Philip had already seen one of my breasts. We met at an improv class (ugh) and one week we played a game involving passing an imaginary ball around the group (improv is the worst). When the pretend ball turned into a pretend cat, I hammed it up by pretending the cat was attempting to tunnel under my shirt. I wasn’t wearing a bra. I didn’t even realize that the entire class had gotten a peek at my chest until Philip let me know as we were putting our shoes on after the session. He wasn’t creepy about it, though, and we had a good laugh about it. So when we grabbed pizza together, a few weeks after that glimpse of my tit, I decided to tell him that I was a transgender woman.
“I had no idea,” he said. Which, from my perspective, is a great response. I don’t exactly want to trick people into thinking I’m a natural-born woman, but I do want to avoid people being able to identify me as “other.” It was reassuring that Phil could get a peek at one of my private parts and still not notice anything different about me.
Once the surprise wore off, he asked all the usual questions. How long have you been “out”? (Five years.) When did you know you were a girl? (Always.) Have you had the surgery? (No.) Do you want to? (I do. But it’s expensive.) Do you call yourself a lesbian? (I date girls, and am a girl, so yes.) Are your boobs fake? (Only if I went to the worst plastic surgeon in the world.) What did your parents think? (You should read my pieces on The Bygone Bureau.)
There’s a reliable consistency to the queries of non-transgender people. To some extent, I’ve based these essays on that very consistency. They’re generally prurient, but I’m okay with that, even if at times the questions border on the rude (I mean, in what other situation do you ask near-strangers about their genitals?), because they provide me with the opportunity to educate, in my small way.
But then Philip moved from inquiry to suggestion, turning his questions into notes on my appearance. “Have you thought about plucking your eyebrows?” he asked. And I sighed, not only because my eyebrows were already plucked, but also because I knew where this was heading. I’d been asked those questions before, too.
“Oof, a bit heavy on the make-up today, eh?” “Can you try not to be so strident now you’re a girl, sweetie?” “Nobody will think you’re pretty if your teeth are so bad.” “We really need to get you a butt, girl!” “Can you blame anyone for looking at your hair and thinking you’re a boy?” “Um, I think you need to wear a little more make-up.” “If you think you can pass without getting your ears pierced, you’re kidding yourself.” “Psst! Maybe it’s time for a shave?”
Everyone has advice. They think they’re being helpful. Women have hints, men have comments, friends speak up, and strangers offer their opinion. According to everybody, I need to be helped, and that they are the one to help me. Especially Philip, who was already the kind of cocky guy that dominates a Level 1 improv class.
Little by little, Philip changed from a friend who’d had no idea I was transgender into someone who felt it was important to let me know that my eyebrows might as well be screaming “man in a dress!” (Speaking of which, he said I should wear more dresses. Like a lady would.)
What’s the correct response to this unsolicited advice? Should I just grin and bear it, perhaps demurely nodding in appreciation? Should I dive into a lecture on constructed ideas of gender identity, societal sexism, and what it would mean to be a “man” or “woman” in a truly feminist society? Or should I take the implicit (sometimes explicit) criticism to heart, and return home to weep at my failure to look, act, and talk like the woman people want me to be?
Obviously, it depends on who I’m talking to. My girlfriend got the hours-long debate on the appropriateness of what she said. My aunt got the empty smile and assurance that I was thankful for her input. Phil’s eyebrow comment sent me into a shame spiral, courtesy of Google Image Searches for “eyebrow,” “eyebrow styles,” “thick brow,” “eyebrow arch,” “woman eyebrow,” “heavy brow,” “threaded eyebrow,” and “caterpillar.”
But before I could retreat to a quiet evening alone with my forehead, I felt like I had to stand up to Philip. I was happy to let him know about my experience, but that I’d been a woman for longer than he had and, more importantly, I’d been my version of a woman. I had to tell him that my eyebrows were my choice, and I didn’t care if he didn’t like them. (Besides, Philip’s own eyebrows were a little sparse, if you ask me. Maybe if they had been bold and bushy, like a real man’s are, I could have taken his suggestion more seriously.)
It’s a stance I’ve had to take on too many occasions, though, and each new time I lecture someone, I grow wearier of it, and weary of losing the people in my life who can’t handle being asked to keep these kinds of opinions to themselves. Philip seemed like a light-hearted, cocky, and confident guy, but I’d already seen him shut down when receiving criticism in class, and I didn’t want him to put an end to our friendship the same way. At the very least, I wanted to keep my improv pal. So I smiled, and told him that I’d put tweezers on my shopping list. And then I let him pay for dinner.