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Principle I: The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign

"No one disputes the fact that linguistic

signs are arbitrary. But it is often easier

to discover a truth than to assign it to

its correct place." —Ferdinand de Saussure

During the summer between third and fourth grade, I stopped recognizing myself.

Each time I looked at my reflection, there was less and less I could identify as me. The image looking back at me had slowly become someone else. 

It’s uncanny—disturbing even—to look at yourself and feel not just disconnected but entirely separate. Logically, I knew that person with the bright blonde hair and dagger-edged cherub face was me, but my mind could not reconcile the disjunction. 

Still, each morning as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and changed, I tried to find something of this other me that I could confidently call my own.

In the mirror stood the other me: shirtless, face scrunched up, and eyes narrowed. I searched their body for something I could call mine. Perhaps the eyes? The little old ladies in my grandmother’s bridge club always cooed that I had the same blue-green eyes as my dad. The other me and I shook our heads, those weren’t the eyes I knew I had. Then maybe the shoulders? No, we agreed, the other me’s shoulders were much too sharp and narrow.

My eyes stopped on the chest, flat and pale. 

Me and the other me frowned, neither of us knew what to make of this part of our bodies. 

I remember once as a toddler, poking at my mother’s chest as she held me on her hip. I was fascinated by the strangeness of the flesh, the way it jiggled and bounced back, how it was so different from my own body. I giggled with each poke, until finally my mother told me to stop it. I asked her what they were, and she told me honestly: “They’re called breasts. Every girl gets them someday.”

The other me and I stood in front of the mirror, exaggerating each exhale of breath to make our chests imitate a feminine swell, imagining a future body. Perhaps I would recognize it—perhaps it would make me make sense.

“Girl,” I said. 

The word felt thick in my ears, a numbing sort of presence which throws the entire body off-kilter, like the air pressure in an airplane—I felt the urge to pinch my nose and blow until the word popped out of my ears. 

“You’re a girl,” the other me replied. I know you are, but what am I?

I watched the other me’s chest, lithe and taut like the flank of a frightened deer, blotching red as we held our breath, trembling beneath the weight of that word that our bodies could not seem to bear, of a shape it could not maintain, trying not to crumble under the mounting pressure.

Behind me, the blue walls of the bathroom were topped with a wallpaper border depicting sailboats bobbing just off a rocky shoreline. At times like this, looking at a body I simultaneously knew was mine and could not recognize, it was easy to imagine myself as a deep-sea creature, translucent and soft-bellied, with anatomy that defied time and science, hiding far below the surface where those sailboats hovered. Fish don’t need air, I thought to myself as my vision began to swim.

 I lurched forward, catching myself on the lip of the sink, my body trying to swallow as much air as it could in one go. At this angle, hunched over, I was finally faced with my body, not that of my reflection. 

 With each shuddering breath, my chest seemed to fold in on itself, like a clam, shielding its most tender flesh. And suddenly that was all I could see: pink skin stretched taut across my ribs, radial ridges of a shell opening and closing itself. When the dissonance between sight and thought became too much to handle, I yanked my shirt over my head and hurried out of the bathroom and down the stairs.


Saussure discusses the nature of the linguistic sign and its incredibly fickle existence. Language, according to Saussure, is a defined, concrete object whose existence hinges upon a social contract: everyone agreeing that words have a set meaning or meanings. But despite its purportedly concrete nature, Saussure acknowledges that language is an inherently psychological entity, its form and function subject to the individual, and thus impossible to pin down completely. 


I didn’t want to go outside. All of my friends were either at summer camp or gone on family vacations, so my only options were either to play alone or with the neighborhood boys. But I knew if I didn’t go, my mother would eventually push me out the door herself.

It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with them, we did our southern best to tolerate each other, but as we’d grown older the boys wanted to play basketball or soccer, games with too many rules for me to remember or care about. There were only so many times they could remind me, “You can’t hold the ball while you move; you have to dribble it!” before they got frustrated and stopped playing altogether. 

I chose the company of the boys—mostly because one of them, Hunter, had a trampoline, a big one surrounded by netting, nestled under the oak trees of his backyard.

But even in the shade, the boiling air visibly wavered along the aluminum springs and nylon mat. The bits of blue sky peeking through the foliage were so sharp I had to squint, eyes throbbing. We bounced lethargically, desperate to generate some semblance of a breeze against our skin.

“It’s too hot,” Hunter groaned, repeatedly pulling at the front of his shirt to fan his sweaty torso. The other boy, Bobby, grumbled incoherently in agreement. I could feel my bangs plastered to my forehead, leading the sweat straight to my eyes so that I was constantly wiping at my brow.

I’ve never been good at handling heat, and that’s a problem when you grow up in the South. Summer starts in May and ends at the earliest in September. June, July, and August are filled with triple-digit temperatures. The heat doesn’t just envelop you, it sinks below the skin and sits thick in the body until your very bones feel waterlogged with sweat and humidity, weighing you down.

When it became clear that their efforts weren’t doing anything to help, Hunter and Bobby shed their shirts, jumping with renewed vigor at the feeling of fresh air rushing against their skin. 

I was stunned.

I don’t know why that moment in particular felt like a revelation, it wasn’t as if I had never seen a boy’s chest before. But that was usually at pools, where it was understood that boys could be bare-chested but girls could not, where the gendered dress code established what was possible. 

