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Bastian Fox Phelan: a note on How to Be Between

Bastian Fox Phelan reflects on How to Be Between (May 2022)their debut memoir. 

I wrote How to Be Between because I had never read a story like mine. For a long time, I didn’t even know anyone who, like me, had the ability to grow facial hair as a female-assigned person. All I had were the narratives that had been imposed upon me – that female facial hair is aberrant, unsightly, shameful. That it should be hidden from sight and never spoken about. But I didn’t want to hide, and I didn’t see why I should feel bad about the way my body was.

This book has its origins in a zine called Ladybeard which I published in 2010 after growing out my facial hair for the first time. I knew I wanted to write more, but first I had to learn how to exist as a person who is visibly between sex and gender norms. My interactions with others showed me how deeply ingrained the gender binary is, and how people still seek to control how girls and women look. Although I had refused to accept invisibility and silence, these experiences often robbed me of my voice.

Writing allowed me to respond to the demands of a society that loves to categorise. From the first appearance of the hair in my early teens, and the need to survive high school, through multiple shifts in identity, friendships, family relationships, political activity, and artistic practice in my twenties, I have tried to find a way to articulate who I am. For me, writing has always been a bridge: between the self and others, between the material and the spiritual.

In writing How to Be Between I realised that my story was about much more than hair. It is about claiming an individual identity, and communicating this, but it is also about how we exist in relationship with others, always, and how precious these relationships are. Finding the balance is an ongoing project. 

I worked on  How to Be Between from my late twenties to my mid-thirties. For as long as I have been at work on this book, this book has been at work on me. Writing helped me accept my own fluid nature, and it gave me permission to continue changing and growing. I hope that reading this book brings comfort and joy to others who may sometimes feel that the world is not big enough to contain all that they are. And I hope it helps people engage with questions around gender norms, self-worth, and self-expression – questions that need to be asked, but don’t always need to be answered.

— Bastian Fox Phelan

Photo: Simone De Peak