On Being Mistaken For A Boy

There are few things I hold against my parents. They are the following: I took the bus for all twelve years of my public school education and for the first thirteen years of my life I looked like a boy. Up until seventh grade I was a boy. Well, not physically or emotionally. This is not a heart-warming tale of a child struggling with gender identity. I just had a really terrible hair cut. It looked like someone had given me a bowl cut with the “ugly bowl” then trimmed it down. I was the picture of gender ambiguity. It was the 90s, it was a dark time of pixie haircuts, yellow pineapple patterned overalls and clearly my mother’s lack of judgment.

My lack of hair started early. For the first year of my life I was pretty bald. Whatever sprouts of hair that shot out of my head were kept at a very short length. My mother had short hair so I had short hair. It was easy to keep up and required absolutely no hair accessories. it was a utilitarian haircut. It kept my head warm and from getting sunburnt, but that’s about it.

My aunt Joanne constantly attempted to make me appear more like a human girl. Every time she babysat me, I would be delivered home resembling a small lacy baby doll. My mom took this as my aunt trying to establish some control, rather than her attempting to make my life less awkward. My aunt’s persistence continued all throughout my childhood. She was trying to help but slowly I grew to resent the girly things she pushed on me. My extended family learned to not buy me things that were pink, had flowers on them or implied that I was a girl named Margaret Elizabeth.

It might’ve helped if I had worn plastic barrettes in the shape of cool 90s things. But I didn’t have access to any pink Rollerblade barrettes. My mother never dolled me up in anyway. I wore the most androgynous of children’s clothes. Half of them were hand me downs, from my male cousins. She and my father weren’t progressive parents. They weren’t actively avoiding gender norms. Now I think they just had no idea what they were doing.

While I’m sure if I had said, “Mom, I want long hair” it would’ve been a matter of weeks until I would have silken locks. But I wasn’t that smart. I took things as they were. It was the norm. And as an eight-year-old, when I finally realized my short hair was the source of my torment, I didn’t know I had the power to shake things up. So I settled with my boyish hair cut and endured a world of horrible and hilarious experiences.

If you met my second or third grade self I would be wearing leggings, a Pocahontas t-shirt and say “Hi! My name is Maggie. The girl not the boy.” I certainly didn’t want to burden any of my new friends or acquaintances with the trouble of figuring out what kind of creature I was. To make things more confusing, I was a tomboy. Not the cute kind of tomboy girls claims to be so that boys like them. I was a real life tomboy. I played football with the boys in my class. I liked Star Wars: Episode I more than anyone should have and my ultimate goal was to play professional basketball in the then cool WNBA. Not only was my haircut deceptive, my personality didn’t help make much of a case for my feminine wiles.

On a daily basis I was mistaken for a boy. Other children and adults could not solve the mystery of what I was. Despite my confusing appearance, I did have a lot of friends. I accredit that to my sparkling personality and willingness to give people my Pokemon cards. One day in third grade, Emily Copeland and I were out to lunch with her dad at Dean Park Pizza. It was a run down pizza joint with dirty brown tile floor and a bowl of after dinner mints at the entrance. After slurping down our chocolate milks and inhaling some less than satisfactory pizza, Emily and I did what all girls and women do. We went to the bathroom together.

Upon entering the bathroom I had no idea that I was soon to be the victim of a short-haired girl hate crime. Emily and I chatted away about Curt, our mutual crush, as we made our way to the bathroom stalls. There was a girl a little bit older than us washing her hands at the sink. Before we took our seats, the girl whipped around and pushed me. She screamed, “Get out! You’re a boy!” Emily handled the situation like a pro. She kindly informed the girl that I, in fact, was also girl. For someone who had been dealing with this issue for nine long years, I never got any better at handling it. The girl refused to believe her. Instead she took matters into her own hands. Actually, she took me into her own hands. She opened the bathroom door with one hand and pushed me out with the other. I stumbled back into the wall. I was surprised by the girl’s brash actions. I didn’t even have time to get upset between her verbal assault and physical one. I was too busy being shocked.

I stood there for a moment and stared at the bathroom door. I could have gone back in and used the bathroom, but I was too scared. I had never been actively discriminated against. I had of course been teased and hypothesized over, but never robbed of my right to pee. I was hurt and confused about what to do, but more importantly I still had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t dare go in the boys’ bathroom. That was a ground I dare not tread. I returned to the table and waited for Emily to come back. She recounted the story to her dad who wasn’t really listening. It was just another day in the life. I still really had to pee.

