Matching Gender Identity to Physical Appearance

No transgender person (for that matter, no one at all) has to conform to a stereotype just because they identify as one way or another. For example, just because I identify as female doesn’t mean there’s some ideal picture of what female is, and if I don’t match that image then I’ve failed at being a woman. I certainly have an idea of how I want to look—how I’ve always wished I could look. But first off, that idea comes from what society tells me a female should be, and second of all, if I never achieve that look, I shouldn’t feel like I’ve failed at womanhood. I think a lot of trans women hope to strive toward a similar picture of femininity; and that’s all right. However, our confidence and our success as ladies don’t have to be gauged by how feminine we ultimately appear. Forgive the platitude, but for real, it’s what’s on the inside that matters!

When I leave the house each day—in fact, when I wake up in my bed each morning—one of my prevailing focuses is this: Do I look the way I feel? And I don’t mean Do I look like crap? Since I identify as a woman, I am intensely preoccupied with needing to look like a woman. Over the past few months, as I’ve begun my full-time transition to female, I have become more and more anxious about matching my physical appearance to my gender identity. There have even been days when I didn’t even leave the house because I didn’t feel like spending two hours shaving, showering, putting on makeup, getting dressed, doing my hair, and so on—not necessarily in that order. Th

It takes cisgender women long enough to feel prepared to leave the house. When you start out as biologically male, it can take that much longer to obtain an outwardly feminine appearance. Even after two hours of getting made up, there’s still only so close I can get to passing as a woman. Having said this, most forward-thinking trans women will argue that passing is overrated and is the product of oppressive cisgender-heterosexual ideologies that pervade Western thought. It’s true. Feeling like I have to pass as what is stereotypically considered “woman” is part of a binary paradigm that we are taught from childhood. However, I personally feel like I fit that paradigm, just with boy parts instead of lady parts. Not everybody fits, or wants to fit, and that’s OK. I shouldn’t need to look completely woman—and I don’t—in order to feel confident in public.

It’s counterintuitive, but I do in fact feel more confident expressing my female identity while in social situations. As a man, I would always feel ridiculously awkward. It would seem like everyone in the room was staring at me (even though it was more likely that nobody could care any less that I was there). Ironically—and this makes me weirdly giddy to think about—I get stared at all the time when I’m out as a woman, and, yet, I don’t feel awkward at all. This points to the idea that my dysphoria (see below) dissolves when I’m able to express my true gender around others and at the same time for myself. The affirmation is therefore two-fold: I get to look the way I feel; and people have the opportunity see my true expression of who I am. In other words, I no longer feel like a counterfeit version of myself.

We’ve all heard that platitude that starts It’s not what’s on the outside that matters … And while this is certainly true, let’s face it, most of us—human beings in general—are hugely affected by our own appearance. More specifically, we internalize how we believe others perceive us. This is definitely the case for many transgender individuals. As I sense on the inside like I’m a woman but venture out appearing to be male, I feel like people can’t see me as I truly am. Even though they don’t actually think that, it screws with my psychological well-being. Confused yet?

A lot of us trans folks spend a good portion of our lives—for some, it’s their entire lives—obsessing over the fact that what we see in the mirror doesn’t match how we feel inside. This has been referred to psychologically as gender dysphoria (it used to be called gender identity disorder; thank goodness we did away with that little gem of ignorance). Gender dysphoria is another term for the feelings of distress, or cognitive dissonance, experienced by trans folks when they realize their biological sex (or sex at birth) doesn’t match their gender identity. Examples of this include feeling like your genitals are alien, like they don’t belong on your body. People can even experience pain or discomfort from feeling like they have the wrong genitals—this is common. I’ve felt this way throughout my life. I have also experienced this merely by looking in the mirror at my face.

To be sure, people like me have no psychological weakness or mental illness based on the fact that we’re transgender. It’s this simple: Our sexual reproductive organs, along with any other physical and psychological characteristics that are tied to the presence of testosterone (in trans women) or estrogen (in trans men), simply don’t match our gender identity. Things become a bit more complicated for individuals who identify as gender queer, gender nonconforming or nonbinary. However, in most cases, all of these are still as simple as describing one’s gender identity and do not denote a psychological handicap. What is not so simple is having to navigate a world in which transgender has not generally been understood or experienced by 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Thankfully, we’re moving past that.

It’s important to point out that these terms—or labels—are only fitting when an individual uses them to self-identify. In other words, we should all refrain from placing a label on another person if he, she or they haven’t already used that terminology to describe themselves. I recently read a great blog post on my local transgender support group’s (Renaissance) website in which the author does a great job elaborating on this concept about labeling. One point she makes that I consider profound, and extremely pertinent to my life, is that all transgender individuals are on unique paths in their journeys to understanding themselves. Though we do not choose our gender identities, we are able to choose whether and to what degree we might express those identities. Some will choose to transition and some won’t. Those who do transition will each decide what they hope their transition to look like—whether that means coming out completely or just partially, living full-time or part-time as their true gender, starting hormone therapy, maybe having surgery, and so on.

The depth and breadth to which each transgender person might transition are as vast and wide as the number of trans individuals who will walk the planet. For some of us, it may not be a matter of choice. We may be dying to have a surgery or two (or five) but might not have the exorbitant amount of money necessary to do so (a lot of these surgeries are considered cosmetic or elective and therefore aren’t covered by insurance in some places). These include facial feminization surgeries, sexual reassignment surgeries, mastectomy, hysterectomy, and a whole host of other plastic and implant surgeries. Not to mention the fear factor—I know I’m personally scared about the prospect of having any sort of invasive facial surgery, despite the fact that I would love to have a few things tweaked. Full disclosure: I want SRS (a more fitting term for it is gender confirmation surgery).

The bottom line is this: Regardless of how far I’ve made it in my transition—or how far I ultimately get—wherever I am right now is exactly where I should be right now. None of that changes the fact that I’m a woman. A trans woman is still all woman. Same goes for trans men; and gender queer or gender nonconforming people are still people, too! The more cisgender folks who can grasp that fact and then eventually be OK with it, the better our society will become.

Part of accepting all this is understanding that gender itself is a social construct, meaning collective ideas about gender (what actually makes a person male or female, or something else) are shared and passed down through generations. In Western culture, it’s long been the norm to define gender based on a person’s sexual genitalia. (Interestingly, this fails to account for the proportion of individuals who are born intersex—with genitalia that are not solely female or solely male.) These concepts vary across cultures and societies—there are many societies both historically and presently where the binary (two-gender) paradigm is not the norm.

A great resource to learn more about gender and transgender around the world is a recent documentary from National Geographic called Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. Through the lens of an average cisgender person, Katie educates herself on the important nuances that define the many genders that actually exist in the world. I’m sure it’s still going to be a long time until everybody, or almost everybody, can accept this truth; but one thing is certain no matter what people think: We are all just as human as the next person.




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