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The Very Picture of “Normal”

The Very Picture of “Normal”

Man in a pink dress with a bow on the back stands inside a giant picture frame

You know those movies where the main character glows up exponentially and starts living a completely new life?

I had that experience in college.

Growing up, I had supportive parents and a happy home life. Socially, however, I felt like both an outcast and an interloper. I had friends, but those relationships were fleeting. High school had been a mess of confusion and dysphoria. I was determined to leave this all behind.

Sweet Subversive was a work of performance art, but it also gave me the cover of appearing “normal,” aspirational even. Thanks to my obsession with being taller, I could walk confidently in sky-high heels. Thanks to the fact that my family had moved around a lot when I was young (I’d been to ten schools by the time I started college), I found it easy to start conversations with strangers. Thanks to a cruel private-school past, I knew which sides of myself to show off and which sides to tone down. K-12 had served as a sort of public-relations School of Hard Knocks; I had graduated with flying colors. Now, it was time to prove that I’d learned all the right social lessons.

Ironically, I was attending an alternative liberal arts college. In my new environment, people were proud of how weird they were. They went barefoot all over campus and casually flouted gender roles. Even the wildest ragers would devolve into intense discussions of books and politics or drunkenly sentimental renditions of Neutral Milk Hotel songs as the night wore on. Almost everyone at my school had also been gremlins among princesses, the weird ones out, shunned and bullied for their cerebral humor or obscure interests or other traits that did not conform to the social norms of the places they came from. There were no official sports teams, Greek life was nonexistent, and social non-conformity was encouraged.

I had found my people. 

This time, though, I wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side. I wanted to be the conventional one, the “nice girl,” the one who didn’t do over-the-top shit for once. In short, I wanted to be the very picture of normal. So I kept my shoes on while everybody roamed around barefoot. I refused to give up my makeup routine, chop my hair off, or share too many political opinions publicly. I was out as queer from the very first day, but shoved my confusion about my gender identity deep, deep down. It was simply too out there, too raw and messy for me to deal with or explain. I distracted myself with schoolwork, social events, and daily trips to the mall. These pervasive thoughts of dysphoria never fully went away, but they were buried well enough that I seldom thought of them if I didn’t have to.

I started dating someone who was also determined to be the very picture of normal, except that he actually was normal and not just pretending to be so. We made a striking power couple, at least on the surface. My three roommates-slash-best-friends and I threw themed parties that were too big for our tiny common rooms. Suddenly, I was pretty, popular, loved, and well-respected. I was, essentially, just like the kids I had alternately admired and hated in high school, the ones who exuded an aura of cool confidence that made them seem almost untouchable.

This was nice, but it also freaked me out, because I didn’t feel too different than I did in high school. Sometimes I would lay awake at night, thinking of how I’d hidden in the bathroom on the daily to avoid being bullied only a few short years ago. I began to wonder if I had made everybody fall in love with a grand illusion. My boyfriend wanted me for my looks and ambition, my friends were around me for my witty jokes and ability to organize adventures, my acquaintances looked up to me because I threw good parties and did well in class. Would they still like me if they knew about my past and my increasing frustration with being read as female?

One day during our third year, my boyfriend and I scrolled through my Facebook history together. I showed him digital artifacts from my middle and high school days, when I’d been a 4chan lurker, moderator of a decidedly strange roleplay group, and deeply, deeply in the closet. I showed him pictures of myself after I’d jaggedly chopped my hair off, the big “fuck-you” status I’d written the day I found out that I’d be leaving all-girls’ school forever, little bits and pieces of my past that had been long hidden from my public timeline. I saw his eyes widen a little bit with each new piece of information.

“Would you have liked me in high school?” I asked.

He shook his head profusely. “Hell no. But you’ve changed so much since then. I love the way you are now.”


Another time, one of my best friends and I sat on the floor of my room, a little drunker than usual. We’d started talking about gender roles and aesthetics. I told him about Sweetly Subversive. “What would you do if I said that I … felt more like a man than a woman?” I asked carefully.

He’d given me a disapproving look. “You have no idea what it’s like to be male,” he insisted. “I would say that you’re fucking with me.”

I could have said something in both of these situations, but I didn’t. I was ashamed of the parts of myself that were too weird, too different to fit neatly into any boxes. I wasn’t even sure I could broach these topics without getting emotional (read: too girly). So I kept quiet and slowly distanced myself. In my mind, I had proof that the people around me only liked me conditionally, whether that was actually true or not.

Such incidents were few and far in between, but it started to seem like I had unwittingly put myself in a glittering cage (or was it a closet?). I was trapped by the confines of the persona I had painstakingly created, the “very picture of normal” that I’d wanted to embody so badly. If I showed people my true self, then who would love me? Who would take me seriously? Who would even understand that I was telling the truth about myself and not just BS-ing people even more?

In the summer between my third and fourth year, I got an internship in Philadelphia, which was close to where I’d grown up. Maybe it was the fact that I was living with my mother again. Maybe it was because my boyfriend and I had finally broken up. No matter the reason, I decided to let my guard down. I made a new best friend because of my love of aesthetics and sad music, not in spite of it. I became romantically involved with someone who was also questioning their gender identity, who made me feel as though that part of myself was something special to own and be proud of, not hide away in shame.

I realized that my “weirdness” and gender issues were never going to go away, despite the fact that I had successfully hidden them for years. I now had a choice to make: I could be real about them and stop pretending, or I could carry on the charade that I had been perpetuating.

I decided to drop the act. It didn’t happen overnight — I waited until my senior year of college was halfway over before coming out as gender-nonconforming at all. I lost a few friendships, and ironically some people accused me of being a fake. It no longer mattered too much, though. I had started to gain a sense of real respect for myself. 

After four years of being “normal,” I came to see that achieving popularity and admiration by censoring parts of myself made me just as miserable as I had been in high school. I was paranoid, afraid of what people might think or say if I showed my true personality. I was so obsessed with appearing “normal” and problem-free that I censored my questioning, even in private, even in my own thoughts.

I’m not claiming to be totally free from self-censorship now. I’m still hesitant to talk about certain things and still very much working on accepting myself as I am. But I did learn this: faking any part of my personality caused me misery. [1] Ultimately, that is why I came out in the first place, and why I’ll continue to write about my experiences. Even just talking about my past and my feelings is a consistent exercise in not putting on a front, whether it’s of normalcy or something else.

I will never be some of the things I pretended to be, and that’s okay. ♚


[1] I obviously don’t condone this behavior, but as I look back at my old life and my old self, I am grateful for the experience. I’ve seen both sides of the fence, and no longer wonder what the grass is like on either one. What’s better for grazing, after all — small patches of dead grass or fake-ass green turf?

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