We’ve used the term for nearly a century. But what does it tell us about the way we label women and their work?
On the cover of the February issue of Vanity Fair, Rosamund Pike gives her best icy blue-eyed Grace Kelly. The cover’s intro — “From Bond Girl to Gone Girl to 2015’s It Girl” — is banal: Pike’s beauty here is the real draw.
But still, there’s that phrase, “It girl”: one that Vanity Fair wielded back in 1998 for the then-up-and-coming Gretchen Mol, who struggled so mightily to make good on the promise that the New York Times dubbed it the “Vanity Fair Cover Curse,” and that Vogue uses in its own February cover story on Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson, “who exudes the effortless cool of an It Girl.”
In naming someone an It girl, a publication is either hedging a bet (Gretchen Mol will be all that anyone’s talking about in 1998) or trendspotting (Cara Delevingne is everywhere in New York; you’ll be seeing her everywhere else soon). In this contemporary iteration, “It girl” has come to mean some cross of a new, young, generally hot thing known for attending parties and movie premieres and a new, young, generally hot thing who makes her name in a sphere (politics, journalism, golf, rap) broadly delimited to men. It’s a seemingly safe way to declare someone as worthy of your attention without actually articulating what, exactly, merits that attention. These girls are it: no matter that the antecedent to “it” remains unknown.
So what’s the fascination with naming — and reading about — prospective It girls? The term may seem like a cliche, ambiguous, employed out of editorial imprecision, and it certainly is many, if not all, of those things. But the century-long history of the It girl, coupled with a remarkable usage spike over the last decade, points to a broader and enduring trend in which writers flag a certain type of behavior, demeanor, or ambition, name it, and, in so doing, map a certain type of (limited, limiting) career and behavior trajectory in which the woman is forever marked by both her gender and her ineffable thing-ness. There’s no such moniker, after all, as an “It woman.”
The modern It girl age can probably be traced to a seminal 1994 New Yorker profile of Chloë Sevigny in which Jay McInerney dubbed the 19-year-old “the It Girl with a street-smart style and down-low attitude.” The article’s lede set the scene for this ‘90s version of the It girl, which is to say, part socialite, part fashion plate, part indie oddity:
It’s weird, this happens all the time. Chloë Sevigny is sitting at one of the outdoor tables at Stingy Lulu’s on St. Mark’s Place just off Avenue A, absorbing a mixed green salad and devouring the just-out September Vogue. A black girl and an Asian girl huddle anxiously on the corner a few yards away, checking her out. The two are about Chloë’s age, which is nineteen, and they seem to be debating whether or not to approach. Do they recognize her from the Sonic Youth video—the one filmed in Marc Jacobs’ showroom, which was kind of a spoof of the whole grunge thing—or did they catch her modeling the X-Girl line last spring? Maybe they saw her photo in Details, the ones taken by Larry Clark, who has just cast Chloë in his new movie, “Kids.”
Sevigny wasn’t beautiful, exactly, or sexy, per se; she was different, and indifferent, and that’s what made her It. Sevigny’s It-ness manifested a particular sort of abrasive, even erudite hipness. So much about her seemed to scream “fuck you, I contain multitudes,” yet the profile attempts, as profiles must, to unite that multiplicity under a single theme: It-ness. In so doing, the New Yorker transformed an unruly woman like Sevigny, with her nontraditional looks and unfamiliar club-kid ways, into a digestible rhetorical pile of It.
And thus began the beginning of the It girl deluge. Entertainment Weekly started a yearly “It List” cover in 1997, and the Times used it for another potentially threateningly different young woman (Fiona Apple) and, in “The Making of an It Girl” (1998), Keri Russell. The Guardian put it to work for “professional posh person” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson in 2000; in 2001, the character of Amelie was an It girl (Globe and Mail); in 2002, it was Parker Posey, snowboarder Tara Dakides, Chelsea Clinton, and Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi; in 2003, the WNBA’s Sue Bird and “Almost It Girl” Jaime Presley; in 2004, Belinda Stronach, CEO of Magna International, Lindsay Lohan, and Joanna Newsom.
