It’s quite a title, isn’t it? But that’s something I have been dealing with for most of my adult life. This idea that if I did the best job possible at reshaping myself into a sexy cis woman (and then somehow maintained that shape forever) that I would be rewarded with love. But of course, how real would that love be?
TL;DR: this is a long and very personal story. In a nutshell, this journey starts with me being gender non-conforming (GNC) but then in my early twenties, I began to learn that if I aspired to be a sexy woman, I would be much more worthy of love. However, I had to learn that any connection that involves me not being completely myself can’t actually be genuine. In time I would come to understand the importance of letting people love me for who I truly am.
Right now, who I am is a hairy genderqueer person who loves to play around with mixing up gender presentation, which is also who I was in my late teens. It’s important to note that all of this is possible for women too. Being comfortable and hairy shouldn’t have anything to do with your gender identity. However, we’ve sadly come to associate discomfort and pain with the desirable ideal for women. At the same time, femme energy shouldn’t be exclusively associated with women but should be a valid expression for all folks.
So, this is my journey. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and see how much of it was driven by insecurity but it’s also true that I’m a product of the times I’ve lived through too. Thankfully, I’m happy to have arrived in the here and now, knowing a lot more about myself. Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this story.
Cast your mind back to being 18. How you felt about yourself. How you pictured your life would be. I didn’t have much of an idea about what I wanted, aside from the goal of finishing university, moving to London, and somehow having love in my life.
What I do remember very clearly at that time was thinking that if I ever wanted to be myself, this was it. At some point, I knew that I would have to get a full-time job and become a functioning member of society and, in some way that I couldn’t quite articulate, this would mean I couldn’t really be myself.
I also remember being quite aware of how ageing was viewed and how older women were depicted as being desperate for others to see them as young and desirable. I remember thinking that this was another reason why I should take this time to be completely myself because I figured in my “later years” (i.e. 40+, the age I am now), I would ultimately feel this way as well. Hilariously, as it turns out, quite the opposite is true.
When I look back on my life so far, these few years have been my favourite and the ones I feel most connected to in my happiness now. I was living very much as a solo entity, surrounded by some deeply loving and supportive friendships, happily exploring life from my own perspective and presenting however I wanted. Over this seminal time, I bounced around in all manner of attire. Wearing a school girls’ dress with a shaved head one day; a shirt and tie with a pencilled-on moustache the next. Constantly playing with gender within the prism of late 90s alternative style.
In retrospect, I’m surprised at how clear my sense of self was then even though I was still very young. Of course, I did struggle to articulate much of my internal landscape when it came to anxiety, intimate connections and hormonal fluctuations as any young person would. So, I was a bit messy as a human who was slowly beginning to navigate what it meant to be an adult in this complicated world.
I had the occasional sexual partner and was keen to experience love but didn’t feel overly in a rush, especially as I never felt the kind of connection that would prompt me to grow something into a relationship. I’d identified as bisexual since my mid-teens, even though I knew that wasn’t the right word for me. I even identified as a lesbian for about a year or so too. Looking back, the act of taking on that identity was probably an attempt to somehow embody my queerness fully at a time when labels were few and discussions about bisexuals tended to involve an eye roll. It would take me another twenty years to understand how much my desire and queerness were about myself and others existing beyond the gender binary.
In the late nineties, the language around gender was even more limited than it was for sexuality. I didn’t question whether I was a woman because I figured that it was something I was stuck with. To be trans was to be one of the rare few who medically transitioned and that seemed like something that was way too serious for me or many others to even contemplate. There were people around me who played with their gender roles but that was seen as something you did after dark or on weekend, never something that was taken seriously.
I remember the night I first went to a drag party, somewhere roughly around the age of twenty. I slicked my hair down, drew on a moustache and picked out a shirt and tie from my collection. This wasn’t hugely different to how I dressed in everyday life but somehow going into a space where my presentation was recognised as being somehow transgressive felt enormously exciting. I became so convinced that I was a man, I drunkenly assumed I could urinate standing up. It was only when I saw my pee seeping across the floor and into the next cubicle that I realised I might need to reconsider the situation.
Seeking the wrong validation
Around this time, a key moment happened that set me off chasing the wrong energy in my life. I’d grown my hair in and bleached it so that I could dye it a bright colour. At first, it went an intense shade of yellow as cheap bleaches do but the following month when I tried again, it produced soft white on the Marilyn kind. Within a few days, my best friend informed me that every lesbian he knew was asking about me. And it wasn’t just women; men started paying me attention too. It felt like suddenly I’d gone from being someone who only registered on the odd person’s desire radar to someone with a much broader appeal.
Over the following year, I began to understand that the more I presented myself as a sexy cis woman, the more attention I would get. I hadn’t previously been aware of the deep rabbit hole of insecurity inside me but now I slowly began to tumble further and further down. It didn’t help that certain events kept happening that enabled this descent. Photographers started asking me to model for their photoshoots and suddenly, people who were widely considered attractive wanted to date me. After I turned 21, I stumbled into my first relationship and felt validated by the fact this person worked as a catwalk model. All of this I thought meant I somehow was deemed worth more now by society than previously.
