A Journey into a Genderfluid Body
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I say to myself, bikini-clad and staring into the ocean. Fifteen months ago, I realized I was nonbinary. Fifteen months ago, I almost died. I still wake up every morning surprised to find myself in a body. I am still learning to appreciate her.
I started my career as a plus-size model in the early 2000s. Back then, the only bodies allowed in fashion and media were redwood tall but willow thin, and I fought hard for body diversity within women’s fashion. Many other plus-size models remember that being a challenging time. They often recall stories of how they fought to overcome insecurities, working in a career where our bodies were constantly being scrutinized. But despite all of that being true, I hadn’t struggled much with body image issues. Now, I finally understand why.
My body meant nothing more to me than a shell would to a hermit crab. It was never truly mine, I just found myself living in it. It could be anything—tall, short, curvy, lean—it could even be a discarded piece of plastic on the beach, as long as I was safe inside it. For years, that disconnect read as confidence. But I was never confident. I was just indifferent.
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I tell the seagulls. I pace back and forth along a few yards of the beach. These legs carry me on my hours-long walks that I enjoy so much. They took me through an airport to be here. I stretch my arms, thinking about how they hold my friends close whenever they need to feel loved.
Over the last few years, as more nonbinary people have spoken openly and publicly about how they realized they didn’t fit within the gender binary, I devoured every single word until it all gradually grew into a winter storm in my head. At first, it was a gentle flurry. I deconstructed society’s gender roles and rewrote them for my own life. Women don’t have to cook. Women can be the “handyman” of the house. Women can be the messy ones in a relationship. None of these behaviors are inherently gendered, anyway, right? They’re all just made-up expectations. We don’t need to adhere to them.
That flurry led to a steady snowfall. My deconstruction of norms swirled into the way I presented in the world, and how I owned the space my body took up. I didn’t want to wear heels anymore, I decided. I didn’t want to cross my legs and sit “lady-like.” I didn’t always want to carry a purse. I assumed I was just trying to make my life more comfortable.
The steady snowfall became a blizzard and then a sudden avalanche one night while I was sitting in a hotel room on a work trip by myself. I was watching TikTok videos before going to sleep, and one of them said something like this: “If we accept that trans women are women, we also accept that being a woman has nothing to do with the body you live in. If being a woman isn’t about the body you’re living in, it’s about how you feel inside. Then what do I feel inside? How do I define what being a woman is for me? I don’t know, and the more I ask myself, the more I question whether I’m a woman or not.”
I paused the video and thought, I’ve never actually stopped to examine my relationship with my gender, have I? Maybe I should. What does being a woman mean to me?
I couldn’t come up with an answer. I tried to think to myself, I’m a woman because I just…am. But, the voice in my head paused before that last word and would not finish the sentence.
I looked down at my body. Curvy, voluptuous, soft, feminine. I thought, if I remove my body from the question entirely, what is it about myself that makes me think, yes, I am a woman? The forceful silence that my mind echoed back to that question was like a dam breaking inside my brain, filling it with even more riddles without solutions.
Is it because I’m kind? Men can be kind. Is it because I’m caring? Men can be caring. Is it because I’m a feminist? Anyone can be a feminist. Do I even feel like a woman at all, or do I just call myself one because this is the body I’m in? That question felt like an accusation.
I pushed my train of thought right over the edge with another one: How would I feel if I went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow morning in a “male” body? Neither my mind nor my body was prepared for the way I turned my gaze on her. I realized, with horror, that my mind and my body were not in sync, and never had been.
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I mutter, chin down, eyes on the sand. I take a conscious deep breath in. I feel my body respond. I look up and stretch myself as tall as I can, arms toward the sun. I feel every muscle beneath my skin obey me. I feel in control.