Then it gets so ridiculous I can only offer you a semi-chronological It bomb:
Feist, Michelle Monaghan, war zone It girl Lara Logan, Michelle Wie, Margherita Missoni, “dewy It girl of spirituality” Marianne Williamson, lit’s It girl Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tennis It girl Nicole Vaidisova, Carey Mulligan, Katherine Heigl, “It girl of the social network scene” Facebook, opera’s It girl Anna Netrebko, Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, George Clooney’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Larson, gymnast Shawn Johnson, The New Yorker cover of the Obamas fist-bumping, “It girl for the poorer, darker Russia” Agniya Kuznetsova, Alexa Chung (who published a book simply entitled It), Betty White, Blake Lively, CBC radio personality Frances Bay, Freida Pinto, “lesbian It girl” Ruby Rose, Frances Bean, San Francisco It girl Rose Pak, Elizabeth Olsen, Zooey Deschanel, “Russia’s Scandalous It Girl Kseniya Sobchak,” Carly Rae Jepsen, Lena Dunham, Gabby Douglas, “fashion’s new It girl…and boy Andrej Pejic,” Sofia Vergara, Suki Waterhouse, Annie Lennox’s daughter Tali, Kerry Washington, reality star Gigi Hadid, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lawrence, Pantone’s Color of the Year “Marsala,” model Cara Delevingne, Rita Ora, Kendall Jenner, hip-hop’s Jhené Aiko, “indie It girl” Aubrey Plaza, Ariana Grande, “director-DJ-designer” Vashtie Kola, softball player Mo’ne Davis, Emma Watson, Felicity Jones, Dakota Johnson, the Nine West It girl tote, French actress Clémence Poésy, Gossip Girl character Jenny Humphrey, “Piperlime’s new holiday It girl” Shay Mitchell and, from Vogue in 2014 alone, slideshows of British It girls, Japanese It girls, Korean It girls, country It girls, and Parisienne It girls.
According this list, an It girl can be a serious war reporter, a fearless politician, an impressive athlete, a person of color, over 40, over 80, a color, a magazine cover, a persona who buys an $80 tote, a social networking site, an androgynous man, a celebrity scion, a model, an Oscar-winning actress, a writer, a lesbian, a person who drinks wine from a terrifically ugly glass. The It girl’s gone democratic. But to what end?
You could argue that today’s hazy, often imprecise use of “It girl” isn’t indicative of lazy writing so much as an expanded understanding of what sex appeal, charisma, and the type of personality that can “change the chemistry of a room” might look like: women of different nationalities, sexualities, backgrounds, and careers.
That’s something worth celebrating, of course. But the persistence — or at least the resurgence — of the term in the mid-’90s also aligns with the rise of postfeminism, an ideological attitude in which the advances of second-wave feminism are traded in for the rhetoric of “choice”: freedom through self-objectification and consumption of goods, empowerment via the capacity to attract the attention of men, “girl power” in the place of systemic progress against patriarchy.
Those goals are a throwback to the 1920s understanding of female empowerment, a decade in which women reconciled freedoms enabled by suffrage, conspicuous consumption, and the entrance of women into the public sphere with the endurance of patriarchy. These “New Women,” as they were called, were “free” — to have jobs as shopgirls, to use their wages to buy things — but in a profoundly limited sense of the term.
And no one crystallized those contradictory freedoms better than Clara Bow, the original It girl. Bow was the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees, the real fucking deal. She was pretty, sure, but so were a lot of girls on the silent screen.
She had something more: a curious and beguiling mix of sex appeal and modernity and charisma that no one really knew how to describe — save cultural commentator and author Elinor Glyn, who, over the course of the ‘20s, coined the designation of “It” and held forth as its arbiter. While some equated “It” with sex appeal, Glyn made it something more complex: “The It factor lives in the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful, who’s utterly without self-consciousness or pretense.”
For years, Glyn resisted attributing “It” to any single star or public figure. But then Paramount optioned her It novella, crafted a very loose adaptation thereof, and cast Clara Bow in the lead, effectively marrying her name to the concept.
Watch a clip from It, and you can come close to understanding the power over audiences Bow had in 1927. I think it probably felt like watching joy, or the future, or the first time you saw a firecracker. Part of the attraction stemmed from her cool-girl antics offscreen; part was her embodiment, vis-à-vis her character in It, of a specific ethos of female liberation and consumerism, shot through with the overarching goal of marriage. It was sex appeal, but it was also just short of truly transgressive.