I also began to understand that presenting as a conventional femme woman could bring me power. Struggling to find a job after I graduated from university, I borrowed my flatmate’s knee-high boots for an interview to make myself seem more sexy and confident and was offered the role within the hour. It would have been impossible to imagine this happening then if I had looked the way I do now. Yet, I felt like I had tapped into a way of performing gender that was going to bring me good things. I thought that as long I played this game and kept trying to be this desirable woman, then I would be rewarded with love. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I wouldn’t be letting people love me for who I really am.
Over time, I began to drift away from being my genuine self. By my mid-twenties I felt increasingly less queer and more resigned to the idea men were my only option for relationships. Whenever I did have sex with women, I felt like they could see through me, which made me feel too vulnerable. I threw myself into doing anything that fed this form of validation, such as becoming a SuicideGirl, and by my mid-twenties was wearing a full face of heavy makeup every time I left the house.
I increasingly became depressed and many of the friendships I surrounded myself with were very shallow. When I did get into relationships, I would become anxious in a way that I now understand was the tension of knowing that for this love to continue, I would have to keep performing this role. A few years later, a partner suggested that I do a sexy photoshoot as a gift for him. In the middle of the shoot, the photographer stopped and said to me, “Sure, you look hot, but what about you? Where are you in all this? What do you get out of it?” I didn’t know how to answer them.
These personal events were all happening against the difficult backdrop of toxic noughties raunch culture. A time when the narrative around being a desirable woman involved some painfully intense expectations. Brazillian waxes and torturous stiletto heels were accepted as the norm and having a boob job was a common part of everyday conversations in the way that botox and fillers are now. Bras had to be padded and pushed-up and a friend who objected to the idea of an underwire found herself scouring stores for months in order to simply be comfortable.
In the midst of all of this, there was a moment when hipsters popularised the idea of women having moustaches. Not real ones, of course. Having facial hair was an enormous taboo and expected to be plucked, waxed or lasered the moment it appeared. Having a fake one though was suddenly the height of ironic coolness. Natalie Portman donned one for a fashion shoot, while tiny ‘tache tattoos were springing up on the fingers of women in Shoreditch and Brooklyn.
It was an odd moment where I felt I could ‘get away’ with drawing on a moustache when I went to parties. I also found myself talking about how one day I would like to withdraw from society and live like a hermit so that I could let my facial hair grow naturally. That was how impossible I felt it was to be myself within society. That having a moustache would be so objectionable to everyone around me that my only option would be to live in isolation.
Giving love to others
I’d always found myself very drawn to GNC folks and in the late noughties, I had my first relationship with one. By the time I became single again a decade later, it felt like non-binary people had suddenly sprung up everywhere, seemingly from out of nowhere. As I began to date more and more people who identified this way, I started to question if I was skoliosexual, a term used to describe people who are almost exclusively attracted to those who identify as trans+ and non-binary.
Often in these relationships, I would go out of my way to try and make these partners feel as comfortable as possible with their gender presentation. Understandably, you would assume this would have been a safe space for me to explore my gender identity too, but surprisingly some partners were quite discouraging. They’d fallen in love with this limited presentation of me as a sexy woman and discouraged any signs I showed of deviating from it. In retrospect, I wonder if this was an expression of their gender dysphoria, needing me to embody an extreme femme ideal that they wanted for themselves.
Giving love to myself
I started performing as a drag queen around 2015 and felt comfortable with the idea of “dressing up as a woman.” After all, this was something I did every day even if I wasn’t quite so aware of it then. I loved putting on fake breasts and huge eyelashes, embodying this hyper-femme ideal. Perhaps the recognition that this was a performance felt more comfortable to me than the unseen one I had done for years.
As 2020 rolled around, the pandemic intersected with me turning 40 and becoming polyamorous, which made me start to look inwards and unpack a lot of my behaviours. Once I began, it was like I couldn’t stop unravelling the thread I’d used to hold myself together for the past two decades. I slowly began to understand how much my self-worth had become wrapped up in the beauty standards for women and wondered how the person I was in my teens had ended up here.
I also started to realise that this intense amount of love and support that I wanted to give to non-binary and GNC partners was all the love and support that I hadn’t been able to give to myself. I knew that underneath the facade I created, I didn’t actually resonate with being a woman but had instead been trying my best to make this identity work. For so long, I’d assumed the alternative would be a pretty lonely life. Yet, the rise of queer visibility on social media started to make me think otherwise.
This journey reached a key moment for me last year when I accepted that in order to feel like I was truly embodying myself, I would finally have to let myself grow in my facial hair. At the time, this was pretty terrifying for me. I was convinced that being an AFAB person with a moustache meant that no one I fancied would ever fancy me, let alone love me. So, I accepted that in order to be truly happy, I would have to accept less desire and love in my life.
The incredible thing is that quite the opposite happened. I suddenly felt comfortable to be… well, comfortable. I grew all of my body hair in, stopped wearing heavy makeup, cut my hair differently and switched my wardrobe up to include roomy shorts and trousers. I came out as genderqueer and revelled in being able to finally play around with masc and femme energies on different days, depending on how I feel.
As for sex and love? Well, let’s just say all my fears were completely unfounded and I now get to enjoy the thrill of realising that people care about me for who I actually am. I now know I am genuinely worthy of love for being me.
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