Through a series of interviews and portraits WOMANHOOD explores different aspects and complex issues related to womanhood with a more intimate view. More about the project here.
Gender is 85% what other people say you are, and 15% what you actually feel. Gender is a performance, and cisgender women have to perform their femininity just as much as I do. The difference, I suppose, is that cisgender women have a huge head start on how to act, on how to dress, on subconscious social cues. Have an upward inflection at the end of your sentences, take up less space, shave your legs, wear dresses, wear makeup, smile more, be compliant. It’s all the same baggage, it’s the same pressures. Whether its appearance, or behavior, or speech pattern, it’s all the same.
But for transgender women, we have to work twice as hard to be accepted. We have to fight through what we’ve internalized about the state of being that comes with being a transgender person. We have to constantly deal with stereotypes born in medias that we exist as punchlines, as comic relief, as “man in a dress” jokes. We have to deal with the internal pressures of “being feminine enough” as well as the external pressures of being an acceptable kind of feminine for strangers on the street.
I have small breasts, I like to wear my hair short. I don’t often wear dresses or skirts. I find comfort in presenting androgynously because sometimes it feels safer. When I do wear a dress or a skirt, I have to deal with both catcalls and with homophobic slurs. Sometimes my androgyny makes me feel less than safe. I’ve been stopped on the street while going for a run, or while walking to work, to be asked, “Es-tu une fille ou un garçon?” Being a (noticeably) transgender person means that (cisgender) people feel entitled to my identity. Maybe they feel uncomfortable because of how I present myself, or they feel challenged. Whatever the reason, they feel the need to know, the need to stop me and ask.
As insulting as it is to be asked a question like that by strangers on the street, it does feel like a small victory. There are still times when I question my gender myself, or if a gender is something even worth having.
“We can’t tell what you are”
“That’s fine, sometimes I can’t either”
But if gender is performative, then to be a woman is to be a player in a cast of players. And so what makes womanhood? Is womanhood only available to those who have a uterus, those who can bear children, and those who menstruate? That way lies gender essentialism, and ignores the realities of transgender men. While cisgender women have the ability to feel connected and united through these things, what of their transgender and intersex sisters? Is it that we are all united by our place in patriarchy? But even that isn’t a unified experience. Is it the collective learned behavior of how to be a woman? Even there is a divide separating many who would be considered a woman. Perhaps this is why there is so much push back against transgender women being considered “real women.” We don’t fit the established rules of what makes a woman, at least in the gender essentialist way.
Gender is the concept that best encapsulates the paradox of “The more you learn, the less you know”. The more you attempt to break down gender and what it is or isn’t, what it means to be a woman, the more fragile and stretched the arguments become. Gender is ostensibly defined as behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits associated with a physical sex. What happens when one does not or cannot reconcile those traits with how they are as a person? And yet my feeling of being a woman is innate. It’s something that is part of my being, of what makes me into me. I know that I do not meet a lot of societal expectations for being a woman, and that most cisgender women do not meet those expectations either.
While I struggle to find an inclusive definition of what a woman is, I have always known that I am one. This is not a universal truth for all transgender women. For myself, I knew I was a woman before I had ever heard the word “transgender” or knew that there were other people like me in the world. I hated my first and middle names for all of my childhood and teenage years. But perhaps it wasn’t so much that I knew I was a woman, but that I knew I was not the gender that everyone told me I was. While my parents raised me and my sister very openly, gender as a binary was as pervasive in our home as it was everywhere else. Maybe it’s because of this that I saw myself as a woman. Maybe I was defining myself only as an opposite to the gender I knew I wasn’t.
One of the few unifying factors of transgender people is the experience of gender dysphoria. What this means, is that we, as transgender people, experience a disconnect between what we feel or know our gender to be and something physical about us. For transgender women, the expectation is that all of us experience this type of dysphoria explicitly in relation to our genitals. While that is the primary source the medical definition of gender dysphoria gives us, it does not ring true for all of us. My gender dysphoria was centered almost wholly around body and facial hair. My genitals have never truly bothered me, other than perhaps not fitting in cute underwear as easily as I would like.
About six months into my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), I began laser hair removal on my face. After seven sessions, I no longer feel any disconnect when I see my face in the mirror. Because of HRT, my body hair has thinned out. My leg and chest hair doesn’t grow as thick or as dark as it used to. For the most part, I don’t experience much gender dysphoria anymore. For the most part, I feel like I am the most correct gender for myself. As if I finally fit. As free as I can feel from the mental torture of gender dysphoria, I don’t know if I can ever be free from body dysmorphia.
Part of what comes with being a woman, is the societal pressure to be beautiful, to succumb to these imagined and impossible ideals. Even when you know they aren’t universal truths, or don’t make sense for anyone, they become internalized and normalized. I don’t like my stomach. I am tall, I am thin, I am generally in good shape. I do 3km runs four days a week, I do yoga. And yet, I cannot divorce from my head that my stomach is wrong. Even though I can see in the mirror that it is a perfectly normal and average size and shape, I feel like it’s huge, that everyone stares when I wear even a slightly tight shirt. The joke is that my gender dysphoria had been hiding my dysmorphic feelings, because I was so preoccupied with truly feeling like me.
I prefer to call myself transfeminine instead of a transgender woman because it feels more correct. I am a feminine person who was declared male at birth. I grew up masculine, feeling uncomfortable with my name, with the pronouns people used for me. In my teenage years I wore a beard to hide any evidence a stranger might find that I was, indeed, not a man. Internalized transphobia and a general sense of social anxiety prevented me from transitioning until I was 20. Now I use HRT to suppress the testosterone in my body, and replace it with estrogen. I have transitioned from testosterone being my primary sex hormone, to only having trace amounts of it in my body, and estrogen being my primary sex hormone. And so, I call myself transfeminine. It’s easier to explain if I refer to myself only as a transgender woman, and easier still if I say only that I am a woman.
To some, I am a woman. To others, I cannot be accepted as a woman unless I qualify that I am a transgender woman. These are all just points under the same definition. To me, a transgender woman is a woman. But to many, there needs to be clarifications and qualifications.
Gender is 15% what you feel and 85% what people tell you that you are.
Photography: Cassandra Cacheiro
Creative Direction: Sara Hini