Seeing is Believing; Self-Portraits and Finding Me
I read a quote that really moved me. It said “self portraits (selfies) are often such an act of self preservation and resistance.” I take a lot of self portraits, and sometimes I catch myself feeling silly about it. I wonder if it makes me vain, or makes me appear narcissistic, and people often tease me about it. Most of the time, I don’t give it a second thought. I really like taking pictures of myself, and I have a good reason for it.
A special note from me: Most the photos in this post have either never been seen by anyone except me, or haven’t been seen by anyone in years. I ask you, the reader, for kind eyes and minds as you view them.
When I was about 14 or 15, my lifelong best friend Jess and I took our photography hobby to a new place. We were late into a sleepover when, either out of boredom or innovation, we dragged out the big black trash bags of dress up clothes from when we were kids. We found the old slips and used prom dresses of our pretend-time past. Jess had the idea to do a photoshoot; she has always been a fountain of empowerment and I was in awe of her ability to own her body. We tried on the old dresses, clothes, slips, and costumes and posed before sheets covering the old furniture and cluttered boxes of my old playroom. No one ever saw the photographs; they were just for us.
We did these shoots for years, and occasionally I would spread the practice among some other close friends. It became a passion, an addiction; especially early on, it was the only time I felt pretty. It was the only time I really felt I was what I was supposed to be: a girl. A pretty girl who could look like the other girls; who had a body like the other girls; who was one of the girls. Looking at the photos now, it is funny to see the tame, sometimes blurry shots I thought were so risque, and others where I think “Holy shit, I had no concept for how sexual that pose was!” It was an amazing experience for body empowerment. Jess and I did these bonding shoots all through high school, roaming all over the city documenting our faces, our bodies, and our lives on film. Attics, bedrooms, parks, cloudy train tracks, mall dressing rooms, big box store aisles; we would try on everything just to see how we looked in it. When I was 17, I wrote a poem about my intimate relationship with my camera. From what I can remember, I wrote how I wanted to “sit inside the camera lens” so that I could touch the “frozen perfection” that only film could create. I remember chalking the poem on the cement commons of my high school grounds, spiraling around in a giant drawing of a camera lens. I used to have time to create things like that… I was learning to love myself, and my body, by finding ways to portray it through art.
When I went to college I started doing self-portrait shoots on my own. It’d be late at night in my dorm room and I’d have the urge to create something out of myself. It was around that time I formally fell in love with the “pin-up” and found a huge amount of body love and acceptance through doing pin-up inspired shoots.
I started to like myself more. I started to like how I looked. I began to put pictures of myself up around my apartment, and enjoyed talking pictures with people instead of just of them. Sometimes people would say, “You have a lot of pictures of yourself…” I would feel shy and awkward about it, but I secretly responded “It’s to remind me to like myself.” I wanted to like myself, and I did what I had to do. And though I wasn’t going to fully admit the importance of what I was doing, I was also not going to apologize for it. When I came out, I realized that I once again had no idea what I looked like. I wasn’t sure if I had ever really known. I could recognize my face, my body, my eyes… but I did not know what I looked like. My coming out and transition was extremely painful. My mind’s dissonance of what I was and what I wanted to be, of how I looked and how I imagined myself to look, is a torture I have carried for most of my life. It was not JUST about being trans, or of being a boy or a girl, of having a body part, or not having one. It was, and is, the issue of knowing who and what I am for the sake of knowing myself. Coming out as trans was a new avenue of self understanding that brought many things I had never understood to the surface… and it was excruciating.
I have never been the type of trans* person who wanted something specific for my body. I have gone through times where I thought I might want something in particular; a flat chest, and angular body, a taller frame, a more muscular physique, but over all I could never decide exactly what I was going for. Masculine, feminine, man, woman; this language can be useful at times but I have found that all of it is secondary to the understanding of my own humanness. When I was 18, and newly discovering femininity and “womanhood,” I learned to like the body I had. Over several years I began to own the breasts, hips, legs, waist, and overall form I had. I then went from owning my body, to loving it. When I came out, I was told that I had to change it, and even destroy it. I’ve always been more about creation than destruction. It is why I am an artist. I approach life and art the same way, and I’ve always wanted to be better at both. I went to art school once, for photography and sculpture, but dropped out within a year. I wanted the freedom to make my art whatever I felt it needed to be without someone else telling me it was good or not. My favorite sculpture medium is clay because of its ability to take shape as anything. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I would spend hours creating forms, primarily of the female body. They seemed so real I felt I was the clay. A couple years ago I wrote a song called “Clay.” It was primarily about my muscular disability and the feelings of powerlessness that comes with it, but as it developed I feel it became a combination piece of how I felt about transforming my body in general. When I started to take testosterone, I approached my body like clay. I realized that my body is malleable, fluid, and moving. My body is mine. I do not have to fit my body because I can make it fit me. I am the sculptor of my own shape. I do not have to destroy it to change it, I do not have to change it to own it, but I have the option and I can own the changes I make.
