Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

Last Thursday afternoon, I walked into a fancy salon and told the stylist to cut half of my hair off.

For someone who used to have nightmares about this exact scenario, I haven’t felt this happy about a personal aesthetic decision in a long time. I no longer have to worry about my hair getting caught on things as I walk by (yeah, that was a thing that happened) or putting it up when I have to concentrate on a task. Instead of constantly tangling and having a texture similar to that of dried straw, my ends are shiny and feel like the bristles of those soft paintbrushes I used to get in trouble for touching at the art store.

Style-wise, it’s not exactly the edgiest cut, but to me, this represents ending another toxic coping mechanism I’ve employed for far too long: using my appearance to “prove” my gender dysphoria, or supposed lack thereof.

In the past, whenever someone important (read: pertinent in my life) would push me too hard on the so-if-you-aren’t-a-girl-then-why-do-you-look-so-girly thing, I’d chop all my hair off and stop wearing dresses, as if to say “ha, I told you that I’m actually a dude.” Then I’d immediately regret it because I am into looking as femme as I possibly can, and I’d spend the next three or so years growing my hair out and refusing to let scissors near it, save for half-inch trims. Rinse and repeat.

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

Thinking back on it now, changing the way I presented to stubbornly prove that I was “trans enough” was a really dumb thing to do. We live in an appearance-based society, sure, but all I was doing was seeking validation from others and making myself miserable in the process.

I liked my long, waist-length hair, but if I had to be honest with myself, a big reason why I liked it was because it was physical proof that I’d gone so long (five years!) without feeling the need to chop it all off. In a way, was still deriving satisfaction from others’ opinion of me — did it mean, for example, that I’d be triggered enough to do another hair chop if someone said that my dysphoria was bullshit?

No, I realized. In these last five years, I’ve become more independent and sure of myself. I’m a hell of a lot different from the miserable little kid who’d grown up in conservative white Pennsylvania. If someone gave me shit for my looks now, I’d explain to them how gender expression and gender identity are two completely different things, and move on with my life.

All of a sudden, it didn’t make sense that I was being so defensive about my hair length. Like, who really even cared?

Cue salon visit. This was the first time ever that I’d cut my hair not out of anger or desire to prove myself to another person. I did it was for myself and myself alone, and man, did it feel fantastic. I left my fear of expressing myself right there on the floor next to the discarded dead ends of hair.

Snip snip, motherfucker. Like stylists love to say, once you cut it off, you can’t ever put it back.

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

Disclaimer: All of the events below occurred years ago. My mother, sister, and I have since discussed my gender dysphoria, and the events themselves, at length. They are an incredibly open-minded individuals, and I bear no hard feelings towards them for mistakes we’ve made in the past.

The (Mis)adventures of Mimi and the Blunt Tip Kids’ Scissors

My first drastic haircut was engineered by me at the tender age of seven. I had recently watched the episode of Fairly OddParents [1] that would completely destroy my old notions of gender role conformity. I walked away from the TV feeling like my second-grade mind had been blown. There’s a lot of pretty awful stereotypes in that episode, but the part that stuck out to me was Tixie saying “if boys did more girl stuff then girls could do more boy stuff,” and happily owning her “male” interests while rocking her white-and-purple cartoon outfit, if only for a little while.

I was a pastel frilly dress girl even back then — I had a rotation of frocks in dainty pinks, purples, blues, and yellows that I wore on a daily basis — and I’d been trying to reconcile this clear aesthetic preference with the fact that I hated every other stereotypical “girl” thing. If Trixie Tang could wear dresses and like comic books, maybe it was okay that I’d rather spend recess strategizing how to win elaborate role-play games, reading adventure stories, and running swing-set competitions than play house, gossip, or brush dolls’ hair, even if I did do it all in dresses and hairbows.

I was really proud of myself for having figured it out. At school, I proudly told people that I was a “tomboy who liked to wear dresses”, as if it were my actual gender identity. [2]

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

And then The Conversation happened.

It was a bright weekend morning, and my sister and I were sitting with my mom as she hung up my dresses in our kitten-and-rainbow themed childhood room. I’m not sure exactly how the topic came up, but one of them asked me why I insisted on calling myself a tomboy.”