Because when Bow did cross the line of acceptable female behavior — stringing too many men along, gambling, drinking — is when she fell from It girl favor. In 1927, she was arguably the biggest star in the world; by 1932, having weathered a string of scandals and high-profile breakups and a truly awful tabloid smear campaign, she retreated from Hollywood completely.
Yet the mantle of It girl remained hers: At her peak, during her decline, in retrospectives and film revivals, and in the obituary of her husband, actor and Nevada lieutenant governor Rex Bell, she is invariably referred to as “It girl Clara Bow.” Even as new stars (Jean Harlow, Mae West, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner) took up the mantle of Hollywood sexpot, the press and studios resisted dubbing them the latest It girl.
Outside of Hollywood, “It girl” was used to describe criminals and what would later be referred to as femme fatales: The “It Girl of Chicago Gangs,” mentioned in the Chicago Daily Tribune (1931), was “known to the police as ‘death angel’” and “all of her suitors met death by bullets or other violence.” Or, in the newspaper Afro-American, It girl Helene Morgan’s love meant “astonishing and tragic things” for the four men who fell for her.
“It girl” could also be highly localized: The Philadelphia Tribune followed the social life of “It Girl Miss Peggy Dee” in 1937, while the industrious men of MIT made elaborate plans for “a special meter, replete with electronic tubes” for a “unique method of testing college girls, office girls, and those who are ‘at home’” to devise “the amount of ‘It’ in their make-up.”
“It” was clearly still a concept with currency — and one plebes could possess in limited, apparently quantifiable amounts — but that concept remained powerfully linked to Bow. In the 1940s, however, “It girl” took on a new valence: a smart woman, usually one of few in her field, who played by men’s rules with wit, cunning, and style. The New Yorker used it for a 1940 profile of Dorothy Thompson, the so-called first lady of American journalism, who was a foreign correspondent, wife to author Sinclair Lewis, and a widely read columnist in the years preceding World War II.
Thompson was a former suffragette and what my granddad would call a total pistol: stubborn and aggressive; sexy not for her body, but her mind. Lewis referred to the “international situation” (the burgeoning conflict in Europe) in relation to Thompson as “It,” thereby rendering her the It girl. It’s a play on the term, but it fostered a connotation of uniqueness, even brashness, that clings to contemporary uses of the phrase.
In 1946, for example, the Boston Globe called Clare Boothe Luce the “It girl of Congress,” a reference that referred not only to her status as a “glamorous representative” married to one of the most powerful publishers in the world, but also the presence of a fiercely intelligent, occasionally combative, and unequivocally beautiful woman in elected office.
During this period, the press also applied the term to various non-Hollywood spheres: Broadway’s It girl (Mabel Scott), It girl of European capitals (Una Mae), It girl of opera (Geraldine Farrar). But it wasn’t until Bow’s death in 1965 that the term was transmuted on to another type of girl.
It’s coincidence, really, that Edie Sedgwick began hanging out with Warhol the same year that Bow died. Yet the rise of Sedgwick — and the particular sort of waifish ingenue she represented — would guide another iteration of the It girl, this one marked by privilege, excess, and decline.
Sedgwick was an It girl without the specific designation: In June 1966, the New York Times grouped her with Warhol’s other “superstars”; a month later, Vogue featured her in a full-page spread, declaring her a “Youthquaker.”
The Times followed her around town, describing her antics with Warhol and Chuck Wein (“They made a scene in Paris by turning up at Castel’s with 15 rabbits and Edie clad in a white mink coat and black tights that have become her signature”) and habits (losing jewels, stripping to her bra and dancing in a pool, biting her nails). “It’s not that I’m rebelling,” she told the Times. “It’s that I’m just trying to find another way.”
Underground superstar, Youthquaker, but never an explicit It girl. She would be retrospectively dubbed as such — in the 2000s, reviews and publicity for Factory Girl, the Sienna Miller-starring film about Sedgwick, repeatedly made use of the term — but for most of the next three decades, the term was wielded only intermittently, affixed to a horse named “Bowl of Flowers,” the apparent “IT Girl of the Turf Scene,” Diana Ross (1988), young Jessica Lange (1983), and literary bête noire Tama Janowitz (1987) before the 1994 Sevigny profile sparked the It girl deluge.
