I barely recognise myself: how lockdown stopped my performance for the patriarchy
It's been a year since lockdown was announced and I barely recognise myself in the mirror.
Recently, I looked at a photo of myself from this time last year and I could barely recognise the person staring back.
Sandwiched between school friends, the old me has a toothy, tipsy smile plastered on her face and glittery eyelids at half-mast. In her left hand, she’s holding a goblet-sized wine glass with the dregs of a cheapish red liquid at the bottom. She’s wearing a floaty black jumpsuit and her hair is in neat auburn braids – they look a little too tight, but her face doesn’t let on.
When I look in the mirror now, I don’t see her. Or maybe I do but she’s changed. Now, I have short unruly locs that are still in their developing stages – they’re fluffy and sometimes they stick up. Nothing flowy, tight or shiny has been on my body for a minute, and I can count the number of times I’ve worn makeup this year. But more than anything, I just feel different inside, like a whole new person, like I’ve become undone.
Like for many others, the last year has forced me to confront parts of myself I had previously compartmentalised as ‘messy personality traits’, quirks or simply how it was. But a whole year at home has given me time to investigate the parts of me I liked and the bits I didn’t. More than anything, I’ve been forced to interrogate who I am, and what I look like without the crushing weight of society pressing down on me.
“A whole year at home has given me time to investigate the parts of me I liked and the bits I didn’t”
Recently I watched an episode of Euphoria, where Jules (played by Hunter Schafer) is in a therapy session and she’s considering coming off her gender-affirming hormones. “I’ve framed my entire womanhood around men,” she says. “When in reality I’m no longer interested in men, philosophically.”
“I look at myself … how the fuck did I spend my entire life building this… my body, my personality my soul around what I think men desire – it’s embarrassing.”
And I can completely relate.
Before really understanding my own queerness, so much of myself and my reality was tied to what men, The Man, patriarchy, whatever you want to call it, thought of me. (Actually, I’m lying, even when I knew more about being bi, I was still building myself for the approval of men).
When I was a bit younger, I remember feeling so fuming and deflated when a guy didn’t like me. Even in fantastical imaginations with the person sitting opposite me on the tube, I’d get annoyed. I was funny, I was pretty good looking, smart. I was performing, I was playing ‘the game’ as well as I could with the cards I’ve been dealt, and it never felt like enough.
At 19, I’d be in the crowded and sticky pub-turned-bar called Dog Star on any given Friday night. My friends and I always drank too much and danced too hard to the thumping rhythms of bad pop. We all had the collective aim of getting with a stranger in a sea of warm bodies under the cover of low light. Although nine out of 10 times, I didn’t go near anyone, it was this weird game we’d all play, consciously or not, of trying to gain our self worth from sweaty beer-breathed strangers on the dance floor. The funny thing is, I used to jog home from those club nights – scared of the same men whose attention we were trying to grab.
“I didn’t realise the weight of performing compulsory heterosexuality, trying to keep up with some kind of gold standard in a competition that wasn’t even built for me”
I didn’t realise the weight of performing compulsory heterosexuality, trying to keep up with some kind of gold standard in a competition that wasn’t even built for me. And all though that version of me in that picture last year had convinced herself she wasn’t still performing it, she was.
The performance could be seen through my hair for instance. The rational part of my brain understood all the theory and knew this wasn’t true, but deep down, I was convinced I couldn’t look pretty if I didn’t have long hair. My head was too round, my features too big. I never felt good enough. My idea of womanhood was so wrapped up in arbitrary things like hair length, softness and what men might want. When in reality, all gender really is, is a performance. I was performing all the time and I’m not sure I wanted to.
I’ve been an actor for so long it’s hard to tell what I like, and which parts of myself I enjoy or don’t like. And that’s what I’ve been exploring this lockdown.
Of course every day I feel different, but I can genuinely say I go outside not worrying about what men think of me, how I might be perceived by others, and whether I’m deemed hot enough by random people on the street. None of that matters, none of us will be young and beautiful forever anyway.
“I’ve been an actor for so long it’s hard to tell what I like, and which parts of myself I enjoy or don’t like”
I think I look cute with short hair, I’ve started wearing sweater vests, loose trousers, and I need glasses now. I’m getting braver and experimenting. I’m not worried about my waist looking snatched anymore (although it still does). Some days I like to put on a wig and a long flowing dress – but most days I’m happiest in a tee.
I’m actually looking after myself now in ways I’ve never done before, I’ve been going to the dentist, the hygienist and the optician. These may seem like small things, but honestly, in the fast-paced world of pre-lockdown lives, it was far too easy to neglect my true self. It was a slow process but I’ve gained so much through all this time with myself. I’m learned to be brave inside the quietness of my four walls.
Even when the world opens back up again, I think these new parts of myself will remain. It might be a challenge, and who knows, I could fall back into old habits (and this isn’t to say I won’t be in a full face of makeup on a Friday night because I will). I’m just so much happier in myself now, it’s become hard to envision the old me. I want an easy life, and all this performance is hard work.
The currency I hold for myself has shifted. I had to break myself apart to be rebuilt to truly know that. Now, I find beauty in my best friend’s giggles, oil slick rainbow puddles, making the perfect coffee. I don’t have to rigidly perform femininity to feel valid and beautiful and human, and it turns out the world won’t stop turning on its axis either.