I walked into the bathroom of that cold hotel room and stood in front of the mirror. Am I a trans man? I looked deep into my own eyes. Were they the eyes of a man or a woman? I pulled all my hair back and shoved it into the hood of my sweatshirt, I pushed my shoulders as far forward as they could go, to hide my chest. I looked at myself again. Could I feel connected to this body if it looked more like this? My head, at this point, was a swirling white-out of confusion, but by the time I got back into bed, I knew one thing with perfect clarity: I had just broken my gender.
The next morning, as sunlight shone beneath the curtain onto a sterile white wall, my eyes scanned the lumpy form my body made under the sheets.
What kind of body do I want to see when I pull these back? I asked into the void of my psyche and got, predictably, no response. Ok, then how would I feel if I peeled back these sheets and saw a man? This time, I had an answer. I’d feel the same: disconnected and indifferent. Like it’s not quite right, but not technically wrong either.
The blizzard from the night before suddenly ceased, leaving my mind open, expansive, and so clear that it was painful to take it all in at once. All my memories regarding the way I saw myself came under simultaneous review. I remembered idolizing only father figures in every TV show or movie I watched or book I read, but never a mother. Yet, at the same time, I’d always wanted to be a big sister, and never felt like I wanted to be a big brother. I thought about how I gave all of my stuffed animals both girl’s and boy’s names, and how I switched them up every other day. I thought about all the times over the last few years that I’d seen social media posts of genderfluid people showing off both their masculine and feminine sides thinking to myself, wow, that’s so cool, I wish I could do that. I remembered going through my masculine phase in my late teens, and how I ping-ponged to high femme directly after, before realizing that neither end of the spectrum felt like home to me.
I imagined a dial inside of me, with “girl” on one end and “boy” on the other. The needle was stuck on “girl,” frozen solid in a block of ice. My reaction to this mental image was, this thing is broken, it shouldn’t look like that. What if I let myself move freely on it, forever?
I pictured taking a sledgehammer to that block of ice and smashing it. The ice crumbled beneath the needle, now spinning freely. I felt freedom at the thought and an overwhelming sense of self-love. I am not required to pick a gender and stick to it, I realized, and I never will be again, and that makes me more vibrant and beautiful than ever.
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I tell my hips. I admire how they fold beneath my curled-up fists, while my elbows point outward. My body is taking up space, with intention. This body is attractive, I am comfortable with it, and I feel good in it right now. I know there will be times when I don’t, but I will always remember this moment.
That flight back to New York City was the longest of my life. One minute I was exhilarated, the next, I was full of dread. I didn’t know if or how this information would be accepted. All I could do was hope for the best possible outcome: that my family would be just as excited to understand me better as I had been to understand myself. But my hopes did not become my reality.
When I shared my exciting news with my family, instead of celebrating my newfound understanding, they rejected it. As a result, my body filled with shame, which I felt like a physical presence. It spread through my body the way the sun sets near the equator, with alarming swiftness. My temperature dropped and I could no longer see. My skin felt electric, like every nerve was standing by, waiting for something to reach out and drag me backwards, deeper into the shadows. An overwhelming sense of grief spread through my bones, weighing them down, as if they wanted to grow roots into the ground where I sat so that I wouldn’t have to lose this family I was about to say goodbye to. I felt at the same time an urgency to move but also a heaviness that made that difficult. Rejection had morphed my joy and excitement into judgment and insecurity.
Afterward, alone, I took my body to the Upper East side of Manhattan and sat her on a bar of cold scaffolding outside a quiet residential building. From this vantage point, I had a clear view of the FDR, where the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge crosses over it. The air was humid yet the night was chilly. The bar of scaffolding dug into my thighs. I was faintly aware of all of this, but my body didn’t feel any of it. My body didn’t feel anything.
I watched the cars on the highway, judging how fast they were moving. I looked at the bridge above; I knew how to get up there.
I stood, walked to the crosswalk, towards the bridge, and stopped. I watched the hand signal across the street blinking, about to turn red. There was no traffic, yet I felt the need to obey this light.
