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The Naked Truth

wig offSo, this happened. The running narrative inside my head had the wheels come off this past weekend. More specifically, I ran that train right off the track and still processing a bit as I was taken by complete surprise in more ways than one. The narrative is that of mighty, unbreakable Michelle. Unflappable Michelle. Fearless Michelle. First in the fire, no man left behind. I love this narrative as it gives me confidence, or at least the reasonable illusion thereof, much like a pair of Underoos did as a kid, never mind the absence of Wonder Woman in my drawer.

I had a class assignment due this weekend that involved presenting on four personal artifacts; two each representing symbols of personal privilege and oppression. It seemed easy enough, holding both white male and trans female cards in my hip pocket. I brought in an old necktie and my employee badge to speak to my privilege, one from each side of the fence that divides my life. For oppression I picked a comic book to illustrate my adolescent geekery, from long before it was chic-ery, and an old wig to illustrate the paradigm that ‘women have hair’. I volunteered to go when no one else wanted to, and in this case it meant last.

As the presentations progressed, I was overwhelmed. My classmates, my cohort, are wonderful people with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, religions, and of course personal experiences. Every single one of them shared right from the heart, and more than once I felt tears well into my eyes. A video of black children being shown dolls, one black and one white, with the children identifying with the black doll, but calling the white one the “good” doll, the pretty one. Stories of switchings in foster homes. The unimaginable pain and loss of an ancestral culture slowly wiped out as the world looks on with disinterest. “I have nowhere that is really home” Persecution, belittling, and shame over faith, hairstyle, and appearance. The lone while male even demonstrated courage in admitting that he had no symbols of oppression. Everyone there lay their pain on the table with frank candor and vulnerability.

I sat there, with my little bag of artifacts and well-rehearsed dialog rife with self-deprecating jokes. My safe space. I’m comfortable with vulnerable, so long as it’s canned and well-aged. I wanted to go for the laughs, but it wouldn’t be real. Worse, it would disrespect my classmates. I couldn’t do that. When my time came at last, I made a rambling speech out of my first three artifacts; Lord knows what I said as my nerves were already twisting. When I got to the fourth, and with my old wig still inside the bag, I reached up and pulled the one off my head instead. Things did not go as planned.

Let me exonerate my class first. They were amazing, and I was looked at, not gawked at, with kind eyes and understanding. I couldn’t imagine a safer public place. What I didn’t plan on was the complete dissolution of Mighty Michelle. She was there with me all morning, all afternoon, but there in the moment of exposure, she fled. In a microsecond I was transported back to years past, before my transition, when every day was an exercised control of terror and revelation. I had thought it all behind me.

I had expected to speak of the weight  of the wig and the power it held. The shame it covered; the mark of Costanza. How it’s like wearing a hat in the summertime. How I have anxiety dreams of accidentally leaving the house without it. How I yell to my spouse to please close the drapes so I can walk through the living room at night once I’d removed it. The discomfort of overnight guests and meticulously planning on how not to be seen. How it itches. Why it’s one of the first reasons I took myself out of the running for any future romantic relationship no matter what happens. How it goes from looking fabulous to a frizzy crinkled mess within weeks of laying down $300 dollars. How I’m not me without it. This inanimate thing, this accessory, this affectation. I may have said some of that. Who knows, I was on autopilot by then. I vaguely recall slowly stepping backwards toward the wall, away from everyone, terrified.

At some point, probably within 20 or 30 seconds, I just stopped speaking and hurried to put it back on. I needed Mighty Michelle back, badly. The class clapped loudly, my professor kindly said I looked pretty without it, and my friend called me “bad-ass brave” on the ride home. In retrospect, I am filled with immense gratitude, but at the time I was somewhere else. What the hell just happened back there? And what was wrong with me? Who do I even think I am?

I considered my transition to be an unveiling to the truth of my existence. I peeled away the accoutrements of my maleness, both externally imposed and inherited and considered myself free from the old cage. Given my reaction to the self-motivated and very temporary shedding of a symbol of my female life, I have to wonder if I simply wandered from one prison to another. At the very least I find genderqueer much more relatable now as the binary has serious drawbacks.

As things go, it’s hard to really look at this as a big deal. I had heard some really heartbreaking things in that room that day. A white privileged male turned white privileged trans female (yes, trans by nature is very hard, but I also kept my job, my marriage, and launched a hundred side efforts, so…) doffs her wig in the presence of lovely supportive nurturing people. It’s about as forgettable an event as they come. I had to unpack this, and if there was anything to be learned, share.

I can understand why my actions triggered me the way they did. My internal narrative is pretty effective. I believe it and live it on a day to day basis. Enough so that at least some of it should be true, just clearly not all of it. I take unwarranted pride in putting myself, my life, and my truth out there without thought or concern about what people think. Well, that is, when I look the way I think I should. Look at the cringe worthy details of my life all you want, so long as you pay no attention to the girl behind the makeup and mono-filament polymer hair. I found my Achilles heel through clumsy stabbing in an exercise of reciprocity. I only wish I had known it was there.

The moral of this story for me is that I navigate through the world with an unrelenting sense of naked self, but that self is no more than a creation I have come to identify with. I can only speak to myself, but suspect many of us do this, and not just the trans folk. Knowing this, regardless of the discomfort and disillusion, is a gift. It is an opportunity to explore how much of Mighty Michelle can be gingerly placed on a Styrofoam head every night, or wiped off with a moist towelette, and how much is anchored deep in the foundation below the surface of my skin. My ‘know thyself’ journey is not yet over and was just on hiatus due to a badly folded map.

