The fashion industry isn’t always as glamorous as it is in The Devil Wears Prada, but it feels every bit as stressful. In the five years I spent in the industry, I survived long days of feeling constantly afraid of my boss’ temper tantrums. Deadlines chased me around New York City like a hungry cheetah stalking sleepy prey.
My only solace was the short walk to the coffee shop two blocks away from my office, where I’d guzzle two-to-four iced coffees per day. I was only making my problem worse. Caffeine significantly increases cortisol levels in the body. The hormone is released by the body during stressful situations—thanks, body!—and caffeine can trigger chronic stress and prolonged release of cortisol. Chronic stress, in turn, can lead to poor sleep hygiene, and mine was absolutely wrecked.
I couldn’t sleep at night, plus my midday coffee binges were turning my insides into lava. My stomach was in knots even when my boss didn’t throw a fit, and I barely had an appetite. Even when I could get my body to stop tossing and turning, agonizing stomach pains kept me up. I was running on fumes, continuing to take on an intense workload on a few hours of sleep.
Things were so unbearable that one day I left work early, clutching my roaring stomach all the way to the urgent care waiting room. The doctor told me that my acid reflux had turned into full-blown gastritis. She asked me to change my diet immediately: cut down on fried foods, avoid dairy, eat more leafy greens, and, most importantly, cut caffeine from my diet altogether.
The first few days of caffeine withdrawal were rough. My sleep debiting finally caught up with me and I kept falling asleep on the train. The cravings were intense: Even the smell of coffee drove me bananas. I was an addict in the throes of detox, but I stayed strong because I was finally falling asleep at night. Under caffeine’s influence, I had thought of sleep as a luxury instead of a necessity.
For the first time in a long time, I started sleeping eight-to-10 hours every night. It was transformative. I felt like a whole new person—a sane one who could say no to extra unpaid work and set boundaries around bosses who have tantrums.
But there was one change I didn’t anticipate: I started dreaming again. And those dreams carried messages that would change my life.
Where there had long been a dreamless void, my dreams were suddenly wild and expansive. Beyoncé appeared to me with wise messages almost every night, sometimes in the form of a talking constellation over digital savannas, à la Mufasa in The Lion King, and other times from the sandy shores of her “Drunk in Love” music video. I’d usually forget what Her Majesty had said to me by the next morning, so I began keeping a dream journal next to my bed to take notes.
My early-morning handwriting was garbage. When I looked back at the journal, it took me a minute to translate the scribble into Beyoncé’s sage advice: “Mmmm, that was a delicious salad from Sweetgreen, but you’re spending a li’l too much money on lunch, babe.” I’m sad to report that I didn’t follow through on this direction, and I would regret it months later when I finally quit that horrible job. My poor budgeting led me to scrounge around for quarters to buy chickpeas, but, in return, I finally found time to recover from a prolonged period of chronic stress.
Once I committed to taking better care of myself, my dreams gave me clearer direction. In one recurring dream, I’m standing behind a pair of red velvet curtains. I peek behind the curtains and find an audience of intensely beautiful genderqueer people dressed in the best finery. At the time I began having this dream, I identified as a cis queer woman, so I was shocked to find that, in my sleep, a crowd of genderfluid goddexxes were literally waiting for me to come out.
I look down and notice that instead of 38GG sandbags, I have a flat chest with solid pec muscles that formed their own cleavage, which peaks out of an ice-blue top with glittery brocade and long sleeves. Below that is a giant blue taffeta skirt of the same color. I find the hair of my giant blonde wig and gasp, Oh my god! This is the iconic outfit that Lizzie McGuire wore for her performance with lip-synching Italian con artist Paolo Valisari in The Lizzie McGuire Movie!
“Ladies and genderqueers … ” A spotlight shines on the velvet curtains and the announcer’s voice fills the bar. “The moment you have all been waiting for … ” The crowd goes wild. I break into a nervous sweat that makes my foundation bleed onto my beard. Wait, what!? I have a beard!? “The one … the only … ” Wow, this is really soft, I wonder which beard care products I use … “HILARY SCRUFF!”
The opening beats and lyrics of “What Dreams Are Made Of'' fill the smoky bar and my body magically remembers every step of the movie’s choreography. Back-up dancers appear out of nowhere to rip the fluffy skirt off of my waist during the bridge. I gear up for the key change at the next chorus and realize I’ve been lip-synching this entire time. Duh, that’s what drag kings do! I’m shocked at the bass of my real voice under the track.
Beneath the skirt is a pair of ballooning bell bottoms that would be flattering on nobody except for me in this dream and the real Hilary Duff. I’m jumping around the stage and my genderqueer audience chants with me. Shout to the sky! This is what dreams are made of!
As the last chorus comes to an end, I make my way back to my mark. The song finds its final beats as I unzip my top and reveal a chiseled masculine physique. I throw the top off of my shoulders and end in a triumphant pose with my arms held up to the spotlight. The audience showers me with praise and sunflowers.
I wave goodnight to the crowd, buzzing with gender euphoria. Holy shit! This feels like a dream! The second I find my bearded self wishing that I could stay here forever, the dream begins to fade. Sunlight knocks on my eyelids and I feverishly write every memory in my dream journal.
In some versions of the dream, Beyoncé comes backstage and tells me, “Leo, you did a great job. But honestly, you picked a pretty niche drag king persona. Hilary Duff has, like, three singles total.” Beyonce, you make a solid point, I think, but wait … did you just call me Leo!? What a great name. Three singles is all Hilary Scruff ever needed.
Just as I did with Beyoncé’s Sweetgreen advice, I took my time to parse out the subliminal messages that my gender is shifting. It’s been a long, scary road to becoming my authentic self, yet every day I uncover more joy and playfulness in this non-binary body than I ever thought possible. Ditching my iced coffee habit was the first of many small steps that allowed me to dream in many genders.
Leo Aquino (they/them) is a storyteller living in Los Angeles. They write stories about relationships, sexual wellness and culture. Follow them on Instagram @sunshine.baby.leo.