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.

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12 Responses to Reflections

  1. Beauzeaux says:

    I don’t understand the reluctance of feminists to take up the cause of trans women. As a straight ciswoman I first had to understand that lesbians were and are an indispensable part of the feminist movement. (That I figured out in 1970.) It took me a bit longer (about 10 years) to come to the same position re trans women. I had to read up and educate myself. I’m still doing it.
    This is a great post — part of my continuing education.

  2. Jadey says:

    Pumping is something I only just learned about from Transgriot.

    Thanks for this, C.L. I don’t have much to add except yes. The gender policing of trans women is a particular vicious head on the hydra we’re all fighting, and it’s infuriating that people still construct the idea of “real” women to perpetuate that marginalization.

  3. chava says:

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t thought of putting mtf reassignment surgery in the category of “women’s health services our country fucks over,” but it seems like part and parcel of the same BS, with an extra helping of transphobia.

  4. Mym says:

    Frankly, I wouldn’t call FFS cosmetic either–I’ve heard that for some people it’s more important, dysphoria-wise, than getting the plumbing remodeled. It’s certainly more visible. I’m uncertain on breast augmentation, but at least for some women you could make a strong argument that it’s not cosmetic either.

  5. I wonder if we will ever get to a point where gender policing is not quite so stringent. And I think that there’s even a spectrum of presentation among those who are trans. Some engage in surgical procedures, some do not. Often this is because of simply economics, sometimes personal choice.

  6. Marlene says:

    Thanks for this post. The intersection between my body issues that are trans related and my body issues that are simply the result of being a woman in this culture is a frequent point of focus for my attention and efforts to unwind my real needs from my conditioned anxieties. It’s very nice to read someone else’s thoughts on the subject. Nice to be reminded I’m not alone (even though I know damn well that I’m not).

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  8. Jay says:

    Another great thing about that NYT story: it must have driven the late Abe Rosenthal’s remaining admirers at the paper, if there are any, ABSOLUTELY INSANE. :-)

  9. Jay says:

    Drat, guys. Sorry for the dupe. Please delete #7.

  10. Diana says:

    (for reference, I’m a cis woman and a lesbian) I have no idea what it means to be a woman or a man…I sometimes have difficulty disentangling my actual desires from those stemming from indoctrination. I’ve vacillated between rejecting all the trappings of “femininity” (and hiding my body) to embracing the few that make me smile and wearing clothes that make me feel good (and a little bad–I got a little self-slut-shaming going on in my head, though less now). All I can say is that some things feel right to me (for me), while others feel terribly wrong, and my sexual orientation was somehow tied to my gender performance (though I know that that may or may not be the case for others)…I started deciding which aspects of “femininity” to embrace (rather than rejecting them all full stock) when I came out, and I’ve never been happier or less ashamed. Only you know what’s right for you…and despite what Julie Bindel said in the article you linked, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of health. May we all have the courage (and wherewithal) to “be who we are” and the compassion/generosity to want that for others.

  11. timberwraith says:

    Diana, I’m a trans woman and what you wrote describes my experiences as a woman almost line for line. I was nodding my head as I read your words.

    I don’t how many people realize this, but femininity (or how ever the heck society defines that term) isn’t something that all trans women go absolutely gaga over. My own personal tastes lean toward the blurry boundary between androgyny and what society defines as “feminine.” I pick and choose what I find to be palatable and push away that which isn’t… and there’s a lot of things about society’s notions of womanhood that I find to be strongly unpalatable.

    I too am primarily attracted to women. One of the things I love about the queer women’s community is that there has always been this broad range of gender expression that defies the boundaries of womanhood that society lays down. Being around so many queer women during my transition helped deepen my own understanding of what feels “right” to me.

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