves, and how my confusion about gender will make other people uncomfortable.

This time next week I'll be in Bangkok, and I'll try to keep writing.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Face paint

Part 1: The Green thing

What is it? People ask
Is it the Hulk, is it a turtle, is it Elphaba from Wicked?
I'm just green, I say. Just green.
This is not the face that knows what it is.
This is the face that could be anything.

Part 2: The tiger

This isn't the face that makes up stories,
Or the face that gets scared to talk to girls.
This is the brave face, the unashamed face,
The look at my stripes, they're so defined,
I'm not convinced by hiding face.
This is the brave face.

Part 3: The vampire

Spiky teeth are more terrifying sometimes, even if they're plastic.
They protrude from dry and swollen bright red lips under
Eyes that are the same as they always have been.
But they look darker in this light, like black glass.
This is the face of fear, the face of facing fear,
The face of turning away by painting fear.
This is the face of holding back tears and turning pupils glossy instead
This is the face of 2am walks in the dark.
This is not the face of fictional romance.

Part 4: The polar bear

This is the face of reality.
Its roar is louder than its vision.
Its almost see-through when it looks in the mirror.
It says I am your regret.
I am all the decisions you spent without thinking about consequences.
It recognises that it is peelable for the first time.
Everything - everything - is always lost, always covered up,
Apart from the eyes.
I see it in the eyes.
I am all the decisions you spent without caring about consequences.

Part 5: The superhero

At last there's a red star.
It's a mark. A forehead mark -
Like Wonder Woman's red star.
This is the face of a comic book geek
Who always preferred Marvel to DC,
But can't escape the charm of Wonder Woman.
A yellow streak, sneakers on bruised feet,
Walking high above the rooftops screaming I don't want to sleep
I am wonder woman, all my friends are wonder women,
all their friends are wonder women.
We are not impermanent. We can't be washed away.
We don't hide our truths behind layers of paint.
We make artwork, and it leaves its stains.
And when I wash yellow paint down the drain,
The character leaves,
But the strength it stays.

Monday, 14 December 2015

So what if I love my cat?

When I was in school, I used to write blogs about how I wasn’t a lot of things. Like how I wasn’t a cat-lover because I was a feminist (I just was), and I didn’t burn my bra because I was a feminist, and how having short hair didn’t mean I was a lesbian *spoiler alert*. So now I’m going to un-write them: I am a queer bra-burning vegan feminist, whose armpit hair is longer than the hair on the sides of her head. And I really like cats. Really, really.

I fit a lot of lesbian stereotypes. I fit a lot of feminist stereotypes. I fit a lot of lesbian feminist stereotypes. And even though the bra-burning claim *might* have been a lie (bras are expensive!), everything else is true, and I’m proud that it is.

I know I talk a lot on here about when I was younger. But... when I as younger, I actively tried to reject stereotypes in a bid to claim not all feminists. I was so caught up in convincing people that feminist stereotypes weren’t the true picture, that I didn’t stop to think what was wrong with these stereotypes in the first place. So what if feminists burnt bras, practiced witchcraft, destroyed capitalism and were all lesbians? So what if women were cat lovers, or hummus-eating hairy hippies, or even political lesbians? None of these things are inherently bad. Feminism being associated with these things isn’t bad. It’s the fact that these things have such negative connotations that is bad.

When I was younger, I tried so hard to denounce feminist stereotypes, that I actively rejected many things that I felt would box me into a stereotype. The biggest of these stereotypes was the lesbian thing. I’d heard people call me a lesbian too many times, I’d heard the word faggot too many times. There are actual blogs from when I was like 15 years old, where I actively say just because I’m a feminist, doesn’t mean I’m a lesbian. It’s internalised homophobia to the max – even after I could claim short hair, and hairy legs, and vegetarianism, and anti-capitalism, and gender fluidity, and androgyny, I still couldn’t claim lesbian.

And maybe it’s because I was asexual at the time, and confused because I didn’t know what that was, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t sexually attracted to anyone, of any gender. But I spent most of my teen years trying to prove (to other people, and to myself) that I was attracted to boys… and most importantly, that I wasn’t, in any way, attracted to girls.

I was right that being feminist doesn’t automatically make you a lesbian… but so what if it did? And what if feminism made me a lesbian? What if when I began to feel sexually attracted to people of all genders, I made a decision to only date women. Because it was easier for me, because men can be triggering, because I am so much more emotionally attracted to female-identifying people? So what?