In the early ‘30s, Clara Bow was forced to recognize the limitations of her freedoms when fans turned on her particular brand of sex appeal and behavior. Dance on tables, the instructions for It-ness went, but not too many tables. The label of “It girl” thus becomes a sort of rhetorical disciplinary device: a means of channeling a woman’s potential in a sexualized yet ultimately contained direction in which she attracts the gaze, but never controls it. Even the term’s application to Dorothy Thompson in 1940 or Benazir Bhutto in 2007 is a means of containing an otherwise unruly, powerful woman, transforming her accomplishments into a fad, a spectacle, the playful and ultimately unimportant work of a girl.
When I first saw the Rosamund Pike cover, I thought I was annoyed because of the misapplication of the term. Pike, I thought to myself, is no Clara Bow. But as I’ve thought more about the term, it’s become clear that maybe I’m just subconsciously irritated by the way in which popular magazines wield the term as the ultimate backhanded compliment.
Because it’s one thing to look back at Bow, and analyze, understand, and bemoan her It-ness, a label that simultaneously elevated her to the height of stardom and anchored her asunder. It’s another to see the term — and all its insidious, objectifying power — resurface, proliferate, and thrive nearly a century later. Only this time, it’s saddled not on one woman, but any woman who seems primed to be more than an object — an It, passive and pliable — in the narrative of their own lives. And that’s nothing to be celebrated on the cover of a magazine.
From personal experiences to BeyoncÃ© and everything in between, people have found feminism in lots of different ways.
1. “I started following a girl on Tumblr who happened to be a feminist.”
I started following a girl on Tumblr who happened to be a feminist; I read almost everything she posted about feminism and it just made sense. It clicked. I realized some of the ideas I had grown up with were really toxic and there is so much internalized misogyny in most girls.
2. “I was told â€˜just touching’ me was not a crime.”
When I was walking downtown with my mother and a stranger grabbed my crotch, I was in shock. My mother called the cops and when I went to make a formal complaint I was asked what was I wearing and then I was told “just touching” me was not a crime. I was a teenager, and I didn’t know it was feminism back then, but I just knew that no one should say it’s OK to touch another person’s genitals just because they didn’t rape you, regardless of what you’re wearing.
–Paulis Grienssen (Facebook)
3. “The fact that BeyoncÃ© stood before millions in front of the now iconic FEMINIST sign empowered me to openly be a feminist.”
Mine came from BeyoncÃ©, specifically her song “Flawless” with the excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie speaks with such conviction that it immediately resonated with me. That, and the fact that BeyoncÃ© stood before millions in front of the now iconic FEMINIST sign, very much empowered me to openly be a feminist and to fight for the rights of other women and men experiencing sexism and gender rules.
4. “When I went in to give my application, the older lady said, â€˜This is no kind of job for a woman.'”
When I was 14 I was applying for a job at a place that builds lawn chairs. From the time I was little I was always my Dad’s sidekick and he is a contractor, so I knew exactly how to do this kind of work. When I went in to give my application the older lady that was the manager, she said, “This is no kind of job for a woman.” That is when I proceeded to notify her I had previous experience and she completely dismissed me. The thing that stung the most was it was a fellow woman who dismissed me.
–Savannah Snow (Facebook)
5. “I asked my dad why I always had to wash the dishes. His only answer was, â€˜Because you’re a girl.'”
Ever since I was little, I always had to wash the dishes. If I didn’t, then I would be grounded. I have three brothers who did nothing after dinner, so when I was 14 I asked my dad why I always had to wash the dishes. His only answer was, “Because you’re a girl.” I was pissed off and we got into a fight because he never made my brothers do anything around the house. My brothers and parents expect me to have a bunch of kids and become a housewife, but ever since that day I decided to start doing things for myself and myself only.
6. “Super Smash Bros. had only one usable female character, which was Zelda.”
It was playing video games as a child with my male cousins. The GameCube games we had were all male-oriented, and even my favorite, Super Smash Bros., had only one usable female character, which was Zelda (though I had no idea that Samus was a girl until I was older). I thought about how wrong it was because I saw that everywhere, girls were always weaker in everything, like in video games they were the worst players. I never knew there was a word for it until recently, but when I did, it felt right.
