Sara Whitman

Power in Beauty

Filed By Sara Whitman | January 23, 2011 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: gender, lesbian masculinity, pretty

A friend of mine told me the other day how a date asked her when she knew she was beautiful.

cafe.jpgNice come on line, I replied. Did you have an answer? She did. She remembered when she did feel beautiful, a few years into what was a long-term relationship. It took time, trust, and confidence.

I wondered about the question. My answer would be, "Um, as soon as you tell me, sweetheart." Okay, I may be a little out of practice with come-back lines after 20 years of marriage.

I don't feel beautiful. I never have. Now, before you all start saying beauty is in your heart and all those nice things, the reality is I am not traditionally beautiful as a woman. I'm tall, broad-shouldered, and have a more masculine appearance. You could say I'm handsome and I'd believe you.

While I was sitting having lunch in a small cafe today between classes, I heard some comments from the two guys sitting next to me that stung.

It always stings. I try to have thick skin, to realize some people are simply stupid, but it always gets to me.

It's snowing like crazy. I'm in jeans, a sweater, and muck boots, which probably won't come off until April this year. It's New England, it's winter, and I'm thinking stilettos aren't the best choice with a foot of snow on the ground.

They started, loudly, talking about "shemales" and how they wished people would dress right.

The implication was that my gender was their business. It wasn't. I'm having lunch. Does it matter if I have breasts or a penis? One more comment and I was going to dump my soup in their laps.

It hurts. Do you have to make fun of me? Because, I was pretty much the only other person there aside from an elderly woman and two young lovers who were holding hands and kissing between every bite.

I glared at them and they snickered and went back to talking about football. I wish it wasn't quite that stereotypical but it was what it was.

The reason I can't answer the question about when I felt beautiful is because I don't fit. I was still raised as a girl, with little girl expectations of beauty. My mother would put books on my head and teach me to walk with good posture; she never did that with my brother. When it came time to wear makeup, she tried to give me lessons. I remember I was working at Burger King after school and the heat of the grease and makeup were not going to work well together.

I passed.

While I identified as a boy in so many ways, I was still a girl. Society engrained certain expectations, even in me. I rebelled against them. If my mother said, "Oh that's pretty," I'd put it back on the rack. I didn't want to be pretty.

But I did want to be beautiful. Pretty felt weak but beautiful meant power.

That is what it all boils down to, I realize. Power. Those two white guys felt they had every right to snicker away. To make me uncomfortable, to make a judgment and deem their worldview not only acceptable, but worthy of announcing.

Although I doubt they thought that deep. You have to wonder, though, what inspires people to be randomly mean.

All I know is I'm jealous of my friend's response, her real belief that she is beautiful (she is, by the way. No question). There is not only a level of self-esteem but a sense of power I wish I had.

Maybe then it wouldn't sting.

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Thanks for this essay... I have a lot of self esteem issues myself, some related to a painful life before transitioning, some related to the limitations of transition and some just about myself as a person who, as a jew and a trans woman, is never going to feel as if they'll fit a mainstream idea of beauty. Societies' eff'd up way of valuing women by appearance is brutal (although men do get various forms of lookism projected at them as well... just that they have more outlets to get past it) :(

As to your experience in the cafe... I'm not trying to discount it, but are you sure it was about you? The 'two guys' were talking about shemales... a subject a lot of guys have conversations about (because, even if they don't want to admit it, they look at shemale porn and have to follow up with transphobic conversations just to clarify it to themselves they supposedly aren't turned on by it). I can categorically state... guys don't make connections between 'shemales' and butches. Those discussions reside in two very different parts of the male brain.

I say this because, as a trans woman who pretty much 'passes,' I've been privy to a lot of discussions in public places which I was convinced were about me. I've sat somewhere and overheard "tranny...blah, blah, blah" "this man in a dress... blah, blah, blah" (and I'm unfortunately unable to tune out such conversations) only to find, a minute or two later, that they weren't in reference to me, that I wasn't even being noticed, but I was in the 'wrong place at the wrong time.' I overhead transphobia and gender oppression by cissexual people, but I wasn't the target of it.

Does that make me feel better... well, yes and no. It would have hurt much more if it were targeted at me. But overhearing it being said (and some of these conversations are also by very progressive looking women, not just 'dudes') in the general sense just reminds me of what a transphobic world I inhabit and just make me feel more insecure and paranoid. Perhaps I need to buy an IPOD and stick in the earphones?

Regan DuCasse | January 23, 2011 1:29 PM

Sara, what a powerful essay. This morning I happened to be reading about several women who'd been scammed by a dating service.

I empathized with them. I'm in a wilderness right now myself. They are in middle age and so am I. It seems typical of women our ages to have had too much experience with divorce, widowhood, professional setbacks and just teetering so much of our lives, stable footing would feel like a hard landing. Being unsure of ourselves sometimes comes with the territory, but so is not wanting our vulnerability to be obvious.
Sometimes beauty is confidence and intelligence and knowing how to use it.
The comment thread following the article were few, and from men. But evidence of exactly the kind of cruelty YOU experienced that only men feel entitled to voice openly in public.

I'm one of those low maintenance type women. I almost never wear makeup, I've shaved my head for years and usually wear jeans and boots. And I live in THE most lookist city in America. Studio City area of Los Angeles. I partially work in the film and tv industry doing the minimal of that as a background extra. And from my outsider's perch, get to observe the peacocks and outrageously showy and wonder if THEY even get the point of what they're doing. Or what beauty MEANS, not just what they think it IS.