Here, hidden behind trees and fix-foot suburban privacy fences, the rules were unclear. The only thing I could understand as truth in that moment was that their chests were identical to my own. Suddenly, that disjointed image of the chest in my reflection fit back into my body.


Despite his assessment that language is a defined, concrete entity, Saussure acknowledges that it, like any established system, is subject to evolution. Language is as organic as any living creature, constantly shifting its appearance and functions, shedding words like old limbs, growing wings in their place, adapting its body to satisfy the ever-changing circumstances of its environment.


That day I discovered the language of my body shared a cognate with those of my neighbors. A similar visual syntax of skin and bones that formed our little flat chests. I could see myself in them, and suddenly I could speak my own language a little better. 

It dawned on me that it wasn’t that I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror, it was that I was calling myself the wrong words. Like looking at an apple and declaring it a pear. Your brain knows that’s not the right word and refuses to agree that the fruit it’s seeing is a pear. 

“Girl” was the word I’d been taught to say when I looked at my body and others like it, much the same way Hunter and Bobby were taught to say “boy” when looking at theirs. But with no adults here to remind me of the rules, of who was who and what was what, recognizing my body in places that words told me I shouldn’t, I could see how little those markers really meant. 

Emboldened by that realization, I grabbed the hem of my shirt and yanked it over my head, throwing the garment to the trampoline mat and sighing with relief as the air caressed my skin. While the temperature was no better than it had been with my shirt on, now my own heat was not trapped against my sweltering skin. But more than that, it felt right to be shirtless just like them.

The boys shrieked as they scrambled away from me, alternating between averting their eyes and eviscerating me with narrowed gazes. “What are you doing? Put your shirt back on!” 

I flinched at their voices, hands instinctively shooting up to wrap around my exposed torso. How could they not see what I did? How could they not read the nearly identical images of our chests, like a word lent from one language to another?

“Why?” I asked, struggling to understand their disgust.

“Because girls can’t take their shirts off!”

While it had never been outright stated to me, I was aware, in some abstract way, that boys and girls were different—it was a fact of life that lay implied just below the surface of many things which felt seemingly indifferent to the concept of gender. But I could not make sense of this: it wasn’t like long hair and short hair or dresses and suits, objects so visually distinct—our chests bore no physical difference, so why could I not go shirtless like my neighbors?

I shamefully wormed my way back into my t-shirt, damp fabric catching against my sweaty skin, dragging in a way that made me feel rubbed raw, like every stitch was grabbing hold of my flesh and pulling. And I wanted it to. I wanted to shed that disgust, that’s all my skin was now, something filthy and fearful.

“Let’s play popcorn,” I said, still adjusting the hem of my shirt, trying to pull it down further, as if I could recede into the fabric entirely. I was desperate to undo the damage my body had caused, to make things normal again. My neighbors fervently agreed, just as eager to forget what had transpired. I curled into a ball, knees held tight to my chest, as Hunter and Bobby bounced up and down with all their might in an effort to make me “pop,” to make my limbs spring out to catch myself and stop the perpetual tumult.


Saussure argues that linguistic signs are made up of two parts: a concept and a sound-image. The latter being “the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses.” 

Looking at my chest today, flat once again, like that child so many years ago, twin scars like fault lines marking where I finally ruptured, the pressure of my body too great, the image is bittersweet; while in my eyes it reads as joyful, profound truth, it also comes with the sonic imprint of others, of how they say “chest” when looking at mine. And as time has gone on more and more sonic imprints echo forth from the sight of my chest: the words of figureheads, news anchors, and talk show hosts playing at political pundits; think pieces mass-produced to debate the rights of every child’s clothing choice or sports team. But before any of that, the image of my chest will always echo what Hunter and Bobby said that summer day, their disgust and fear.


It wasn’t hard to excuse myself from hanging out with the boys, they were just as eager to get rid of me as I was to get away.

I tried to keep my steps measured and casual as I made my way across the street to my house because I knew they had climbed the back rails of Hunter’s fence to watch me go, eyes peeking over the pickets, perhaps to see if I would break down once I thought they weren’t there.

When I was safely back in my house, leaning against the front door, I began to tremble. I raced up the stairs before anyone could see me and locked myself in the bathroom. I moved to wrap my arms around my heaving body, but when my hands met the fabric of my shirt, a sob broke in my constricting throat. I tore off everything I could, not just my clothes but those lingering glares, the words that had been drawn like borders across my body separating me from those parts of myself that had been categorized as female, not me, and threw them into a heap in the corner. I whirled to face the mirror. 

It was me. Finally, I could see myself.

I clambered atop the vanity, trying to get as close to myself as possible, palms slapping against the mirror. The porcelain of the countertop was frigid against my sweat-slick skin, and my body jerked forward with the shudder it sent through me. In the mirror, my tiny chest was heaving, skin blotchy from the heat and crying. With each rise and fall of my chest, the boats on the top of the wall rocked through the tumultuous waves.


KLEIN VOORHEES is a writer, artist, and translator from North Carolina, currently working as an assistant editor of poetry at Narrative Magazine. Their work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Arkansas International, Modern Poetry in Translation, BODY, and The Offing. You can find more of their work at


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