Dads Give Me Skateboarding Advice or How to Misgender an Essay
A pale figure bikes uphill against the cold wind in Philadelphia. Layers swaddle the biker: gray long johns, a long-sleeved shirt, and a black hoodie from Amoeba Records with the hood pulled tightly up. A man spies the figure moving uphill. He rolls down his window and yells at top volume, “I want to lick your cunt!”
I’m the biker in the hoodie. I’m scared and cold. I don’t think that this man really wants to lick my cunt. After I get home, I stare at myself in the mirror for hours, trying to figure out what he saw. What barely perceptible element of my body gives me away as female, or cunt? Maybe he was guessing. Maybe he yells that at everyone. Nonetheless, I feel clocked, seen in the most repulsive way.
It’s a similar energy when I’m practicing skateboarding and a strange man rolls down his window to yell “Do a heel flip!” This happens almost daily. Kick and heel flips are some of the hardest tricks, especially for a beginner. These comments are supposed to make me feel bad about something I can’t quite put my finger on.
The truth is I most identify as female when I am afraid, ashamed, or in pain.
Dads Give me Skateboarding Advice
I love skateboarding because it puts me into my body. In order to not fall, I must concentrate on the relationship between my body and the board, and the board and the concrete. Disassociate or space out and one eats shit. Simple as that. After leaving pieces of my skin on the sidewalk a few too many times, I learn to focus. The noise clears out of my anxious brain.
Skateboarding heightens my awareness of how others perceive my body. Men hit on me a lot, handing me their numbers on slips of paper, asking if I want to skate with them, do I have a boyfriend, never do I want one. There’s something about being perceived as a Skateboarding Girl that inspires a different reaction, a fetishization. I hate it, so I go to the skate park before anyone else arrives. I appreciate the emptiness. The second I sense someone observing me, I get nervous and choke.
Men offer me unsolicited advice. It seems to hurt them when I don’t skate how they think I should. I don’t know if they’re all dads, but in my mind they’re all dads. They all have that dad body type, a little gray and a paunchy stomach, black Vans signalling that they were once punk . Sometimes they seem to be giving me advice to impress the children they accompany, but other times they have no children with them and just seem to get pleasure out of imparting “wisdom.” I tell myself that they’re mostly harmless, and listen impatiently while they explain skateboarding to me, waiting for the opportunity to skate away.
One guy orders me to bend my knees more and push harder. I snap, “Ok, dad!”
With my mask on, he must think I’m a high schooler.
Another time I’m skating the sidewalk on my street and a man yells at me to keep it up. I nod apathetically, keep skating. Later, I pass the same man again, and this time he puts down his surfboard and motions that he wants to talk to me. He tries to approach but because he’s not wearing a mask, I tell him, “Back up.”
“I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this,” says surfboard dad, “but you should picture a straight, sharp line from your feet up to your shoulders when you stand on the board.”
No one else has explained posture to me. No one has told me anything, really, except that they like my ass or that I should go to a skate park and get off their sidewalk. I’m reluctant to listen to anything this man has to say about skating, but I have to admit: when I adjust my posture, it’s a lot easier to stay on the board. I thank him, feeling conflicted, and take off down the block. I picture a golden rod fusing my shoulder blades with my torso, and then the base of my heels. I hear the man’s voice at my back like wind, “That’s it, now you’re really skateboarding!”
As if what I’d been doing for the past few months wasn’t skateboarding at all. As if I’ve just finally discovered how to do it, thanks to his paternal wisdom. His words stay with me and I’m haunted by the idea that my actions require a man’s validation. Imagine saying that to someone in another context.
“That’s it, now you’re really fucking!”
“You’ve become a legitimate woman!”
But listen, if someone doesn’t tell you you’re doing it right, how are you ever supposed to know?
I always played the boy when we were kids. I was Romeo to Jasmine’s Juliet. I was the boy when Gemma and I played pretend sex in her bedroom. I’d never been as thrilled as those brief moments under her covers. But when I asked if we could do it again, she said no in a disgusted tone that made me feel ashamed. I didn’t know why I was supposed to feel bad, but I recognized it had something to do with the fact that I was only a pretend boy.