One might say I'm this side of a kind of androgyny. I consider it a matter of convenience. I had one bad hair day too many and said fuck it.
I have nothing to hide behind or from.
I consider beauty, how I treat other people. And how others are treated. Beauty is in kindness and compassion and a genuine smile.
Beauty is as beauty does, not just what it appears to physically look like, but how beauty ACTS.

Sara, you bravely shared an amazing story about your sister's illness and passing with us. You shared your pain of that, and love for your family here and that...the love you share and how you've given us a taste of your feelings, is what makes you quite beautiful.

It doesn't matter how many times I tell my beautiful butch wife just how beautiful she is. She, like you, knows, feels, that same sense of beauty as the wrong word, wrong fit. She embraces the masculine, and really loves tge fact that she is so often taken for a man. Yet, there are many days that I know she feels...well, feels less than, like a liability (I teach- in a Texas town other than Austin- and our children are at the evil jr high level), or, and she would never admit it, plain fear at tge prospect of dealing with another stupid, ignorant bathroom encounter. Fact is, whether or not tge experience is similar to tge trans experience, I often think that her life's journey falls is in that strange-to-most space between gender. For me, that is a huge part of what makes her beautiful. Her courage to live loudly. She fights a battle everyday just by walking out of our house. That's beautiful. No amount of hairspray, perfect posture, makeup, whatever can possibly create more beauty than the few lines on her face (from working outdoors everyday), the short hair (which just makes good sense in Texas heat), and the slightly cocky walk that is her first defense against little boys like you encountered during lunch.

You may not feel beautiful, but I promise that you, and so many women like you, are.


This prolly won't help much, but I will give it a try just in case it does, at least a little.

As someone who really *is* trans, and not just being attacked b/c I am not stereotypically feminine (which actually I am, and like Gina, never get harassed by strangers), I had to deal with such attitudes when I was transitioning, and am still treated with non-acceptance as a woman up through direct hostility from ppl who know my history.

The place I have gotten to is to accept that *I* am not the one who is at fault here, the ppl who choose to misgender, dehumanize, ridicule, and demean others are. I try to give the weight to such ppl they deserve (that is, less than none).

You are a wonderful, caring, genuine, person, and you are beautiful to me, it just shines through. Just b/c you don't fit the narrow ideal of feminine beauty doesn't mean you aren't beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside.

I too struggle with how I look, and how little I can change it. I hate how I look, but since I *can't* change it, I am working very hard to accept it. Although you can work toward looking more traditionally beautiful, and I have no doubt you'd never hear such comments again, that isn't who you are, right? So to be happy, you are just going to have to learn to accept how you look, too. Trust me, you're enough more than enough, just the way you are.

Carol :)

SeeingEyeGrrl | January 24, 2011 1:20 AM

"Passing", "coming out of the closet"...."transitioning" many of the words we use can have several meanings. Usually about our perceptions of self and how that is impacted by our thoughts of others' perceptions of who we are. I am at this point where I just want to claim and accept my own perceptions. Not 'theirs' but mine. And not my 'pre' perceptions but my most loving, caring, self accepting definitions of who I am. Claim it all, own it all. Today, tomorrow, you choose whether you want to be masculine, feminine, handsome, beautiful, whatever fits, whatever nurtures your soul. Life is too it wide.

What's the difference between "handsome" & "beautiful"? In both cases either word would describe you - an attractive person with the rare combination of looks, brains & a winning attitude.

Christina Walsh | January 24, 2011 9:47 AM

A beautiful essay from a beautiful person.


Thank you for sharing your beautiful heart, amazing soul, and the rest of the amazing womoan you are with us. My wife, who oftentimes gets mistaken for a man (and, how on Earth can someone be as clueless, I will never know), never accepts compliments from me. I can tell you, after meeting and interacting with her three other sisters and brother, I got the cream of that crop. She is beautiful inside, outside, and everywhere in between. Also, as someone who battles with issues of self-image, you are not alone in this.

I always read what you post, and even though I do not comment much of anything, I always appreciate and value your insight and honesty; all qualities of a beautiful and wonderful person. You.

Thank you for putting yourself out here. Know that I cherish you and accept you.

John Rutledge | January 25, 2011 11:53 AM

I read your posts. You express yourself beautifully. Who you are, who you are being in the world, is a beautiful thing. Too bad you had to get near some ugly. I think we all know just how magnificent you can be. Peace Love Joy.

Sorry for the delay in responding. I think this winter is going to kill me. One more snow day and I'm gonna blow... wait! that would be tomorrow.

Gina, I think it was directed at me. But of course I can't be certain.

The truth is, a stranger's opinion should matter. If I were more secure, more confident, it wouldn't.

But it does. Some days, I could care less. Some days? It feels like a knife.

oops, I meant a stranger's opinion SHOULDN'T matter.

I'm 52. I can truthfully say that not for a second of my entire life have I felt "beautiful", or "handsome", or "pretty", or "sexy".

I think the concept that I might feel like that scares me even more than it attracts me.

I also think that that has little to do with my unusual life trajectory - more that I'm comfy with the role of being tame geek. Had I been a standard factory model woman, I think I'd feel the same way.

Introspection and ruthless honesty about oneself is hard, and not often comforting. Thanks for sharing your innermost feelings with us, in the hope that we can benefit from that. You are beautiful, you know. And from the photo, handsome too, but that's just appearance.