Transition As Transaction: “Passing” And The Commodification Of Womanhood


Very early in the film Transamerica, the trans woman protagonist, Bree, is seen practicing along to a “Finding Your Female Voice” video, from Deep Stealth Productions. Deep Stealth is partly owned and operated by Andrea James, who acted as a consultant for the film.

I’ve never been quite able to shake the sense of this as being far more an act of commercial product placement than an attempt at verisimilitude and accurate representation of trans women’s experiences.

Later in the film, we hear Bree listing the various surgeries and procedures she’s undergone in the process of her transition: tracheal shave, brow recontouring, extensive electrolysis, etc. We also see her attend a trans support group filled with trans women (played by actual trans actresses) who, deliberately, are meant to be more “passable” than Bree and proceed to offer her a litany of unsolicited “passing advice”; despite the immense investments Bree has made into her appearance, to looking like a “real” woman, the story wants us to regard her as “trying too hard” and therefore her womanhood still appears “artificial” and “fake”. The narrative takes Bree’s quest to attain “passability”, her efforts to make her appearance match a normative standard of female beauty, and directly equates this struggle with Bree’s “redemption”, her character arc, her “growth”, her psychological development, her emotional well-being.

As far as Transamerica is concerned, Bree’s efforts to acquire normative female beauty, as defined by the narrow terms of our cis-patriarchal, white-centric, able-centric culture, is interchangeable with the whole her worth, validity, struggle and growth as a human being.

While the “passable” trans women of the support group are played by trans actresses, Bree, so as to appear “trans” enough to film her struggle to achieve the (not exactly a thing) goal of “passing” as a “real, non-artificial” woman, is portrayed by cisgender actress Felicity Huffman adorned in prosthetics and make-up deliberately contrived to make her “look trans” (also not exactly a thing).

Altogether, I’ve frequently felt that Transamerica, more than anything else, is a commercial. An advertisement for “passing”, for the “legitimate” form of transness and the assumed trans narrative, for a certain standard of female beauty, for the acquisition of womanhood, and for the products and surgeries and organizations and behaviours that you can invest in (financially or otherwise) to acquire them.

A commercial.

Act now and you can receive YOUR womanhood in just 20 easy payments of $499.95*! We’ll also offer you two (that’s right, two!) free sessions of electrolysis, and our patented Female-Mannerisms™ tutorial on DVD, at NO ADDITIONAL COST to you, if you call our toll-free number by the end of this blog post!

*plus rigid maintenance of all applicable local cultural standards of gender and gender performance. Offer void where narrative or identity do not comply with conventional models of transsexuality or chosen identified sex. Additional restrictions may apply.

Andrea James, who as said acted as a consultant for Transamerica, in addition to being co-owner of Deep Stealth Productions (who produce various tutorial DVDs on voice, make-up and other ways of attaining the elusive, mythic quality of “passability” and achieving a very conventional sort of “female presentation/appearance”), also operates TSroadmap.com.

It’s one of the top sites that shows up on google if you search transitioning, or “getting a sex change”. For many, it’s their very first look at the supposed realities of what transitioning is and means, and how to get from wanting to do this to actually doing it.

Sadly, TSroadmap is awash with many of the very toxic assumptions and normativities of the mainstream trans community. It makes many assumptions of what one’s background, history and situation are, it falls deeply into the usual white/middle-class/adult/American/non-immigrant/binary-identified/linear-history/able-bodied centrism, it lends implicit legitimacy to a variety of extremely destructive concepts such as autogynephilia, Harry Benjamin Syndrome and “true transsexuals” being (somehow?) something different from “just thinking you’re trans”, it plays upon the ridiculous standard that one must be “absolutely certain” before undertaking transition, and it assumes that “passing” is/must be a primary goal, if not THE primary goal, of medical intervention (as opposed to the FAR healthier goal of simply getting to a place where you feel happy and comfortable with your body).

Each and every one of those aspects of how transition is presented to people exploring it as an option is dangerous, destructive and deserving of intensive, focused critique, enough so as to each merit individual essays (if not books!) deconstructing them. But one aspect in particular interests me here, which is how the primacy of “passing” as the implicit goal of transition is hooked up to extremely narrow, culturally-rigid standards of female beauty and feminine dress, appearance and mannerism… which are each in turn inseparable from commerce, commodity, transaction and the beauty industry.

