The Plight of the Sport Utility Girl

(a meditation on being a woman trapped in a trans woman's body)

Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was one of the first large orchestral works to break the mold of Romantic composition. It freely ignored notions of tone and meter that had dominated Western music for centuries; flouted rules even the most avant-garde of composers had previously only had the temerity to bend.

The first public performance ended in a brawl.

I am not an English horn

That's an interesting story, but we'll save it for another time. I told it in order to tell you this one: the score itself starts with a solo by a double-reed instrument. Most people hearing the work for the first time would assume it's being played by an English horn or even an alto saxophone. It's actually a bassoon, playing in the extreme upper register, in such a way that it sounds nothing like the instrument is supposed to. It's also painfully difficult for all but the most accomplished bassoonists to perform. A common joke among musicians is that the lyrics for the solo are: "I am not an English horn - this part's too high for me - I am not an English horn!"

Most people assume that when I speak, my voice is higher because of hormone replacement. Many will comment that it sounds low for a woman, whether or not they know I'm trans. In reality, HRT doesn't affect the voice at all. Before my transition I sang bass and had a speaking voice below the normal range for most men; now I'm having to push myself up to the very top of my range to even read as androgynous.

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction:
The truth is, I'm a bassoon, but I'm trying real hard to be an English Horn.

(Also, like the Rite of Spring, I am constantly reminded that any of my own public performances have the potential to end in a brawl.)

Right panels, wrong frame

There's a story about the origin of the sport utility vehicle in the U.S. The car-buying public wanted something sexier than a station wagon; sportier than a minivan. Car manufacturers were in a bind - they could design such a vehicle, but it wouldn't pass the fuel-economy standards of the time. So they figured out a way around those standards: build a car (a station wagon, really) on a light truck chassis, so that it would only have to follow the (much less stringent) emissions requirements for trucks.

The new Frankenstein creations were big and muscular with lots of cargo room, but they were effectively just cars with bigger tires and a higher roof-line. They burned more fuel, were more prone to tipping in tight turns... and people loved them.

One of the challenges with transitioning later in life is that the older the body, the less malleable the flesh is. Facial features become more masculine, shoulders get wider, and cartilage fuses into bone. A woman transitioning in her early teens goes through puberty normally as a girl and (post-SRS) doesn't look any different naked than her cis peers. If she transitions in her late teens or early 20s she'll be taller, with masculine facial structure and broader shoulders, but she'll also have decent breasts and hips. After that... well, it's a crapshoot, but don't expect too much body remodeling without the intervention of a good plastic surgeon.

That's where I am, of course. I'm basically an athletic, teenage woman wrapped around a 30-something dude's skeleton. I'm a car on a truck chassis - a Sport Utility Girl.

Flip this body!

And that's something I struggle with. In an ideal world, getting my hormone balance right would be enough to put me at peace with my body. In the real world, I need to pass as female in order to be able to function in society.

Since my facial surgery, makeup and the right clothes can get me most of the way there. So I can go out in public, interact with other people, be gendered correctly the vast majority of the time, and basically just live my life. More than that, I'm in a stable relationship with a person who likes the way I look even with my clothes off.

If all of that is true, why am I still unhappy with my body?

There's a few reasons I can think of:

  • It's hard for trans women not to see their old bodies in the mirror, even after big changes
  • I'm somewhat limited in what I can wear and still maintain a feminine silhouette
  • I'm not as appealing to as wide a range of potential partners as I could be (I'm in an open relationship, so this is still relevant)
  • It's hard not to compare myself to other women; I know I'm an outlier in terms of body shape and it's hard to be different even if that different isn't necessarily bad or unattractive
  • I'm attracted to women, so I'm constantly evaluating my body in terms of what I personally find appealing

It's that last one that sucks the most. It sucks because it plays into the old canard of "autogynephilia", invented to erase gay trans women. It sucks because I know that some of the things I like in other women's bodies are also things they might hate (we're all taught to hate our bodies to one degree or another). It sucks because I'm the last person who should care how I look since I can't actually date myself, and there are plenty of queer girls out there who find me attractive and who are willing to date me.

It sucks because I have the means to fix pretty much everything remaining that's "wrong" with my body if I want to, so the temptation is always there.

Mostly it sucks because I want to love my body. Most days I do. I'm tall; I'm strong; I've got cool hair and - since the surgery at least - I'm not all that hard on the eyes. But I don't love my body every day. Sometimes I can't not think about the ways it's failed me; how if I'd only known in high school or college I'd have been so much closer to my goal with so much less work. And I don't know what to do about that.

I just want to be happy. We'll see if I can find that happiness inside myself. If not, what's a few more hours under the scalpel, right?

Rant: "Female-Identified"

I realize the term "female-identified" was created to be an umbrella term for cis women and people in various parts of the trans* spectrum; as perhaps the broadest-possible category of people who aren't men or agender. I also kind of hate it, and the more I hear it, the more it grates on me.

This is not even a request for people to stop saying/writing it. It's just a chance for me to try to express why it bugs me.
So... "female-identified" - let's unpack that. First we have "female". Which is biological sex, not gender. I mean, I'm a woman. Am I "female"? What does that even mean? Sex is a constellation of biological features - it's chromosomes, hormones, primary and secondary sex characteristics. I am decidedly androgyne right now. I'm moving towards female as hard as I can, and if we're going by the preponderance of the evidence, I should be there shortly if I'm not already. But "female-identified"? That's just weird.

It seems that the phrase "female-identified" is reaching for something else. It really wants to be about the identification; to be an umbrella term for those who see themselves on the female side of the gender spectrum regardless of the accident of their birth. We're searching for something that covers all people - cis, trans, nonbinary, bigender, whatever - who see themselves in and want to occupy some or all of those roles; who are othered and excluded by the patriarchy; who are members of some kind of greater Sisterhood.

Fortunately we already have a word for that group: "women"

If you want to be very inclusive, you could say, "women and nonbinary people", "women, nonbinary, and AFAB people", etc. (The choice of whether to include trans men in women's spaces and activities is an interesting one and far too complex for me to deal with here.) Or you could just say, "not men", which is also perfectly fine.

Adding "-identified", IMO, unnecessarily separates cis and trans in a way I'm just not comfortable with. It calls out being inclusive in a situation where inclusivity should sort of be implied. It's icky.