“She doesn’t look like a woman”

// 24 July 2012

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lipstick model.jpgDecca Aitkenhead’s Guardian interview with the lead singer of punk band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace, doesn’t get off to a good start. The singer’s announcement in Rolling Stone earlier this year that she is actually female, not male, is framed in terms of shock and transgression, with the repeated use of male pronouns and emphasis on her former name and male status as a father. Indeed, we are repeatedly reminded throughout the piece that she is only now “becoming” a woman, despite Grace making it clear that she has always seen herself as female.

The narrative is depressingly familiar and disrespectful – the former man trying to make it as a woman – even if Aitkenhead does coat it in condescension and ignorance rather than mockery:

I want to ask Grace how her marriage can be gender-blind, when gender dysphoria has been the defining affliction of her life. If a soul should ideally transcend gender, why does she need to become a woman? Afterwards I wonder why I didn’t. It’s partly, I think, because I liked her so much – and partly because of the unspoken code that seems to prohibit close questioning. […] The approved emotional response to her story is nonchalance – and if it’s what she wants and needs, I’m happy to oblige.

If Aitkenhead had done her research, she would have known that “why does she need to become a woman” is the wrong question. And as Julia Trypanis says in the comments under the piece:

This implicit assumption is that you need to avoid asking us questions that would, presumably, distress us to the point at which we could not answer, or that we’re just incapable of answering to in our misguided state, that you have to make an effort to be nice. […] Statements like this contribute to the sense that the writer feels that they are labouring under the onorous burden of tolerance and editorial guidelines.

Then we have the obligatory and objectifying focus on Grace’s medical status (as if it’s any of our business) and the hyper-feminisation used to make trans women’s femininity appear frivolous: Grace “strode on to the stage in high heels and full make-up” to open her first gig after coming out. Would a journalist really feel the need to tell us that Lady Gaga, or any other cis female singer, wore FULL MAKE-UP on stage? But I guess they aren’t freaky men trying to pull off being women, right?

All of which is pretty darn unhelpful in terms of normalising the existence of trans people and tackling transphobia, though massive kudos to Laura Jane Grace for doing what she can to increase trans visibility, regardless of the less-than-ideal attitudes of the media bods interviewing her.

The comment that absolutely screamed out for a blog post, however, was this:

Grace doesn’t look like a woman

Because, really, what does a woman look like? There are women with short hair and women with long hair, women with big boobs and women with flat chests, women with square faces and women with round ones, tall women and short women, muscular women and skinny women, women of all shapes, sizes and appearances.

Sure, we all know what women are supposed to look like – we’re bombarded with images of this perfect, feminine creature every day – but it’s also patently obvious that the vast majority of us don’t look like her. And those of us who do, do so through artifice. In Western society at least, looking like a woman requires some combination of body hair removal, make-up, push-up bras and hold-in pants, heels, hair extensions, fake tan or skin lightening cream, fake nails and plastic surgery, among others. “Looking like a woman” has no basis in reality. It is a simply a game designed to keep us – both cis and trans – under the thumb of our capitalist, patriarchal overlords.

And whether cis or trans, we can’t win. Should we manage to reach the heady heights of “looking like a woman”, we become fair game for sexist discrimination, because by ensuring we look as little like men as possible we’ve proved we really are a different species to them, one that deserves to be treated differently and sexually exploited – we asked for it by looking like that, right? Should we fail in our attempts or refuse to play the game, we’re not “proper” women – but because we’re not men either, we become othered and deserving of a different kind of derision and discrimination, often coupled with transphobia and lesbophobia. Either way, we are at risk of violence and abuse due to the way our gender is perceived.

We do what we can to minimise this risk while being true to ourselves, negotiating the game of “looking like a woman” as best we can. For trans women like Laura Jane Grace, adopting a stereotypically feminine appearance and mannerisms can be both a requirement to accessing medical care, and an exercise in self-preservation, given that they face horrific levels of transphobic violence and murder. That trans women are routinely mocked both for their femininity and for looking “like men” just underlines how cruel the game is.