TSroadmap also offers a section on financial planning. In this section, a variety of spreadsheets are offered to give transitioners an idea of how much things will cost, and help them come up with various purchasing plans to guide them through the monetary aspect of transition. While theoretically this is an entirely reasonable concept (yes, people should have access to information on the costs of various treatments associated with transition, and access to guidance on how to manage those costs) the way it gets presented is incredibly creepy. For one thing, the spreadsheets are organized into separate categories based mainly not on what one’s income or socio-economic status is (which would, you know, make sense), but instead on (a really naive and simplistic idea of) how easy it will be for someone to “pass”. Also, the spreadsheets end up being presented as sort of “menus” laying out all the various steps-towards-passing-and-acceptance that one can buy. Wardrobe, electrolysis, voice lessons, facial feminization surgery, breast augmentation, etc.

No commentary is really offered at any point on the site about how standards of female beauty get defined, by whom, and what other social stratifications intersect with who is or isn’t considered the ideal of beauty. Nor is ANY distinction made between “passing” (which as said is throughout positioned as interchangeable with the goal of transition itself, and the relief of dysphoria) and conventional models of feminine beauty. That is some seriously problematic shit right there. Passing is happiness is beauty is femininity is convention is beauty is passing is happiness is BOUGHT.

While I’m sure it wasn’t intended as such, the support group scene in Transamerica, with its unsolicited “passing advice”, really does darkly echo the reality of such groups and communities in real life. Such “advice” is extremely common, and often renders such spaces intensely hostile, and effectively the opposite of supportive. There’s a whole lot that can be said about that, but what’s particularly relevant to what I’m getting at is the highly uncritical way in which the advice is offered, as though “passing” is a sort of objectively real, and attainable, quality someone can have, that sort of exists in itself, and not in connection to any cultural or social standards. Which is, you know, completely totally wrong.

Discussing and critiqueing and deconstructing the idea of femininity, female beauty and what is or isn’t considered to make a woman beautiful is something that feminism, and cis women generally, have been doing for a very long time. It’s also nothing particularly new or shocking to discuss how capitalism and commerce relate to how cultural standards of female beauty are defined, or to critique the beauty industry, or to talk about how advertising undermines women’s self-esteem as a means of manipulating her into purchasing products she believes might allow her to reacquire her beauty and sense of worth (buying those products from the exact same industry that undermined her in the first place). These discussions have gone on so extensively its almost simply taken for granted: “yeah, treating female beauty as an objective and inherent quality is silly, and of course it’s all tied up into the big horrible machine of capitalism that tears women to shreds in an effort to sell a bunch of scented, useless ointments and junk. What’s your point?”

It’s even become a bit of a winking, self-deprecating joke amongst feminists to reference high heels and make-up as oppressive, patriarchal institutions. And these deconstructions can also manifest as their own problematic, femmephobic tendencies towards things like regarding femininity itself as the problem rather than issues like femininity being simultaneously coded as weak and submissive while imposed upon women as an expected standard.

But yet, under the rebranding of “passability”, the precise same concepts, the same old cons of “female worth is only beauty, and you are ugly, but our products can make you beautiful”, are sold back to trans women, meeting a near total lack of critique. The situation is such that raising concerns that have long since become passé givens to mainstream feminism are somehow scandalous and shocking to bring up in the context of transition: “um, uh… maybe all this unsolicited advice focusing on products and videos and lessons and surgeries and stuff we can buy in order to be more ‘authentic’ and ‘passable’ and beautiful is kinda messed up and kinda playing into compulsory, standardized femininity and the commodification of womanhood? Maybe? Please don’t kick me out.”

What makes this whole process especially disturbing in the context of transition is how the question isn’t simply of the form of womanhood regarded worthwhile under patriarchy, but instead becomes a question of womanhood itself. I’ve written before about how the messages that are received by everyone in our culture about womanhood, femininity and female beauty, such as the messages implicit in the beauty industry’s advertisements and magazines, are internalized differently by trans women than by cis women or cis men. For cis men, the message becomes about the kinds of women and women’s bodies they “should” find desirable under patriarchy. For cis women, the message is about what is required in order to be a beautiful, desirable, good and valuable woman under patriarchy, worthy of love and admiration. For trans women, however, given that our gender is never a simply matter-of-fact, never a certainty, and always able to be invalidated and stripped away by those around us (in our patriarchal culture), the message is distorted into being about what is required to be a woman.

