There’s this photo I like to look at sometimes, one my younger brother took of me in my mid-20s. I’m standing at the edge of a cliff. It’s windy and I’m laughing, and the horizon stretches out at my back. I remember the euphoria and clarity I felt, how I looked out across the ocean and thought, I know exactly what’s next.
Hoo boy. That girl is now unrecognizable to me—and I would be a complete mystery to her. All of our lives are, if we’re lucky, one long unfolding of new selves, a paper chain of subtle evolutions punctuated by sharp turns we never saw coming. Which is to say the process of becoming is as disorienting as it is miraculous—an enigma we wanted to capture with the “Becoming” series in our final Repeller drop, featuring three charm earrings: a caterpillar, a cocoon, and a butterfly (ideally worn in the same multitudinous ear).
So, to mark both the launch and its emotional impetus, I talked to three women about the moments that made them become: Natalie, who was diagnosed with cancer in college; Amelia, whose late-night gender discovery made her reconsider how she wanted to live; and Willa, whose path to motherhood took an unconventional turn.
Natalie, 26, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 20.
On the Diagnosis
I was in college and I wasn’t feeling great. I told my mom I thought I had mono, but my skin was also really itchy, so much so that I would scratch until I bled. The doctor told me it was allergies.
But then I went to study abroad and was getting incredibly ill, all the time. I was diagnosed with strep, but when I still felt sick after treatment, the doctor at the health center referred me to a hematologist at a hospital on the outskirts of the city. I have this strong memory of taking the bus out there by myself and thinking, How dramatic would it be if I had cancer?
The doctor was like, “I think you might have some type of lymphoma. You need a biopsy. I think you should go back to the States.” I just kept thinking: But what if it’s nothing? I didn’t want everyone to think I was being super dramatic. Back at home they biopsied a lymph node and the results took a week or so. Meanwhile I’d gone to visit a friend in Philly and when I came home I was like, “Mom, look at this awesome Rihanna lipstick I bought!” and she was like, “You have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”
On Treatment & Privilege
Honestly, at that point that was the best case scenario (cancer-wise), because Hodgkin’s is fairly treatable and fairly common. I underwent 12 rounds of chemo over six months. Each time it was four to six hours of sitting in a chair, and then weeks of feeling lousy. My mom having to do all this physical stuff like help me put on my underwear after surgery. It was all just so humiliating.
Chemo itself is painful, but my experience was mostly boring. The boredom was totally tied to my privilege. I lived with my parents, I could take cabs, I could go to the movies in the middle of the day to avoid people when I was immunocompromised. Much later met a nurse who had also had Hodgkin’s, and she has two kids, one of whom was a baby when she got sick. She had to keep working, she told me. That wasn’t me. I didn’t worry about health care, and that flexibility started to make me really angry–that my experience wasn’t the standard for people who get sick.
On Life After Cancer
I think the cancer made me figure out earlier than most what I do and don’t care about. Losing my hair felt like a big deal at the time, and I did have moments–like when a security guard asked me, “Why would a beautiful woman like you shave your head?”—when I called my sister to cry. And when I went back to school in the fall, I had to figure out who looked at me differently, and who I still wanted in my life. But people would tell me how difficult they thought my life was, and I just kept thinking, but it could be so much worse! There are no sympathy Olympics, but I would tell people that my experience was really easy in certain ways. It made me a firm believer in nationalized health care. I went for my yearly check-up earlier this year and, without insurance, it would have been $2000, and all they did was draw my blood. I see those bills and I think, yeah, this is why people don’t go to the doctor, why people die from Hodgkin’s when they don’t have to.
My therapist is always trying to get me to talk about being sick. I have become much more anxious than I was, but also, who hasn’t? I often forget that I was ever sick. Or sometimes the cancer is just comedic relief, which sounds horrible. I’m dating now, and I have a hard time figuring out when to bring it up. Sometimes I will bring it up on a first date, and that seems weird, but then if I wait until the sixth date it’s, like, dramatic to blurt out, “I had cancer!”
