Of all the things humans are very subjective about — and I know that is a very long list — I suspect that the one thing we are most subjective about is their self image.
Somewhere between how we want to be seen and how we fear that we are being seen lies a vast wasteland of possibilities that we have considered and filed away.
These notions pop up almost at random when we consider how people are seeing us right now. We can’t really know what is in their mind, what image they are seeing, so we search for clues.
When we look at ourselves, we see only shadows. Some of us may be able to assess beauty in a snapshot, but in real life we are almost never seen as snapshots. We are seen as emotions pass over us, as we work to think things through, as we respond to unplanned stimuli. Our thoughts and feelings shape how we project ourselves, no matter how considered and polished our facade is.
For transpeople, who have lived in the shadows for much of their life, and who others often see as shadowy, this subjective self image challenge is even greater.
We know that we shimmer, showing different bits of us. We don’t have full control over what we show and we have no control of how other people will respond to that shimmering. Will they find it exceptionally beautiful or extremely scary?
I spent the last two nights assessing audiences from the outside, all the while trying to get a handle on me and how I present. Do I really just look like a big, round comedy drag queen, or do I carry some kind of intriguing allure?
What I do know is that in any audience, people will not all see me the same way. That’s a challenge around trans; people bring a lot of baggage to the viewing, even if those bags are full of ignorance.
I know why we transwomen work so hard to blend in, to look normative, just another person in the crowd. While that strategy for invisibility can help avoid surprises, it also surrenders much of our power to lead, to get the attention of others and sway them.
This is the part of the challenge of power shift as part of gender shift, the challenge I have been trying to understand since my first question at my first trans conference in 1993.
I didn’t just stay in the basement this weekend, but then again, I never got past the parking lot either. If I went in the door, how would people see me? Would anyone see me in a way that was rewarding and delightful, really being seen rather than just being another oddity?
My self image just wasn’t strong enough to carry me through the door. I look beautiful, I look like a clown, I look fascinating, I look stupid. My sense of how I could be seen was just all over the place, a real mess.
I’d love to have a more objective understanding of my presentation, but I find that very hard to come by. Like almost everything else in my life, I have been on this journey alone, doing it by myself.
And I know how subjective and messy my self-image is. That makes it hard to be confident and resilient when you walk through the door.
So, I didn’t.