“I was born a girl, but I like boy stuff, so therefore I’m a tomboy. That’s the definition of tomboy. Duh.” (A sound logical argument if there ever was one.)

My sister gave me one of her patented what-a-strange-lie looks. “No, you don’t. You like reading and playing on the jungle gym, which is for both boys and girls, and you like dresses, which are for girls only.”

“She’s right.” My mom gestured at the pink dress I was wearing. I still remember it today — it tied in the back, had puffed sleeves and a large flower print, and was pretty much the best thing ever. “You’re a girl, Mimi. And you’re naturally just that way. Why are you so determined to be someone you’re not?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. Why are you so determined to be someone you’re not?

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

I suddenly felt like I was being suffocated by the large bow tied around my waist. Was that how I was appearing to everybody? Fake and … someone I wasn’t? How could I show them that I wasn’t bluffing, that this was how I actually felt?

“These dresses, your style, and your long hair are all girl things,” my mom continued in a somewhat exasperated manner. “I don’t understand why you’re so determined to be a ‘tomboy’. It’s not your nature.”

This was conservative Pennsylvania in the early 2000s, where gay people were still seen as “mentally ill”, so looking back, the fact that my mom thought this way wasn’t surprising. But seven-year-old me was crushed. I realized that, if I wanted people to take me seriously at all, I was going to have to change my appearance.

A few days later, I took my kids’ scissors — the kind that’s one step up from plastic safety scissors, with the real blade and the blunt tip — and climbed up on the stool beneath the powder room sink. I grabbed a bunch of my hair and hacked away. A good six inches of hair fell onto the floor. Good. Begone.

I was a seven-year-old cutting my own hair with a pair of kids’ scissors, so the result obviously wasn’t pretty. My sister screamed when I stepped out of the bathroom. I’m pretty sure my mom asked what the fuck was wrong with me, but she cleaned up the cut, and by the time she was done, I looked like an awkward little Asian boy with an eyebrow-revealing bowl haircut.

Perfect.

I stopped wearing dresses completely and took to a uniform of T-shirts and loose pants, similar to the outfits my (now all male) friends wore at school. Nobody questioned if I was a tomboy or not.

I felt a lot freer, but I did so at the expense of the dresses I so liked to wear. It kind of killed me that this was the extent I had to go to to get others to see me the way I saw myself. And things at home weren’t any different — I overheard my mom calling me a “fake tomboy” to one of her friends a few weeks after, and felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. It seemed that, no matter what I did, I’d still be a “girl” to many.

I didn’t start growing out my hair again until I was almost out of middle school. Once it started getting longer, though, I was terrified of having scissors come near it. That fear would continue until I was sixteen years old.

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

I get tutored in calculus, chemistry, and benevolent sexism

To a lot of my friends back home, it’s ironic that I became a software engineer because of how much I struggled with STEM subjects all throughout high school. I’d transferred into the private school system in the ninth grade, which covered topics at a much more advanced pace. I’d been an avid reader and writer since childhood, so I had no problem getting up to speed in language classes. The math classes, however, depended on an algebraic foundation I didn’t have, and I soon found myself falling behind. It became evident that something needed to be done before I failed out.

My mom had a close friend who I’ll call Seamus, since he would shame us quite a bit. –Snaps fingers in a Z formation- Seamus was an engineer and had a solid understanding of calculus and chemistry, two subjects I desperately needed to get better at. He offered to tutor me at his house for free. From then on, most afternoons after school, I’d sit at his kitchen table and learn about balancing and differentiating equations.

Despite all of his flaws, Seamus was actually a very good teacher. Soon, I was at the top of the class for both subjects. Unfortunately, this extraordinarily quick turnaround, plus the fact that he was tutoring me “for free”, meant that he thought he had the right to act like my second father and give my mom opinions about what I could and couldn’t do.

Seamus was divorced and had a young son under his care, so his thoughts about women were incredibly old-fashioned. He had a pool; my sister and I were encouraged to invite people over … as long as all of those people were assigned female at birth. The reasoning went that, since girls’ bathing suits were “revealing”, the “boys wouldn’t be able to control themselves.” A corollary was that, since my friends were mostly male, they were “all in love with me.” I was also told constantly that my dresses (I did start wearing them at this point) were “too short”, and that I’d “run into trouble” if I wore a tank top and shorts around in public.