I’d be surprised if I didn’t get cancer again. Maybe, if anything, I’ve become sort of nihilistic. I frequently think, well, who cares about the fact that I’m likely to get cancer again in my 70s? We’ll all be dead by then of climate change. My mom prompted me to freeze my eggs before I started chemo, god bless her, but my eggs will probably be destroyed in a hurricane before I decide I want kids. In the grand scheme of climate change, what’s having cancer?
Amelia, 21, transitioned three years ago.
On Gender Euphoria
I was never into “girly” stuff when I was young. I was a GI Joe and monster truck kinda kid. Even when I was in high school, and I had friends who were trans, I never thought to question my gender identity. But then about three years ago–I remember, it was really late at night and I was on the internet—I found this article about trans women, and realized that was exactly what I was. I felt this immediate kinship with all the trans women in the piece. It was like I finally understood that there was a community that I wanted to be associated with. I had always had more female friends than male friends, but I also felt this definitive difference between myself and my female friends. I realize now that is because they were all cis.
There’s a lot of talk in the trans community about gender dysmorphia, and feeling like you were born in the wrong body. I never felt that. The flipside of that feeling, though, is gender euphoria–finding something that makes you feel ecstatic about your gender identity. That’s what this was for me. I realized I had always settled for being a man.
On Evolving Relationships
I came out as trans to my mom about six months after those initial feelings, and she was not that accepting immediately. She’s from Kentucky, which is not the worst place to be gay or trans, but it’s definitely not the best. She grew up around gay people in the 80s and 90s getting the hell kicked out of them in the streets. There were no laws protecting gay and trans people in public spaces. Her first instinct when I came out was, Are you sure about this? Because this is going to be really hard for you. She was just afraid. Now she sends me online clothing deals, like, Check this out, it’s so cute.
My friends were great—they were willing to take me shopping, to talk to me about these feelings. I really just assumed that everyone I knew would be on board, or they wouldn’t be in my life.
My girlfriend was actually the most helpful. There’s always this fear that when you’re revealing something like this that your partner won’t understand it, or it will really affect the relationship, but she’s been one of my most vocal supporters. Obviously it changed our dynamic, because we’re no longer in a straight relationship. There were a lot of things I needed her to change so that I could feel the way I needed to feel—things about how we spoke to each other and how we related to each other that became very different after I transitioned. Our relationship has become a lot closer and stronger since then. We’d only been dating for a few months when all this started, now we’ve been together for three years.
On the First Steps
The first thing I did was change the pronouns I used to she and her, just to make sure it felt right. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of buying new clothes if just changing my pronouns felt weird. My mom wanted me to use they/them/their, I guess as a gateway, but that didn’t feel right. The next thing I did was experiment with makeup, which I was comfortable with because I had been a theatre kid. There’s often this expectation in the trans community that trans women become super feminine–like full ‘50s pin-up, dresses and kitten heels, all of that–like you have to be even more feminine than “real” women. That was never who I wanted to be.
I started hormone therapy about a year ago. That has been a really positive thing. It wasn’t a necessity, but it has made my life a lot better, just in terms of looking in the mirror and not hating what I see. It’s not that I necessarily had issues with my body before hormones, but I understood that people wouldn’t see me as a woman unless I changed certain things, and I hated that.
But during the first few months of hormones, it wasn’t a great time for me or my relationships. I was just really angry all the time. That did pass eventually, but honestly, I’ve never felt like I perceived or received emotions the way men traditionally do. That whole expectation of stoicism, or the lack of emotion that’s pushed on men–my mom raised me not to be that way. So that made my emotional transition easier, since I was outside the binary of masculine emotional expression. I was already able to express myself emotionally.
For my birthday this year, my mom is coming with me to get my legal name and gender marker changed. I feel like I’m not even halfway done on this journey. I still feel very young, very new at all of this. I know that my experience has been very outside the binary. The stories we’ve heard are all, I played with dolls as a kid, and I knew I was different, and no one let me express it and then I came out. But I liked my childhood. I was fine with being a guy until I thought about the other options. I just found something better.
