To look both good and at ease in your outfit, you have to both own your own appearance, understanding and controlling a whole range of details which lead to a polished and integrated look, and you have to not be obsessed by your appearance, not making it too fussy, contrived or costume.
This apparent contradiction is at the heart of almost all aspects of human expression. We start by obsessive construction, fiddling with details, applying them to the surface, but then, as we achieve mastery, those details just become part of the mix and we own our own expression.
If you have ever seen a group of college seniors waiting to meet the recruiter, you know how clunky and fidgety they look in their newly pressed professional outfits. Pass them by five years later as they change planes in the airport and those same clothes have become a second skin, both appropriate and seamless.
For women, there is a clear switch, obsessing about details in front of the mirror, then dropping that focus in a heartbeat to switch to ownership. It may be fine to let the outfit wear you in front of the mirror, but away from it, you need to wear the outfit, showing calm, centred confidence.
Moving from obsession to ownership is not something easy to explain to people who are not yet willing to let their expression become just a container for other content. We maintain tells, giveaways that we do not yet own the outfit, places where our lack of polish is obvious. We resist the image for so many reasons, but mostly because we fear what owning it will mean for us, what sacrifices and changes it will entail.
TBB says that she resisted the idea that trans expression reveals trans meaning for many, many years, preferring to describe her choices as just playful crossdressing, a hobby that honoured women by emulating them. For her, obsessing over an outfit was fun, but owning the meaning was terrifying, leaving her to play against her clothes rather than into them. Her internal policeman needed them to stay at the level of costume.
For mature transpeople, though, the challenge becomes different. We do own our expression, but we don’t just own one expression, we own a range of them. The real us may be well integrated, threading through all our facets, but it is the surface that people see, not the complicated content. Sharing just one sliver of self expression can feel constraining and painful.
A clinician who supports transpeople resisted telling me what she saw. “You were much more feminine in your gender neutral clothes than when you were in a dress,” she told me. I was very glad she saw that because from my first outing my goal has always been integration, never the clear compartmentalization of the FPE/SSS crossdressing model. I was more open dressed down because I felt I didn’t need to be as defended. I wasn’t in a Lucite closet, a defensive bubble. It has always been feminine choices of awareness and action that are more potent to me that choices of dress, feminine connection and service. That’s why I spent a decade as a dedicated caretaker in jeans & a polo shirt.
While queer people have ownership of humanity past simple gender divisions, we know that most people have not done that work. They look at the package rather than the content to determine where to categorize or pigeonhole someone. Our expression may have moved past costume, revealing ownership, but that ownership isn’t simple and binary, rather it is rich and complex in a way some see as contradictory.
Making that femme heart visible to those who are used to looking at surfaces, used to evaluating on the package is a challenge. I show mastery, but that always means choosing what to hide, being obsessed with keeping down the noise so that my content is exposed.
We can not take ownership until we have gotten through the process of obsessing, owning the creation of image that works, both revealing and concealing who we are. As we change, our externals have to change, taking up new and scary roles that allow us authority but also hide our history and our nature.
Both owning and letting go at the same time is a challenge, but it is required if we want to be in the moment and to make considered responses rather than stiff reactions.
This notion of being both loose and controlled at the same time is at the heart of being present, and for me, is the goal of discipline and practice.