After three girls, I’m pretty sure my father wanted a boy. I tried to be that for him—we played basketball and watched cowboy movies together. I wore his old flannels and the shirts from when he worked as an electrician, and if I’d fit into his pants, I would’ve happily worn those too.
For his 50th birthday, my father and his brother decided to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. When they told me I wasn’t allowed to come, I cried.
I begged them to change their minds, “If I was a boy, would you let me go?” My father told me no, it was a special trip for him and his brother, but I never believed him.
After a few days on the trail, there was a massive rainstorm. The section that my father and uncle were hiking turned into mudslides, and they decided it was too unsafe to camp. My mother and I drove hours out to rescue them.
From the backseat, their silences on the ride home were loud, their injured pride hanging heavy over the whole car. I decided maybe it was better not to be a boy. At least I was allowed to cry.
I live with a dad now, although he is not my dad. He drinks out of the same plastic Taco Bell cup every day and sits in front of the TV for hours while he yells on the phone to his friends. He tells me that he got a tattoo of a Harley “before I got the Harley.” He volunteers that his girlfriend is 17 years younger, Asian, and “very submissive.” He argues with me when I try to point out that not all Asian people are alike. I make a mental note to never be around him alone, without a bra. He only shouts when he speaks. He is the loudest person I have ever met.
I Majored in Being a Woman
I tell my therapist about every time I’ve been raped. Well, maybe not every time. As often happens as a result of trauma, my nonlinear memories are shot through with holes.
I try to figure out if it’s transgressive that I’ve been assaulted by people of different sexualities and gender identities. I recall the silver-haired butch in Scotland forcing her way into my bedroom, and G the night after we broke into the abandoned hospital building. In the end I decide there’s nothing transgressive about it, the assaults confirm what I already know: that whether or not someone becomes a rapist isn’t rooted in a specific identity, but rather a series of beliefs, cultural reinforcement, and personal histories of abuse and trauma.
I used to find it comforting to sort people into simple binaries. Woman = good, man = bad. I drew lines of safety around gender, not realizing that wasn’t what would keep me safe. At 18, I was stupid and put my faith in biology. I wore shirts with glow-in-the-dark uteruses on them and tried out for the vagina monologues. I went to college and majored in being a woman and was going to learn how to make sure no one ever got raped again. But after 4 years, I was only more lost. I knew even less about gender than when I started. I kept getting raped and still had no idea how to stop it from happening.
The crux of it is this: I never got to figure out if I hate being a woman, or if I just hate being a woman in this particular, shitty world.
The first time I went to the gynecologist, I screamed when they inserted the speculum. I thought I was bleeding internally. The gynecologist looked at me accusingly, and asked me why it hurt so much, as if I’d caused the pain. I was mustering the courage to say something about the rapes when she answered her own question: “It’s probably because your vagina is too small.”
Though I was young and didn’t know much about the world, even I could tell that was bullshit.
Six Beers at Once
My dad only tells me I look nice the few times a year that I wear a dress. He refuses to get rid of his old Penthouse magazines and when I ask him why, he tells me I could never understand what it’s like to be a man looking at a woman’s body. He has a big crush on Jessica Rabbit. When I was a kid I thought she was how women were supposed to look, a tiny waist complimented by voluptuous curves. I wanted to look like Jessica Rabbit, but also the St. Pauli Girl: blond, buxom, cheerful, and able to hold 6 beers at once. I’m looking it up on the internet right now but it doesn’t seem like she has a name. Her name is just St. Pauli Girl.
I am on a date with a girl and we are walking down the street and a man I do not know leers at me, looks me up and down, licks his lips, and whispers “Nice, very nice.”
I worry that the girl I am on a date with will have her feelings hurt because she didn’t get hit on too.
The Guy in San Diego
dragged me out of my bedroom. He was clutching a knife and he threatened to kill me. I had two opposing thoughts as it happened: 1) thank god I just put a shirt back on seconds before he burst into my room and 2) maybe he will think I am a pretty enough girl and won’t hurt me.
