Illustrated by: Melody Wong

The Girl With the Bowl Cut: How Being Forced to Look Like a Boy Made Me Question My Identity

Content Warning: sexual assault, attempted suicide

In the ’90s, gender had only two options: female or male. We now know that gender is really a spectrum, where our assigned gender at birth and what we identify as can be completely different. Your identity shapes so much of who we are — it becomes the foundation for how we treat ourselves, how we treat others and how we let others treat us. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s infamous quote: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

But what do you do when your identity is not only stripped away from you but also made to be frightening? 

This is my story of how I went from a girl to a boy overnight and how the ripples of this decision have affected how I self-identify.

If you are familiar with my other work, you will know that my parents were teenagers when they had me. At birth, I was assigned female. Eleven months later, my mom gave birth to my younger brother. We were raised like traditional girls and boys. I wore pink, he wore blue. I had Baby Bop and he had Barney. When we played Power Rangers, I was Kimberly and he was Tommy. We couldn’t get more ‘90s even if we wanted to. 

Having teenagers for parents was difficult. They were essentially raising me, my brother and themselves. My mom tried to balance high school and motherhood but ultimately dropped out to work. My dad needed to provide for his new family — and began selling drugs. There were days when my brother and I would have to fend for ourselves when our parents were working. Despite the disadvantages of having teen parents, for a while, my life was normal.

My simple ‘90s life was disrupted when I turned nine years old: puberty hit me as hard as neon hit Clarissa from “Clarissa Explains It All.” I had a C cup bra size and defined hips — I looked 16. I also got my first period. I never knew what a period was and my mom never explained it to me. I never got the birds and bees talk. 

What I got instead was a bowl cut and my long black hair was now gone. My frilly dresses were replaced with items from the men’s section at Old Navy — yes, the men’s section, not the boys. My jelly sandals and glittery sneakers were now solid black Nikes. My Pocahontas bed set was now just Mickey Mouse. I was also no longer allowed to dress up for Halloween: no princesses, no cheerleaders, no witches and definitely not as a cat.

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

When I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see Yali. I just saw this boy, and the boy was me. Why was this boy staring at me? I was told this boy was supposed to protect me because it’s not safe to be a girl, especially for a nine-year-old girl who looked like a sixteen-year-old. Men could hurt me. I was confused — why am I becoming the thing I’m supposed to be scared of? There was no answer, just lessons about the names of football teams and where they are from. I studied my dad’s X-Men cards and learned their names, aliases and origin stories. I was told that girls were beautiful, soft and smelled good, that there was no reason for me to ever want or need to date a man. 

For a time I hated my new identity, but soon I enjoyed my lessons with my dad about sports and comic books. I felt closer to him and my brother because I was one of them. 

But I also wasn’t. 

Once a month, I got my period. I couldn’t walk around with my shirt off like my dad and brother. I couldn’t play on the boys’ baseball or flag football team. I had crushes on girls but I couldn’t tell them. If I liked a boy, I couldn’t tell him. Somehow, liking me would make them gay. Boys in school would call me a lesbian and pick on me. Girls wouldn’t be friends with me for fear of being associated as a lesbian. I would get into fistfights with both girls and boys. My younger brother got picked on for having a “dyke” as a sister. I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs, eyebrows or facial hair. The more I looked like a boy or “unattractive,” the better. 

All of it was to build stronger armor.

And then, the very thing my new identity was supposed to protect me from didn’t. 

A family friend molested me for a whole week. It wasn’t my first time being molested; I had been molested by an older boy when I was seven, when I was a girl. I didn’t understand; being a boy was supposed to keep me safe! My baggy clothes, basketball sneakers and bowl cut were my armor. This wasn’t supposed to happen — I made this sacrifice for nothing. I felt betrayed by my armor, my family and myself. Was my girliness so apparent that a grown man could see right through my armor? I blamed myself for so long and never told anyone until I was 13 after an attempted suicide. I survived, but a part of my heart died, a part that would later be resurrected due to parenthood. 

I hated myself; I was no good as a girl or a boy. There was nothing left for me to just be back in 2003. I had no self-esteem and was extremely depressed. I spent much of my teens trying to figure out what and who I was — a walking imposter with no direction and fear of herself and everyone around her. I also desperately needed to be accepted by anyone. I gave into peer pressure and did bad things just to say I had friends and I belonged, but none of that ever helped me determine who I was. I was a changeling — whatever people needed me to be at the time. Girl, boy, lesbian, straight, bisexual — but never me.

Then at 18 years old, I found out I was pregnant with a son. How was I going to raise a son when I didn’t even know who I was? What could I teach him about life? I spent my pregnancy trying to define what it meant to be a parent because it felt more important than trying to decide what gender I was. That was how I started finding my identity. I knew I wanted him to choose who he wanted to be, I knew I wanted to always be honest with him, to protect him, to let him express his emotions and to provide him with opportunities I was never afforded. I had a gender-neutral baby shower, only purchased gender-neutral clothes and gender-neutral baby items. It was going to be different for my child because it had to be.

When my son was born 11 years ago, I knew who I was: I was his protector, a parent. Being his parent, his “mommy,” helped me find my femininity and masculinity. I stopped hiding behind the men’s section at Old Navy. I started living colorfully. My Nikes were covered in glitter, I grew my hair out and I wore skirts with sweaters that had my favorite football teams on them. I would get my nails done with superhero logos as the designs. I found that by combining my two identities, I created one: Yali.

My son currently identifies as a cisgender male but isn’t bound by the social constructs of masculinity. He is expressive with his emotions, plays sports, tutors others, is into fashion and apparently is “god-like” at Fortnite
Most importantly, he is happy. He has a support system I never had as a kid. His father and I work together to support our son even though we aren’t together. He also supports my decision to allow our son the freedom to determine his identity. We all shared a powerful moment on Pride Day of 2020: when he was 10 years old, he came out to us as asexual. To know he was so comfortable sharing that with us with no fear proved that we did the right thing in the way we raised him.

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

Yali is a bisexual cisgender woman who is equal parts girl and equal parts the boy with the bowl cut. The trauma of my past has been healed through therapy and my love for my son. As a parent, I understand why my parents did what they did — I don’t blame them. They were teens, what could they really know? They were growing up too. As a writer, I’ve dedicated myself to representing the unconventional and breaking the painful chains of traditions, to share the stories of those who can’t and won’t be marginalized by an ancient system of identification, to lift the voices of the beautiful and wide spectrum of identity and life.

If you find yourself on a journey of self-identity, remember this: there is no wrong or right path. Only you get to decide who you are and what makes you happy. Yes, there will be obstacles and there will be hecklers, but none of that compares to the pain of being something you are not. Explore the spectrum; you’ll know you are at the end of your journey when you feel comfortable with who you are.

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