Patriarchy hates the idea of women choosing to be gay, because patriarchy believes that women should be sexually subservient and available to men, always. That’s why lesbianism is such an enemy of patriarchy in the first place. I’m choosing my words carefully… I’m not saying that all women should be queer to overcome patriarchy. I’m saying that if a woman ever does actively choose to only date women, this isn’t un-feminist. After all, it’s a woman’s choice to decide what she wants to do with her own body, and a woman’s right to make her own sexual choices. These are the underlying principles of feminism. It’s every woman’s choice.

I made bad choices before, and I’ll make them again. I made choices to reject labels for the sake of rejecting labels. I made the choice to add more homophobia to this world by doing everything in my power to convince people I wasn’t gay. I have nothing against gay people, I would say, I’m just not gay.

But I am gay. And I'm also hairy. And I also really love my cat, Coco, who sleeps at the end of my bed, and was begrudging when I turned vegan, and who occasionally pees on my things. I love her more than I love most people. And I love hummus, and I have short hair, and I'm also mentally quite unwell. So I'll claim the crazy cat lady trope. And the butch lesbian thing. And the hairy feminist thing. And if that makes me a living, breathing feminist lesbian stereotype, I couldn’t care less.

Monday, 7 December 2015


Our grandma always speaks to us in 2 languages - English and Turkish... English because she moved to London in the 1950s without speaking a word of it, and quickly had to learn. Turkish because it's her mother tongue. Growing up we got a mix of both languages, often sentences strewn together in two different tongues. My grandparents infamously call Sainsbury's Suzbury's, and my grandma once asked a man behind a stall in Cyprus for a plastic bag, before remembering that the words plastic bag were slightly out of context! All of my grandparents spoke a mix of Turkish and English in their lifetimes... but I'm sharing my grandmother's story because she spoke more. When we started learning French in school, she helped me count to ten. When me and my sister stayed at my grandparents' for "sleepovers" she'd say a prayer with us in Arabic before bed. And every once in a while, she'll say something in Greek, a language she would have once spoke a lot more frequently.

My grandparents left Cyprus in the 1950s, on the brink of war. I'm not going to claim that I know much about this war, because I don't. All I can say for certain is that before it happened, my grandparents lived amongst friends both Greek and Turkish, and that now, there's a border that slices the country down the middle like a barrier. It separates human beings, culture, and languages. I often wonder if I would have learnt Greek if the war hadn't have happened. I probably would have been born in the same village that my grandparents were born in. And that village wouldn't have been sat on a border.

It's 2015, and my grandparents have a home in Cyprus, but they still live here. Their village is known by two names - Yesilirmak (Yeah-sheel-ur-muk) and Limnidi - Turkish and Greek. It sits on the borderline - only just on the borderline. It's nested in the mountains, bright and green, and the people there leave boxes of strawberries at your door step before you even wake up in the morning. There are telephone lines there that only sometimes work, and no Internet, and the kids have to take a bus to another town to get to school. It's beautiful. It's also full of soldiers. Men drive around in trucks with guns, and even though I've never seen conflict there, conflict always feels imminent. The people are still marred by a war that happened decades ago.

Earlier this week I was on a Don't Bomb Syria protest outside Westminster. And I know the links aren't particularly strong, but I thought of my grandparents. I thought of my granddad who sold his motorbike to try to raise funds for plane tickets, and who worked in the first Wimpy bar for 9 years when he got to London. And I thought of my grandma who made us pray before bedtime and tried to read the Qur'an in Arabic, even though she is only ever really religious at births, weddings and funerals. And I thought about war. And about how the last time I was in Cyprus I found a beach on the borderline that wasn't guarded by soldiers. And how I walked alone across rocks to the Greek side and found a crab. And how I carried him back across the border with me because I wanted to spend time with a creature that didn't see borders, or know borders... to him the rocks were just the rocks, the sea was just the sea, the land was just the land.

It's easy for me to know why I dislike war so much. It's not because it caused my family to leave their home all those years ago, or because it leaves me feeling like I have two homes but neither of them proper, or because so many relatives fought and died in armies for a side that never cared about them. It's because I'm constantly reminded of how ugly war is. How a little village is constantly burdened by it when it isn't even happening any more. 

I've been thinking about how privileged I am. I'm writing about war in a cosy office in Hackney, while other people are dying as a result of it. I don't have to fear for my life. I have the luxury of worrying about how war will hurt others, I'm not forced to worry about my own life... my sister's life... my grandparents' lives.

As I write this, I try to memorise the word for peace in my grandma's 5 languages: peace, barış, ειρήνη, paix, سلام.