Caterpillar Soup: A Trans Girl Finds Her Style

In 2014, hundreds of butterflies busted out of cocoons, dried their wings, and took flight around me.

The butterflies stumbled drunk in the Osher Rainforest, a building nestled in the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The building was four stories tall. The glass dome stretched ninety feet in diameter and the room was filled with butterflies, so many butterflies I was dizzy.

A teenaged girl admired the exhibit in front of us, butterflies wiggling in their chrysalis until they broke free, the cocoon spitting up the goo that had housed each creature like saliva. I zeroed in on her outfit, the room drawing blank until it was nothing but a cloud of white noise. The outfit was simple, dark jeans and a loose white tank top with a laced bra underneath — a glimmer of possibility. An alarm rang in my head, screaming YOU COULD WEAR THAT AND IT WOULD LOOK CUTE. Clothes are like that sometimes, hitting some nerve inside me that says I need the boots, or the cape, or the ring, or that jean jacket, or those hoop earrings, or the sunglasses, or the mini skirt. It is like the clothing is begging me to find something like it, to wear its replica.

Eventually, the girl disappeared into the cloud of butterflies. I was heavy with sweat, the room hot and humid.

Back then, before I came out as a woman, when I thought I was a cis man, I still dressed on the femme side of the fashion spectrum, opting for dangling crystals for earrings, fingernail polish, and lots of jewelry. I told myself I was a cis, queer man who liked makeup, because cis men can dress femme and not feel differently about their gender. I told myself this every few days, a reminder like a nervous tic.

A week later I spent an entire Saturday running around San Francisco, obsessed with my need for this lace bra. I perused racks of bras at the fast fashion shops, looking for the one inside my brain, something strapless, that teased as to what could be under my shirt.

I wanted to linger on the laces and velvets, but I also wanted to get the fuck out of there. Even in San Francisco I got stares. At one point while shopping a woman yelled at her daughter to stay away from me before turning to me and yelling something vile in French whose meaning I could only guess. She yelled so loud, spittle rocketed from her mouth and landed on the rack between us. I rolled my eyes and moved on, and when I found nothing, I walked out onto the sidewalk. The sun beat loud and hot on my face. The trolley dinged her bell in front of me. I sobbed.

Eventually I found the bra of my dreams. A strapless beauty with delicate lace flowers licking the full length of the bandeau. I bought three. It became my go-to clubbing look: lace bra under a tank top with bright red lipstick wetting my lips. I loved it so much, it soon became my only clubbing look. The outfit made me chic, made me femme, made me delicate, made me pretty, made me cool, made me comfortable. It introduced me to the ecstatic.

When I was a kid, my aunt had an electric fence that ran between her backyard and a field of horses. I liked to stand at the back fence and feed the horses carrots, and sometimes my elbow would bump against it and a rush of current would run along my arm. I couldn’t do it too many times or I’d get sick, but sometimes I touched the fence on purpose, a reminder of what the electricity felt like. Once my cousin and I were playing, rough housing, and I fell into the fence. My cousin had to pull me up off the wire. I never went near it after that. No more rough housing. I wouldn’t even feed the horses.

At various times in my life, there has been an electrical fence that runs between man and woman. When I was young, the electrical current was so strong, I couldn’t walk anywhere near the fence. I did not beg my mother to let me wear dresses. I never tried on my older sister’s heels. I did not ask to go as a princess for Halloween. I was terrified of the fence. This meant that early on in my transition, I thought myself a failure as a trans woman, having only been able to name these desires in adulthood.

I have known people who walked alongside the fence and others for whom the fence didn’t seem to exist. There were times when I walked near the fence, but I couldn’t ever stay next to it for too long.

In 2014, I spent the summer after the butterflies wearing lace bras and lipstick and piles of jewelry, but I was walking too close to the electric fence for too long. Too zapped. Fried. For some reason that is unfathomable to me now, I decided to grow out my beard. I told myself I should know what it’s like to wear a beard at least once in my life, really settle into the field of masculinity. The grass is always greener after all. I grew out my denial beard and stopped wearing so much jewelry, stopped painting my nails, no more lace bras. I took to wearing button-up shirts and I grew my hair long.