Therefore, while the beauty industry as accepted and internalized by cis women ends up treating female worth as a commodity, the beauty industry as accepted, internalized and re-contextualized as “passing” by trans women ends up treating the quality of being a woman, womanhood itself, as a commodity. It hardly needs saying that this is creepy as fuck, when you think about it.

And when you allow for how much of medical gender transition is a question of the body (ideally about simply attaining a body with which one is comfortable and relatively non-dysphoric, but the unavoidable psychological “interference” of gender and its socio-cultural trappings ends up making that more or less inseparable from cultural attitudes about and perceptions of the body relative to sex, gender and desirability), you end up with a situation where commodifying transition, or commodifying “passability” while treating it as the implicit goal of transition, is to also treat the female body as a commodity, and something you can purchase. The fact that the female body in question is to be your own body, and acquired through one’s present body, has very significant implications here that make it a very, very different issue than treating someone else’s female body as a commodity available for purchase, and the fact that medical autonomy and the right to make one’s own choices about one’s own body are, in my opinion at least, unassailable human rights, makes the ethics of the whole thing dramatically different… but nonetheless we can’t look at this in isolation, nor ignore how it echoes larger patriarchal and capitalist attitudes about the female body and its relationship to commerce.

By no means do I wish to offer apologetics for various cissexist radical-feminist attitudes that blame trans women for this dynamic, hold us especially accountable for the fact that our culture treats the female body as a product, position us as “hand-maidens of the patriarchy”, or act like the phenomenon of medical gender transition itself is an extension of the commodification of womanhood, the female body and female beauty. I have absolutely NO patience for such victim-blaming approaches to complex subjects like this. But we’d be naive to dismiss the question entirely simply due to its misuse by certain transphobic feminists as a means to justify their prejudicial hatred, disgust, fear and suspicion of trans women.

On both sides of the question- both in terms of why it won’t do to blame trans women for this issue of commodification, and in terms of why it won’t do to simply dismiss the question as unrelated to patriarchal and misogynist systems- we have to deal with the fact that transgenderism and all its related issues don’t occur in a vacuum. These occur within our larger social structure, which is patriarchal, capitalist, and heavily cissexist. That’s what makes these issues take on the character that they do. They’re contextually problematic, given how they play into the wider systems, not individually or necessarily problematic.

And yeah… you can’t really talk trans-misogyny without talking Original Flavour misogyny anyway.

My point is not that transition (medical intervention to re-sex the body and/or deliberate adaptations to one’s appearance and presentation so as to signify a different gender) commodifies womanhood and the female body. My point is that commodifying transition commodifies womanhood and the female body, and that treating “passing”, culturally-standardized beauty and the authenticity/validity of one’s gender as interchangeable commodifies womanhood and the female body.

It’s the kind of intersectional issue – patriarchy and capitalism, trans-misogyny and misogyny, oppositional sexism and conventional sexism, cisnormativity and transnormativity, etc. – that really really really (really) demands an intersectional approach. For instance, this isn’t strictly about how patriarchy privileges men (as natural, strong, preferable, archetypal and possessed of agency), but is also about how patriarchy privileges cisgenderism (as likewise). Even if we were to altogether ignore how much cissexism and cisnormativity are necessary to prop up a concept like “passing” in the first place, and to ignore the problematic and cissexist treatment of appearing female or cis or trans or male (or “presenting as” such) as identifiable and objective qualities rather than subjective perceptions that may be assigned to a body and presentation, it’s also the case that treating “passability” and transition as commodity is also a means of reinforcing the conception of transsexuality as artifice. This is, of course, related to the more general misogynistic and femmephobic mentality that femininity is inherently more artificial and constructed than masculinity, but that mentality reaches its zenith in the perception of trans women as supremely artificial, fake, constructed beings.

