The New York Times ran this article on Sunday about, of all things, transgendered women. And while mocking the Grey Lady was my rainy day activity over at my blog–oh, Ross Douthat, keep chasing that rainbow!–I have to give them credit this time: they actually called trans women women, with nary a birth name to be seen.
That’s progress, I guess, or what passes for it in these times.
The article is about pumping, having liquid silicone injected into your body in order to enlarge things you want enlarged and contour the things that have the wrong contours. If you are lucky, you will get injected with medical-grade silicone by someone with medical training. If you are not, you’ll get industrial-grade silicone squirted into your flesh by someone who has seen it done a few times.
Pumping is one of those things you learn about when you are trans. Something that people will cluck over, if you’re on the right side of the tracks that day–because it is dangerous, and potentially disfiguring, and with money and the right doctor you can have all those things done nice and neat. It’s a class boundary, a lot of the time–because so many trans people aren’t on the right side of the tracks, have about as much hope of navigating a hostile medical system as being called up to read the lottery numbers on Channel 5, and despair of ever assembling the thousands of dollars at one time just about any procedure that has the modifier “trans” attached to it would cost. In a world of bad ideas and lousy options, what’s one more?
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Let me draw your attention to the article’s title: “The High Price of Looking Like a Woman.” When I blearily saw that pop up on the Times homepage that Sunday afternoon, I thought it would be another article about the high cost of looking like a woman for, well, all women. I was surprised (but only a little bit) to find out it was about my particular variation on that theme.
One of the things that sometimes puzzles me is why there is a reluctance, in some reaches of the feminist community, between linking feminism and trans issues. Because if we accept Tobi Hill-Meyer’s definition of trans as “a person who’s gender is not universally considered valid”–well, then. Because it seems to me that one of the major issues confronting women, no matter how we got there, is that our gender, our very personhood is not considered universally valid. Is there that much of a gap between Hilary Clinton being called a mannish for wearing pastel pantsuits while wielding power and Christie Lee Littleton having her widowhood and gender ripped away by a Texas judge? (Or Ann Coulter being called trans, for that matter…but let’s let that one lie for now.)
And yet. The act of striving towards “looking like a woman”, so fraught for cis women, is often turned against trans women, held up as an example of our unreality. It’s one of your classic double-binds: look more like the world expects you to look, if you ever want to have a chance of not having an assessment of your gender be public speculation on the morning subway ride–not to mention getting a job, having police/medical/social workers take you seriously, etc.–but if you do, you’ve somehow invalidated your gender anyway because you’re simply confirming the patriarchal expectations that we all know and love. (Confession: we don’t love them. At all.)
But I rarely see that get linked to the same double-bind all women find themselves in, except in Bindelesque refightings of the lipstick wars of past generations.
And yet again–I will lie to you if I say that it doesn’t gnaw at me, sometimes. I’ve had between two and three “cosmetic” surgeries done, depending on whether you consider reassignment surgery cosmetic. (I don’t.) My silicone is neatly bagged up inside of me, and while nature gave me the cheekbones I wanted, a surgeon gave me the jawbone to match. I won’t lie to you. They have improved my quality of life. They have made it far easier for me to inhabit this world, to continue to find work in my field, to not have the baristas at Starbuck’s stumble over pronouns when they hand me my mocha latte. So I understand why you go to get pumped, if you haven’t had enough of the thousand lucky breaks I had. But I don’t like to talk about my surgeries. Because I fear it somehow invalidates me, somehow makes me exactly that caricature the people who hate me want me to be. I reflect sometimes on my womanhood, and sometimes I despair.
But the thing is that when I look at my reflection, I don’t see the face-that-was, a face I was fond of only the way I’m fond of some old purses–they’re really not me at my best, but I’m comfortable with them. I certainly don’t see someone who artificially chipped away at herself into a wet dream of the patriarchy. I see myself, and sometimes I doubt that self a bit.
If that doesn’t make me like most women then I don’t know what will.