How dull and powerless do we need to appear to seem non-threatening in the world?
For many transwomen, the dream is simple: we just want to fit in as boring, normal, average women. We don’t want attention paid to us because we are different, special or unique, rather we want to blend in, becoming unremarkable.
We create an expression of femininity that would be called plain; simple long hair, little or no makeup, bland and utilitarian clothing. It’s all part of the spell we try to cast to keep our trans nature invisible, showing our “authenticity” by avoiding bold, sophisticated and constructed feminine markers.
Choosing what we would call a “natural” look shows a kind of realness which we believe should allow us to be neutral and not provocative. The problem, though, is that when we feel a strong need to share our voice in a profound way, that attempt at blandness means we have to negotiate a difficult message: I am plain & average, but I need to you to see why I have a special and compelling message to share.
Rachel Pollack tells of her 1970s transitioning days in Amsterdam when her group wore jeans and t-shirts, considering themselves much more real than the flashier transwomen who could go out in gowns and heels.
For Rachel, looking back, though, she sees that choice for plain as one of fear. They were scared of shiny, were afraid to take the power to be seen and attractive in the world. Without the training and affirmation that women have in managing the gaze of others in the world, the power to show themselves and be seen, they simply avoided revelation, comfortable in their own “realness.”
When transwomen who feel a need to be in the spotlight, saying their piece, also feel a need to claim a plain and “boring” image of invisibility, their message is noisy and sabotaged. They cannot shine in the world while also insisting that they also be seen as not shiny, cannot be compelling while also touting their banal averageness.
Gaze is wicked hard for transwomen. We want to be glamorous, compelling and desired while also knowing that people will see us as sick, disgusting and dangerous (1997) We want to be seen for our specialness while hiding our differences, want to reveal our intentions while hiding our biology.
We don’t have a strong network of women behind us to help us polish our appearance and balance out the host of aggressions, small and large, that women get over appearance in a culture with plastic expectations. We know that with our body we can never match those moulded images of feminine perfection.
More than that, we may not be working in the conventional system of desire, wanting to attract the attention of men. If we don’t want to be the women that they expect, if we know we can’t be the women they demand, then isn’t it sensible to just duck their gaze altogether by staying plain?
Staying plain, though, is staying powerless, at least in the world of women. It may attempt to keep us non-threatening, keep us cool and under the radar, but it doesn’t give us the attention and credibility we need to convey the truth of our trans hearts, a truth so powerful that it lead us to walk through purgatory to shift our gender.
Finding ways to shift power in the world as I shift my gender expression was the first question that I ever asked at my first gender convention, so many years ago now.
Wanting the gaze of others while also wanting to appear bland, though, seems disingenuous and confusing. It is the strength of our shine that creates connections in the world, not some cerebral game of constructing what we assert is a raw, unprocessed and authentic realness.
I know why transwomen are scared of being shiny, scared of the judgment that always comes with gaze. Trying to become invisible, blending into the world seems like a comfortable quest.
It’s just that if we have something powerful, true and glittering to say, we cannot do that without being powerful, true and glittering in the world. The boring and plain can be ignored, but we can only emerge by being seen.
Even if that claiming of beauty, glamour and feminine markings is scary as hell.