–Meagan McDowell (Facebook)
7. “I was raped … when I talked to an officer to press charges, they said that I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
I was raped when I was 19. When I talked to an officer to press charges, they said that I wouldn’t stand a chance because the court would bring up the fact I was drunk, went to his place willingly, and I’ve slept with other people. A month later, I saw the guy at the bar and he actually tried to take me home with him. That’s when I realized that I’m a feminist and I deserve the right to say no. I deserve to not have what happened to me be just one more story of a discredited woman who, instead of being taken seriously, was told that she was asking for it.
8. “I want my girls — and EVERYONE — to know that women are capable of greatness.”
I have two daughters; one of them was born with a heart defect that may affect becoming a serious athlete in the future, and my older daughter has serious food allergies. Considering there are medical restrictions being put on them as it is, it was at the moment my daughter’s cardiologist discussed her potential physical limitations that I became a feminist. I don’t want them to think they cannot be intelligent, brave, vivacious, brilliant, and capable just because they are women. I want my girls — and EVERYONE — to know that women are capable of greatness and that the limits of achieving that greatness is up to each individual.
–Catherine Cara Toler (Facebook)
9. “He only valued me as another guy’s property.”
I was at a party and the only way I could get this one guy to leave me alone was to lie and say I was in a relationship. I realized that he only valued me as another guy’s property and not as a human being who deserves respect.
10. “I had never heard anything about being pro-choice and their signs intrigued me.”
Growing up, I lived a few blocks away from my town’s Planned Parenthood and there were always a good number of protesters outside, holding signs and chanting. One day there was a group at the end of the street protesting the anti-choice group. I had never heard anything about being pro-choice and their signs intrigued me. I looked it up, discovered the word feminism, and my identity as a feminist has remained since.
11. “[The Spice Girls] dressed the way they wanted, acted the way they wanted, and loved themselves.”
The Spice Girls. Here were these girls that dressed the way they wanted, acted the way they wanted, and loved themselves even if people thought their clothes were too loud or too revealing. It was a big reveal to me that being a woman meant being who you wanted to be and that loving yourself gave you a power over the people who wanted to belittle you. That made little 11-year-old me a feminist.
–Sonya Ballantyne (Facebook)
12. “I’ll be perfectly happy because I don’t need a man or children to validate me as a woman.”
My road to feminism began with the rape of my best friend and ended with a conversation I had with a male relative. “Kalie, if you lost weight, you’d have guys crawling all over you,” he said.
“Well, I wouldn’t be interested in anyone who knew me before the weight loss and approached me after. A man should love me for me, not my weight,” I replied.
“I don’t see you getting a lot of offers. You should lower your standards,” he countered.
“You know what, Dad, I’m amazing; I have so much to offer a man that my standards should be high. All I want is a man who will love and respect me because I’m a unique human being with passions, hopes, and dreams. That’s not too much to ask. And if, God forbid, I don’t get married or have children, that’s fine; I’ll be a kick-ass career woman with amazing friends and a dog. And I’ll be perfectly happy because I don’t need a man or children to validate me as a woman,” I said.
He ended the conversation by saying, “Oh Kalie, please don’t be a lesbian.”
–Kalie Hoke (Facebook)
13. “I don’t remember how old I was, probably early teens, but I remember Jo March in the 1994 version of Little Women.”
I don’t remember how old I was, probably early teens, but I remember Jo March in the 1994 version of Little Women saying, “I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” To this day, that is what I believe about equality: Regardless of gender, color, age, orientation, or place of birth, we are human beings.
–Christian Paul Keller (Facebook)
14. “I remember waking up and realizing that there were two guys engaging in sexual acts with me.”
I was sexually assaulted by two of my friends in the dorms. I had been drinking and don’t remember how I got back to my room. I just remember waking up and realizing that there were two guys engaging in sexual acts with me at the same time. The next day one of the guys told me that I liked it. My friends also told me that I was drunk and I had been with one of the guys in the past so it wasn’t a big deal. I felt so alone and like I was at fault for what happened to me. It wasn’t until I read a blog about someone that had gone through the same situation that I realized how entirely wrong it really was. It took what happened to me to have my feminist awakening. I don’t think those guys think that what they did was wrong and I want to change that.
15. “I realized it when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard.”
I realized it when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. The male-to-female ratio is so vast that at 18 years old, I was stationed at a small boat station that hadn’t had a female crew member in two years. To say it was a “boys club” would be an understatement. I was treated so unfairly based on my gender, it still affects me daily. I knew then that equality between the sexes was not only needed, it was necessary.
