Body Image

I’m Not The Girl

I’m not the girl who’s ever featured on a show poster
The girl who’s invited to do private burlesque gigs
I probably never will be
I don’t have “the look”
I’m not the droid they’re looking for

But when I’m on the stage, I can be beautiful
I can seduce my audiences
I can make them love me
Even when I’m not the droid they’re looking for
Even if it causes weird boners

I’m not sexy despite looking like I do
I’m sexy because I’m unconventionally beautiful
Jolie laide” as the French would say — “beautiful ugly”
We jolie laides have to work twice as hard for half the recognition
Make ourself so unforgettable that we can’t be ignored

Our sexuality, our self-confidence, and most of all, our self-love
Has to be thundered to beyond the back row to even be heard
In a society that shames us for not being “pretty enough”
Not having the “right” curves, not having the “right” equipment in our panties
In the face of all that, there’s many times when I feel more ugly than beautiful

Fuck that shit

Yes, I’m an acquired taste
And if you can’t handle me, you need to acquire some taste

On Being “Beautiful Ugly”

Not everyone gets to be beautiful, and I’m one of them. That isn’t self-hatred, it’s statistics — a few of us are beautiful, a few of us are ugly, and the rest of us are some degree of what society deems average looking.

This is the part where I don’t say: but that’s OK. Because I’m not yet OK with it. But I’m working toward it, and the French concept of jolie laide is giving me hope about being beautiful on my own terms (more about jolie laide a in bit).

Now I hear you protest, but, but, everyone is beautiful just the way they are.1 Lots of body positivity movements use that sort of language, when what they really mean everyone can, and should be, worthy, desired, valued. It’s a reflection of how 50 shades of fucked up our culture is that even these sorts of messages, by women, for other women, get ensnared in the beauty myth.

No, what I’m talking about is “beauty” in its narrower, more traditional sense of the word: “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. One that is beautiful, especially a beautiful woman.” Or as Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriters Blues” described aspiring Hollywood starlets: “Aesthetically pleasing / In other words: Fly.”2

(While we’re thinking of Hollywood, can we stop pretending that beautiful people aren’t beautiful? “Ugly Betty” was probably the frumpiest that network TV has ever allowed a woman to be. But underneath the braces, the hideous glasses, the garish clothes, America Ferrera was, and is, a gorgeous woman. It’s beautiful pretending to be ugly — a kind evil, anti-jolie laide)

Nor am I talking about the sort of “oh, I’m so ugly” bonding that all too many women engage in, nor the sort of body anxieties all too many women fall prey too. I’m no saint here. With the right wig, the right make-up, the right camera angle, the right lighting, I can feel beautiful. But I generally detest casual photos of myself. Especially when I’m in photos with other women. I invariably feel like a hulking Princess Fiona ± only without the the benefit of a tiara and green skin.

Like all too many other women, I’ve stood in front of the mirror are cataloged what society sees as my flaws:

  • Statistically, my height and size are at the far, far end of the chart. My hands and feet are all too big — trust me, trying to find size 13 shoes is a constant reminder of how off the chart I am.3
  • I wasn’t blessed by the androgyny fairy — I’ve got the bulky body type that runs in my family all the way back to the babushkas built to survive long Russian winters.
  • I’m not an hourglass, I’m V-shaped. While estrogen is now giving me a booty, it won’t ever give me hips to balance out my broad child-bearing shoulders, I’ve got big biceps. I’ve got an apple belly just like my mother. (Any plus-size fashion designer wanna give some love to us apples?)
  • I’ve got an average-looking face with a Karl Malden-nose (thanks Mom! <sigh>). I’ve got a gap-tooth grin and my open-lip smile often looks odd.
  • While estrogen is starting to give me breasts, I’m still a member of the itty bitty titty committee.

I’m unbeautiful. Not ugly. But unbeautiful.

In short, like a lot of trans women, by many objective measures I’m not terribly close to the cisnormative, heteronormative “feminine ideal for women in our culture. Very few of us look like Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, or Laverne Cox. When Cox says, no matter how well-intentionally that “I am not beautiful despite my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my height, my deep voice and all the things that make me beautifully and noticeably trans. I am beautiful because of those things.”4 it rings a bit hollow for me, well because it’s easy for her to say, she looks like Laverne Cox.5

Another big factor is that, ironically, is that the burlesque world probably has made my body dysphoria worse than it might have been otherwise — since I’m seeing (and comparing myself) to lots of sparkly nearly-naked women. Who I’d argue, on the whole, are probably more attractive, with “better” bodies, than the general population.

While burlesque does talk a lot of about being a body positive space (which it is to a greater or lesser degree depending on the area), it definitely does help boost one’s confidence if you’re closer to cisnormative, heteronormative standard of what’s considered beautiful. So there is a bit of self-sorting that goes on, as far as who even attempts it. Even many (self-described) fat performers often have very pretty faces. Not in the sense of “oh, she’s got a pretty face” as a euphemism for “fat,” rather faces that fit the mold of what’s conventionally considered “beautiful.”

(And just an aside, mad props to those who aren’t the stereotypical burlesque performer – a skinny young (white) woman with a pretty face and big boobs – and who still get up on stage and own it. Especially if you’ve got a face that’s not “pretty” and/or a body that’s “unconventional.” That takes a fuckton amount of courage.)

A final factor is that I transitioned into being a woman “of a certain age,” that age where at best one’s beauty’s is considered fading, that age where women become invisible. I hear about other woman having to deal with unsolicited dick pics and most of me rages with them — but a small part of me is bothered that I don’t get them, like I’m not even pretty enough to merit sexual harassment. Which needless to say is a feeling that’s fucked up six ways from Sunday. But there is it.

Honestly, it all can feel a bit crushing.

But other cultures don’t have such a narrow concept of beauty. There’s a French phrase, jolie laide, which literally means “beautiful ugly,” but is more commonly translated along the lines of meaning oddly beautiful or unconventionally beautiful.

Opinions differ in interpretation. At one end of it’s the flaw that punctuates perfection, for example supermodel Lauren Hutton and her famous gap-toothed grin. On the other, it’s sometimes offered up as a homely woman, whose personal magnetism overcomes her looks, such as the celebrated 19th-century diva Pauline Viardot, who was described by a contemporary as “the kind of ugliness which is noble.”6

However, more commonly it refers to a woman who’s seen as beautiful not in spite of — but actually, because of — her unconventional individual features. Anjelica Huston, whose “regal asymmetry defies the norms of magazine ‘pretty’”7 is often cited as an example. (Benedict Cumberbatch is a good example of the male equivalent.) It’s more of an earned title than a compliment.

But there it’s more than just features that come together in an unexpectedly pleasing way — it’s often described as women who are “not conventionally beautiful but radiate a kind of magnetism that goes beyond their features,”8 a woman who “draws you in in an entirely different and unique way. You can’t take your eyes off of her, but you often don’t know why” and “her allure and perfection comes from a presence of an inner life that informs her outer appearance.”9

Although I personally like an earthy version of it that I heard: “I’m an acquired taste; if you don’t like me, acquire some fucking taste.”

When researching the concept of jolie laide — and there’s a surprising dearth of articles on it — I ran across three quotes that eloquently summarize my feelings:

“I love the idea of jolie laide because it suggests that we do not need to be cookie cutter beauties to be attractive. Suddenly features like tiny eyes, a jutting chin or a prominent nose could actually be deemed attractive. That these features need not be ‘corrected’ by plastic surgery in order to be considered beautiful. The motto of jolie laide is ‘work with what you’ve got,’ and that is very refreshing indeed.”10

Jolie laide offers hope for the rest of us. It opens up the democratic possibility that a woman can be beautiful because she thinks she is, in spite of her oddities. She loves herself, and that love shines through in how she carries herself, in how she expresses herself to the world. Others who would not otherwise be drawn to her looks are yet enchanted because of who she is.”11

“French women are attractive, yes, and stylish, yes, but the mystique and appeal that they wield as a whole isn’t located in [dare I say] mere perfection of proportion. They believe in their beauty, and so convince the rest of us. We should take a lesson.”12

And one final quote from Anjelica Huston herself: “I remember overhearing a conversation between my mother and father… to the effect that Anjelica wasn’t going to be a beauty. My way dealing with that, even then, was I’m going to make myself beautiful. I might not have physical perfection, but I’m going to think myself into being beautiful.”13

Likewise, I may never — make that, will never — be a paragon of cisgender, heteronormative ideas of “beauty,” but I can still be beautiful.