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

Fortunately, Seamus wasn’t my actual father, so he couldn’t actually tell me what to wear and how to behave. Unfortunately, as my mathematical foundation strengthened and my grades continued to rise, my time with him became less and less about academics and more and more about the “issues” that he wanted to “correct.”

Seamus didn’t believe that gender dysphoria was real, and he thought that transgender people were “messed up in the head.” His predominant theory was that, since my dad lived and worked in another part of the country, a lack of “proper male influence” in my young life had caused me to “turn into a freak.”

Gross.

I hated every moment of “tutoring”, and made up every excuse not to go … which, of course, earned me a load of lectures about how I was “ungrateful” and how I should “appreciate the opportunity to learn.” The only thing I’m learning is how piggishly sexist and transphobic my tutor can be! I wanted to scream. Not that it would have done much.

As time went on, Seamus would shed the “tutor” role and hang around my family as a family friend (yup, he’s the dude I’m throwing shade at in this post). He felt more entitled than ever to make a fuss over every little thing I did or wore — notable examples include telling my mom I “flirted with the male attendant” at a mall kiosk when I was actually inquiring about and buying a new phone case, threatening to pull me out of high school prom if I wore a dress that wasn’t at least knee length, and telling me that I’d “party my way through college and never learn anything of substance, so [I’d] better find a guy who could take care of me in the future.” Every critique stemmed from a constant sexualization of my appearance — the belief that I was somehow too attractive and too feminine-looking to stay out of trouble.

This (false) generalization made me so uncomfortable, but I felt as though I was being backed into a corner. The only thing I could think of to do myself was to cut off all my hair again (albeit with swooshier bangs this time), and to start acting like the human embodiment of shitty toxic masculinity. I thought that if I made myself as guy-like and “unattractive” as could be, Seamus would finally leave me the fuck alone and let me decide what was best for myself.

Eventually the truth did come out (I’d tell you more about how it happened, but that story isn’t completely mine to share — maybe in the future?), and my family dropped Seamus like he was hot, which he wasn’t. It took me two years to grow my long locks back out, and I was determined to never cut it so drastically ever again.

And here’s where I am now

I hadn’t really cut my hair since the Seamus thing happened, so my first thought when I saw my new hair was fuck yeah. Goodbye, long locks of bullshit! Goodbye, overly complicated hairdos and using way too much shampoo in the shower! Goodbye, insecure need for affirmation!

I know that I look even more fake and basic now — what I have is basically the standard bougie WASP girl haircut, is it not? — but for me, it’s the first step toward becoming anything but. I don’t think I’m a “whole new me” (what the fuck does that even mean, anyway?), but I know that I’ve made a good decision and set a precedent for what’s to come.

Forever 21 Sweater and Black Leggings | Mimi Chenyao | Fake & Basic

As awful as they were, I’m grateful that I went through the experiences described above. Because of them and various others, I’ve had to spend a lot of time figuring out who I was and diving in to understand the true nature of my gender dysphoria. I’m able to describe and explain concepts such as “masculine-of-center femme” to people who may not even know that the gender identity spectrum exists. Now, when faced with a situation where I may not be entirely understood or appreciated (whether it’s about gender or not), I have the ability to control my reactions and choose to respond with diplomatic grace rather than with anger and defensiveness. I’m a better communicator, friend, and advocate because I was exposed to all this shit when I was young.

It’s been a process! I’m not saying I won’t have ridiculously long hair ever again (and I’ll continue to post the outfit photos I took before the cut), but for now, I love the length — and mental place — I’m at.

Mimi Chenyao // Asian Barbie

Notes

[1] Apologies in advance for the awful chipmunk-like voice quality of the clip; I couldn’t find another version online. Goddamn copyright laws …

[2] Looking back, “tomboy who likes to wear dresses” is a much simpler way of saying “masculine-of-center femme.” Damn, seven-year-old Mimi. You knew who you were. I’m proud of you.