None of this is going to end until we stop policing each other’s gender and appearance. Looking like a woman and, indeed, looking like a man, are the requirements of a cissexist, heterocentric, oppressive social system that needs to be dismantled. We need to start accepting other people’s gender identity and presentation – no back story, medical status, justification or before and after photos required.

Head shot of a white, blonde-haired, air-brushed model putting on bright red lipstick by jerine, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Anna // Posted 24 July 2012 at 12:33 pm

“Grace doesn’t look like a woman

Because, really, what does a woman look like? There are women with short hair and women with long hair, women with big boobs and women with flat chests, women with square faces and women with round ones, tall women and short women, muscular women and skinny women, women of all shapes, sizes and appearances.

Sure, we all know what women are supposed to look like – we’re bombarded with images of this perfect, feminine creature every day – but it’s also patently obvious that the vast majority of us don’t look like her. And those of us who do, do so through artifice.”

I don’t really understand this statement – if women come in all shapes and appearances, is Laura really saying that the only way we identify people we meet in the street as “men” or “women” is because of the artificial signals of hair/make-up etc? I think that’s pushing it a bit far.

It seems to me the writer wanted to communicate the idea that without knowledge of Grace’s self-identification, (s)he would have identified her as a biological male. Now what would be the pc way of saying that? Or is the sentiment itself that’s offensive?

Laura // Posted 24 July 2012 at 1:24 pm

Anna – I think a lot of it is through artificial signals, yes. Women with short hair who don’t dress feminine or wear make-up are often mistaken for men, for example. Yes, there are some physical features that are more common in each sex, but not every member of that sex has them and they are not necessarily obvious in a given situation.

It seems to me the writer wanted to communicate the idea that without knowledge of Grace’s self-identification, (s)he would have identified her as a biological male. Now what would be the pc way of saying that? Or is the sentiment itself that’s offensive?

Why does she even need to communicate this? The focus on whether or not trans people “pass” in their gender is objectifying and feeds into transphobia and discrimination.

Anna // Posted 24 July 2012 at 1:37 pm

Thanks for your response Laura – transgender issues are not something I’m very familiar with yet, so I appreciate the insights.

Laura // Posted 24 July 2012 at 2:27 pm

No problem! There’s lots of links to resources in our statement on transphobia, if you fancy doing some reading in the area:

/general/the_f-word_bloggers_position_o

Louise McCudden // Posted 24 July 2012 at 2:32 pm

Maybe there should be a “this is what a woman looks like!” campaign, like the “this is what a feminist looks like” one.

KirstyO // Posted 24 July 2012 at 10:22 pm

“I think a lot of it is through artificial signals, yes. Women with short hair who don’t dress feminine or wear make-up are often mistaken for men, for example. Yes, there are some physical features that are more common in each sex, but not every member of that sex has them and they are not necessarily obvious in a given situation.”

Yep, pretty much this. Even the “obvious” signals are sometimes outweighed by other things; for example I’m often read as a man – despite having large breasts and hips (usually regarded as signals of femininity) – because I have short hair, a low voice and “masculine” body language.

Emily Aoife Somers // Posted 25 July 2012 at 3:13 am

Thanks for this. Every point you make very cogently here occurred to me whilst reading this rather desultory piece of interviewing. Had Decca not considered a spot of research before meeting Laura Jane? Honestly. But the original /Rolling Stone/ had just as many ‘little butterfly trying to find her wings’ type superciliousness.

What’s most annoying about ‘doesn’t look like a woman’ is that it really means ‘cannot look like a woman’ in the most crypto-Platonic idea possible. When Jenna Talackova appears in the news, commentators are quick to point out supposedly large hands or a protruding Adam’s apple. Even if you most perfectly mimic the cis-ideal, the cis-ideal makers will still find you wanting.

I think most trans women know this deep down: when presenting as male, we were mocked often for being effeminate . . . in transition, we’re now told we’ve failed to achieve femininity . What becomes so exceedingly clear is how unwilling people are to check their own systemic assumptions, even when face to face with the undoing of those assumptions by someone who really only wants to be happy.

“Soul”. Oh please. WHy does she want to be a woman?

