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THE SUMMER OF GIRLHOOD
on reclaiming what was always ours
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When I flip through my childhood photo albums, all I see is girl. I hold her so tenderly. There is a photo of me, stuck between sticky plastic, fresh out of Club Libby Lu, a millennial-born tween dream. I am doused in glitter and have the pop star microphone on, ready to lip-sync Britney Spears. When I think of my inner child, I think of her.
Looking in the mirror, I see girl staring back at me, but in a different–less pink and glittery–way. For the first two years after coming out as nonbinary, I was repulsed by the word girl. For months, I had “not a girl” in my Instagram bio to ward off the DMs that started with, “Hey, girl!”
This summer, I had a rotting girl summer, took hot girl walks, ate girl dinner, sang, “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first,” along with Taylor at the Eras Tour, watched the Barbie movie, and reflected on how being raised a girl–a woman–shaped me.
I am currently on my book tour, and on the way to Bentonville, Arkansas, I made my way through an Eras set list playlist and thought of her re-recordings. Han posted an eloquent TikTok about this, and I loved when she said, “There’s been something healing about these re-releases and re-recordings of Taylor Swift’s earlier music that is a nice way to reconnect with girlhood now that I understand that I was allowed to, and specifically connect with girlhood in a queer way.”
A poem in my book starts with, “I have no ‘good’ memories from my childhood.” I wrote that at a time when it both felt true and when I didn’t have much access to the happy moments in my childhood. My ongoing healing has allowed more room for the good memories to be honored and remembered. The happiest childhood memories are when I allowed myself to exist outside the boxes I was forced to fit into. I look back at that Libby Lu photo and see the most nonbinary, queer little kid playing with different expressions of girlhood.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how I “knew I was nonbinary.” I never know how to answer that question because, to some aspect, gender has always been expansive to me–even if I didn’t have the language for it. Being nonbinary doesn’t mean I don’t get to experience girlhood or womanhood, but in fact, I get to experience it in such a queer way that feels honoring to who I am.
It makes sense to me that this has been a summer of girlhood. So many of us raised as girls and women were forced out of girlhood out of necessity. “Give my back my girlhood. It was mine first,” plays so loud in my head as I write this. Girlhood is often stolen from us in harmful, violent ways, and we are asked to leave what is “childish,” “playful,” or “girly” behind to opt for something more “mature” or “grown.”
Girlhood was constructed for and around me, but it was also taken away from me just as easily. I was given pink clothes and bows at birth and called “pretty,” only to grow up to be told my body had to look like and be used in certain ways. I was encouraged to color with glitter crayons and write stories, only to be told anything creative or playful wasn’t a career I could pursue. I was in relationships with men twice my age when I was 15 because I was told it was “cool” to be in relationships with older men. I had to deconstruct everything I knew about girlhood and childhood, reject it, and then choose what fit to heal from it.
Now, I’ve forged my own path. I no longer think of gender as something that has to be limiting, but as something I both feel completely untethered from and totally connected to. Gender is something that society forced onto me–forces onto us–and I realized what was assigned to me didn’t fit because I don’t fit inside the box of “woman.” For some, that reclamation happens through gender-affirming surgeries or experimenting with expression by playing with clothes and accessories. For others, it looks like shifting language because language does shape our realities. Or, most likely, a combination of all of the above.
I reflect a lot on why I think some people are so (at best) taken back or (at worst) violent toward queer, trans, nonbinary, and other gender-nonconforming people–especially Black and brown QTGNC people. It disrupts and threatens their understanding of their (cis, white, hetero) world and their status quo.
There is a discomfort in rejecting the world around you, and many people would rather stay in comfort than navigate the discomfort of questioning and deconstructing what has been built for and around them. Because often, what has been built for us doesn’t actually serve us, and to step away from that means building what actually serves us from scratch.
There are parts of girlhood that still hurt within me. I am learning to ignore the echo of “unflattering” in my grandmother’s voice when I look in the mirror. I am unpacking the expectations I felt around sex and intimacy with men in my early 20s. I am learning more about the queerness that I was taught to suppress. I was told my body is simply for the pleasure of men and then the reproduction of a child, and I have almost no autonomy around either decision and now, I am making my own decisions. I am becoming less concerned with perception and more interested in expression. I am learning what gender expression means to me, and building a closet with what feels good, rather than what I think I am “supposed” to look like.
This summer, I learned to choose a girlhood that feels like me. I ate so many girl dinners and thought of resourcefulness and fullness. The Libby Lu girl inside me cheered on every glitter eyeshadow purchase. The girl who treasured her secondhand Barbie dream house cried along with Barbie and felt the anger of the systems not built for anyone other than white men. The 6th grader who wrote poems during her first mental hospital visit can’t believe we are on tour with a book we wrote about learning to take care of us both.
The girl in me has been so healed this summer, and the nonbinary adult who uses they/them pronouns walks around and can look through a lens of multitudes. I put on an outfit that feels so completely me, and I am just so glad I survived long enough to be this version of myself.
Thinking about this poem.
Absolutely sobbed reading this.
About to start reading this book.
If you want to learn about my Bentonville, Kansas City, Austin, Oakland, Portland, and Denver shows, click here!
Love queer art, liberation, and self-relfection? Buy this anthology.
Marlee Grace ofis teaching quilt class again! Quilts are so fun to make! Sign up!
I get asked a lot about my favorite linen pants, and I have to tell you that these may be my favorite I’ve ever purchased.
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