Is my shadow showing? Am I wearing too much concealer? It’s not caking, is it? Does this top make my shoulders look broad? Oh fuck, I need to pluck the little hairs on my collarbone. Fuck fuck I shouldn’t have left the house without checking that. I’m such an idiot. My voice just dropped, didn’t it? My Adam’s apple is protruding when I swallow, isn’t it? God everyone can tell. Shit. I shouldn’t be out with another trans person. They’re all staring. I shouldn’t be ashamed of this. I’m so fucking stupid and pathetic for being ashamed of this. I just wish I looked like her. Or her. Or any of them. Anyone but me.
Hi! Welcome to the wonderful world of a trans woman’s interior dialogue!
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone that trans women lug around a huge and cripplingly heavy amount of self-consciousness. If you find yourself surprised by this, I appreciate your extremely high opinion of us, but you should probably learn a bit more about how human beings tend to feel about things. What often seems lacking, though, is much critical engagement with this fact. It seems to just be taken as a given “well, yeah, of course” without much stepping back to think about what it might actually mean.
Me: “Ugh. I totally feel shitty about [insert aspect of my body here] today!”
Well-Meaning Friend (Usually Cis): “That’s not personal, that’s just what all women feel!”
No. I know what you’re trying to do, I know you’re trying to reassure me that there’s nothing uniquely wrong with me in feeling bad or self-conscious about my body, and that’s true, such feelings aren’t even remotely unique to me or to trans women, and I also know you want to couple that reassurance to validation of my gender. That’s cool. But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that how self-consciousness operates in a trans woman is simply the same thing that cis women experience.
There is, of course, no possible way for me to know how all women feel. I can only know how I feel. And as such I have no direct observations on which to challenge the claim that this is “just what all women feel like”. But based on what I’ve been able to infer about other women’s feelings from interacting with them, yeah… how self-consciousness plays out in cis women is meaningfully different from how it plays out in trans women, enough so that considering that distinction seems worthwhile.
In fact it’s a bit disappointing that almost no attention or thought has been paid to the self-consciousness and self-hatred of trans women in relation to our bodies and appearance after the fact of transition. Disappointing that it’s so consistently written off as just “normal” female body image issues.
But if we take it as a thing that women’s typically negative and problematic relationship to their body image is deeply connected to socialization, media depictions of women, cultural standards of beauty and so forth… if we take it as more or less established that this is an oppressive phenomenon related to sexism at least (if not patriarchy)… why on Earth would we assume that it operates on the same principle in trans women, who are positioned in a quite distinct socio-cultural location, and typically experience socialization very differently than cis women do?
In other words, if we accept that self-consciousness and negative perceptions in body image for cis women are connected to misogyny, why would we fail to consider the possibility that self-consciousness and negative perceptions in body image for trans women are connected to trans-misogyny and cissexism? We experience unique manifestations of misogyny and sexism, so why would we not experience unique manifestations on the playing field of our self-perception?
In all women, self-consciousness can be a way of getting us to enact our own sexist oppression, do “their” work for them via internalization of their standards. But in trans women, self-consciousness is also a way of getting us to enact our own cissexist and trans-misogynistic oppression, through an internalization of cissexism, cisnormative standards, gender binarism, transphobia, etc.
I’m still flattered every time someone says something suggesting it didn’t occur to them that I was trans.
How fucked up is that? That I’ve internalized hatred of what I am so much that despite devoting myself to fighting that hatred in our culture, I still ultimately am just starving for the tiniest hint that someone might see me as something other than the awful, shameful, disgusting, lesser, hateful, ridiculous, pathetic, deceptive thing I am?
How fucked is it that the best my awareness of this as internalized transphobia has accomplished is adding self-hatred of my self-hatred to my self-hatred?