I am fucking beautiful. And if you can’t see it, it’s your fucking loss.

1. Which is a phrase that’s really off-putting to trans people with body dysphoria. See Sam Dylan Finch’s excellent “I’m Transgender And I Need Body Positivity, Too”
2. Yes, it is 5 a.m. and I am listening to Los Angeles.
3. Although obviously there are other women out there who are my size, otherwise I’d be running around naked and shoeless.
5. Admittedly, Cox is trying to make the point that “trans is beautiful” and that is shouldn’t matter if someone is “visibly trans” as so many of us are. (And she acknowledges it took years for her to reach that sort of self-acceptance.) She’s also acutely aware not all trans people can, or want to, embody this ideal, nor should they. See:
7. “What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind” by Debra Ollivier
13. I’ve seen the quote appear on various websites, but never tracked it back to a source. But if it isn’t true, it should be.

Getting “Sir”ed Yet Again

So I got “sir”ed again tonight… It’s happening several times a week, and although it always appears to be unconscious and unintentional, it’s still a bee sting to the heart every time it happens — and enough bee stings can kill you.

It’s usually people who I’ve never met before — store clerks, restaurant workers, etc. — so clearly it’s reflecting their first impressions. Whenever it happens, my reaction is: FFS, I’m wearing women’s clothing and shoes, women’s jewelry, make-up, painted fingernails, and sporting a pair of D-cups — what the fuck else do I have to do to get people to realize I should be gendered as a woman?

As you might imagine, it’s fucking disheartening. I’ve spent an enormous amount of money, time and pain over the past year reshaping my body, and still it happens. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of people treat me like the woman I am, and yes logically I know that I shouldn’t let a small number of people get under my skin. But the heart and the gut don’t think rationally.

There’s practical concerns being a trans woman who — like most of my trans sisters — who wasn’t blessed by the androgyny fairy, and who probably will never look like the “typical” woman assigned female at birth, and who won’t always blend in as one. Probably the biggest concern is safety, particularly since I like to travel, and the vast majority of the nation, let alone the world, isn’t nearly as trans-friendly as the Bay Area. (Right now, even the U.S. there’s a number of states that have become no-go zones for me.)

But more than that, the incidents have been kicking my body dysphoria into high gear lately. It’s just a constant low-level reminder of the gap between the body I have, and the body I wish I had, but never will. Just I’m reminded whenever I try to look for size 13 shoes, extra large sizes in rings, necklaces and clothing, dresses that always 2-3 inches shorter than intended. Or when I’m in photos with other women and look hulking and towering by comparison.

I agree with Laverne Cox that I should be able to love my large hands and feet, my height, my lower than average voice because they’re beautiful, because trans is beautiful. But — and I mean no disrespect toward her own long struggle towards self-acceptance — it’s much easier to love these things when you have a body that’s otherwise considered extremely attractive according to hetero cisgender standards.

As Sam Dylan Finch says in his excellent essay, “I’m Transgender and I Need Body Positivity Too” my body

“tricks others into seeing me as something that I’m not. And no amount of self-love and validation can change the fact that, when I step out into the world, my body precedes me and erases a very important aspect of my identity.”

I’ve been working with my therapist to shrug off this sort of misgendering, to maybe not love my body as it is but at least reach a detente with it. But it’s a hard place to get to right now.

(And before anyone chimes in with comments like “you’re perfect just the way you are,” or “love your body, no matter the shape or size, exactly as it is,” fucking read Sam’s essay about why those sort of comments are more than a bit… off-putting… to many trans people.)

A Relief From Stubble Bummed

Yesterday was my 150th hour of electrolysis, and today was the first Saturday (more about that later) that I haven’t felt the need to shave.

My electrologist says I have some the thickest and most stubborn hair she’s ever seen, the only good side is that they’re practically transparent — while it makes them harder to find and kill, means they’re not very visible.