When Bree runs through her list of the procedures she’s undergone to become a woman, she’s not only advertising these as the products through which one might purchase womanhood, she’s also emphasizing the artificiality of the process. She’s telling us all about how much it took to be able to “become” a woman, and in describing the process of “becoming a woman” in terms of treatments and products purchased, it treats that womanhood as something external and unnatural to her. Her womanhood wasn’t an extension of herself, but instead was a thing, a commodity, that was somewhere out there that had to be acquired.

In films and documentaries about trans women, it’s incredibly routine (to the point of cliche, and appearance in the “trans documentary drinking game”) for the story to make a great big deal all about the various processes of transformation. Putting on heels, putting on make-up, getting surgery, growing breasts, doing hair, etc. All of this portrays her womanhood as an artifically constructed identity, one that needs to be “put on”. This all culminates in the eventual presentation of the “before/after” shot (and it bears pointing out that trans women ourselves are not always all that reluctant to show off our before/after pictures… most trans web forums have specific threads dedicated for this purpose, that run for several hundreds of pages).

The treatment of transition and womanhood as commodities to be purchased plays directly into the ability for our wider culture to perceive the womanhood we ultimately embody as an artificial, constructed or purchased womanhood, rather than a “natural” womanhood that is simply an unqualified consequence of who we are. Or simply synonymous with who we are. By allowing ourselves to imagine “passing” as a quality we can acquire or buy, while uncritically allowing the lines between “passing”, culturally-standardized beauty, worth, authenticity, validity, womanhood and a non-dysphoric relationship to our bodies to be blurred into an indistinct mess we might call “transition” we’re not only becoming complicit in a patriarchal kind of capitalism that treats women, their bodies and womanhood as a product, we’re not only becoming complicit in the attitude that femininity and womanhood are more of a product and costume and artifice than “natural”/”default” masculinity, we’re not only scaring the shit out of potential transitioners who don’t have much money or feel themselves unlikely to ever “pass” (as though it were a quality of them rather than a way others might perceive them), we’re not only maintaining a stark cissexist classification of what a “female presentation” is and means in contrast to a “male presentation” and what “looking female” is supposed to be, along with all the cultural baggage that goes with that, we’re not only maintaining the cissexist concept that “looking female” and “looking trans” are actual definable qualities, we’re not only playing up the idea that beauty is beauty as defined by cissexist, white-supremacist, ableist patriarchy, and we’re not only enforcing old outdated narratives and attitudes about what transition is and must mean… we’re also being directly complicit in the means by which our own identities and bodies, all of us, are regarded as artificial and fake relative to cis bodies.

Womanhood isn’t something you acquire or buy.  Womanhood is something you understand of yourself.

Maybe that’s the reason even the word “womanhood” feels uncomfortable for me. Like maybe it shouldn’t even be a noun. Maybe it should only be a verb.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Note: Bree’s grocery list of procedures is delivered in the context of her seeking psychiatric approval to get SRS–she enumerates all of these purchases in response to the psychiatrists’s HBS endorsement that she “looks quite convincing”. In this case, then, the economics of passability is used as capital in order to ‘prove’ worthiness for SRS: “See how badly I want this! Look at all the stuff I did and bought and invested in! Convinced?” Also note that in this scene she uses the dreadful phrase, in pleading for gatekeeper approval, that she “will BECOME a woman.” Watch it again if you don’t believe me. THis stupid line confirms every stereotype of SRS = great moment of metamorphosis, and only exacerbates the idea that gender is bought/purchased/acquired . . . /Transamerica/ overall is a pretty scary view of late capitalism in which identities are indexed as stock market for appraisal. (See also Nina Arsenault’s play /The Silicone Diaries/ which is her personal homage to the $150,000 she spent on every cosmetic procedure in the book because, in her words, gender and beauty are artificial, and the best plastic wins.)

  2. Nepenthe says

    Maybe that’s the reason even the word “womanhood” feels uncomfortable for me. Like maybe it shouldn’t even be a noun. Maybe it should only be a verb.

    Let’s put this on t-shirts.

  3. manuel moegarcia says

    That these commercial services and products exists is empowering. That so many vulnerable people see them as a _prerequisite_ for happiness and fulfillment is heartbreaking.

