Nonfiction by Stacy Jane Grover

The Dysphoria Dress

I take the dress from the closet and slip it on. Black shoulder straps with pink skull print, untied corseted middle, knee length skirt. All I see are bony elbows, too-wide shoulders, bulging ribcage, knobby knees. I can’t look long before dysphoria hits me. This dress is the first I’ve worn that isn’t from my grandmother’s closet. Rebecca is the first person I’ve said the word transgender to.

I’ve read that wearing dresses is supposed to affirm me, that having support from loved ones will heal me, that remembering pleasant events will center me when I feel dysphoric. Imagine the girl you want to be and bring her into being.

I remember the day we bought the dress. We were in her sapphire Del Sol driving to the city with the top open. She was a year older than me, had a job and a driver’s license so we would drive to the city on weekends to explore, to see things that existed in the world but often didn’t find their way to our rural part of it. I loved our drives to the city. I adored watching the landscape change from deep rolling hills to forests of corn to flat fields of wheat and finally, the sprawling mammoth of wire and concrete, electricity and steel. I savored the way her pale skin reflected the sun, the way her natural highlights fought to the surface like plants leaning to sunlight. I cherished the way she held my hand, the lipstick stains on the straw of her iced coffee.

We pulled into the parking lot of the thrift store, an unplanned stop. “You’re getting a new dress!” she told me as she jumped over her door. She came to mine, opened it, and pulled me out by the hand. “Come ON it will be great,” she said guiding me. She stopped, turned, and kissed my forehead. I watched her silver bracelet with garnet gems, my birthstone, float over the pavement to the door as she lead me. She could have lead me anywhere.

Inside she wove us through the store, one hand never leaving mine, the other making quick, exacting work of the clothing racks. In a few minutes she had picked out five dresses.

“Let’s go get these on you,” she said as we entered the fitting room together.

“Excuse me, only one person at a time,” the dressing room attendant scolded us.

Rebecca left the room in a flurry of curtain and hair. I could hear her scolding the attendant in the quietest yell she could muster. She returned to the room.

“That one! And, I found shoes.”

I didn’t wear the dress out of the store. I hadn’t yet worn a dress in public.

“This will look great on her, won’t it?!” she asked the cashier, lifting on to the balls of her feet. The cashier did not respond.

“It will be perfect,” Rebecca said kissing me again on the forehead.

I wore the dress around her house that night while we cooked together and watched movies. It was the safest I had felt. She fell asleep and I watched her for a while, breathed her in. She always smelled of warmth, vanilla, and Tide.  I left the dress there.

The next day at school, Rebecca wore the dress. Her hair hung in dark rolling curls over her bare shoulders. She was small and soft: a perfect handful of propriety. She couldn’t have known it would cause me such anguish. I couldn’t have, either.

I can see her wearing it when I look in the mirror. I can smell her on it, an intruder gone before getting caught. I try to conjure her image when I look at myself in it. I am envious of her body, but I also resent it, and I resent myself for it. Her body reflects both what mine lacks and what it holds. It brings us closer while it pushes us apart.

But I can’t see the girl I am, the body dressed the way my brain feels it should be dressed. I only see the person who can’t be the girl she wants, when that girl comes in this dress size and I another.  I give the dress to Rebecca.

 

I won’t wear a dress again for almost a decade.

 

But when I do, I try imagining Rebecca, flurry of hair and curtain, smelling always of warmth, vanilla, and Tide. I try conjuring her into being. I try seeing myself in her.

 

Stacy Jane Grover is a transgender writer and translator from Ohio. Her essays have appeared in Belt Publishing, HEArt Journal, 1870 Magazine, and InsideHigherEd. Her first Mandarin-English literary translation is forthcoming from McFarland Press. She is a graduate student in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati.