Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Stranger

I’m having a lot of trouble articulating my thoughts, and I’m fairly certain this has nothing to do with my writing skills and everything to do with a swell of confusion clouding my thoughts. I started writing late last night...

Smile big. That blissful arcing mouth betrays nothing—a life finally beaming with rapturous felicity. Recently I’ve seen so many pictures of astoundingly beautifully trans women and girls, their faces filled with that radiant ecstasy that only accompanies a feeling of becoming. They take off the mask and, well, they don’t particularly blend into the rest of the world. Unlike much of the world, these amazing women stand out because they are unabashedly authentic. That smile betrays nothing because there are no dirty secrets to hide. Instead that smile conveys a palpable sense of self-belonging: a manifestation of the true self that transcends any physical realities or assumed limitations therein. That smile...it speaks volumes.
“Why don’t you smile?” We’re sitting on the couch, playing picture slide-show with photos from facebook—she’s every friend I’ve ever had, the Fin from orientation, the random faux-hawk- sporting dyke from GLBTA—she leans over my shoulder to get her face right up next to the picture and remarks, “You never smile in your pictures.” And it’s true: I don’t. The absence of facial expression betrays me. My face is a transparent facade, a mask my “transition” could not dislodge.

I am a stranger. To this culture and to myself, I am an outsider. I feel invisible in a crowd, like no one can see me. They see the tattoos. They see the height. They see the awkward body, hidden under the baggy clothes. But they don’t see me. Maybe I cannot blame them, though. Looking in the mirror, I don’t see me either.

I want to be the girl I am in my head—in my imagination—but that seems like an impossible task. What kind of girl are you? How do you relate to yourself as a girl? How do you relate to yourself as a girl in your head—a character constantly pitted against a physical and social manifestation that, seemingly, can never be merged? How do you take off the mask and become this other person?

These questions, for me, first manifested as a feeling of disconnection with femininity. I’m feminine, even though I nothing about my appearance seem to coincide with that. I’m tattooed, I’m tall, and my body has few curves (well, few curves that I’m proud of)—I’m awkward and I’m tough, punky and queer. I remember when I was in high school I used to subscribe to a trans youth email listserve and one day I asked, “How can I begin to feel like a girl when I’m so lodged into a male reality?” The replies came back: shave your legs. So many sources tell us that femininity is something to be bought or manufactured. Feeling too masculine? Well, pluck those eyebrows, shave those legs, and put on a dress from Meyers. Peep-toe pumps, I hear, will really do the trick. Have you tried makeup?

Since when is femininity a commercial commodity? Since when did gender come packaged and mass-produced for consumer consumption?

But it’s more than just commercialized gender. Talking to a telephone counsellor tonight we discussed how many non-transgender women, like me, feel awkward in their bodies compared to other women—how many of them, like me, look out of place in traditional feminine attire and therefore gravitate towards more masculine or androgynous gender expressions. At the end of the conversation, I asked my counsellor, “How do you relate to yourself as a woman?” She paused for a while and said, “I don’t know. I think it’s a bit like an attitude. It’s how I go about in the world, it’s a part of my identity. It’s always been a given.” I think that’s part of it. It’s not a given for me, and so in finding ways of relating to the girl in my imagination, I have nothing to build on. It seems like all the givens—all the assumptions—work against me; I feel like everyone—even I—fails to “read” me—to see me—for who/what I really am.

And that’s it. I feel alienated from my own gender because of an inability to perceive my true self in any clear fashion. I feel further alienated when, in an attempt to find some superficial facet of femininity, I am met with an unattainable commercialized standard of what femininity is—a commercial definition that does not become me. How do you relate to yourself—to your true self—when it becomes progressively difficult to find a clear expression of that self? When you become a stranger to yourself and to others?


  1. I can relate a little. I don't feel like the woman I see in the mirror at all - and I could easily go through life without ever looking in the mirror again, if that were practical. No amount of hair styling, make up or fashion will turn my appearance into the way I feel I am.

    I live with it. I am not bombarded with advice on how to change my exterior to match my inner sense of self. Perhaps it's because I don't normally tell people there's a mismatch. Nobody's going to tell me about how to do my makeup or hair to look more feminine, or what I should wear, or plastic surgeries I should look into. I don't get handfuls of "Oh, you look fabulous!" tossed my way when I throw a new picture up on the web. (Okay, I'll stop the cis-privileged whining now, I promise!)

    Oh, sometimes I'll find a hat or top or something and think "Oh, that's so ME!". But it never does the job. In the mirror, or in photographs - especially in photographs, the person I see is a stranger.

    And that really has nothing to do with gender, imho.

  2. As often with your posts this rings bells at my end. I do smile a little in some photographs now but it is hard after half a century of sadness in front of the lens. I too am a wash and go kind of girl, tall and curveless. A poor foundation to chase this months fashionable image of feminine beauty as defined by whom? Next month it will be different again. I long ago realised the impossibility of matching the image in my head to my reality. We choose from the options box, I choose to paint my nails, have hair past my shoulders and pluck it out just about everywhere else but most of the girls I know do none of these things! Nor do they buy into the commercialised femininity pushed in the media.

    Until last year many of these things tormented me and I crept about in the shadows trying to be invisible, and that was me improved from past decades!

    Time is running out so now I am just me, I do not feel I have to justify myself since nobody else has to justify themselves to the world.

    When you say my gender you are denying the gender spectrum with concentrations at the bands we call masculine and feminine, there are lots of us outside these clusters and not us with trans prefixes.

    Caroline xx

  3. @Liz: I completely understand where you're coming from (obviously), and while yeah, a lot of what you talk about can be seen a "cis-privilege whining," I don't think it can be condensed to just that...obviously it's not so much a gender thing for you, so cis-/trans- identifiers are irrelevant for your misalignment. For me, gender is conflating this sense of alienation because in addition to everything else, I feel feminine, but also feel like an outsider in the now-commercialized feminine expressions (see the lovely photo I posted).
    @Caroline: I wish I had your confidence/self-assurance.

    I guess at the end of the day I just have to take a lesson from "Where the Wild Things Are": life isn't perfect, isn't what we want, but we have to just deal with it.

  4. Fashions will change! I survived because of the unisex fashion which was available for decades from the late 60's and now feel lost, at least my cover is lost with the current hyper slut / feminine fashions. We will be in fashion again if we wait long enough. In ht end of the day people will take less notice than you imagine and some of those who do you can ignore and the the others may love you.

    Caroline XXX

  5. T-girls get all worked up about this, all the time.

    The truth is, that very many GG women have just as much trouble today identifying with their own femininity, since the definition of what exactly that is has become so confused over the last 20 years.

    I have tons of GG friends, and they experience the same thing you are.