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Navigating Fashion When You’re Agender

My fashion evolution through my gender evolution.

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Tyler Ford (@tywrent) is a 24-year-old agender poet. They are a staff writer for Rookie, a contributor for MTV, and their work has recently been published in Poetry Magazine as well as featured in The New York Times.

1.

Wearing a uniform to school has its perks—nobody stands out because everybody looks identical, and the lack of choices makes getting dressed a no-brainer. What do I want to look like? At nine years old, I'm not really sure, but I do know that I will never wear a skirt, skort, or, god forbid, a jumper. How am I supposed to run or sit criss-cross-applesauce or hang out with boys in a skirt? Wear a skirt once and my "boy" street cred will be ruined; they'll know I'm not really one of them.

So every day is a variation on the same outfit: a navy or white collared shirt, navy or khaki shorts that stop just before my knees, and sneakers, with my incredibly curly hair pulled back into a single braid. On weekends, I wear my cousin's hand-me-downs: boxy skater shirts and basketball shorts. People call us tomboys and I'm okay with settling for this identity, but only because "boy" takes up half of the word.

2.

I am an extremely small child, always drowning in fabric. This does not change with puberty, but only becomes more noticeable. By sixth grade, there are girls in my class who have been wearing bras for years; I can still fit into some of my clothes from kindergarten.

Overnight, the world changes and begins to revolve around what boys like, what boys want, and who boys want girls to be. I accept girlhood grudgingly, as there is no longer room for straddling gender lines. I go shopping at the "cool" stores—Sephora and Abercrombie—and my entire wardrobe becomes pink and frilly, full of designs with hearts and cheeky slogans.

I know that the approval of the boys in my class is the only viable social currency, so I read Cosmopolitan like my life depends on it. My most-studied subject becomes "How To Be A Girl"—an extracurricular activity that takes place in my room every night as I watch Newlyweds and study how the "perfect" woman (Jessica Simpson) acts.

I wear bras that I don't need, I roll the waistband of my Soffe's twice, I wear eyeliner and flavored lip gloss (I would never risk wearing something that a boy wouldn't like the taste of), I talk about sex with boys, I bury myself beneath expectations until I become unrecognizable.

Tyler-Ford-Miley-Cyrus_6_2015
Tyler-Ford-Miley-Cyrus_6_2015

3.

Hanging on the bulletin board in the yearbook classroom is a picture of me laughing. Someone has written the word "ugly" with an arrow pointing to my face.

I'm in my sophomore year of high school, and I'm clinically depressed. Transferring from a middle school with a graduating class of 50 to a high school with a class of 500 has been an isolating adjustment. Before, I was among a diverse group of students, but now I consider myself lucky to cross paths with another black person.

I don't feel I have anything in common with anyone. I make an attempt at invisibility and wear nothing but sweatpants and hoodies, and occasionally, actual pajamas to school. I get my tongue pierced for my 15th birthday, even though my mother warns me that people will think I'm a lesbian. I tell her I don't care what other people think, though secretly, I am a bit excited by this prospect. I'm not exactly sure what that means for me.

I don't talk to boys anymore. I don't talk to anyone anymore. I go to school, eat lunch alone, head straight home, do my homework, and go to bed. I don't think about who or what I am, or who or what I should be. I am burnt out and want to be left alone.

4.

In the front left corner of my AP Psychology class sits the most gorgeous girl I have ever seen. This girl also happens to be the only girl I've ever met who, in our almost all-white town, is black and Jewish like me. I don't know what it means to sit at my desk, wishing she'd turn around and ask me something. I don't know what it means to want to hold a girl's hand, to feel short of breath when she looks at me, to want to hold her face in my hands and maybe even kiss her. I do know that I'm anxious all the time, that I feel sick with guilt because she doesn't know, that I go home and Google every LGBTQ website and resource, hoping to figure out my feelings.

