I remember all the times my mom told me I would never be pretty. The first time hurt the most. We were standing next to the door to the back of my house, she in front of the heater. I was sixteen, and I wanted nothing more than to be a woman—a “real,” cisgender woman.
“You’re so big,” she said, gawking at my 215-pound, 5’10, wide, linebacker frame. “You would make a terrible woman.”
That night, I measured my shoulders. The tape measure said eighteen inches, but I told myself there was bound to be some error, and that seventeen seemed more accurate. I looked up the average shoulder width for a woman, which Google told me to be fourteen to fifteen inches. It was then that I decided to have a shoulder reduction surgery.
That night, I also measured my feet, and realized that for they were too wide for their length by women’s clothing standards, so I decided to get a foot slimming surgery. My waist proportions were also not correct, so I mentally committed to having my lower two ribs taken out. This was on top of the brow shave, nose job, sexual reassignment surgery, and hand reduction I had already planned.
I remember falling asleep that night, imagining who I would look like. The image I constructed looks a lot like Caitlyn Jenner. A face with no hints of the hair or rigid features mine had had. Toned arms without the slightest hint of muscle definition. A waist that bent in like a Playboy Bunny. Sure, I looked a lot younger, but I looked like the sexy, Girl Next Door, white boy fantasy that Caitlyn Jenner’s now famous Vanity Fair cover has come to embody.
I thought of the man who would fall in love with me. White, tall, suit, stubble, Dolce and Gabbana-esque. A lawyer by day, a backpacker at night. We would go to the beach, and he would wear board shorts, and I would wear a bikini, and we’d never mention how I was born. Not to our three kids, not to his parents, not to his friends, not to our neighbors.
When I think back on it, it’s funny how I framed his love for me. I wasn’t interested in whether I loved, or even liked him. I cared that he was attractive, that he was privileged, and that he was conventional. Most of all, I wanted him to love me, and I wanted him to fuck me. I imagined us going to the beach after dark for a midnight skinny dipping session, and he would pull me out of the water, lay me on my back, and start fucking me.
I wanted to be irresistible. I didn’t just want to be normal. I wanted to be beautiful, sexy, and attractive. I wanted to be desired.
* * *
Quite frankly, I didn’t give a shit about Caitlyn Jenner. Darkmatter summed up my feelings pretty well in a post on Facebook on April 25th after the interview Caitlyn did with Diane Sawyer.
I didn’t give a shit about Caitlyn, that is, until Monday. I was scrolling through my Facebook page on my phone, and I saw the photo. “Call Me Caitlyn,” the text read. I looked at the person, and I couldn’t place her, so I kept scrolling on. A little later, I came across an article entitled something like “Jenner Announces New Name,” and the picture was the magazine cover I had scrolled past. I looked at the woman again, and then it hit me. That was Caitlyn Jenner.
My heart sank a bit when I saw her. She looked so attractive. She looked so hot. She looked so fucking desirable.
To make matters worse, the article, and nearly every mainstream commentary my mostly cisgender friends have shared has made reference to her beauty. That’s probably what upsets me most: not that she’s attractive and I’m not, but that now, she is the standard for trans women beauty. She is the person we’ll be compared to. And she’s not challenging how oppressive it is to even have a trans women standard of beauty, let alone one that is wealthy, white, and feminine. I know I don’t stack up. It’s not even close.
But I used to.
The girl in those pictures looks happy. And in some sense, ruok is. Ruok’s lost sixty two pounds, and ruok’s now living as Erika Lynn.
(Ruok, ruokid, and ruokii are my correct pronouns. They translate to “powerful” in Meaǥiul, one of the languages I’ve created.)
But ruok still hasn’t found a boyfriend. No one’s even come close to admitting they like ruokid sexually or romantically. Ruokii friends still make comments about ruokii appearance. Ruok is still the butt of jokes.
Long story short, I tried to keep losing weight, and it backfired. Big time. My weight is now considerably more than what it was when I first began to lose weight, and it’s been that way for three years now. At first, I hated that I was losing my size. I hated that I would never find someone who could ever find me attractive again. I nearly jumped off Sweet Hall because I was so distraught.
The story is, again, too long to share, but I got help, and I have come a long way. I’ve learned to not just like my body, but to love it. I’ve seen how beautiful my body can be, and I’ve seen how fun it can be to play with. I questioned with my therapist why I wanted to get the surgeries I had wanted to get, and slowly allowed myself to admit that I didn’t actually want to get any of them.
But I’ve also come to realize that there will always be a part of me that wants to be like Caitlyn, who will always look at her athletic, white, wealthy physique and crave the attention and the desirability she commands. Part of me will always look back at my exercise bulimic phase with nostalgia. Part of me will never move on.