Another particularly harrowing experience came about when I had to attend a christening for the twins of some family friends. I had nothing suitable to wear. My classic do-do bird t-shirt that read, “Who Are You Calling a Do-Do?” just wouldn’t cut it for the holy ceremony. My mom dragged me to JCPenney to find something appropriate for me to wear. After wandering around in a horrible daze of fluorescent lights and uncomfortable fabrics, I found the gem. It was the first dress I would ever pick out. The dress was a cotton, ankle length, spaghetti strap, red dress with white racing stripes down the side. I imagined it to be exactly what Sporty Spice would wear on her wedding day. Frankly, it was horrible. I marched to the dressing room with my mother. I held it up to the dressing room attendant. She looked at me, looked at my mother and then said, “The boys dressing room is through there.” I was ready to rage. I was holding a dress, a very masculine dress that could’ve come from the NASCAR section, but a dress nonetheless. My mom just pushed me off to the girl’s room, but I wouldn’t let it go. And this is where I am pretty sure I had a lapse in sanity. For the first time I felt the need to prove I was a girl, to the attendant, to the other little girls who stared at me as I came in and to the world. What better way is there to show you’re a girl, than to show that you’re a girl? My mom had her back turned for a second and turned around to find me out of our stall with my pants around my ankles.

“SEE? I’m a girl!” I screamed.

Horrified, my mother yanked me back into the stall. I was nine and already had managed to be publicly indecent. After showing off my lady bits to the general public, still nothing really changed. If that hadn’t done the trick, I didn’t know what would. The simple answer was to grow my hair out, but I did not come to that conclusion until sixth grade.

I was determined to make middle school my best years. It was a time for a new look. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to transition from having very short hair to long luscious locks. So what I’m saying is that I had a mullet. A straight up mullet. Braces, unevenly developing mammary glands and a mullet made me the poster girl for the awkward years.

In this time, I hit puberty and became even more infatuated with my long time crush, Curt. This was at the peak of my mullet. It was Christmas and I had recently won a plush Coca Cola truck from a machine at an arcade. It was clear what I had to do. I had to use it as my dowry to win Curt’s heart. I was at my prime. I almost had long hair but the mullet was still very present. Curt and I had so much in common. We both were smart. We both liked sports. We both had freckles. That was my reasoning. We were perfect for each other.

I speed-walked down the hallway to Curt’s locker. I held a small gift bag close to my chest. Inside was a layer or two of tissue paper, the plush Coke truck and of course a note wishing Curt a merry Christmas, and asking if he would like to be my boyfriend. Running almost at full speed, I slammed the bag into Curt’s chest. I yelled “Merry Christmas!” into his face and ran away, my mullet flapping in the wind. I waited for days, weeks and eventually years. Curt and I graduated high school in 2009 without ever giving me a response. I knew the reason probably had to do with the fact that Curt thought of me as one of his buddies. He wasn’t particularly smart, and I am almost certain that he thought my name was Matty and that I was one of his guy friends for all of third grade. I blamed my heartbreak on my haircut.

In my head I identified with women with short hair. I thought we were our own separate club, like deaf culture or the gay community. What I didn’t realize was that the women I admired were not who they were because of their equally unfortunate haircuts. They also had no idea they were in my secret imaginary league of extraordinary short-haired ladies. My first S.H.L.H. (short haired lady hero) was Amelia Earhart. Queen of the sky and of my heart, she soared to amazing heights with her super progressive hair cut under her aviator’s cap. When we had to do projects on historic figures Amelia was at the top of my list. She was strong, sassy and looked just as much like a man as I did. A far more beautiful short-haired icon of mine was the one and only Julie Andrews. She was another incarnation of everything I wanted to be. She could sing, dance, act and oh, I don’t know fly over the London skyline with just an umbrella! In fourth grade I sat through all three hours of The Sound of Music to watch Julie spin through the Austrian mountainside. My mom could barely stay awake but I was right with Julie and all those musical children she was paid to love. When I saw Victor/Victoria in sixth grade, it was like she just got me. The most hilarious of my lady heroes was one that was not even a lady.

When I was nine years old and the reboot of ZOOM hit the airwaves, I watched everyday. I loved educational television more than the people at PBS wanted anyone to. Each episode they would highlight the interesting life of kid. One of the kids they covered was a small child who wore baggy basketball jerseys (like me), loved basketball (like me), had short blond hair (like me) and was a great singer (exactly like me). I thought Erin was just the coolest. We were practically twins and would make great friends. She was a singer, traveling the country on a luxurious tour bus doing concerts at “cool” places like malls and state fairs. It was my fantasy come to life with a girl almost exactly like me. But we were very different in the fact that Erin was actually Aaron. Aaron Carter to be exact. I was convinced that Aaron Carter, younger brother of Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter, was a girl. We were both basketball legends in our own right. I was one of the stars of Shrewsbury Parks and Recreation basketball and “Erin” was too, as demonstrated in his classic song “How I Beat Shaq.” It made complete and total sense to me that Aaron Carter was a girl. But really when it came down to it, I was the one who looked like him, a boy.

