How ‘Pretty Privilege’ Feels For Trans Women

I didn't encounter the words 'feminised' or 'feminisation' until I started transitioning. Yet currently, both words occupy quite a few media inches, in reference to those who have had feminising surgeries and, by omission, those who haven't. It's a trans concern but one that ripples way out.
When I first engaged with talking therapy to try and resolve my issues around gender, people (professionals and friends) would ask me what I was going to do to become more feminine, what surgeries might I have done to erase the masculine features created by testosterone. Would I consider having my face shape changed, my brow line, my hairline, my chin, my nose, my lips? Bigger breasts, smaller shoulders, pretty hair? I would stand in front of the mirror and quite literally tug, pull, push and attempt to non-surgically change my face from what now felt almost Neanderthal, into Disney. My internal aim was to look like Kate Moss (ridiculous I know) but I often spent days hating my face and wishing for her perfect, symmetrical elfin beauty. I felt like I had to be dainty in order to fit in. I had to be soft and smooth.
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All around me people talked about the parts of me that made me stand out: my voice too deep, my shoulders too wide, my eyes too heavy-set, my chin too square... the list is eternal. This felt strange because, before transitioning, I had spent my whole life being told I was too feminine for my own good: I walked like a girl, talked like a girl, sat like a girl, read like a girl, played sports like a girl. These were pejorative, nasty, spiteful insults – which, ironically, I adored. But apparently, the instant I started to transition, I resembled Cro-Magnon man.
I felt elated at the start of my transition, proud of my courage to be open and honest about who I felt I was. But the process of becoming me was draining. The need to fit a stereotypical binary model of femininity was utterly dispiriting. For years I felt that I was not good enough, that I was clumsy, unattractive, that if I didn't have a fringe or soft razor-edged hair I would seem masculine.
Hanging over me the whole time was the knowledge that I could change my face and body by undergoing feminisation surgeries and training. I could sell my house to pay for it – my house which I had struggled as a teacher to buy and hold onto through the years when I could barely pay the mortgage.
My first act of womanhood was a commitment to my economic security. I held onto my house and realised that I couldn't afford the surgeries that may alleviate the dysphoria which at that point I saw as mine to own, not as society’s problem (as I do now). I spent lots of time coming to terms with my body and face and realised that the surgeries we trans folk can have may offer safety and success but they might not be progressing the rights of all trans people. I wanted to linger, politically and personally, and occupy trans as a destination. The longer I have transitioned, the less important it is for me to be seen simply as a woman. The authenticity of trans, masculine features and all, is so often derided by our rush to pass through it and get to a place where we are perceived to be just like every other woman.
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I'm not like every other woman; I'm fabulously and creatively transgender. There, I said it – and the sky hasn't fallen in.
The other day I read something like: "She had facial feminisation surgery and the work flooded in." Our community should celebrate any trans person getting success – and I do – but the context in which our success is celebrated and our careers advanced is far too often still packaged in cis society’s desire to see the trans in us disappear. We are celebrated when we shake off our transness.
The indication is that being suitably feminine is rewarded with work. The brilliant Janet Mock has been one of the few to shine a light on the presence of 'pretty privilege' in the trans community. In an interview in Nylon magazine, Mock talked about how, after embarking on her medical transition at 15 years old, she saw her body change; she began ‘passing’ as a cis girl, and with it, the reactions to her body changed. “With my gender nonconformity seemingly fading away,” Mock writes, “I began to attract the attention of 18-to-24-year-old cis guys who began stopping to inform me that I was pretty.” She explains that she was suddenly accepted, yet “did nothing to earn the attention my prettiness granted me.”
I know writing this will make me unpopular. I know that the transphobes out there who attack us every day might think this article is for them; it's not. I am not criticising any trans person who wishes to blend, fuck that – I want to blend, it means I get work, it means I'm safe(r) in this shitty #MeToo world of ours. But the entry point for success, aspiration and affirmation is walking slap bang into sexist structures that reward smooth, youthful beauty. We need to be able to check that; it's privilege that is creating a two-tier system which leaves trans behind as the ugly, clumsy sibling.
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This isn't new, women on television not being entitled to age, having to erase any signs of life from their faces and reducing their reactions, their facial responses, their fun, their joy, their anger, their laughter, to an ever-present, part frozen, Botox-regulated grin. I have beautiful friends in their 20s who are already having Botox to ward off lines, to stave off ageing. Lines, natural lines, are seen as unattractive, not viable for careers.
Age happens to us all so let's not think that these cultural norms we are creating (beautiful trans folk = success; ageing in anyone = VERY BAD) don't apply to us. I know it's spectacularly easy to think we can demarcate young and old, and I know many will view me as old – perhaps the word 'bitter' will appear on my timeline – but I assure you this is about politics and cultural submissiveness, which I witness becoming norms.
Botox will not prevent you, me, us, from ageing and eventually dying. We all age, we are all temporary, but the important things are always deeper; we should be able to look in the mirror and celebrate who we are, barefaced and naked. That's the kind of politicised equality I want to work towards, one where all trans people have the same opportunity for economic and personal success and safety, one where women are allowed to age and not be shamed into feeling that they are letting themselves go if they don't paralyse their expressions into porcelain smoothness. I want to reside in my transness and celebrate my trans identity. I think I may just define myself as simply being trans from now on, because I do trans very well. Trans is my success point.
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