It bothers me that no one talks about how messy the metamorphous of a butterfly is.

The story is told like:
Caterpillar crawls into cocoon.
Time passes.
A beautiful butterfly flutters away.

In reality, a caterpillar decides it is time to become a butterfly and so she spins a cocoon around herself, weaving silken thread into an impenetrable shell. She hides. Her transformation requires hibernation. The caterpillar dissolves herself using enzymes from her own stomach. She eats herself from the inside out and it must be like the way change happens for all of us, a secret deep down that even we can’t acknowledge that burns and dissolves our insides until there is nothing solid left. Eventually the caterpillar becomes entirely liquid, caterpillar soup. I wonder if the caterpillar experiences limitless possibilities when it is a goo. She must think she can rebuild herself anyway she wants, but everything a caterpillar needs to become a butterfly is already contained in its own cells from birth. It is already written, and so from the soup comes the butterfly. She rebuilds herself, puts all the right parts into their slots and readies for emerging. The enzymes that digest the caterpillar, break her down to become goo, and then transform her into a butterfly are wet like spit, so when it is time for the butterfly to come out of the cocoon, the cocoon explodes and the enzymatic goo splats through the air. Once a butterfly cracks through her cocoon, it can take up to an hour for enough blood to flow to erect her wings for her first flight.

I have been caterpillar soup for most my adult life.

I was at my messiest when I had a beard. I was miserable. I drank every night. I lashed out at those around me. I hated that side of the electric fence. In 2017 I got sober and a few months later I shaved off the beard.

From there, it was fast. My gender snowballed, and I came out six months later.

It’s a strange feeling, finally understanding why you’ve felt so wrong for so long. Before I came out, before I stepped near the fence, before my stomach acid gurgled with the possibility of change, I felt alien.

When I was a child, I thought I might be a literal alien, an extraterrestrial, slimy and green, zipped up in a human suit. On hot summer nights, I slept on the big trampoline in our backyard in Salem, OR. I watched the night sky, searching for UFOs and praying one would swoop down and take me back to my home planet, wherever it was I was really from. Each morning I woke up wet with dew, stuck on earth.

Even after I came out, the electric fence was still terrifying, especially early on. In fact, it got stronger after I admitted I was a woman. Or I was more aware of it. Or maybe I was too much caterpillar soup, nothing solid so the electricity surged through the goo, begging to touch the ground. Those early days, it was rarely gender euphoria, just dysphoria all the time.

The first dress I bought was an accident. I was at the mall buying slacks for my sister’s wedding, at a time when I was still not out to my family. While shopping, I found what I thought was a long t-shirt. In the dressing room I tried on the slacks, found they fit, and then promptly took them off, kicking them to the corner. I pulled the top on. I was delighted to find it stretched far past my ass: a dress. The horn of Durer’s Rhinoceros, a tattoo on my right thigh, poked out from under the hem. That day, I purchased the last pair of men’s slacks and the first dress I’d ever own.

Friends came into town the next night and I wore the dress out to dinner at the fancy French restaurant. It was nothing special, a burnt orange t-shirt style dress with rolled-up sleeves, but all night I felt cosmopolitan. I felt gorgeous. I felt easy. It was the feeling I’d found when I’d worn the lace bandeau bra for the first time. I had been welcomed back into the ecstatic.

From then on, it was dresses all the time. I came out to more and more people. Friends brought over garbage bags full of old sweaters, dresses, and blouses. My sisters mailed me makeup, and I took everything. If I could squeeze it over my body, I kept it. The first year of second puberty is fucking brutal. My tits were sore all the time, so sore that I spent six months sleeping on my back, my least favorite sleeping position. I was inexplicably emotional. One night I watched Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born and sobbed the hardest when she was singing in the parking lot with a bag of peas on her knuckles. Some days I couldn’t believe the leaps I’d bound, how far over the fence I’d wandered, and how much of my old body had dissolved into goo. Other days it felt like I wasn’t moving forward, and I often got upset that coming out and starting hormones hadn’t completely cured my depression and anxiety, even though I was far less anxious and far happier.

