Each month, the SELF Well-Read Book Club highlights a timely, delightful, and crucial book on a subject that helps readers live better lives. So far, we’ve covered everything from the politics of running to the state of modern motherhood. This month we’re reading Geena Rocero’s new memoir, Horse Barbie. Below, read an excerpt where Rocero details her experience with an eczema flare on the eve of her thirtieth birthday—and how, ultimately, it was the catalyst that inspired her to come out publicly as trans, once and for all. Read more about why we chose this month’s pick here.
On the surface, my life seemed to be going well. I had a wonderful man by my side who loved me unconditionally, in a way that inspired me to love myself more. My modeling work, which had once driven me to the brink, made me feel powerful and in control. I was unlocking new depths to myself, feeling more confident than ever in claiming the fullness of who I was. But my body begged to differ.
It started with an itch between my fingers. Then, I noticed a big red rash above my right elbow and over both knees. Bumpy welts formed around my navel, seemingly overnight. The itch spread everywhere, beginning with my feet and slowly creeping upward, as if I were pulling on a scratchy bodysuit, inch by excruciating inch. I went to a doctor, who thought I might have scabies, but the cream she gave me did nothing. The itch kept spreading, eventually reaching my scalp.
What the fuck was happening to me?
The first time I had an issue with my skin, I was eight years old. Big, patchy bruises appeared all over my body—giant blue-black circles that were totally painless. How they got there was a mystery. After puzzling over them for a few days, Mama took me a few towns over to see an albularyo, an animistic healer who could reverse illnesses caused by the taong-lupa surrounding all of us.
Years later, dealing with another skin mystery, I needed answers again. I was just about ready to go looking for an albularyo in the Filipino-town in Queens, but decided to see a dermatologist first. She inspected my arms and elbow, explaining that she was checking for scabies, even though we had already ruled that out. Between all her poking and prodding, she asked what treatments I had tried so far. I was ashamed to be seen like this. My whole body was covered in rashes. I felt as if I had somehow failed my body. I was totally helpless.
Finally, she stood up and met my eyes. “This looks like eczema to me.” Her voice was calm yet firm.
Her certainty was a relief. Now that we knew what it was, she could give me some drugs, and we’d end this nightmare once and for all! I was ready to bolt out of there with a prescription, rush to the nearest pharmacy, and fix it. To my surprise, though, she didn’t reach for her notepad. “What is going on with you emotionally?” she asked.
I started, taken aback. What did my emotions have to do with my eczema? “What do you mean?” I asked.
She didn’t speak right away, but the kindness in her expression surprised me. She was asking out of genuine concern, as a sister or a friend might. I felt cared for. Seen. Somehow she could tell that underneath my raw and painful skin was a heart crying for help so quietly that even I hadn’t heard it. Before she could speak, I burst into tears.
Coming out as trans to my partner, Norman—showing the entirety of myself to him—had been a major step. But there were still so many people I was keeping in the dark, so much of myself that I was editing out anytime I opened my mouth to speak. My life had been one long transformative, transpacific, transcontinental, transgender journey, and by staying stealth—living as a woman without telling others I was trans—I was showing only one tiny sliver of it to everyone else.
The rash all over my skin was trying to tell me something. The message was etched all over my body; my insides were crying out to be heard.
“I need to honor my eczema!” I blurted out between sobs, right in the middle of the exam room. I knew what I needed to do; all I had to figure out was the timing and the method.
“Take care of yourself,” my dermatologist told me as I left her office that day, after giving me a prescription for steroids and some instructions for lowering my stress level while managing the pain.
Walking up Church Street after the appointment, I had a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, stretching all the way uptown. There was a skip in my step, as all the city’s possibilities spread out in front of me. Usually I hated being seen with my rash, but that afternoon I felt like the woman on the street in one of those Maybelline commercials: “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s stress!”
When I got home to the Upper West Side apartment I shared with Norman, I was tempted to tell him everything I’d realized. But I wanted to keep it to myself for now. To let the idea marinate. This was a step in my journey I wanted to figure out myself first.
A few weeks later, Norman asked me how I wanted to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. “Tulum!” I told him a little too quickly. It was obvious I had been waiting for him to ask. The rash had subsided by then—not all the way, but enough to give me some relief—through a combination of medicine, yoga, and meditation, although the true healing was coming from deep within my soul. If stress had caused my eczema, I needed to get my feet in the sand and an umbrella in my drink, pronto.
The property we stayed at—Residencia Gorila—was gorgeously appointed. In the middle of the lush courtyard was a small, five-foot-deep dipping pool, and the shared outdoor kitchen was kitted out with a stove, a refrigerator, and a blender. Every morning I woke up at five to watch the sunrise on the beach, admiring the way the light arced over the ocean, painting the massive, billowing clouds in tropical shades of orange, purple, and pink.