This Sunday marked my 7 year anniversary of coming out as trans (or my transiversary, as I like to say). Several friends asked me “Does it feel like it has been that long?” to which I answered “It feels like it was just yesterday, at the same time, it feels like it’s always been this way.” This isn’t about me having it all figured out or that my journey with gender is “over.” Quite the opposite, actually. I spent most of this past year feeling like I was coming out all over again (but that’s a whole other blog post). The difference, I suppose, is how I have been addressing the process. The concept of processing gender, though no less painful, has become somewhat normalized to me. It’s like when you’re a teenager first experiencing heartbreak you have no idea what to do or how to help yourself, but when you’re an adult you’ve been there so you already know what to do. You can say to yourself: “Yeah, I recognize this shit. It hurts but it’ll be over soon enough.”
My transition was a pivotal time for me, but after seven years its significance (in some ways) seems to fade and blur into the rest of my life. What is left is just being me; thinking about it, working on it, and noticing that some of it happens to be labeled as genderqueer/trans. And as “trans issues” fade into the paint, I am left looking at the walls, my walls, that I built a long, long time ago… I might have even been born with them. Walls are not always bad; Walls are needed to protect and manage our inner selves, but they can trap us. Walls, and the need to hide behind them, is so easily enmeshed into the trans experience. For a while, the main reason I was hiding was greatly connected to all the shit that comes with being trans. What I think I lost sight of was that being trans wasn’t my only reason for hiding. I have spent so much of my life hating myself. I have spent so much of my life hiding. In hiding I have found ways to love myself more and protect my self better. Because of hiding I have spent so much time fighting… All of these feelings have been carved into my walls, and as I read the writing on them I have discovered that I am flat out afraid of showing myself to anyone, sometimes even myself. When I do a self portrait, I am facing myself. I am reminding myself that I am ok. By showing these portraits in this post, I am making the decision to face the world.
A couple years ago Kate (Bornstein) and I were goofing off taking selfies, one after another. She laughed and said “We trans people fucking love pictures of ourselves. We can’t get enough!” I smiled and clicked the shutter on the camera, thinking of how right she was. Like anyone, trans* folks work really hard to be ourselves, and we work really hard to look like ourselves. Many of us hide from our own image, sometimes we don’t even know it. I have never been a stranger to the mirror. Throughout my life, I have spent a lot of time looking at myself, especially as a child, because I was trying to learn what I looked like. I would stare deep into the mirror hoping that the image of my eye would swallow me into an Alice in Wonderland hole, dropping me into my mind so that I could see who I was face to face. I would often comb my hair to the side, like my dad does his hair (and ironically similar to how I do my hair right now). I remember one time, combing my hair over and looking deep in the mirror; for a split second I felt like I saw something real. It scared me so much I jumped off the sink, mussed up my hair, and started pacing the bathroom floor in a panic. I must have been about 12; I remember writing about it in a prose series I wrote to myself called “Dear Jim.” The poem started with “I saw you today.” I am continually trying to re-capture the image I saw back then. Over the years, I have gotten better and better at it. The result has been more and more pictures of me. The statement “self portraits (selfies) are often such an act of self preservation and resistance” says more to me than I can really describe. It speaks to the mes of the past, standing alone with a camera, trying to capture my insides in the shape of my outside. I still love to do photoshoots. Every now and then, I’ll spend a few hours finding some form of temporary, personal perfection in my body. In the split second it takes the shutter to engage, I can see myself, and I am real. It is an act of resistance against a world that would rather see me erased. It is an act of self preservation to remind me that I am alive and that I am human. No one ever sees these photographs. They are just for me… and now some are for you.
If you find yourself feeling alone; if you are suffering, please know that you are not the only one. I am like you and I promise to try to show that more. There is no shame in hiding, it is something we all need to do sometimes… sometimes for a long while. Take your time. I hope that me taking this tiny step out of my hiding place will encourage you to feel safer in yours, and maybe help you take a step out too someday. I am grateful to all who have been there for me, helping me come out, or stay in: My amazing parents, my beloved sister (and new brother), Jess, Alex, Al, my family and chosen family, my friends, my mentors, my people, and my kitties too. Thank you.