Opinion

I feel like a woman! Or do I?

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Sears ad from 1980. “One is not born a woman…”

Lately I’ve come across several stories about trans women who have transitioned only to find they don’t feel like women anymore. In Juno Roche’s book Trans Power, she tells of searching for her womanhood and not being able to find it, which ultimately leads to her defining herself as simply trans. “I struggled to hold on to the word woman at the start of my transition,” she says, which made me wonder why she kept going on with it. Keep going she did, however, and as she lay post op among trans women delighted with the result of their surgeries, she felt like she “failed yet again at gender.”

In Susan Faludi’s book In the Darkroom, she writes of meeting a fellow who spent over $50,000 on facial feminization surgery only to find he didn’t feel like a woman. He had reverted to living as a man and ruefully admitted that he was probably non-binary. He was chasing that elusive feeling thinking he’d find it with each successive surgery that made him prettier.

Presumably at some point both these people must have felt like women or why pursue this journey in the first place? If they lost it along the way, why did they keep going? It seems to me if you’re always asking, “Do I feel like a woman now? How about now? Do I feel it now?” you may as well give up. On the other hand, they may just be making too big a deal about it.

One of the trans people Roche interviews in the book says, “I seldom think about my gender”. That’s my experience too. My purpose in transitioning was to stop feeling like a woman. My entire life I’d been consumed with this preoccupation, this feeling that I was not living as my true self. I couldn’t take a day off and not think about it. At times my life was unravelling because of it. When I transitioned, it was a huge relief. I no longer had to struggle with feeling like a woman because I was living as one. Peace of mind at last.

I transitioned later in life. Most of my life experience was trans. I never expected after transition to be plunked fully formed into a woman’s life. There is a social tradition of women learning to become women. It’s not just bestowed upon you. You learn it and grow into it; and then the patriarchy forces you to adapt to it. Simone de Beauvoir’s observation, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one” endures because people, especially women, recognize the truth of it. (The same could be said for men too, although that’s not so often acknowledged.)

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Modern Handbook for Girls

I have a small collection of ‘how-to-be-a-girl’ books that I acquired many years ago from browsing used book sales and second hand book stores. The oldest one I have was published in 1933 and is titled The Modern Hand Book for Girls. It has all the tips you’d expect on clothes, appearance and etiquette, and yet is also surprisingly progressive. It has chapters on managing your time and money, learning arts and crafts, and how to plan for your career. The advice in the section on “how to get along with boys” is interesting for how it entrenches the roles of boys and girls, and yet it also contains some timeless truths: “Some boys haven’t had an opportunity to learn what girls of the best kind prefer; some may not want to, but they are boys you do not want as friends.”

For a trans woman, saying you “feel like a woman” is always a little fraught anyway. Trying to explain what it means inevitably leads to reducing your experiences and that of the female gender to stereotypes, and from there it’s a short hop to your being accused of being a dupe of the gender binary, revealed as a man in a dress whose conception of women resides only in stereotypes.

I defer to the wisdom of Shania Twain, who appears to know something about it (and who, incidentally, is a friend to the trans community). When she sings “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” she’s just saying I feel good about myself. If you’re living as a woman and are at peace with it, I’d say you were there. Her lyrics aren’t Shakespeare, but they don’t have to be:

No inhibitions, make no conditions
Get a little outta line
I ain’t gonna act politically correct
I only wanna have a good time
The best thing about bein’ a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh, oh, oh, go totally crazy, forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts
Color my hair, do what I dare
Oh, oh, oh, I wanna be free-yeah, to feel the way I feel

It’s your inner spirit that took you this far. Stand back and let her breathe.

There is a great old Mel Brooks routine which also riffs on this idea. I’m going to modify it for my purposes, but the punch line remains the same. Trans woman goes to her psychiatrist and is worried that she no longer feels like a woman. Psychiatrist tells her, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”