Thursday, August 16, 2012

All Us Pretty Things

"Very pretty. You look natural." the woman said as I was leaving. It wasn't the only time someone complimented my appearance while in the outpatient facility in Montreal. But it certainly stood out. "Natural."  To borrow a phrase, "Born this Way." One may as well have said "real." (The "pretty," of course, is attendant upon the "real.") And to hear it from another trans woman haunted me.

"You are so young and so pretty! I cannot believe no one would come with you!" my cis hostess enthusiastically exclaimed at the bed and breakfast (where I stayed the night before moving to the hospital). She was an exuberantly open and affectionate woman who really seemed to be capable of making anyone feel welcome and appreciated. But those first words lingered with me too. As if me being "pretty" ("real") meant that of course I would merit company and support.

The sentiment alone was said effusively, but it was meant in implicit (and, naturally, "well meaning") contrast to some of the other patients, particularly those who had transitioned fairly recently at older ages. And whereas some women who had transitioned a significant number of years ago but were in their 40s would be read as female easily, there were a few women who were in their 50s who had likely not done much HRT or who had transitioned later who I imagine have significantly more difficulties.

Physical appearance as a metric of "realness" is a common tension for trans people. For instance, most of my experiences with trans women have been with a scant few locally and then online. And online, ages skew significantly young. I've written here before about struggling with resentment towards younger transitioners (which I know is a product of my own self-loathing and absolutely nothing to do with any fault or flaw on their parts), and it's a not insignificant chip I carry on my shoulder: how much different, how much better would things be if I had transition at 20? 18? 16? Whenever I run my fingers along my cheeks, whenever I catch my voice skewing masculine, whenever I get rejected because I'm trans, it flares up in spouts of self-hatred. When I see myself in the mirror, when I look at most pictures or videos of myself, I think "Every person I know must be politely refraining from pointing out how foolish it is that I think I'm anything but a man in women's clothing." And I start to desperately wish I was cis, to desperately wish I really was "pretty," to desperately wish I had transitioned before my face masculinized beyond repair. Because I am under no illusions that, regardless of what others say, if I am "pretty" it's only in relation to those who are not read as female as easily as I tend to be.

And when some of these other trans women said "pretty" to me, I wondered: did those women feel similarly to how I feel? Was "pretty" an innocuous compliment, a way of trying to soothe an insecurity I presumably have, or a way of hurting themselves? Did they see me with envy, the way I looked at the young woman who came in the last two days who looked and sounded so cis I wasn't sure whether she or her boyfriend was getting the surgery? Did they think to themselves "I can never be as real, as beautiful, as desirable as her?" Because we know, oh how we know that really, on a fundamental level we are fake. We are hideous. We are undesirable. And, worst of all, we deserve to be unwanted and unloved. Because who could possibly commit such an act of immense charity as to fool themselves enough to join us in the delusion that we are something we are decidedly not?

And the worst part is that this is not a uniquely trans issue. There's a hierarchy, certainly. But if we set "realness" aside, much of that paragraph could apply to most any cis woman comparing herself to the "ideal." A fat woman to a thin woman, an older woman to a younger woman, a woman of color to a white woman, a disabled woman to an able-bodied woman, a fat, older, disabled pre-op trans woman of color to a thin, young, able-bodied, cis white woman. And there's a significant chance that that thin, young, able-bodied, cis white woman can *still* have an eating disorder that causes her to utterly loathe her body, seeing something hideous whenever she looks in a mirror and firmly believing no one could ever find her beautiful.

I know part of me, on some essential level, views being cisgendered as "the goal." If you're read as cis, indistiguishable from cis if no one who "knows" says otherwise, you've "made it." You are "pretty." You are real. You are ideal.

But of course that's ridiculous. Certainly, so very very many things are so much easier/safer at that point. But there's still a never-ending litany of reasons for women to hate their bodies/appearances/selves, whether it's weight, breasts, butt, curves, height, voice, facial structure, skin color, hair, etc etc. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, get the brunt of the intersections of racism/homophobia/misogyny/transphobia, but their oppression is an aggravated manifestation and combination of forces that still affect everyone who is at a higher place up that ladder but not on top (if there is one). Being "cis" wouldn't cure all their problems, it would just reduce the intensity.

And just so, being "cis" wouldn't make me "pretty." I know cis women (who certainly had plenty of viable alternatives, if they wanted to exercise them) have been attracted to me as Juliet. I know that there are people in my life for whom I've always been female without an asterisk. I know the way I see my reflection is tempered by a wicked combination of cultural narratives of platonic ideals and historical narratives of my own lack of worth. "Pretty" is a subjective term applied as if it's an objective pronouncement of worth. And I know that that feigned objectivity is the voice of oppression (or kyriarchy), equating a woman's worth with appearance, with cisness, with whiteness, with thinness, with straightness, with femmeness, with an impossible ideal. (Men's worth is judged too, of course, but on different scales)

But, and this is the key, simply because there are established hierarchies of legitimacy, of worth, of "pretty" does not make them true. When we buy into those hierarchies, we may pretend that we're on a spectrum of worth but really it's a binary: you are valuable or you're not. You are you, or you are perfect.

Knowing this is different than internalizing it. I don't feel I'm "pretty," meaning I don't feel I'm valuable or attractive or desirable or real or human in the way everyone else. But I do realize that I am the only one who can make that determination. Now, it's just a matter of sucking out the poison and letting myself be the beautiful of an authentic self. "Pretty" be damned.

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