    I am very happy you are writing so compassionately (and seriously) about these human issues.

  4. says

    I guess the glaring irony on the fact that the person who didn’t pass was played by a cis-woman is lost on them.

    By no means do I wish to offer apologetics for various cissexist radical-feminist attitudes that blame trans women for this dynamic, hold us especially accountable for the fact that our culture treats the female body as a product

    Yes, because the concept of tran-women is one widely and broadly know in society and models of “femininininity” are clearly based on the bodies of transwomen.
    That’s just stupid. The cis-world doesn’t acknowledge trans identities as long as it can avoid it. And if they do it, and if they rub the efforts trans-women undergo into our faces, it’s still patriarchal cis-world that does it.

  5. northstargirl says

    Excellent post, Natalie.

    I’ve had conflicted thoughts on this very subject ever since I found TS Roadmap during my own transition years and years ago. That site is a valuable resource for information and definitely guided me through the process (and I still refer to it from time to time), but I also remember how I would look through it and feel so inadequate, like I was doing it wrong, and that unless I had facial surgery and did all these other things that I couldn’t afford or didn’t have any real interest in doing that I’d always fall short. I had thought about writing an essay about it back then and trying to engage Andrea about the topic, but never followed through.

    Over the years I tried some things; I did buy the voice-training DVD, but by that point I’d worked with my own voice for so long, and I felt like it wasn’t me somehow. (By that point people were accustomed to the way I talked and would have asked what I was trying to do with my voice.) There were other reasons why that and facial surgery, by that point in my life, would have caused more problems than they would have solved. I made my peace with both issues and moved on.

    In my dreams there’s the “ideal” transition I wish I’d had, with more money to spend and the people around me being much nicer to me than they were, and also without the poisonous self-esteem issues I had to fight. It would have been my own Andrea-style transition. But that didn’t happen, and I had to fight for so much of what I have now.

    I learned a lot of things along the way. Among them I learned that some of those physical aspects of transition matter less than you’d think. Learning to love and accept yourself, imperfections and all, matters more than anything else. Physically, maybe I don’t quite match up, and maybe I don’t look or talk the way I do in my dreams…but I have created a life that works very well and very happily, and in its own imperfect way is its own kind of perfection. Looking back, I’m not sure I would want to have missed it, or that I’d play it any differently if I could.

    • says

      I learned a lot of things along the way. Among them I learned that some of those physical aspects of transition matter less than you’d think. Learning to love and accept yourself, imperfections and all, matters more than anything else.

      ++

  6. damigiana says

    What a wonderful, deep post.

    you can’t really talk trans-misogyny without talking Original Flavour misogyny anyway.

    As a cis woman, I find that the other implication also holds true: awareness of trans women’s issues sheds light on our own, since the current feminity standard is not easily satisfied even by cis women e.g., in body shape or hair.

    We cis women have a much easier life so that we often accept as normal all we do to fit in; you reminded me of how much oppression is implicit in having to do (albeit minor) body modifications.

  7. says

    i’ll be reblogging this on my website.
    it is a gnawing at my gut, this thing called passing.
    as a cis-woman, without talking like a girl, walking like a girl, not wearing make-up and being far from what is considered feminine, i automatically pass…whatever that means.
    i’ve also been mistaken for someone who is transgender…i admit being flattered by this.
    patriarchal paradigms hold that a woman shave, leaving us looking prepubescent to suit their need to feel dominant. i never shave, a grown woman has hair. we are supposed to wear make-up, made to feel as tho we ‘need’ it. we are supposed to want to be lusted after, to be desirable. we are supposed to acquiesce to many unnatural conventions just to achieve this.
    when a cis-woman doesn’t measure up, her womanhood is seldom challenged…we always pass. but a transgender person who looks like me and behaves in similar fashion would be put down for
    ‘not passing’. even shaved headed, male attire donning, very butch women, are yet recognised as women.
    i hope my daughter never feels there’s something she must do in order to pass. she will insist upon surgery and hormones, because that’s the only way her body won’t be the betrayal that she feels it to be.
    but i hope she never ever feels it necessary to live up to the male-dominated, impossible ideals set for women in our society.
    one of the most beautiful women i ever met not only didn’t shave but had a long sparse beard that she proudly braided and adorned with beads. she didn’t wear make-up, she wore long flowing dresses and seemed a goddess to me.
    i hate the term “passing” because not only does it oppress transgender women, but it assumes a minimum requirement for womanhood and imposes cis-gender, straight male values upon us all.

