science of us

Changing My Style to Mask My Health Issues

My father once said that as a child, I flipped dramatically between styles. One year, barely past toddling, I declared that I would never wear “girl” clothes again, and spent a large part of pre-K roaming with boys in my loose pants and overalls. That was my preference for a while, he told me, until a few years later, when I entered a phase of skirts.

The variations continued into college, and long before I knew I was gay. So when I dated men in my early 20s, it was with a long record of vintage dresses, androgynous T-shirts, old-school-flight-attendant silk scarves, and men’s pants. A history of dressing for my mood, not for dudes.

Then my history began to include new patterns: prodding, blood-drawing, loudly banging MRI machines. Pain.

When I was small, my pediatrician once paraded me around to his colleagues. Look! he said. She’s my healthiest patient! I remember wondering why he said it with pride, as if he or I had any control over it. A decade later, I became the patient who suddenly had a major problem with her joints and a near-fatal anaphylaxis condition — a 20-something who dealt with surgeries and emergency medicine and a premature awareness of mortality in between smiling over beers.

A few days before an operation on my hip, I was on a date, trying not to think about torn cartilage and ball-and-socket bones. He was a musician named Mike, and I was very aware that he’d met me while I’d been wearing one of the most “feminine” outfits I owned: a pinup-y vintage top with a high neck and tight bust and a skirt that hemmed me in at the waist. We were talking and flirting and kissing and talking more. When he asked if I would go out with him again a few days later, I paused. I couldn’t, I knew — not because I wasn’t interested, but because I would be laid up, immobile, probably in excruciating pain. I had undergone this surgery once before on the other side of my body. Not only was it awful, but it also sounded extremely unsexy. Having a problem with your hip when you’re young makes people say thoughtless, mildly hurtful things, like, “Wait, your hip?!!” with too many exclamation points, or, “I thought only grandmas had hip surgery.” Now this attractive guy wanted to make out in a few days, and I had to tell him yes except no.

“Well, this is weird, but I’m actually having hip surgery on Monday,” I said.

I filled the silence like I always do when a person I’ve just met is learning something new or surprising about me. I made some awkward mumbly comment, like, “Kind of gross, I know, but it’s not just for old ladies, haha,” the haha coming out stilted and probably giving away that my throat was brink-of-crying tense.

I’d been bracing for a look of revulsion, but Mike said only nice things. He didn’t compare me to his grandma. He just told me, as a way of commiserating or taking the weirdness out of the moment, that he had had mouth surgery once and, as he put it, “That’s way grosser.”

All that put me at ease. As did one sheepish line from Mike: “You’re having hip surgery, but I mean, you’re still hot.”

Much as I wished I didn’t need any validation from a guy, I latched on to this. The surgery, the crutches, the old-lady connotation wouldn’t render me the least appealing human on earth, it turned out. I would be more than a sexless scalpelled thing.

***

After a week of such searing pain that I barely moved from one position, I was ever so slightly better. I peeled off my pajamas, covered the thick bandage on my hip with plastic so I could shower, and got dressed. I wanted to feel wanted. And I’d learned what that entailed: curves.

Sure, ever since I was a tiny kid, I had flitted between more androgynous outfits and the occasional tight frock. But there was no question tonight about what I’d be wearing: a wiggly 1950s dress that was fitted at the waist, and just roomy enough at the hips that it showed my curves without pressing too hard against my bandage. The dress was like armor, protecting my bodily insecurities. I wasn’t sure if I was wearing it for me or for Mike, to show him that I was indeed still hot or to convince myself.

The subway was off-limits for another few weeks while I healed, so I maneuvered myself, with some pain, into a taxi and met Mike at a Thai place in Manhattan. Even with his comment about my hotness, I couldn’t, at 25, face the prospect of a new date seeing me on crutches. So I left them at home and promised myself, and my wary mother, that I would walk no more than from the curb to the restaurant. Just a few feet.

Naturally, it didn’t work out that way, and in the course of limping down several streets to go to a jazz club after dinner, I may have further damaged a major tendon, all in an attempt to show just how hot-and-not-gross I could be. And my limping earned me another compliment from my date. “You’re walking pretty well for someone who just had surgery!” Mike said. He looked genuinely impressed. I said something self-deprecating and didn’t tell him about the staggering pain.

He asked me back to his apartment.

That night, in Mike’s bed, we didn’t have traditional straight-cis sex because I couldn’t so soon after surgery, but we did hook up. At the time, I felt bad that I couldn’t move my leg enough for this dude’s pleasure. That I’d failed to provide what I could have, had I not been cut open a few days before. Now, it makes me cringe — hard — to think of how much even a young feminist absorbed the idea that she should feel bad about not “providing” something a week after getting off the operating table. It makes me embarrassed to admit out loud.