For anyone reading this who is at this particular moment, I am sorry, but I promise that transitions settle. You stop thinking about your gender so much. Your body creaks with familiarity. Hormones find balance. For me, it was eighteen months after starting HRT. It was like waking up from a coma, and my first thought was who the hell’s clothes are these? Wearing a dress was so liberating and brought so much joy that I didn’t stop to think about what my personal style was. It felt miles better than what I’d worn before — the button-up shirts, the ties, the beard — so I didn’t care if it wasn’t exactly me. It was better than before, and I wasn’t going back to before. I wondered what it would look like to embrace a style beyond femme, something personal that spoke to who I was.

Early in my transition, my gender math had to be heavy and complex, like trigonometry. I had to wade deep into marshes of femmehood to be seen as a woman. I bleached my long hair and wore brightly colored dresses and layers of makeup to hide the stubble like coffee grounds on my chin, but as I moved into year two of my transition and my breasts and hips grew and my face softened, I didn’t need to rely so heavily on clothes and makeup. My body did a lot of work for me. Years of estrogen stripped the electrical fence of its power, so now it lay dismantled in the grass. I became a borderless woman who was allowed to meander about in gender. I discovered I could get away with a t-shirt and jeans and still not be misgendered. Laser and electrolysis did wonders for hair removal, so I no longer had to paint layers of orange concealer and foundation to disappear my stubble like a trick of the eye. I found I didn’t really enjoy most of the clothes in my closet. Nothing matched my style and it made me feel like a fraud all over again.

It was a good thing I enjoyed shopping; I always have. I started chasing the high of thrifting I’d felt in high school. Once I opened the field of possibility of who I could look like, I slipped back into my first true fashion love: a punk/goth aesthetic. I perused racks at thrift shops for band tees and jeans and black dresses and velvet glories. I bought black leather boots and the perfect leather jacket. I wore giant pentagram earrings. I dyed my hair dark and cut it into a short bob. The more I settled into what I wanted to look like, the more frequently I felt the ecstatic: the feeling I’d been chasing since the butterflies. I moved past feeling comfortable in my body and started to feel hot. Like really hot.

I think I’m still goo. It’s a difficult question to answer because I might not ever have an “emerging from the chrysalis” moment. Maybe if I’m always working on myself then I’m always caterpillar soup. Or maybe I emerge from the cocoon, only to feel my stomach rumble with the possibility of change and know that I must return to the chrysalis. I don’t mind being caterpillar soup. I like the cocoon. It’s warm and dark and it feels like I can rebuild myself into whoever I want to be. Everything I need to become the person I’m meant to be is already written in my cells.

Emme Lund’s debut novel, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest, is out today.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Emme Lund

Emme Lund is an author living and writing in Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA from Mills College. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Time, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, and many more. In 2019, she was awarded an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Fiction. The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is her first novel.

Emme has written 1 article for us.


  1. I’ve always related to the caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly metaphor more than the whole ‘egg’ thing, and this piece does a wonderful job of explaining why. Thank you for writing this.

    • This Resonates with me so much I’m actually crying as I write this I have always felt like the butterfly in it’s transformative begining scared helpless and full of denial about who “My True Self” is.
      After my public coming out I got a butterfly Tattoo with a Cancer ribbon body and Transgender Flag Colors for the Butterfly’s Wings now it reminds me that like it I too will one day spread my new wings and fly high with Joy for the new “Authentic Version of my True Inner Self”

  2. I had to stop reading partway through because this brings up so much for me, and I had to circle back later to read more of your wonderful prose. Thank you for sharing about how you’ve been moving through this metamorphosis.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!