16. “I realized we almost exclusively learned about French men in literature, art, and music.”
I told my philosophy professor that I had studied French in high school and he asked me what I knew about Simone de Beauvoir. I had never heard of her. I then realized that we almost exclusively learned about French men in literature, art, and music and that most of Western canon is based on the male perspective. Once I started to ask why that was, that’s when I learned about the systemic oppression of the female sex and consequently, feminism.
17. “As a high schooler I just thought double standards were a normal thing.”
I became a feminist after reading the book He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know by Jessica Valenti. As a high schooler I just thought double standards were a normal thing we all had to deal with, but after reading this book I became fired up and wanted to make changes about all the unjust standards women have to face.
18. “I was at a party and a close friend of mine was sexually assaulted.”
My feminist awakening was caused due to sexual harassment of my friends in which the harasser never was punished. I was at a party and a close friend of mine was sexually assaulted. It happened right in front of many people, including a few of my other close friends. I screamed and yelled and confronted the guy, and all that happened was that I was called a bitch.
19. “Twitter has opened my eyes to feminism.”
When I read the #YesAllWomen tweets. Twitter has opened my eyes to feminism. Just this past weekend there was a big fight on Twitter between many kids at my high school talking about sexual abuse. The boys were saying the most awful things, and it really opened my eyes.
20. “It was the comments that sparked my feminist awakening.”
When I was a senior in college, I started following a handful of celebrity gossip blogs. The blog posts themselves were often implicitly sexist but I might not have even realized that if not for the comment sections. It was the comments that sparked my feminist awakening. A lot of women who don’t consider themselves feminists like to say that they don’t see the need for feminism because they’ve never experienced sexual inequality. Presumably, they don’t think sexism really exists — at least not to an extent that should bother anyone. I would consider any such woman to go read the comments section on a gossip site and get back to me on whether sexism exists and should bother them.
21. “Being in eating disorder recovery from anorexia.”
Being in eating disorder recovery from anorexia made me a feminist. I’ve met amazing, beautiful, and strong women. As I’ve become more confident in myself and comfortable in my own skin, I’ve realized that I can be strong, too. Some of the bravest and most intelligent people I know are women and I think all women deserve to feel equal to our male counterparts.
22. “My feminist awakening has been about changing myself.”
The most enlightening moment was when I figured out “internalized misogyny.” I must’ve spent my entire high school career calling other women sluts or judging them for wearing “too much” makeup; you could’ve tattooed “I’m not like other girls, I’m one of the boys” on my forehead, just to save me the trouble of introducing myself that way to everyone I met. Everything I did had to be justified if it was feminine, and was some kind of triumph if it was masculine. Then I got older and I got into college and I took all these literary theory classes where we discussed gender performativity and queerness and feminist writing. I learned about rape culture and slut-shaming and realized I’d been doing it for basically my whole life. And I didn’t want to anymore. More than changing other people, my feminist awakening has been about changing myself.
–Jasmine Felicia Lane (Facebook)
Being a capital-G Girl is something that works for other people, and does not work for me. But it took me a while to get there.
I am 4 or 5, preschool age, running around alone on a playground that only appears in this memory and no others. Two older girls (are they older or do they just seem older because they have long, beautiful hair and the right clothes?) ask me if I’m gay. They laugh, but together, at me. I think “gay” means “happy,” and I am, because it’s fall and I love fall and I am having a good time. I say yes. They’re so surprised, and they laugh more, scathingly, and my skin prickles with shame. “She said she’s gay!” They cackle. “You have hair like a boy,” they sneer, and I don’t yet understand why this is bad. The differences between myself and these girls seem very obvious, and very sharp, in a way they weren’t five minutes before.
I am in elementary school and I spend the vast majority of my time pretending to be someone else — anyone else. Characters I made up, characters I didn’t, versions of myself that I mentally insert into whatever I am reading at the time. Pretty much all of the versions of myself I envision have the following in common: They are older than I am, they are a thin version of myself I erroneously believe I will someday become, and they have Disney Princess hair that never has to be thought about or maintained. They are, essentially, the Perfect Girl version of me I really wanted to be. They’re exaggerated and do not allow for nuance. They’re the version of Girldom that just walked out of a 1950s ad for futuristic dishware. They still have an edge of hope.