Which is a really good thing, since my electrologist needs two days of growth to be able to find them, and the stubble drives me crazy. I’m doing three hours of electrolysis a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so Saturdays have been the only day I can shave and not have to feel the stubble, which is really gender dysphoric for me.

But this week we’ve been hitting the remaining patches of untouched facial hair, hit them hard. My throat is dotted with tiny electrolysis scabs bearing witness to the battle.

So when I felt my face this morning, it was largely smooth. There’s scattered hairs here and there — it’s amazing how sensitive one’s fingertips are to being to feel an isolated hair.

But it was smooth enough to forego shaving today without feeling dysphoric (although I may regret the decision tomorrow), and it will help on Monday when I go back under the needle again.

Will some of the hair grow back? Undoubtedly. (Fortunately when the hair follicle is partially dead, it becomes finer and downier.)

But it’s clearly the beginning of the end. I’m not sure how long it will take to get there, but I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know there is an end in sight. Because with everything else going on, personally and politically, I could definitely use some hope.

Come, You Chicken Fat, Come!

t’s interesting to see how, after almost a year, estrogen is reshaping my body.

Besides some (not nearly enough) boob growth, I seem to have a bigger booty, my shoulders have gotten smaller as I’ve lost muscle mass* (yay!), and I’ve now got underarm chicken wings** — I’m probably one of the rare women who’s glad to see the latter.

* The Olympics will let trans woman compete in the women’s divisions after two years on hormones, because their muscle mass is equivalent to that of cisgender women.

** The underarms are the third area women tend to accumulate fat, along with the hips and thighs.

Mourning the Life I Didn’t Have

Sometimes I am an un-ironic delicate fucking flower.

Today the gender dysphoria hit hard — I’ve been having bouts of crying all afternoon and yet to reach that cathartic cry.

The trigger: my hair. Or rather my my utter inability to style it. I’ve never had long hair before, and being raised as a boy in a household without sisters has left me without even a second-hand knowledge of what do to with it.

It’s times like these that I feel like a 12-year-old girl, on the verge of womanhood and not quite sure how to do it — except that I’m in a 52-year-old body, lacking many of the essential life styles of being a girl/woman that most my peers learned through osmosis by that age.

The head knows that, yes, I’ll learn those skill — albeit having to do so on an accelerated pace (and thank you to all who’ve offered to help).

The head knows that the past is the past, and that I need to focus on the years going forward being able to live as a woman. Especially now I that have fewer years in front of me than behind me.

But the heart is still mourning those lost decades of my life. The girlhood I’ll never have. The young womanhood I’ll never have. The female body — the young female body — I’ll never have. The female friendship and companionship of girlhood that I’ll never have.

I don’t mean to romanticize being a young girl/young woman, because I know all too well how painful those years could be for the various women in my life. And yes, I know women can be just as shitty to each other as men can be, albeit in different ways.

But it’s still hard not to feel like there’s a void in part of me that will never be fully filled.

Failure Is Always An Option

Unsuccessful experiments in blending in….

I had another electrolysis session this morning, which meant I couldn’t really wear foundation, contour or blush the rest of the day until my skin calmed down again.

So I tried wearing workout tights and top, with a hoodie, while getting brunch and running errands. Sporty girl who’s just done something athletic and therefore isn’t wearing make-up,* right?

Well I got”sirred’ twice and I got “the look”** more than few times. Not unexpected, but it’s still always a bee sting to the heart.

At least it was useful as a calibration exercise….

If a number of trans women seem “excessively” femme, it’s because we often have to send unambiguous signals about how we want to be gendered. And being able to blend in can be an issue of emotional — and sometimes physical — survival.

* I did have on mascara, eye liner and shadow, plus lipstick.

** It’s usually a glance held too long, as people are trying to figure out what gender I am, or why “a man in dress” is out on the streets.

I’m Still Alive And Well, I Think

The second surgery was a lot easier physically, but it’s taking longer to recover.

Partly I used up a lot of reserves before the second surgery, so the well’s been a bit dry.