    • says

      when a cis-woman doesn’t measure up, her womanhood is seldom challenged…we always pass. but a transgender person who looks like me and behaves in similar fashion would be put down for
      ‘not passing’. even shaved headed, male attire donning, very butch women, are yet recognised as women.

      I had thought something like this, although I think you may have said it better. I’ve know many cis women who would not be considered to ‘pass’ if they were trans, but being cis they don’t have to worry about it.

      • im says

        It seems to me that for cis-as-trans passing there are two separate levels. The difference between them is not being paid attention to.

        One is a successful disguise, sort of, being able to align all atributes to that of womanhood in general.

        The second is passing as an archic woman, getting the femininity right and so on.

        since there are a fair number of women who are pretty much identifyable as women but who don’t conform to ANY ideal that any idealized form (I’m not counting just the Standard of Beauty but the many, many forms of archetypes like the sort of masculine woman and the older fat woman, and so on, that people may not consider very nice but at least seem to respect to some degree.

        Actually thinking about that issue thougougly could be really interesting but I don’t have the time.

    • CoraReynolds says

      “when a cis-woman doesn’t measure up, her womanhood is seldom challenged…we always pass. but a transgender person who looks like me and behaves in similar fashion would be put down for
      ‘not passing’.”

      THIS! THIS SO MUCH! As a cis feminist woman who hangs out on “anarcho-feminist” and “libertarian” circles, I’m sick and tired of seeing other cis women trying to get away from examining cis privilege by saying stuff like “But I don’t fit gender stereotypes either!”

      I could understand that a little if it was coming from butch lesbians, who are often mistaken for men and who have to go trough a lot of crap (though they obviously also benefit from cis privilege in more than one way). But it’s not! It’s coming from ppl who will be read as women for pretty much everyone. So no, me and them don’t get to play “but I’m not THAT cis!”. Because we can have all the hair in our legs we want, we can buy all our clothes on the men’s department, we can talk and walk and sit and act in the most “masculine” ways possible, and though dealing with a lot of lesbophobia and sexism, our gender will still not be up for debate. No one will use these things to “prove” we aren’t women. No one will use them to deny us acess to medical care that we feel is important to our well-being (and even to our safety, since being read as cis can make someone less vulnerable to transphobic discrimination and harassment). No one will use these things to deny us ID that has our real names and real genders on it. We have a ton of privilege. Saying “I’m not that cis!” makes no sense at all.

  8. Esteleth, Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo says

    I saw Transamerica when it came out. I am cis, and at the time I was mighty ignorant about what it means to be trans (insofar that any cis person can ever “get it”). So a lot of this stuff just passed me by and I didn’t blink.

    The biggest thing that got me, even then in all my ignorance, was the fact that Bree is portrayed by a cis woman actress. And at the Oscars that year, the host opened by saying, “Ladies, gentlemen, Felicity.” And there was a lot of talk about how “brave” the actress had to be.

    Why couldn’t one of the trans actresses in the support group play Bree? Why couldn’t, for that matter, a cis man?

    • Esteleth, Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo says

      If they couldn’t find a “suitable” trans woman actress, that is. It just baffles me.

      • Esteleth, Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo says

        If it is done badly/offensively, totally.

        But if the point is ZOMG BREE DOESN’T PASS ZOMG (ugh! that attitude!) why would the go-to be a cis woman with a bunch of prosthetics/makeup rather than a cis man? Does this go back to misogyny – a man who pretends to be trans (even for a movie) is unmanly and that’s bad?

        In any case, the best possible scenario would be a trans woman actress. And I’m really suspicious of why that was not the path that was taken.

  9. says

    Me and my girlfriend (also trans) watched Transamerica a little while back, we both found it deeply problematic in numerous ways, so I’m glad you’ve brought this up. I think the the biggest thing that jumped out at me, was the “SRS makes everything better” meme.