Would it be quick? Yes. It would be easy, too—just a few steps forward. I took a deep breath, turned my head towards the highway, and watched the cars while I waited. I thought about the people inside them, what their lives were like, and where they were going. I imagined there could be nurses on that highway making their way home, tired after a long day of helping people at the hospital. What would it be like for them, just trying to get home after a long shift, only to get held up for hours on the FDR while emergency services clean up a body? They didn’t deserve that.
Stop, said a loud voice in my head, so abrupt that I looked around to make sure I was still alone. What are you doing? You don’t want to do this. You love yourself. I thought back to that first moment I realized I was nonbinary. He’s right. It’s true, I did love myself. So why was I feeling this way?
Who made you feel this way? Was it you? No, it wasn’t. Ok, then get away, and stay away, from anyone who ever makes you feel this way again. Go somewhere safe.
This hadn’t been the first time my body was put in danger by its own hands. After my last attempt, I dove into mental health treatment and vowed to never let myself get that close again. Perhaps the voice I heard that night was the part of me that had made that promise.
I listened. I spent that night at a friend’s apartment, then I came up with a plan to move out and start fresh, on my own. This was how my transition journey began. Instead of having the privilege of exploring what this meant for me with love and support from those around me, I found myself scrambling to find a place to live, and subsequently cut off from almost the entire community of people I had grown to know and love for almost a decade. While a few of my friends stuck by me, and my parents became two of my biggest allies from thousands of miles away, at least 90% of my support system had ripped itself been ripped out from under me in one weekend.
How could I learn to love myself when the very act of being true to myself had catapulted my body out of a safe and stable life in a nice apartment with a family, into a motel room under a highway, alone? As a means of self-soothing, I separated mind and body once again. The pain of rejection, the loneliness, and the grief all felt like open wounds across her skin, and it was too much for my mind to cope with, on top of everything else.
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me.” Looking at the horizon, I feel free. There’s so much world out there, and I get to take this body wherever I want, to experience as much of it as possible. No one can stop me.
My indifference toward my body became a hyper-fixation instead. I knew I wasn’t a woman, but that body looked very much like a woman’s body. Everything about it was hers: her hips, her breasts, her face, her voice, her arms, her legs. She was beautiful, she was sexy, but she was very much a she, and she is not me.
I tried to find things on this body that could be masculine. Perhaps his hands, maybe his cheekbones, possibly his feet? Where could I find him on the outside? And would anyone else ever see him? Would anyone ever know him as I know him, or ever love him? Would he ever get the chance to stand tall in the sunlight on a beach, contemplating the world? Would he ever know the joys of seeing himself in a suit? Would he get to style his hair, shave fun patterns into his beard, or flex his muscular arms? Or would he forever be hidden under her soft skin and curves, alone in the dark folds of her flesh?
I could surgically remove my breasts, I could take hormones, I could cut my hair. But that would only make this body his, not hers, and certainly not mine. What would be the point of swinging to the other side of the binary, when my experience is anything but? Yet at the same time, how can I make him feel comfortable, living within her skin, alongside me?
And where does this leave me? The one who can be both or even, at times, neither? Is there enough room in this body for all of me, or am I suffocating inside of it? How do I learn how to deal with these feelings, when there’s little to no guidance for people like me?
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I repeat to myself, digging my toes under the sand to watch the water wash it away. At times, I still look past her, rather than at her. But now, I feel my presence inside her, and the sensations of the world around her are heightened like never before. I feel the sun on her skin like an unwelcome embrace. I feel the wind pick up the hairs on her arms like a stranger sitting a little too close. I feel the darkness that fills the space inside of her and I take up all of it. I position her legs straight and strong, while shells beneath her feet move deeper in the sand to get away. As long as I’m living in this body on this planet, I will feel like the waves in front of me. I will always look like one thing but will carry vibrant, ever-changing life beneath the surface, forever invisible to those outside the water.
“My body is genderfluid because I am genderfluid and my body belongs to me,” I declare, staring at the horizon, daring it to disagree with me. Satisfied that it doesn’t, I walk back to my towel on the dry sand and sit down to rest.