Dress however you like, and don't let other people's perceptions keep you from expressing yourself. None of it means anything, anyway. (Illustration by Nick Spearman, Savannah College of Art and Design)

How College Taught Me That Gender Means Nothing

The art of unlearning gender roles and restrictions by way of glittery eyeshadow and living with your friends.

College /// Thoughts x

The art of unlearning gender roles and restrictions by way of glittery eyeshadow and living with your friends.

I’m in a dorm room filled with people that I just met, and I am more comfortable than I’ve ever been before. As Frank Ocean plays from a speaker on the bedpost beside me, I watch as my new best friends, of all genders, change into sequin tube tops, curl their hair with mesmerizing ease and adorn their eyelids with colorful lashes. Everything about the situation is so foreign to me. I love it. I cannot take my eyes off of the fantasy playing out in front of me, beautiful, brilliant, magical and comforting. Then, it happens; one of them turns to me and asks me something that will change my perspective on life forever: “Do you want some glitter?”

Now, this might seem like a simple offer to some. But it was transformative for me. It was something I had never been asked before. In fact, it was something I’d never even really considered. I had always thought gender roles were dumb and fully supported others breaking them down, but when it came to myself, I thought I was content staying inside the norm … for the most part. I would brush with the more feminine side only when I saw it as a necessity for my own self-esteem, such as when I would cover blemishes with makeup or wear overalls instead of those ugly lacrosse shorts. Other than that, I tried my hardest to fit myself into the masculine mold laid out for me

College was a turning point; I was in a safe space where everyone around me was finding themselves too. Everyone from my past was miles and miles away. I could experiment with new ideas without the fear of disappointing anyone, and the new people that surrounded me were more diverse and less judgmental. So I accepted my friend’s offer, and thus began my love affair with anything and everything sparkly.

I wanted to go everywhere with glitter on. I bought golden highlight to wear to class, filled my hair with pink unicorn spray at parties, painted my nails with rainbow flecks and found every excuse I could to cover my eyes with an assortment of glittery eyeshadows. It was my newfound passion.

I found myself fixating on a cosmic, colorful aesthetic, fascinated by stars and planets. I suddenly had a new pastime: checking NASA’s Instagram and trying to replicate the natural beauty of space on myself. It was messy and fun and totally, completely … freeing. I had never felt as much like myself as I did when I was shoving off the rules that told me how I was supposed to be.

Somewhere along the way, I had a realization about the image I was creating for myself. These things I was trying were considered traditionally feminine. Being in college, I was surrounded by people constantly, which meant that every little choice I made was on display.

I was being looked at in a different way; people saw me and had opinions that they felt the needed to share. To them, I wasn’t the shy kid that did his best to stay hidden, like I was used to being in high school. Outwardly, I now seemed like this loud, weird college student that wasn’t afraid of being seen as “girly.”

But that still wasn’t me; I’m not loud, I wouldn’t classify myself as weird and I don’t think I’m girly. I’m just me: quiet, creative and just now figuring out that the way you express your style and attitude should not be limited by gender.

Yet people would still treat me like I was in full drag in the middle of the academic quad (not that there’s anything wrong with drag, of course, but a little bit of makeup certainly doesn’t qualify). I was getting sick and tired of hearing people shout, “yaaas queen” and being called “hunty,” and if one more person compared me to James Charles, I was going to lose it.

But somehow, even that continuous flow of other people’s opinions taught me how ridiculous gender is. Because gender is just so ingrained in our minds — and in our culture — that we feel the need to have such visceral, often dehumanizing, reactions to show our “support” whenever we see someone breaking it.

These strangers’ idiotic babbling showed me that gender really is just a social construct, and I didn’t need to subscribe to the rigid instructions that mine placed upon me. Gender is just the culmination of thousands of years of stereotyping, oppression and meaningless characteristics, with a final blow dealt by internet culture. It’s nothing but our own reactions.

I know that I say this from a place of extreme privilege; I come from a wealthy, white, quite supportive family. I go to a very liberal school with more resources than I could ever possibly need. To some people, especially those who are trans and/or nonbinary, gender is very important, while for others, it means as little to them as it does to me, but they don’t feel safe enough to explore outside of its limitations. It’s important that we respect and understand both perspectives. And it’s crucial that we continue to foster a world that acknowledges these feelings and realities; where, no matter your feelings on gender, everyone — black and brown people, queer people, poor people and anyone else whose voice has been stifled — has the same freedom and opportunity to explore it.

That being said, I plan to continue destroying gender roles with reckless abandon, because that’s what makes me who I am. I don’t care how anyone thinks I’m supposed to act or present myself; I can make myself look like I’m in space, cut all my t-shirts into crop tops, cover myself in glitter and still be a guy. Gender means nothing, and that’s the best thing that college has ever taught me.

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