Partly I’ve had trouble sleeping. Some of that is just inherent from having a nose job — the swelling in your nasal passages makes it tough to breathe through your nose, so most people don’t sleep well for several days post-surgery. Worse in my case, since I have sleep apnea, although I’m able to use the mask for my CPAP machine now, which helps me breathe during the night.

One of the doctors did a follow-up exam on Sunday morning and said I was healing really well, with comparatively little swelling. But I’ve been pretty tired, so I’ve spent the last week napping a lot during the day.

Lower-face swelling is mostly going away, as well as the remaining bruising. Still got some very noticeable black eyes, although they’re healing faster than after the first surgery. My nose is still quite swollen, which will take at least another week or two to not be noticeable to the casual observer (and which won’t photograph well for about three months). But there’s still swelling in the lower half of my face, and under the jawline, and my new cheekbones will probably become more prominent when that goes away. Brows are a bit too high at the moment, because they’ll “settle” downward in the coming weeks.

It is really a pretty radical change, but still looks like me. I’m extremely happy with the results.

Stitches will come out before I leave on the 31st. I’m flying to Panama that day, and since I need to change planes there anyway, I’m staying there one day for a layover and flying to SFO on the 2nd. I’d like to do a little sightseeing if I can, but the layover is mainly so I can rest if I need to, and to also break up the flights, which is safely from a blood clot risk POV. Also each flight is about 7 hours, and doing it in one day on the way down left me pretty wiped out.

Is It All Worth It?

People have asked me if I’m happy with the changes in my face so far.

The answer is yes, definitely yes. It’s far beyond what I was expecting. Originally my hopes were just to undo what testosterone did to my face, but I’m feeling much more attractive now (while still looking like “me”).

Some people have temporary “what have I done?” reactions (changing your face is a bit primal). Not me. When I look at photos from before surgery, that’s that face which looks odd and “not quite me” now.

I’ll be interested to see what my nose looks like once the splint comes off. Every surgeon I consulted said to expect limited results since the skin is really thick and that limits how much reshaping they can do (essentially the skin drapes over the cartilage like fabric, and thicker skin is stiffer).

The changes will probably far more noticeable in profile view (which is hard for me to take photos of), since the main goal was to reduce the size to make it more proportionate, as well as removing the “dorsal hump” which is a male/female anatomical difference among people of my ethnicity, and some subtle changes to the angle of the tip of the nose, which is also a male/female anatomical difference.

Plus in general, even though the swelling goes down enough in 2-3 weeks that a casual observer won’t know that you’ve had a nose job done, apparently the nose doesn’t photograph well for up to three months (when 70-80% of the swelling is gone).

Let the Healing Begin II

I was released from the hospital this morning and made it back to the apartment by 10. After minimal — and the typically bland — food at the hospital, I definitely gorged myself. Trying to decide whether I’ve got the energy to walk across the street to the cafe for something more substantial. I’m probably still a little anemic, since I’ve got a huge craving for red meat.

I do look a bit scary though. Head is wrapped up in bandages, and one eye is completely black and blue, visible stitches at the bottom my nose (from the lip lift) and my nostrils are still packed. Fortunately they’re now just packed with cotton, and if necessary I can take them out temporarily today. I’ll be able remove them tomorrow, which will be nice, since it’s uncomfortable breathing through my mouth. Not to mention I can’t smell anything, so I can’t taste much either.

I’m just really thankful that at the hospital I was able to sit up and walk to the bathroom myself this time around instead of being catheterized.

The hospital beds both time were really uncomfortable, and because I needed to keep my head raised, it put pressure on my lower back, butt and tailbone. Last time around I was confined to bed the entire time and consquently I was stiff and sore for a week.

This time, I was able to ask for an extra pillow under my butt, and because they didn’t have the inflatable leg compression sleeves (to prevent blood clots), I was able to turn on my sides, which helped, as did being able sit up on the edge of the bed. Still a bit sore, but nothing like last time.

They seemingly were less concerned about my health this time around, since they just had a translator watching me overnight in my room — unlike the English-speaking medical resident last time — and they didn’t ask her to stay at the apartment for an additional six hours like last time. Like medical resident last time, the translator thought I looked much stronger than most of the other patients she’s sat with.