Because she wants to be happy. Of course they often don’t get that.

anywavewilldo // Posted 25 July 2012 at 11:22 am

The central point of this article is spot on, however I feel the essentialising trend in trans* issue to claim someone was ‘always’ a woman kind of spoils things.

This is a theme that runs right through ‘coming out’ narratives about sexuality affinity/orientation i.e. ‘I was always a lesbian’ – claiming and making a ‘true self’ identity can feel very real but it errases our fuller lives. I always say, and said during other identities “I will grow up to be a lesbian” but before that I was bisexual and before that a child with no specific orientation. Truly my lesbianism feels the most congruent and final of my identities but I don’t pretend my life needs re-writing.

All women become women, trans* or not. Why erase the journey? to ignore the trajectory of our lives for the sake of political simplicity is just as crass as laying down what a woman ‘looks like’.

Helen G // Posted 26 July 2012 at 11:58 am

anywavewilldo: I think my main concern with your comment is with the conflation between sexual orientation (your lesbianism) and gender identity (Laura Jane Grace’s transsexuality). From my point of view, although “coming out” may *seem* to be a common theme between you, as a lesbian cis woman, and Laura Jane Grace, as a transsexual woman, to my mind the underlying issue is nothing to do with whose narrative has the most credibility in the eyes of the other – in fact the issue is around the terms of the freedom of choice to be out, or not. The “valid/invalid” argument is, in my opinion, pretty close to a straw man argument. Perhaps, for the sake of this comment, it makes more sense if we consider sexual orientation to be about who we sleep *with*, and gender identity as being about who we wake up *as*. Okay, I know that’s a simplification, but maybe it helps shed a little light on the lens I’m viewing it through.

For women who are transsexual – like Laura Jane Grace, like me, like others – the “coming out narrative” is imposed on us by a ciscentric world that demands *we* fit into *its* world view, and – certainly for me – gains currency almost entirely through the endless repetition demanded by cis people.

If we were able to transition to a point that worked for each of us individually, without having to justify our existence every single step of the way — be it to the gatekeepers of the medical profession, or to those whose ideologies demand that we should be “morally mandated out of existence”, or simply those who have an effect on, or influence over, our daily lives (eg: families, partners, friends, employers, co-workers, landlords, banks/building societies, local authorities, electricity/gas/water/phone/internet suppliers, council tax, income tax, state benefits/pensions – these are just the first few examples that come to mind) — then I doubt there would be such an apparently pressing need for a narrative. This might also be an appropriate moment for you to reflect on how many of these people and organisations *you* were effectively required to come out to as being a lesbian cis woman, simply to get on with your life, as well as the comparative personal risks involved – and, indeed, what “coming out narrative” *you* would have used to facilitate the process.

I mean… “When did you first know you were trans?”… “*How* do you know you’re a woman?”… “You can never be a ‘real’ woman”… I think this line of attack – and my experience is that it’s much more common than many cis people realise – is driven more by cis people’s sense of entitlement, *their* “need to know”, than trans people’s desire to out ourselves to the world and her sister – or, as has been said many times: to turn ourselves into self-narrating zoo exhibits. And *that*, to me, is a far more pertinent avenue of exploration than spending yet more time and energy answering our oppressors’ apparently endless and insatiable demands that we explain ourselves, that we justify our existence – particularly as whatever answer we come up with seems guaranteed to be unsatisfactory.

So, I’m sorry, but for a cis woman (regardless of her sexual orientation) to tell trans women she doesn’t like our narratives, well, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me, that’s for sure… To be honest, I think you’re looking in the wrong place for the cause of the perceived problem, which I believe is created and perpetuated by the demands of cis people before they will consider us a part of “their” society – even though we already *were* (and are) part of it.

anywavewilldo // Posted 29 July 2012 at 11:44 pm

@ Helen G

1, I am not cis

2, my post addresses ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ not what *anyone else* reads, perceives or is told about gender and sexuality. Coming out does not just, or even mainly, mean ‘telling others’

3, gender and sexual ‘orientation’ are not as divergent as you state

4, anti-essentialist critiques of ‘always’ narratives are part of trans* culture and politics – I agree that transphobic attitudes make them seem attaractive or politically expedient but that doesn’t mean they are something a feminist site has to perpetuate without question.

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