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My Brother's a Better Woman Than I

Zuzu Tadeushuk

My brother’s a better woman than I. There’s no question about it, at least where traditional woman qualities are concerned: Nicolai wears make up many days, I never do. He paints his nails, I cringe at the mere thought. He styles his hair every morning, I haven't run a comb through mine in months. He wears belly shirts when I’ve never found it comfortable to reveal the slightest smidge of midriff. My brother knows the nuances of different hair conditioners and what they each do to your follicles while I never used conditioner until last year, when a month of Spring-Summer runway shows put dread locks on the back of my head. 

    But these are all superficial features. What I as a woman most lament not possessing are the more inborn of Nicolai’s ephemeral traits—his immaculate sense of design, for example, an instinct for aesthetics and artistry that manifests itself in the pictures he paints, the graphic art he designs, the photographs he styles and shoots. He’s vested with refined social capacities, thriving in and positively electrifying any gathering he joins, while I hew to the contrary stereotype of silent manly reticence. Case in point: I’m home alone on this Friday night in New York writing an article on my couch when most everything else with a pulse is out on the town. At the root of it all, my brother has the ease in himself to flaunt his femininity. I don’t quite know what to do with mine. 

    It’s a rather new dichotomy, and one that still sometimes surprises me. He’s seventeen and just recently come out, via an Instagram photo of him kissing a boy in Santiago, Chile, which didn't need a caption to get the message across. A gay, effeminate, beautiful boy, Nicolai is by default always dressed to impress. I, on the other hand, fit the bill for none of the above—not gay, nor straight, nor any sexual label that I’ve established so far, not exactly feminine, but not tom-boyish either by any stretch of the imagination. Just careless, dreamy, geeky me, feeling slightly envious of my brother’s rapid personal evolution. Why can’t I be as effortlessly myself as he is himself? As certain of my identity as he? I guess I could just wake up tomorrow and decide to set up a personality I want to don, but that would likely prove a catastrophe in the long run: if I've learned anything in my twenty years of existence it's that we as people aren’t meant to get anywhere in our spiritual lives by shortcuts. Cliché though it sounds, it’s the arduous and sometimes slow process, the circles we run and the cluelessness that conspire to make the final outcome—the fully-actualized self—all the more precious. 

    I’ve often wondered what all the recent gender fluidity talk means. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this expanding public power to choose and transform gender as we feel impelled, I just don’t think I entirely comprehend how it all works. But I think perhaps of late I may venture a guess that it boils down to one thing, and that is a conviction about your identity. Maybe it means this: the deconstructing (or the dismissing, devalueizing) of a physical definition (male/female), and the subsequent freedom to decide, to invent, or to intuit who you are when that gender boundary is removed. I’m almost positive it’s not a two-step process as simple as 1) Discard your gender definition and 2) Discover your actual sexual stance, but maybe it’s something along those lines? 

    In fact it sounds like a thing we should all be trying, straight and gay and all the rest alike. Because if it’s the journey that makes the arrival more triumphant, the search that makes the discovery sweeter, the question that makes the answer more certain, then why, why aren't we all searching that search and asking that question! If it makes the knowledge we have of ourselves that much more comprehensive, we should all go about sampling new gender identities before we settle on anything. Not disrespectfully—not mimicking as sport other people’s selves and lives, no. But by being curious in our minds and our ideas, receptive in the ways we consider ourselves and others as well as act towards ourselves and others. And if we come right back to the conclusion “Hey, I really am straight as a doorpost,” then great: now we know for sure and are not just following an antiquated convention.

    There are many themes to weed out and ponder here. It’s something I could, and maybe will discuss at length, and with more attention to truly what it means to be female or male; to how deeply we engage—or don’t engage, in my case—with our genders; to how gender stereotypes shape us (such as Nicolai’s act of wearing nail polish making me see him as feminine. That in itself is a stigma in action. But is it really so unreasonable an assumption to make? I don’t always know). 

    For now, I’m writing simply to say that I’m amazed at Nicolai’s refined sense of self. I’m amazed at the process that brought him to find such a self in what seems to me a vast candy shop of potential selves. For now, I’m trying to do the same, to find some self I can be equally sure of and proud of. I’ll be thrilled if I can learn anything from my brother, even if it’s just the politically correct way to talk about these sexuality/gender things, or better yet! the smallest tidbit of advice about finding my own identity in the Personality Candy Shop. Or about fashion sense, or belly shirts. Conditioner. God knows I could use all of the above.

Nicolai by me last month in Santiago, Chile