As Norman and I acclimated to Tulum, measuring time in sunrises and siestas, we got invited to local activities, away from the tourist traps. We went to one of the tallest houses in the middle of the forest, made from local wood, with a rooftop that looked out over an endless expanse of trees. We floated in our life vests at Sian Ka’an, a marine biosphere that fed the ancient winding Mayan canals.
Toward the end of our trip, we planned to go to a Sunday salsa dance on the beach. It seemed like the perfect send-off. When we arrived that night, we found the dance floor—really just a spot on the beach—crowded with people swinging back and forth, their bodies fully surrendered to the beat of the drum. We were barefoot in the sand, the enticing smells from the restaurant mingling with the aroma of the salty sea breeze as it blew in from the shore. We were in heaven. I let myself go completely, stomping my feet harder and harder, grinning from ear to ear. My margarita was sloshing out of my glass onto the sand, but I didn’t care. Not one bit. I felt free. Liberated. New.
Norman must have noticed. He turned to me during a break in the music, caught my gaze, and asked, “Gee . . . what does turning thirty mean to you?”
Those seven words pierced me: What does turning thirty mean to you? My answer would encompass everything I had been holding in emotionally—all the worries, fears, and self-imposed limitations. Turning thirty meant leaving all that behind.
I looked him in the eye, then leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Love, I’m ready to come out. I’m ready to tell my story.”
For a moment, I felt suspended in time. I’d spoken aloud the truth that had been burning in my heart since my appointment with the dermatologist. I’m not sure I had ever actually said the words come out aloud before. For many years, they had bubbled up to the front of my mind, only for me to shove them back down into the darkness. The truth wasn’t just something I could let out and leave behind; the truth would ask things of me, pulling me into a future where I would have to be open, transparent, and bold. I was afraid of my truth. I was afraid of how pure it was. Before I knew the world saw people like me as an abomination, I had been a child who just wanted to express her femme self, who couldn’t help but walk with a kembot sway down the street. Being as honest as that child again would be a challenge indeed.
In the second after I spoke, I thought about taking back what I had said to Norman. Could I really be the person the truth would require me to be? Could I stand, exposed, without the protective walls I had built around myself? But I held Norman’s gaze, digging my toes into the sand as the salsa music continued to play in the background, and realized I was finished letting my life be dictated by fear. It had been so easy to hide behind the curtain of being stealth; if people didn’t like me, well, I wasn’t showing them the real me anyway. I had buried myself beneath layers of internalized transphobia and self-loathing. Coming out would mean having nothing left to hide behind. But for the first time, as I stood with the man I love on that beach, that idea felt thrilling.
Suddenly, as if on cue, the band stopped playing, diverting Norman’s and my attention. The singer leaned into the microphone. “Amigos! Amigas!” We were confused. Had there been an accident?
But then the crowd shifted as one, turning to the north. Following their gaze, we saw hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles crawling toward us, emerging from the darkened bushes into the moonlight. I had never felt such overpowering awe. An entire drama of birth and survival was playing out before our very eyes.
The singer said something in Spanish, issuing instructions to the crowd. Apparently, the vibrations from the live music and dancing had disoriented the baby sea turtles, and they needed to be redirected to the water. People began kneeling down and picking them up, cradling them in their hands as they carried them to the ocean one by one. Norman and I followed suit.
We made at least ten trips between the dance floor and the sea before all the babies had been returned to their home. It was exhilarating. When we were finished, he and I walked to the sea to wash away the sand. As I rinsed off, I cried as I realized what had just happened. When I had told Norman “I’m ready to come out,” nature had responded.
Out of all the thousands of moments when those sea turtles could have hatched, they hatched then. Coincidences don’t get any more cosmic than that. I could follow their example. I, too, could be reborn. All I had to do was step into the light.
The next morning, as we watched the Tulum sunrise reach our rooftop, I held Norman’s hand—reassuring, knowing, loving—and thought of the word transgender again, expecting to feel the usual shame I associated with it. But the shame was gone. Gone, as my fear was gone. Instead, pride swelled in my heart.
I looked at the scars all over my body from the eczema. What had once made me scream in pain now left me feeling grateful. I knew now why it had happened. What had begun at the dermatologist’s office, with me proclaiming “I need to honor my eczema!” ended with me saying out loud, “I’m ready to tell my story.”
The story was written on my skin, crying out to be told.
Adapted from the book Horse Barbie by Geena Rocero. Copyright © 2023 by Geena Rocero. Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.