You never know which way the wind is going to blow.
Once Upon a Time
a boy holding me around the waist near the train tracks in Baltimore, whispered in my ear, “You’re so small.”
When I am running the beach trail in the morning, I spot sea creatures in the choppy waves. Often I’ll be running too fast to make out the whole shape of an animal; just a flank or a fin. Sea lions and porpoises are especially difficult to distinguish because the porpoise tails look a lot like the sea lions’ flippers from a certain angle. More than once, I’ve realized I was just staring at a tangle of seaweed. Usually, I give up trying to discern the particular species and continue my run.
That’s how gender works for me. For a split second, I catch sight of something mysterious and slippery, and am arrogant enough to think I can identify it. But then it disappears into the ocean before I can confirm my suspicions. I never hold it firmly enough to examine it in great detail.
It twists, wet and naked in my palms, then jumps back into the water.
A cool thing about skateboarding is how it can drastically change your own understanding of your environment. I like how Ian McKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi explained it: “Skateboarding is not a hobby. And it’s not a sport. Skateboarding is a way of learning how to redefine the world around you. It’s a way of getting out of the house, connecting with other people, and looking at the world through different sets of eyes.”
I wonder how many dads tried to give Ian skateboarding advice. I wonder if anyone ever told him he was really skateboarding. I wonder what Ian would’ve been like if he was a teen girl who got raped. I wonder if he would’ve been the kind of girl who drinks too much or burns herself, if he would’ve eaten too much or too little.
I wonder if Ian would’ve had money to get an abortion or if he would’ve given the baby away for adoption.
My Own Dad Gives me Advice
I am wine-drunk on the phone with my father talking about gender. Normally this conversation doesn’t go very well, but tonight, for some reason, he seems more open to hearing my ideas. We are debating whether a concept he invented—the spectrum of ability (originally used to articulate the need for reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities)—can also apply to gender and sexuality. At the time that he developed it, the idea of a spectrum was useful because he was trying to argue that we are all disabled to some extent (eyeglasses being one example of a common disability that is universally accomodated).
I tell him that a lot of people don’t like the spectrum model anymore because it implies fixed poles on either end, and instead many people I know prefer the term gender constellation (or other shapes/configurations), in order to describe a three-dimensional spatiality. He surprises me when he says he thinks those people are probably right. Then he tells me about a poem he quoted when he originally wrote Accommodating the Spectrum: “in nature there are few sharp lines/ no humbling of reality to precept.”
I have to look up the word precept: a rule intended to regulate behavior or thought. For all my father’s flaws, I am deeply moved by this gesture, a man from small town Indiana quoting poetry in his article. I decide I like the poem. Despite my best attempts to find them, there are no sharp lines anywhere I look. Lines that appear straight or sharp are mostly pliant and soft upon closer inspection. The palm trees in my backyard bend in the wind, because otherwise they will snap in half.
I used to obsess over sharp lines. Only in myself; everyone else was permitted curves, dips, lumps, all the beautiful irregularities you find in nature. If I could not be the prettiest or smartest, I could at least be the thinnest. I pursued razored jaw lines, trying to starve myself until my hips disappeared and I became one long pole up and down. I ran in the shower and at the bus stop and bruised my hips by hitting them against my elbows, as if I could force the bone structure to shift out of sheer will. But it never worked. My breasts and stomach always stuck out, stubborn, soft reminders that my body would always betray me as female, no matter how much I restricted. Men would find the clues under three layers of clothing, through wind and snowstorms.
Now, I’ve made some kind of peace with my body. I eat what tastes good, I have multiple orgasms, and I go skateboarding a lot. Most days, I like what I see in the mirror.
Arielle Burgdorf is a writer originally from Washington, D.C. They received their MFA from Chatham University where they taught in the Words Without Walls program at Allegheny County Jail and were awarded Best Fiction Thesis and the Creative Excellence Award. Their writing has appeared in Lambda Literary, Maximum Rocknroll, Crab Fat Magazine, X-Ray Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. They are currently pursuing their PhD in Literature at UC Santa Cruz and are a Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow for 2021.