* * *
Soon after Jenner came out, Jon Stewart lampooned the media’s sexist coverage; and for once, I actually agree with him. The clips he picks out show just how important her attractive and desirable looks play into the media’s (generally) accepting response to her revealing Caitlyn.
“My brain was like ‘this is a great milestone for the transgender community’,” Stewart says in a faux-Jersey accent impersonating the previous television personality, “but my penis was all like ‘Tittyfuck!’”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
Caitlyn herself acknowledges that she looks very feminine, and part of her emphasis on appearing very feminine is to put people at ease. Janet Mock points out that for many trans women who play up their femininity, it’s not to put people at ease—it’s to keep themselves safe.
But why does it put wealthy whites at ease? Why does it make people less likely to kill (marginalized, low-income) transwomen (of color)? Does our performance of conventional femininity make us too desirable to be excluded, harassed, or killed?
In a way, I am privileged that I can exist in a world like ours and not pass, or at least not pass well. This has a lot to do with me being white. I get stared at every day, and I’ve been harassed. Life can be really uncomfortable, and even unsafe. But I’m still here, and at the end of the day, I don’t have to worry whether tomorrow will come.
When I think back to the images I had of myself that night when I was sixteen, I can’t help but think that something other than my desire to be desired played into the creation of those fantasies. Desirability meant safety. Desirability meant that someone would take me away from my wretched home life. Desirability meant that there was a life that I could actually live. Desirability for a woman means femininity, and so femininity became my defense mechanism.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing any person’s choice or wish to be feminine, nor am I suggesting that being feminine is selling out. What I’m questioning is why we must be forced to think in terms of our desirability and our femininity to remain emotionally and physically secure.
When I began transitioning, everyone forced me into certain gender presentations. At first, I was compelled by my family into a sexless androgyny. “We don’t want the boys to get upset and…you know…” my mom would say. But once I had transitioned to the point where the markers of conventional white womanhood could not be ignored, I began to be forced into the role of conventional white femininity. I have been forced to wear make-up, shave my legs, wear skirts and dresses, and adopt other behaviors to meet these gender markers. And for what?
It felt so liberating when I first started to question with a therapist whether being fat made me a less beautiful person. It felt liberating to understand that though I might not be conventionally attractive, I might be attractive to someone, even someone I might myself find attractive. And in coming to these realizations, I allowed myself to explore dropping some of these conventional feminine traits I had picked up from home when I transitioned my senior year of high school. I stopped shaving my legs every day. I stopped washing my clothes that often…or at all. I didn’t shave my face first thing in the morning. At first, these experiences felt scary. But they also felt fun. They felt authentic.
I’m not alone in this post-transition drift from an extreme performance of conventional femininity to something that feels more in line with how we want to act and behave. Most trans women I know at Stanford go through something similar, in their own way. But we are at Stanford, and we don’t have to worry about whether we will wake up in the morning. What about those who aren’t?
I fear that how Caitlyn has come out will reinforce mandatory femininity, instead of questioning and critiquing it. It is not her having a conventional white femininity that worries me; but rather how she uses it to validate herself, and to garner acceptance. Laverne Cox points out that she and Caitlyn and other visible trans women “must continue to lift up” marginalized trans women. Yet by reinforcing the trans female beauty standards as white conventional femininity, Caitlyn emphasizes that our safety comes from whether or not straight men want to tittyfuck us. I don’t want to have to walk down the street and wonder whether the men find me desirable so they won’t decide to harass or harm me. I don’t want to have to find some man with whom I can never actually acknowledge who I am and who I’ve been so I can be safe.
I fear that Caitlyn, in her very bow to white respectability, has coerced young trans women who are feeling very much how I felt when I was sixteen to buy into the notion that their safety is or must be intrinsically dependent on their performance of white conventional femininity. I fear that she has misled them, misrepresented us, and misguided the millions of cisgender people who have been posting pictures and stories about her and her transition without stopping to think critically about her and her position.
As trans women, we must remind ourselves that at the end of the day, our identities, realities, and communities matter more than whether or not some white boy in power finds our tits fuckable. We must instill in our communities’ young the belief that their ‘beautiful’ is not dependent on others, but on themselves.
Caitlyn says she wants to help trans women everywhere, and to be fair, she has only been Caitlyn now for several days. I hope that going forward she can learn to use her celebrity to lift us up, as Laverne puts it; to question and be critical of the external forces that shape trans women’s presentation, instead of teaching us and others that we should cling to these oppressive norms of beauty.
Photo courtesy of Erika Lynn Abigail Persephone Joanna Kreeger and here.
Video courtesy of Comedy Central.