Consider the price of a single word: of one fluttering of the tongue, one pursing of the lips, one releasing of the self into the world. Some words are worth less than others. There’s no price for the, an, or a— these are careless words, tossed around like worn-out articles of clothing. Some words are worth more than others, but not by as much as you might think. There’s rampant price gouging in the adjective market, at least for certain buyers. I remember the spring of my first college year, when I shaved my itchy beard away and said that I felt “pretty.” Then came the gouge: a few careless words, tossed into my chest, twisting.
“Ew,” a listener said to me. “Don’t ever say that word again.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Part of me already knew that presumed men were upcharged for feminine words, like “pretty” or “lovely,” whether as self-description or otherwise. Part of me still didn’t want to believe it. My friends had never upcharged me. And sure, when your friends are the cashiers, they might sneak you a discount— but necessarily in defiance of the corporation, of the social pressures around them. This listener was not defiant. They gave me no such discount; instead, they discounted my claim to “prettiness,” and so to femininity.
In that moment, there were really two market forces at play. Certainly, words were one of them. But if a thousand words are worth a picture, and if your appearance is a picture of your self, then the prices of words and appearance are suddenly commensurable. If saying I was “pretty” might cost me a dollar, then appearing “pretty” might cost me a thousand. Meanwhile, my self is stuck with the bill.
I feel these two market forces at Lenscrafters, at the corner of the men’s and women’s sections, as my mother hovers at my shoulder. When I lift up a pair of women’s glasses, this corner gives me a cover-up. I can say, “Oh, these are women’s glasses? Oops,” as though those words are anything but the extracted value of a ransom, a price paid so laissez faire leaves you alone.
But my mother doesn’t ask any questions. In fact, she likes the pair I’ve picked: horn-rimmed, fading from black to transparent. I like them too; yes, for their appearance, but more for the symbol of them. I wonder if my mother catches the symbol. The cashier might, but if so, they don’t ask. I see their rainbow tattoo, their smirk as they ring me up. They’re sneaking me a discount.
Then again, these glasses may not say much for anyone but me. I know why I chose them— for their femininity— but the logic of femininity differs between people. I want the word “women’s” to do the work of appearance, but the market just sees a thousandfold price inflation. That market wants pink, wants sequins, wants flowers: the canon of feminine code words that only sometimes correspond to any person’s internal symbols. So I may say my word, and still be misunderstood. We may all be trading in different currencies.
Yet even when I find a common currency, something is lost in the conversion. I go to the tattoo parlor to get my ears pierced. I spend money and time on the Uber there, then spend money and time on the piercings themselves. While there may be a thousand words in my new purple gemstones, in my proclamations of femininity, there is also a hundred dollars sunk. I recognize the sting of a third market force; as my self tries to externalize, I feel the cash price of that externalization.
So I wait for winter sales to begin, when the too-too expensive becomes only too expensive, and I look at women’s shirts. In this store, the men’s and women’s sections are segregated, with a wide aisle of judgement in between. There is no more corner for refuge, no more cover-up. Each second I linger comes at a risk that I will pay the price of the world’s violent “Why?”s and of my own explanatory words. Each shirt I buy comes at another 40 dollars, another few meals I should be saving for. I feel the three market forces rage through my body: they’re in my sweat, in my throat, in my self-strangling heartbeat. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel wasteful and pointless and stupid and small.
But still, I wait. I wait until my friends are outside, wait until no one is looking, wait until the line at the register is short enough to stand. And when those planets finally align, I buy my goddamned shirt. It’s a deep-v button down: floral green polyester, faintly polka-dotted. I shove it deep down the anonymizing black shopping bag, run through the aisle, and out through the exit.
“Well?” my friends say to me. “What did you buy?”
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With my black bag in hand, I tell them, “Just pants.”
I wear my shirt at the next chance I can, when my friends and others will see it at once. It’s a shock and a pleasure when I do. They tell me, “I love it,” and each “love” is an unwitting affirmation. Each “love” says to me, “You’re pretty,” “You’re feminine,” and “Your self is only yours to own.” While some toss their odd looks and their “interesting”s at me, the price is still lower than expected. I barely have words of thanks myself. So I just smile, glowing silent in green.
At sunset, my friends disband, and all things must surrender their glow to the night. I am left in my room, alone and wondering. I wonder if I have found our common currency, if they understand me better now. I wonder if I’m the one misunderstanding their affirmations. After all, they may say I look pretty, but maybe that only means I am their pretty queer man. Not my pretty queer person, not my self, not my me. I wonder how I can be more recognizable, and still recognize me as me. I wonder what’s the price of it all. I wonder if and how I can pay it.
All night, I wonder, I wonder, I wonder, my mind caught in thundering cycles. And all through my rumbling wondering mind, the three market forces rage quietly on.
Avery Boltwood is a Trinity junior.