In the end, I got a long email from Mike. He wrote that he was interested in me, but could tell I wasn’t “the one” (a concept I didn’t subscribe to but that he apparently did). On my end, I just wanted someone who made me feel like I was a young woman in the first place and not some monstrosity. I didn’t need the person to think I was the one. So I replied to him. I just wanted to understand, I wrote: Was he attracted to me, or not? Because after all his comments before my surgery and the way we’d hooked up afterward, I had thought he was saying he was.

I am attracted to you, he replied.

Reading the exchange today makes me cringe again. Was I really clarifying over email whether a dude I barely knew was into my body? But back then, I was glad to see his response. I didn’t think we were serious-relationship material, either. I just needed to know that it wasn’t about my hip.

In the elevator a few weeks later, a guy in his early 30s wearing athletic clothes asked me why I was on crutches. His tone was bright, maybe even flirtatious. He opened with, “Knee injury?”

“Oh, I had hip surgery a few weeks ago,” I said. And then, remembering how people usually reacted to it, added brightly, with a smile, “It’s not just for old ladies!”

Disgust that he probably didn’t mean to show flitted over his face.

“Oh.” He scrunched his nose. Then, in a withering tone: “You should just tell people it’s your knee.”

***

It’s not that my health issues — my first hip surgery, a string of near-death anaphylaxis episodes a few years later, this second hip surgery, or, later, my thyroid cancer — caused some immediate switch in my wardrobe to va-va-voom-lady-outfits-all-day-all-night. And it’s not that unsolicited disgust from men like the one in the elevator had the power to completely change my gender expression, my concept of self and how I presented to the world. But all of these things did affect me on a deep level, and also a sartorial one. Having a body that fit into hourglass-shaped dresses made me, I think, feel insulated from the much worse things men might say when they learned about that body’s medical history. At some point, when the universe had flung enough health crises at me to make me sometimes laugh, but mostly cry, I was more and more likely to go outside in something form fitting, “feminine.” More and more likely to feel “myself” when a guy — or even a straight female acquaintance — told me how good I looked, pointed to the way my outfit perfectly fit my curves.

The woman mold I’d spent most of my life holding at arm’s length and, I thought, approaching only when I wanted, was now my preferred shape to wriggle into. My offering to the world of who I thought I was, of what it meant to look like something other than a morass of antihistamines and scars.

And it’s not so black-and-white. I’ve always loved searching for unusual vintage clothes. The fun of finding a dress with mid-century hues and buttons and strange collars and darts to accentuate breasts and hips was real. I thought I loved the way they hugged me. (Perhaps, I now realize, I needed an actual hug.) And I didn’t wonder much about why my androgynous clothes no longer appealed. Why the me who’d worn men’s pants a few years earlier seemed to have faded, or to have morphed into a much different look. Whereas before I’d liked the variety and felt pulled toward more “masculine” or “feminine” outfits depending on how I felt that day, I now had a vague feeling that my interactions at parties and bars, and even the journalism class I taught to 14 undergraduates who wore sweatshirts, wouldn’t be quite as good unless I wore one of my fun — and form-fitting — looks.

A few years after Mike, and a few years into a long-term partnership with the man I was with until I realized I was queer, I started to pick out menswear again. I want to say it’s not because I already felt secure and desired by a guy, but it might be. I want to say it’s not some trite thing where my mind was finally realizing I was gay, and it wanted me to look the stereotypical part, but it might be that, too.

And it might have also been that I began to work with a biomechanics instructor who showed me how crossing my legs in the “girl” way was hurting my still-aching hip joints. She encouraged me to wear looser pants so that I could sit in a way that takes up more space, that’s better for tendons and bones, and that couldn’t really be achieved while wearing a tight dress or skirt. She was aiming to just make my body hurt less, but I think she inadvertently made me realize how narrow my gender presentation had gotten. I never wore makeup or heels, even at my peak femmeness, but I had gotten used to this feminine armor and felt uncomfortable putting some of it away.

I want to say that I’m a strong feminist who never dressed for men. But I suspect many of us do even when we think we don’t.

Even though I’m now dating women, I still find myself struggling not to get caught in those crosshairs. And I know that whether I wear one of my pinup-y outfits or wear a flannel that makes a grocery-store clerk call me sir, my surgery scars will be there: small laparoscopic dots scattered on each upper leg. The parts of me my girlfriend sees, the spots she sometimes asks about when she forgets what the now-closed holes are from. I see that the five incision points, an almost ghostly purplish-white, are spread across the me that exists on the feminine end, on the masculine end, and in all the androgynous spaces. The me that exists whether I’m naked or clothed. Whether I’m in someone’s bed or on my own.

This essay is adapted from Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine (Beacon Press, March 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Changing My Style to Mask My Health Issues