Now, as a 21-year-old woman, I have shoulder length hair. I can happily say that I like my long hair. No one has thought I was a boy for a long time. But then again, being pretty busty and deciding not to wear over-sized basketball jerseys definitely helps. I look back on my years previous to having a ponytail as the dark years. I recently told my mom how absolutely hilarious my haircut made my childhood. I thanked her for “raising me as a boy” because if it weren’t for that haircut I wouldn’t have developed a sense of humor very similar to that of drag queens. Thanks, Mom. I’m going to shave all my kids’ heads just so they can be as weird as me. TC Mark

image – Shuravaya

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  • http://raymondthimmes.com raymondthimmes

    We had very similar familiar experiences when it comes to parents dressing us in ways which haunted us for years. My parents were big fans of “90% off” kohl’s and jcp (cursed midwestern ohio life) weekend sales and extremely oversized (year proof) clothing and shoes that made me walk and act like a clown. Quite literally, big shoes, big shorts, baggy shirts and bad, unkempt hair. Not to mention all the acne… oh the red face… anyway, getting off track.

    I am fairly sure, also, that you and I would have been friends in elementary school. Or at least, I would have had a very strong crush on you. Because I basically did on this girl that was just like you from first to third grade. Unfortunately after that my parents put me in private school, which is even worse for a kid who’s parent’s refuse to see even minuscule expressions of age appropriate fashion as anything akin to a good idea.

    I ramble, apologies. Point is, this was hilarious, heartfelt and quite relatable. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amrita.tapadia Amrita Tapadia

    You are so pretty! I am sure you must have looked great with those short hair too…

    I had a similar experience, only it was more annoying for me as my mum would put a bottle full of oil to set my hair :/ I swear it was gross and greasy :P The situation did not change until I decided to go against my mum for a guy I had a huge crush on in 7th grade.

  • Sam

    such a delightful read!

  • Nic

    I burst out laughing after finding out who “Erin” was.

  • AJ

    Can I just say…. Thank you. This was my childhood almost to a T. Including the dressing room incident (although instead of proving my gender – as I stood there with an armful of androgynous-to-the-max boys clothing) I just kind of whimpered to the snarky TJMaxx employee until my mother arrived to save the day. Actually I think that was the lowlight of my childhood. Instead of just looking at me questioningly, this woman had repeatedly declared that I was male, and she didn’t even believe my mother when she dragged me off to the correct changing room. But perhaps worse, I was homeschooled through the sixth grade, when I started public school. And I promise, 11 year-olds are not shy about going up to a perfect stranger who is attempting to brave a harsh new environment and greeting them with, “are you a boy or a girl?”. Luckily, 11 year-olds are also incredibly non-judgemental, so as long as I could be funny, I had friends, But once I realized that the only other girl in school who looked like me was the scary 9th-grade lesbian, I quickly asked myself, “Am I a lesbian?” to which I responded “Nope, don’t think so.” And being a preteen girl, with ambitions of boyfriends and dating and marriage, I didn’t want people at my school to think that I was. At which point – in about 7th or eight grade – I began my belated descent into the world of adolescent teenage girldom. It wasn’t helped by the fact that there was a small party held by my friends every time I incorporated something remotely feminine into my wardrobe. We’ll just say it was a process. But here I am, six years later, with everyone in my life having politely “forgotten” that half of it was spent with strangers contemplating my gender-identity, and I’m a perfectly functioning member of the female species. And i’ve never talked about it. So, even though I may be the only person this piece resonates with, I’m very, very glad you wrote it, because it means I wasn’t the only little girl who went through this. It kind of sucked. (I’ve recently decided to attribute the fact that I never complained about my clothing or tried looking like the other girls to an attempt on my part to extend my childhood – I mean, real, 90s, baggy clothes childhood- for as long as possible. Much longer than the norm at the time, but whatevs. It’s all cool now). But yeah, thanks :)

  • Sara

    Laughed out loud so much. Thank you for this. I was also a female victim of the bowl cut.

  • Rachel

    This was hilarious! Also I just went to read your bio and freaked out because OH MY GOD YOU GO TO EMERSON and I’ll be entering in two months (WLP)!! Really small world, and I think you’re the only Emersonian I’ve seen on TC so far. I’ll make sure to stalk your articles :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/christyannao Christyanna Ozorio

    I love you so much for writing this article!
    I had ridiculously short hair when I was younger too; partly because my mum also had short hair (but hers was more of a Princess Diana fashionable wave), and partly because I was a massive tomboy and curly hair as thick as mine simply did not do well when saturated with sweat and South East Asian humidity. Add that to my muscular frame and the fact that I beat all the boys at every sport meant that I was kicked out of a few changing rooms and bathrooms, got a main male role in Annie the musical, and had girls outside of school give me love letters… I’m glad that you accept your history like that – I do think its hilarious in parts but I still resent the majority of my childhood and all the shit I had to go through. It was great fun to laugh at yours though!

  • Kari

    I had a ugly bowl cut when I was little too! I was often mistaken for a boy, and had the tomboy personality to match :(

  • http://megroy.wordpress.com Meg

    Maggie, I love you. You did rule the court in middle school, and you also made human phys hilarious. Great article – stay funny.

  • Devan

    Take this entire article and pretend your name is Devan. That would be my childhood. It made the “I’m a girl speech” much, much harder.

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