I start middle school and my body feels separate from me. Nothing ever fills it, and I have no interest in adorning or primping it. I make a satchel out of felt and twine and tie it around my waist and ride my bike through the woods, pretending I’m an elf. My hair is long and tangles easily and I hate brushing it. My stepmother digs her fingers into it, picking as gently as she can at the rat’s nest it always becomes. I don’t wear jeans or dresses; I wear soft clothes that are too big for me. My mother picks at me — she wants me to be more feminine, she wants me to wear makeup and part my hair and wear nicer things that we can’t even afford, and I understand now that she wanted these things because she believed they would be armor between me and a world that hurt. She wanted them not because I wasn’t enough, but because she was afraid. It will take me 10 years to understand this. For now, I feel like I am not enough.
I am almost done with middle school, which has felt like a never-ending gauntlet. My body has shapes that I don’t like, that feel foreign and wrong. Other people notice. I’ve started wearing jeans and black oversize T-shirts with band names on them. I wear a lot of my father’s old clothing. Other people start calling me a slut in addition to a whale and a hippo. Once in art class a boy who never leaves me alone loosens the screws in my chair, and when I sit in it, it falls apart to a chorus of shrieking laughter. Two girls throw spitballs at me every afternoon on the bus; they jeer and snarl and I understand that this is what I deserve, because I am not good at being like them. I have friends, but only one of them is really nice to me, and even she sometimes caves. She doesn’t want to find herself outside, like I am. I forgive her over and over. I would do the same thing if I was her.
I start high school and I cut my hair short, short, short to my shoulders. I can’t hide behind it as much anymore. I make other friends; one teaches me how to put on eyeliner (incorrectly, it turns out). I start listening to music that makes me feel like there’s champagne under my skin, like I am understood. I learn that I can’t go without a bra anymore; I learn this by not wearing a bra and being quietly, snidely mocked all day. I still wear oversize things, but they’re bright. As time goes on, I find that I cannot be a girl the way that other girls are girls. I can’t find stylish clothes that fit me; I can’t afford them anyway. I start cutting up my old clothes to make them less ugly. They’re still ugly, but now I’ve made them that way, so it feels like a choice. High school is less overtly cruel, but there are still people who hate me on principle and make no secret of it. They are largely men. I don’t know what to do about it. I stop trying.
I am diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome when I am 13-almost-14. I start seeing a new endocrinologist when I am 15 and she puts me on a medication that will help with my insulin resistance, a symptom that baffles me. I understand that it has something to do with hormone production, but this understanding is fuzzy. I mostly feel like my baby-making parts are trying to kill me. I’m so bad at being a girl, I think, that being a girl is making me sick. She explains my weight is not my fault. It’s a symptom too. I feel complicated. It is not quite relief.
The medicine that helps with my insulin resistance makes me very sick.
I don’t tell anybody.
I figure: A doctor gave this to me, so it’s OK. She told me I need to lose weight, so maybe this is how.
I don’t feel like my body is really part of me. I don’t feel a connection to it. I don’t touch or look at it if I don’t have to, but there are mirrors all over my house, and I spend all of my time dodging them, because if I get caught I can’t stop looking, with the same kind of revolted fascination I recently saw on the face of a man contemplating a bad taxidermy website.
Everything I eat leaves my body almost immediately, leaving no footprint of fullness behind.
I start fainting.
Around 15 I dye my hair for the first time. I figure if I have to be different, I might as well be really different. All along, underneath this, there is a kind of level despair — a part of me feels anguished, always, even when I am happy. There is a war in me, and I have learned to ignore it. I dye my hair before my mother gets home one day. It’s red dye. My natural hair color is almost black. I don’t bleach it first, so what I wind up with is this sort of rusty auburn. I love it. I look in the mirror and for the first time I see someone that looks like me.
When I wash it out in the tub, it looks like the tub is full of blood. I think about what it would be like if it was my own, but idly, without any active interest. My scalp itches.
I lose around 70 pounds in six months. (This is a very dangerous amount of weight to lose that quickly, for anyone playing along at home.)
One day I notice my clavicle. I can fit two fingers in the hollows of it. It feels like an achievement.
“You’re doing so well,” everyone says. “You look so good.”
