by Robbie Masters. Robbie is a writer and fine artist based in Bristol, UK. Their work addresses questions of transgender identities, mental health and sexual politics through a queer feminist lens, drawing upon their personal experience as a queer, femme survivor.
There’s a grumbling in the basement; in my stomach; in the depths of my mind. There’s a protective cocoon of quilt and down. The faint smell of warm computer dust mixes with the vinegar from a newly opened packet of Chipsticks. Carpet burn has ruined yet another pair of school trousers and scuffed black shoes have no place in this world. Grass stains tell tales; proving that I’ve seen the ground up close. Trip, graze and tumble—does it hurt?
The TV picture wiggles at the other end of the room as signal fades in and out. There are crumbs everywhere. A printer noisily chokes out a piece of ink-saturated paper with Barbie’s new clothes on, ready to be folded and glued down with Pritt stick. As I carefully shape the rigid orange dress around her tiny naked waist, lumpy breasts and slippery smooth legs, I am blissfully unaware that I will one day go to the same trouble to put my own outfits together.
The dressing-up box is a distant memory. Years of rooting through hand-me-downs mean that I know what I’m looking for. I don’t always find it, but I’m drawn to a bargain. There, on the sale rail, is a white wide-neck top. It speaks of beaches and cleavage. It’s in the men’s section, but it’s different somehow. For the first time I feel a flutter of risky autonomy. I’ll buy it. I won’t wear it too often—I think it may be a tad girly. I’ll buy it.
I’m flustered after being told I’m in the wrong changing room. Shoulders restrict me from getting my arms into seemingly endless sleeves. My calves make even the stretchiest of denim fall faint. A reluctant waistband digs where it shouldn’t, while the inside-leg seam grimaces and relinquishes its grip on the now-fraying undercarriage stitches. My bum won’t fit into these jeans.
A charity shop scramble helps me figure it out, I spot a couple of things I adore. The gentle nudge from well-chosen friends gives me confidence to explore. A floral shirt meets a vintage bow tie, suit trousers worn high with braces or a belt. A cheap pair of high-street dungarees call my name. My darling fave comes with me for moral support and before I know it I’m buying them, wearing them and feeling adorable. There’s no turning back—I’m cute now; I’m loveable.
Buy a few sizes up, learn to love leggings and discover the freeing swish and sway of a culotte, skirt or flowing maxi. Engage only with the top button of a silken blouse or a pattern akin to the most beautiful of flower gardens. Forget the clothes that have been designed for your body type —those fuckers don’t know you. A new length of hair and carefully painted face combine with my newfound drapery to form what I think you might call confidence. The colours give it personality, with blushing flowers and matching rosy lips breathing life into the whole ensemble. Is this what it’s like to feel pretty? A deep sigh says that I can do this. The world tells me I can’t.
The box of bow ties still sits among my hoarded possessions, a reminder of my journey to queerness. Drawings of me from my first year of university depict a character I like—one my friends are fond of—but not one I identify with. Shirts still hang in the wardrobe, caressing a Moss Bros suit bag that holds the handsome two-piece that once saw the success of graduation, a summer wedding and a string of job interviews with the happiest of outcomes. Thanks Mum.
I split myself for a while. I lived in separate boy mode and girl mode, blending the two to an extent, but always travelling with one tucked away in the depths of a wheeled suitcase or screwed up in a rucksack.
‘If you’re coming round, are you alright to change first? My housemates are in’. I may as well have cut myself in half. I was hiding again.
I pushed boundaries and burnt my comfort zone to the ground. I took clothes to my beloved charity shops. I shopped and shopped again. Many a selfie I took. I cried when I glimpsed the mirror and my face wouldn’t complete the look. I cut myself shaving. They told me to be careful but I took care not to care. I tried to be pretty and society mocked me for it, but my friends and family kept me strong. My partner loved me all along.
I’m wearing pyjamas to the shops again. The worst happened, but my clothes no longer cared. Clothed or naked, rock bottom felt the same. I’d still feel the pain of a body betrayed.
With help I found new ways to love myself. My body learned to twitch with tension, commanding respect and rejecting repression. I found sanctity in a laser and honesty in my nightmares. My world was upside down, but my skin looked great and my hair stayed glossy. I fought for survival and sought to forgive myself. My love lent me a jumper to keep me warm. My mum sent me a sunshine-yellow scarf to brighten my spring. With the promise of a shopping trip I can weather the storm, I think.
My facial hair wriggled and fell out at my command. I put on weight and I liked it. I ate a lot and I loved it. My clothes still fit, because I bought them too big. My boobs are larger than ever. I’m pregnant with emotion and I’m full of shit. My clothes are different, but I’m coping just the same. I’m wrapped in a duvet, still fighting off the shame.