I find safe haven in the show South of Nowhere on The N. I can't tell if I want to be Ashley Davies or be with Ashley Davies. I experiment with styles inspired by her: maroon spaghetti-strapped tank tops, black bras, army green miniskirts, eyeliner, and a tiny fro-hawk. I can't deal with anything but the fro-hawk, so I swap it all for my favorite cargo shorts from the boys' section at Abercrombie, graphic tees from Delia's, and occasionally, polka-dot boxer shorts—my most exciting secret. I attribute every weird gender feeling I've ever had to being a lesbian. I try not to think about how the term "lesbian" doesn't feel right; that something still feels off.

5.

When I arrive as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, I am assigned to a room on a hall of 60 girls. I am terrified, convinced that I'm the only lesbian in the entire dorm and that I'll never make any real friends, because despite my years of studying, I just don't know how to be a girl.

I started watching The L Word over the summer, and am in the middle of my Shane phase: ribbed tank tops with no bra and jeans that sag just enough so that the waistband of my unisex underwear peeks out. In a sea of white girls in sundresses and cowboy boots, who amaze me with how wonderful they look even at 7am, I wonder if I will ever belong anywhere. I buy a pair of cowboy boots and never wear them. I try on the sundress I wore to my high school graduation and feel like a liar. I bury it in the back of my closet.

People start to call me "sir" and I am confused and frustrated. "Haven't you ever seen a girl with short hair?" I think to myself. As time goes on, I start to wonder if these people are picking up on something that I have not picked up on yet.

6.

"My name is Tyler, and I'm transgender," I tell the confessional camera on the set of The Glee Project 2. I think I've got it all figured out. It all makes sense when I look back at my childhood: I used to wish for a different body, I always dressed in "boys" clothes, and being a girl never felt natural to me. Clearly I'm a boy—what else could I be?

I inject myself with testosterone once per week and flatten my chest by wearing tank tops beneath solid men's T-shirts, paired with baggy jeans, beanies, and skate shoes. I have never been unhappier with my (boring) wardrobe, but I do what I need to in order to have my gender validated by other people. I tell myself that in a year, when I am done going through puberty, people will stop questioning the legitimacy of my gender, and I will be able to wear whatever I want while still being addressed as a guy.

Tyler-Ford-purple_6-2015

7.

Looking at myself in the mirror in a solid purple T-shirt, purple beanie, grey jeans, and purple Vans, I don't recognize anything about myself anymore, other than my favorite color. After two years of living as a man, I feel stifled, depressed, anxious, and less like myself than ever. There is a huge disconnect between the way people perceive me (as a cisgender guy) and the way I feel (non-binary).

Something—everything—has to change. I don't know how to articulate or express my gender, how I want to dress, how I want to be perceived, or even what pronouns I want to use for myself, but I do know that I'm neither a man nor a woman. For the first time, this is enough for me.

I go to Duane Reade and buy eyeliner, lip-gloss, and self-waxing strips. On the day of what is supposed to be my two-year anniversary on testosterone, I opt to wax my own back instead of injecting myself with hormones. I put on my newly purchased makeup and recognize myself somewhere in my smile. I'm not sure what I want, but I would rather be lost on the road to figuring out my truth than suffocating inside an incongruent identity.

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Tyler-Ford-miley-cyrus-3_6_2015

8.

My Instagram account is littered with comments that read, "Is that a boy or a girl?" I enjoy when other people are made to question their assumptions about gender through looking at me, though I hate when they do so by trying to stick me into a box.

Over the past four months, I have taken copious selfies with both waist-length hot pink braids and bright turquoise braids. I am almost always in a crop top, black skinny jeans, and Doc Martens—except for when I am in a crop top, a flannel, black skinny jeans, and Doc Martens. Sometimes I shave my face and sometimes I do not. Sometimes I wear makeup, but often, I do not.

After 24 years, I have finally found a label for my gender identity (or lack thereof): agender, meaning genderless. I am no longer trying to be anything—I just am. I don't care what women or men are "supposed" to do, be, or look like according to any societal standards or roles. I do, say, and wear what resonates with me. I am no longer limited in terms of gender, fashion, or other people's perceptions of me. Clothing has no gender, and neither do I.

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