    The other thing that got me was that for someone who’s supposed to have been full time for at least a year, she seemed awfully unsure of herself. Now I’ll grant, that some people are more nervous than others by nature, but even still. On the other hand, I haven’t had people second guessing my presentation at every turn– the only person who did that, I told to mind her own damn business (except, politely), so maybe that’s just privilege showing.

    Not directly related but…

    For myself, there was a big moment for me when I realized that I wasn’t ok with the whole concept of “passing” that we’re fed. Not even a little ok. Being recognized as female is important to me, but, by contrast, as passing as cis is not. Even still, as often as not I do pass as cis, but I think this is as much because our society mostly doesn’t even acknowledge that cis people might exists.

  10. Alexandra Pitchford says

    You know, when first starting out…when I was first struggling with who I was (a very painful few years, not even including the years before that where I simply wished to be a girl, but wasn’t willing to take that drastic step of transitioning), I relied pretty heavily on tsroadmap.com for information. And, I’ll admit, I got caught up in that “I have to get all of these procedures” mentality.
    Looking back, I’m rather surprised that I got wrapped up in that. It’s easy, I suppose, though. Someone desperate enough, who doesn’t know any better, can cling to that veritable shopping list of procedures as necessities for “passing”, for being who they really want to be.
    I may still be early on in my transition (nearly 8 months on hormones, and I feel so much better, so much more me than I used to be), but even early on, I came to the realization that I really don’t need those to be who I am. I’m a woman, plain and simple…and no cosmetic surgery is necessary to validate that. And, I’m lucky enough that I think I’m rather pretty, at least. Oh, my nose is kind of long, and my jaw is a touch too broad, but…I really have no intention on changing those.
    It works for me, and above all else, I’m happy.

    • northstargirl says

      That “I have to get all these procedures done” thought is very easy to fall into, and at one point I did…but I didn’t have the $30-$40,000 for the full Dr. Osterhout treatment back then, and still don’t to this day. Sometimes I play with the thought: if I came into a large amount of money, would I do it then? Maybe I would, but I’d much rather pay off my student loans, make a giant dent in our mortgage or solve other problems in my life before having any kind of plastic surgery.

      There was also a question of function. To me SRS was worth the effort because it served many functions: it was how I could fulfill my state’s requirements to get my documents changed, it provided a worthwhile physical function, and it brought deep emotional satisfaction that lasts to this day. It’s one of the best things I ever did and was worth the sacrifices. Facial surgery, for several reasons, didn’t promise the same return on investment for me. I really don’t need it to function in society, and I had the feeling that I would have been changing how I looked in order to satisfy others’ expectations of what a woman should look like. The older I got, the more I enjoyed being defiant about that. I didn’t want to abandon a set of other people’s demands and expectations in favor of a new set of others’ demands and expectations.

      It was also amazing how, as my self-confidence increased, people would read me as female even if I didn’t feel especially pretty that day and was dressed in jeans and an old shirt. How you look can matter, sure…but how you project yourself makes a big difference regardless of what procedures you’ve had. Not enough is said about that. If you stumble and stammer and seem nervous, you’ll frequently be read, but if you project confidence and ease it can make a huge difference.

      Believe me, I’m not knocking anybody who has facial surgery, or who seeks it. Some people feel a lot better about themselves after they have it done, and that’s a very good thing. I’m all for access to (safe) procedures and services that any given trans person needs to feel right with themselves, and for knocking down the financial hurdles that keep them from seeking those things.

      That said, I feel bad when people get the idea they absolutely MUST have facial surgery or they won’t successfully transition, as if you’ll be judged by an all-star celebrity panel and rejected if you don’t measure up. That’s now how it works. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the best version of you that you can be.

      • alexandrapitchford says

        My thoughts, exactly. The only surgery I absolutely plan on getting is SRS, and that’s mostly for me, for my peace of mind.

        That said, I have no idea when I’ll be able to even afford that…

  11. cami says

    Hey Natalie, I found a poem inside your essay! I couldn’t help myself, Natalie, please don’t hate me.

