To teenage girls discovering their bodies and their image, the model confidently striding on the catwalk runway is both an icon and a source of pressure.
In Alyssa Brugman’s latest novel for young adults, Alex as Well, the heroine’s search for identity as a girl is particularly polarized and becomes part of a debate about how society expects girls to look and behave – and how hard it is to catch up if you have spent 14 years as a boy.
Alex was born intersex (one of approximately one in 2000 children whose gender is indeterminate at birth) and when the novel opens has challenged her parents’ decision to raise her as a boy by enrolling at a new school as a girl, having been bullied in her previous boy’s life.
The obstacles she faces are almost insurmountable but it’s her unexpected talents as a model that help her by giving her financial independence (therefore choice about her new life she builds for herself) and an instant community of creative professionals who accept her as she is and give her structure and boundaries. When her manager Lien berates Alex for being late it’s a rite of passage: her battles no longer all have to be about her gender.
Alex’s sheer good luck in having the right look to help her survive her predicament is not simply a plot device, says Alyssa, a top Australian young adult writer passing through London after the Hay Festival.
‘I did want to make people reflect on what we think is ideal in the body’
‘I did want to make people reflect on what we think is ideal in the body,’ she says. ’If you look at female models they are not shaped like girls or women, and we know all the pressure it puts on girls to have this look as an ideal, it’s a more androgynous than female look. There is a flip side to this in that everything Alex struggles with about her body, everything that seems male to her and not like other girls, makes her successful as a model.’
A longer version of Alex as Well formed the basis for Alyssa’s recently completed PhD on the unreliable narrator at Canberra University. So those who shape the story include the commentators on the online mothers’ forum to whom
Alex’s mother Heather turns in her long and hazardous journey to acceptance. A study of Heather’s main online combatant, Vic, is almost worth a novel in itself.
Heather and Alex’s father David are shown making all the difficult decisions that parents of teenagers might make, with the added pressure of unknown medical and psychological territory.
‘This is something we have barely thought about as a society, we’re in the very beginning of understanding it.’
The current recommended approach for parents of intersex children is, Alyssa says, ‘Watch, get lots of counselling and support the child till such time as the child can make the decision. Alex is 15 so his parents were working with less information and made their own decision. This is something we have barely thought about as a society, we’re in the very beginning of understanding it.’
Alyssa was led into Alex’s story by Jane McCreedy’s book Making Boys and Girls. ‘Throughout history there have been societies where intersex people are quite common and sometimes they have been revered as witchdoctors and shamans: it’s a positive thing.’
While Alex’s acting on an identity crisis opens the novel, his parents Heather and David have been living in crisis mode for 14 years, their child’s gender a pink elephant at the dinner table. It’s not surprising that Heather’s frustration and rage peaks at something comparatively unchallenging: Alex’s announcement that he is a vegetarian. David, meanwhile, allows himself to show grief when Alex hires a lawyer and leaves home.
A collection of reports from Alex’s succession of nursery schools adds to a picture of Alex as ‘not an easy child, quite a brat, extremely challenging for her parents and friends and hard to support’. It takes Alex time to feel a girl’s emotions strongly enough to ignore the self-hating monologue inside her head (in the form of constant sarcastic commentary from her angry boy-self), and this makes her appear cruel and unfeeling to the new friends who want to support her.
Most of Alex’s exploration of girl world is undertaken alone … she is learning by trial and error
Most of Alex’s exploration of girl world is undertaken alone (apart from the ‘other’ Alex in her head): she navigates her friendships and relationships while having to present a front of always having lived as a girl. On the way she is learning by trial and error about lingerie, depilation and girls’ changing rooms, with her hormones still responding under pressure as a boy.
Alyssa used The Lazy Crossdresser by Charles Anders as a resource for Alex’s journey towards dressing as a woman. ‘It’s a how-to guide for those who haven’t learned the things that girls learn from their mothers, like you don’t have to shave your whole leg and how to buy a bra.’
Anxiety over fashion and external appearance is a major preoccupation in the novel, and it’s the social pressure against males wearing dresses that, Brugman says, ‘has really given me fire in my belly. It’s acceptable in almost every culture, yet boys are insulted and abused for doing it.’
Alex’s story ends a few steps forward on her journey: she’s lonely while adjusting to her new independence and appears vulnerable, yet she has achieved the fantasy of many unhappy teenage girls in understanding what makes both genders tick and now has a level playing field for growing up.
Meanwhile, Alyssa is returning home to the Hunter Valley and her day job as a farrier (she has also written a series of horse stories). ‘Looking after horses’ feet keeps you grounded. Whatever’s going on they need doing every six weeks.’
In the same way, routine and everyday demands are what will get Alex through an apparently unconventional life that longs to be ordinary.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
Alex as Well Alyssa Brugman, Curious Fox, 978-1782020899, £6.99