Willa, 33, recently decided to freeze her eggs.
On Dating in Her 30s
I’ve known I wanted to be a mother from as early as I can remember. I overthink almost everything, and the only two things I’ve ever been certain about are that I like swimming and I want kids. When I think of a life without kids, my heart sinks.
About a year ago, I found myself in a very low place. It hadn’t worked out with the last several men I’d liked, and with more than one of them it fell apart when we addressed having kids. I loved casual dating in my twenties, but as I got older, first dates became these bizarrely pressurized events in which all I could think was, Could I have kids with you? Could I marry you? If we did hit it off, I’d get invested so quickly that it broke my heart if, after a few dates, he quite reasonably said he didn’t feel it. It felt like every time I went on a date I took my heart and future in my hands and tentatively passed it over, hoping someone would say, “Oh, yes, I can take control of this.”
All of this was compounded by my job. I’m an academic, which means that my future is almost comically unstable. So I suddenly found myself considering not only whether a date could be a good father, but whether there was time to fall sufficiently in love by, say, mid-March, to consider passing up a job offer for him or asking him to move with me to, I don’t know, Kentucky. I began to feel genuinely a little crazy, and moreover, resentful. I resented my job for not allowing me to be stable enough, I resented men I dated for not being superhuman, I even began resenting my friends. Becoming someone who couldn’t support my friends was the worst–there was some crabby, cruel, slithering part of me that was furious. Most of all, I resented how I felt. I hated this version of me.
On Taking Control
So I sat down and worked out what I could control and what I couldn’t: I couldn’t control getting a job or meeting the perfect person, but I could control doing my work, and I could control my body. So I made a five-year plan, one that didn’t include geography (out of my hands), a specific job (ditto), or a partner (same). Instead I set three goals: 1. Finish my book; 2. Start trying for a kid; 3. Deadlift 250 lbs. I have never been more relieved than the moment I decided that I would like a partner, but I will have kids. And that’s when I decided to freeze my eggs.
Going to the doctor for the first time was wild. My fertility clinic is sort of bougie, and my doctor is excessively empathetic. There’s a lot of holding hands, or looking me deeply in the eyes and saying, “I understand, I want you to feel empowered to make this decision.” And then in the waiting room, they always have HGTV playing. So I sit there, sipping my K-cup coffee, watching the Property Brothers talk to some couple that needs a bigger house because their fourth is on the way, while around me couples try to look brave for each other.
My ability to do this on my own is due to structural privilege and good luck. My parents both offered to help me pay (do you have any idea what this bullshit costs?), and their reaction was delight, not despair (although they definitely still try to set me up with the sons of people they barely know). And actually, everyone has been supportive.
As with all matters of women’s health, we all think we’re terribly alone until we speak up over a dinner party and it turns out half the table has experience with what we’re going through. The men in my life have all been supportive, too, if a little baffled. I don’t think it occurs to them that women might be thinking of this—I suspect they think it’s for much older women? I don’t know. Maybe they just don’t go to dinner parties of lots of 30-something women talking about their sexual and reproductive health. Which, their loss, really.
On Becoming Herself Again
This decision has definitely changed how I see my life. Dating became fun again, I got to be genuinely delighted for my friends again. So much of the language of self-care can sound sort of simpering to me, but it’s amazing how much making this choice has allowed me to show up again for others. I still cry at weddings and births, but from joy, not from self-pity. It’s amazing how selfish self-pity can make you, how small and mean it can make your world.
In a lot of ways. I feel like I’m testing out the edges of what I can control and then trying to, within that, feel more comfortable with what I can’t. I definitely feel less crazy. It’s nice to know I’m working towards what I want, rather than just sort of hoping it will happen. It has also freed up the mental space to try to really become okay with the terrifying idea of being a single mother. I’m not 100% there, but again: working on it!
Feature photo by Ernst Beadle/Condé Nast via Getty Images; collage by Emily Zirimis.