I’ve written before about how deeply flawed it is to try to frame trans women as having experienced a male socialization. We generally experienced what was intended as a male socialization, certainly, and were spared many of the acts of early-life trained-helplessness and subjugation that are driven into cis girls, but our culture is at a saturation point of messages about what a woman is supposed to be, what types of women are or aren’t desirable, beautiful, good, pure, valued, loved, etc. Nobody escapes those messages, whether it’s their identity or their desires that are the intended target. And how these messages are internalized is going to vary considerably between a trans girl and a cis boy. Not to mention which messages do and don’t get internalized. Imagine three children sitting and receiving a lesson from their teacher on “sugar and spice and everything nice” vs. “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” (for the record, I’m personally made of candy snails and spiced puppy dogs). On one side you’ve got a cis girl internalizing the lesson as being about how a good girl is meant to be: sweet, demure, passive. On the other side you’ve got a cis boy interpreting the lesson about what boys are expected to be: rough, down-to-earth, not caught up in frivolous things. In the middle you have the trans girl, currently expected to present as a boy. How do you suppose she internalizes it?
First of all, an aching sadness as the rift between her gender assignment and her feelings is stated to be impossibly wide. But more important to my point here: a lesson about what she would need to be in order to ever be herself.
While cis girls, throughout their socialization and lives in our culture, internalize cultural messages about ideal womanhood as a demand of what they need to be in order to be considered valuable, desirable, good women, they have the comparable “advantage” of at least already being girls / women (or at least already having that assignment). Trans girls, though, are subjected to those same messages but internalize them as what is required to manifest womanhood at all. We’re swimming upstream against our gender assignment, and if THAT is what “being a woman is all about”, THAT gets internalized as the standard we need to live up not simply to be loved and valued, but in order to simply be read and perceived as ourselves. In other words, while cis girls internalize it as what they need to be in order to be good girls, trans girls internalize it as what they need to be in order to be.
This ends up creating a whole lot more existential urgency in a trans woman to live up to the cultural standards of womanhood. For us, the question driving our self-hatred and self-consciousness over stupid things like our body not meeting arbitrary-cultural-standard-of-beauty #2677 isn’t as relatively easily conquered as the desire to “fit in” or be “good”. It’s instead driven by the pressing need to exist, to be embodied, to be seen by others and understood as who we are rather than who we aren’t.
So when we’re told that we’re failing to live up to one of those morphological standards, the consequence isn’t a feeling of “Oh shit, I guess I’m not a proper woman”. It hits us much, much more deeply. It undercuts our fundamental sense of being.
All the while its complicated by the presence of the physical dysphoria… that our transitions are, most of the time, driven primarily by a need to bring our bodies into alignment with our sense of self. But where does our sense of self, as self-defined and self-determined, end and the imposed cultural conditioning begin? Does a given trans woman want facial-feminization-surgery or breast-augmentation-surgery because that’s what she needs to feel her body is her own, or does she want it because she’s been told one too many times that her nose is “too big for a girl”, or been exposed to too few images of women with smaller breasts being considered valid and beautiful women?
How many trans women end up choosing their vaginoplasty surgeon on the basis of who produces the most “normal” looking vulva over who produces the most depth and maintains the most sensation? Sacrificing your own capacity for sexual enjoyment so as not to have an atypical vulva (cis women have an immense variety in the appearance of their vulvae) is a pretty scary thing to realize is actually quite common.
And there’s also a HUGE degree to which perceptions of what is or isn’t a “passable”, “beautiful” or “female” body, as perceived within trans communities, is conditioned by racism, ableism, sizeism, ageism and other strong cultural biases. Even the boundary between trying to physically actualize oneself as a woman and self-destructively trying to meet normative standards of white, able-bodied feminine beauty can become blurry.
The end result of all of this is that unpacking and deconstructing those internalized, demeaning messages about what a woman’s body is “supposed” to look like or be, and untangling them from the valid desires for self-determining our morphologies and sex, becomes an intensely difficult process for us, and a process with even higher stakes than are usually involved. We’re committing more than one mode of self-oppression here, on a deeper level, and it’s hard to tell what parts are the self-oppression and what parts are the self-actualization.
So although I really do know you mean well… please don’t tell me this is just what all women go through. Thank you.