    I’ve never been quite able to shake the sense of…being…“passable”…as…ridiculous…dangerous, destructive… extremely narrow, culturally-rigid…naive and simplistic idea…also…some seriously problematic shit…

    While I’m sure it wasn’t intended as such,…passing…is…intensely hostile…There’s a whole lot that can be said about…“passing”…that…is, you know, completely totally wrong.

    Therefore,…“passing”…is creepy as fuck, when you think about it.
    treating “passing”…as…womanhood…privileges cisgenderism…cissexism and cisnormativity.
    “passability”…is also a…misogynistic and femmephobic mentality.that…’s…out there.
    “passing”…is…the cissexist concept…that…shouldn’t even be

  12. says

    I waver between the idea of passability or not, and get scared and frustrated when I look at myself and see the manly parts of my body (usually when I haven’t shaved for a couple days – on a side note, even if I weren’t trans I’d be looking for a permanent solution to facial hair, I hate shaving and it isn’t full anyway.)

    This week has been one of depression as I pretty much have woken every day with the thought “I’m so manly, I’ll never pass” and it terrifies me. It scares me that I’ll be outed by everyone who takes a look at me on the street, the snickering behind my back, the inability to find someone interested in me in any way because I’m “really a guy.”

    And things like you mentioned don’t help. How “passability” is brought out as the end goal of transition. It’s not the journey that matters, it’s whether or not you look appropriately feminine in the end to be seen as the gender you are. If you can’t look feminine enough, then you failed at transition. I get worried all the time about it, and it’s probably that one little thing that keeps me from picking up a phone and calling a therapist (and that most of the therapists in my area doing transitional therapy are all woo-meisters.)

  13. im says

    While I often agree with you and I very much respect you, I’ve got to make one request: Can you please stop using ‘capitalism’ as a synonym for the existence of class oppression?

    ( I am not sure what you want instead: Democratic socialism (still capitalism, really, and a very good system, anarchy, communism, or whatever, but if it’s not one of those, then maybe you’re talking about ‘market fundamentalism’ or ideology that is only partly connected to capitalism)

    It’s just not a good idea to use words that way.

    • says

      No, I used capitalism because I MEANT CAPITALISM. Market systems based on capital and profit.

      “What I want instead” really has nothing to do with anything. I’m talking about some of the effects that unrestricted capitalism has when beauty, femininity, womanhood and “passing” are available as commodities. Class oppression has little to nothing to do with what I’m saying, and I shouldn’t have to identify my political leanings re: economics in what words are or are not a “good idea” for me to use.

  14. Sinéad says

    I hated “Transamerica” so much…and I forced myself through it to see what endearing crap message it would preach.

    I hate my body. Yeah, being 6’1″ with broad shoulders and narrow waist, gives a lot of visual cues. My voice isn’t deep but I gave up on training it. I have constant allergies and congestion. Honestly, given what I have, I don’t care if I “pass” I just want to be safe.

    I am comfortable with my rogue femme presentation. I’m a hard femme, not the “girl next door”. My desire for SRS is for me, not to make me someone/something else. I choose “woman” as the closest identity that matches who I am and who I’ve always felt closest with in social gatherings. But, honestly, Transamerica made me want to throw a molotov cocktail. I really don’t like the trans women who were in it. Their contributions to pop culture are just not very inspiring to me. Give me Kate Bornstein ( even if she’s made some mistakes) anyday.

  15. Trina says

    What support group? When does Bree attend one of those? I thought a large part of the beginning was establishing that Bree has no friends/social interaction except her therapist.

    I liked the parent/child relationship in the film.

  16. alliecat says

    I’ll quite readily admit I literally groaned when I saw the mention of TSroadmap.com :P It was one of the first few resources I found after voicing my trans-ness and deciding to act on it. I remember being uncomfortable with the way a lot of stuff was presented on there even then in my relative ignorance, and I’ve been back there since to get statistics I remembered seeing there on trans women’s sexual/romantic orientation and I was shocked by how awful everything was.

    Incidentally, I also returned to another of those first few resources about 2 months ago, trans-mission.org, which is currently result #4 in a google search for “trans chat” (the top 2 being chaser-oriented sex sites), to ask for advice on tucking because I felt it was too private a topic to discuss with people I knew. It took me about half an hour to get banned for having an issue with chasers. Something really needs to be done about this crap being what people find first.

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