I am doing absolutely nothing to hide the fact that there is something very wrong with the volume of food I am taking in versus the weight I am losing. I am hungry all the time. I am so hungry that hunger begins to just feel like something that always has been and always will be. I am the human equivalent of the sound of grinding teeth.
“You’re doing so well,” everyone says. “How much weight have you lost?”
Eventually I see a doctor. I see two, actually — my endocrinologist and a cardiologist, to see if there’s something wrong with my heart. There isn’t, and I’m surprised, because something feels very wrong with my heart.
I start gaining the weight back before we all leave for college and I gain the rest back during my freshman year. My boyfriend — we are trying long-distance because we’re idiots — tells me that I’m beautiful, and maybe we should work out together. (We live two states apart.) I’m stunning, and am I sure I want to eat that? I have never fully believed that I am desirable, and I can feel whatever tenuous certainty I have start to shrink.
I cut the rest of my hair off when I go home for winter break from school. I dye it red again — I had stopped, I hadn’t felt the need, I hadn’t wanted to. But I don’t feel like I have control over myself; I feel myself slipping. Desirability and femininity are so entangled in myself that I feel I can’t have one without the other; if I am failing at one, my attempts at the other must be laughable. Everyone must know. My hair looks terrible, but that’s mostly because the person who cut it didn’t know how to cut short hair on girls. I don’t hate it. I don’t like it, either. I feel, very carefully, not much at all.
When my boyfriend breaks up with me it blindsides me in the way only very obvious things can. I eat two meals in seven days. I want to shrink myself into nothing.
I grow my hair out. I grow my hair out for the better part of two years, thinking that all I want is to look like someone he never knew. I want to finally win at the game of Girldom I have been half-assing for my entire life. I wear dresses, I wear makeup, I get layers and Zooey Deschanel bangs and I blow-dry them. I wear things that fit. I paint my nails. I am aggressively, determinedly Normal. I am sick of being outside. I am sick of fighting.
Being a Girl is so much harder than being a girl and it feels like a Sisyphean task, because no matter what I do I take up too much space. There is too much of my personality, too much of my body, too much of my feelings. I am always, internally, a glass about to spill or a boiling teakettle. This is unacceptable if I want to be a Girl, so I learn to never talk about it. I almost never think about not eating. I almost never think of figuring out a way to make myself sick. (I think about them all the time.)
I get a job immediately out of college because I am very, very lucky. I feel good; I feel better; I have done a year of therapy and I am not in therapy now but I think maybe I can manage. This is a new feeling. The anguish that has been my constant companion, a tight knot in my chest, a little voice chanting you’re wrong you’re wrong you’re wrong, is not gone, but is quieter.
I dye my hair a couple shades lighter than normal. I don’t have a bathtub in the apartment I’m renting with three friends who are still in college, so I do it in the shower. The color stains the old grout the color of old blood for a couple of weeks. I stop trying so hard to be a Girl and try a little harder to figure out how to be myself.
I move to New York. I relapse — sort of. I pre-relapse. I prelapse. At first I blame the summer sun and the smell of garbage for my lack of appetite, but I know I’m deluding myself. I get my shit together and find a therapist — quickly this time, before I can really hurt myself, and I learn that recovery is not a straight line. It will take me another year and a half to understand that recovery isn’t even a circle; recovery waxes and wanes, goes in and out like a tide.
I learn that being a girl is not a straight line, either. And I learn that being a Girl is something that works for other people and does not work for me, and anyway, such a narrow definition feels like a cage. I decide that I can be a girl, and that sometimes I will be too much, and that’s OK. (I sometimes need to repeat this to myself; I sometimes need a reminder.) I start cutting my hair again. Every time I cut it, I am shocked at how much lighter my heart is. The shorter it gets, the freer I feel.
One night I feel like one of those coiled springs with a fist on the end of it. I feel like I could hurt. I itch everywhere, in my marrow. I feel like there is a tiny goblin sitting on my shoulder hissing in my ear about how disgusting I am, how horrifying, how too much, how not enough. Nothing I do will shut him up. So I dye my hair bright blue. It takes four hours. I don’t do it carefully, and I end up burning part of my scalp (by accident) with bleach. When I’m done, I feel quiet and eased. I feel like enough.
Lately, I feel like this more and more often. It feels normal to feel like enough, and not an anomaly whose end I have to defend against.
I do not have it all figured out, but I am here now, and I am trying.