watercolor painting of woman reclining with blue and pink clouds

I’m Not a Boy. I’m a Girl, I Think: A Memoir

By Rachel Lau on August 9, 2016
Photo credit: Rachel Lau (original artwork)

The way I like to remember it, I was never quite like the other girls. I played rough and my idea of fun was cutting up earthworms with a dull plastic Play-Doh knife. But ask any of my family members and they’ll tell you that I was the vainest little girl they knew.

“Are you sure you still want this?” said my mother.

I nodded.

The cooling sensation of rubbing alcohol applied on my skin sent chills down my spine. She grabbed my ear lobe with one hand and the piercing gun with the other.

Clack, clack.

I began to bawl. My two-year old self had never felt a pain so intense. I remember it was like my ears were on fire.

“Shh, shh, shh. Don’t cry. Look at how pretty you are now!”

I peeked through the watery veil in my eyes. Upon the sight of myself in the mirror, I shut up. It was so quiet inside the spa that you could only hear the hum of the air conditioner.

My mother was an esthetician. Growing up, I would spend hours after school cooped up in her tiny spa. The spa was located on the second floor of a dingy old plaza in Chinatown, tucked away in the corner behind a DVD store. The spa walls were plastered with promotional posters of white women without pores, smiling mysteriously. With nothing better to do, I watched middle-aged Chinese ladies rush in and out of the spa, leaving with a renewed sense of confidence and excitement. Before each client left, my mother would always tell them how beautiful they now looked and how they must keep up the good work. I learned that there was so much to improve on in one’s appearance. Hairy legs, large pores, acne, wrinkles; everything must go! My mother said to her clients, “In this world there are no ugly women, only lazy women.” I never wanted to be the lazy woman my mother spoke of, so the hard work and practice of beauty began at a young age for me.

Everything I did, I did for beauty. With the exception of my short hair, I was a girl built by Polly Pocket playsets, frilly pink dresses, and my mother’s abandoned jewelry. Yet, the world saw me as a little boy.
On our elevator rides up to my mother’s spa, strangers would often stop to tell her, “What a beautiful little boy you have!”

In my pastel pink world, that phrase was an invasive dark blue cloud and there was only one way to chase it away. My mother smirked, knowing what was to come next. Abandoning the soft grip of my mother’s hand. I threw my arms to my side and yelled, “I’m not a boy! I’m a girl!”

The strangers would always chuckle, surprised that they had been confronted by a human half their size. Those encounters seemed to be a funny story they could share with friends over dinner on the weekend, but for me it marked the beginning of proving myself to be the girl I knew I was.

When I reached the fourth grade, I was determined to grow out my hair. At the time, it was the only way I thought I could assert my femininity. It was also around this time that my older sister, Crystal, abandoned her tomboy phase. She traded her knockoff Air Jordan sneakers, swishy basketball shorts, and bright orange Gap sports hoodies for cable-knit cardigans, eyelash primer, and Seventeen magazines. All the boys liked her, and she became my textbook model for femininity. When she applied makeup, I would sneak up behind her and watch, hoping that one day I could do the same without stabbing myself in the eye. By the time I graduated from elementary school my hair had grown beyond my shoulders, resting on my adolescent chest. Boys still didn’t like me, even with my long hair; I was considered “one of the boys” instead. By then, I didn’t mind being able to float between the two worlds of boy and girl. It was kind of cool, in fact.

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