For the record, I’m not chucking the wig, or the makeup, or any aspect of my current look just yet. I like it, and like the way it makes me feel. I also like the way facilitates my plugging into society and how I am perceived and treated. It might be a new cage after all, but at least now I understand. If the time comes where I’m ready to put that aside as well, so be it.

As a last thought, it’s probably best for everyone in that room that my wig outweighed my bra as a symbol of oppression.

About michellelianna

I'm a transgender woman now in the maintenance stages of transition having all the electrolysis and surgery one can reasonably be expected to undertake. While busy exploring my new world, I took to blogging about it with dubiously popular results. I don't have quite as much to say as I used to, but I'm not quite done yet either.

11 responses »

  1. Caitlyn Strohmeyer

    Michelle, I think you are amazing! I cannot even imagine how that experience felt for you or what exposing your vulnerability like that conjured up inside of you. No one can understand the feelings you expressed without experiencing it themselves, nor the courage it took to do that. Everything you related, right down to the dreams of accidentally going without and fears about the impact on potential future relationships, are the same things I deal with in my own life. Don’t ever sell yourself short. While we have yet to meet in person (soon though!!), I know that you are a beautiful woman, inside and out. You and I are a lot alike I think…putting forth an image of strength and courage in the name of advocacy and community support, while underneath we are terrified little girls wondering what the hell we are doing and praying to God that we can get through each day without completely crumbling. Our lives and our mission are extraordinary, and something that most people could never handle without the courage that was forged through years of self- and society-imposed imprisonment. You, my dear, ARE badass and don’t ever forget it. ❤

  2. This girl suffers from a terminal case of verbosity. Not only does one get tired of reading her ramblings but her “surrogate” experimentation in creative writing with endless metaphors begs the question: get to the point GIRLFRIEND. Needless to say she is fan of other hopeless wannabes or bloggers. If I wrofe like that in college a big fat “F” would ensue. That is the luxury of writing on the Internet like me: there are no official rules only feedback by likeminded persons. But she is garbage.

  3. My transition was a total train wreck: It was 2008 and how was I supposed to know the economy was going to collapse like a hot air balloon at the end of a ride. I lost my wife, my job (I was outed and fired for being Trans), my car, my house and my 401k. I was unemployed for two years and remain underemployed 8 years later. However, I have lots of long blond hair, and for the most part, don’t get openly clocked. Would I trade my hair for keeping all the rest? In a nano second. My decades of Fortune 500 experience at high levels and my MBA have been nothing in trying to be fully employed.

    • So… it was a poor lifesyle choice???

      • Transition is not a “lifestyle” choice. I wish people could get their heads around this.

        Most of us endure trying to be what everyone else insists until we can stand it no longer. If you want to call ours a lifestyle, then you can call this stage of our lives a “deathstyle,” because life like that is a slow death (which too many of us end with a quick suicide – yes it’s *that* serious)…

        …Eventually, we become desperate enough to risk losing everything that is valuable to us, in order to make the arduous, dangerous journey to become ourselves. For some of us, it is like death and rebirth, for others it is growth through transformation; some of us plow a direct through this process directly, others go in fits and starts; some can do this quickly (years), others slowly (many more years); we each have our unique set of assets and liabilities which dictate our path and how fast we can *become*…

        …Whatever it is, its not like the choice between wearing red or black, or whether we drive a import or domestic car – insisting it is is to have the barest understanding of what is involved and such insistence hurts and insults us deeply.

        For me, I am a woman when it is pleasant, and a woman when it is unpleasant and dangerous. This is not a “lifestyle,” it is my 24/7 LIFE. And it *is* life: the alternative was death. I have blossomed over 15 years into the woman I am today, and increasingly all those who thought the worst of me are coming to see that this is the best thing to have become of my life and for our mutual relationships.

        We trans people accomplish what most people want but never actually dare: we become our authentic selves. And so, we are gift to the the rest of the world, demonstrating with poignant power the possibility that everyone can become their true selves despite the most difficult of circumstances.

        Blessings & Joy!!

  4. It’s Michael here, formerly Deanna for a while. I’m the double switcheroo akin to this blog in case anyone doesn’t remember me (my 15 minutes expired quite some time ago). Michelle, of course YOU know me well. Let me tell you this: “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” premiered in 1978, and it featured a very unusual and previously unheard of (to the best of my knowledge) effect of a bald female lead character. Persis Khambatta, an Indian actress, agreed to shave her head for the role. I was, I think along with everyone else in the world, shocked. This just was not something that was done. Women have hair, it didn’t matter if it was the 23rd century or that she was of alien origin; women have HAIR. This was one step further from when Mia Farrow got her buzz cut for “Rosemary’s Baby.” But in all reality, the character, Ilia, AND the actress, were beautiful, hair or no hair. As ridiculous as it may sound, that brave motion actually forced me to open my mind just a little more. How many more stereotypes was I still unwittingly embracing, I wondered. In the intervening years, I’ve seen more women who are most likely experiencing chemotherapy who have chosen to not cover their heads when their hair has succumbed to the treatments. I salute them, and celebrate their confidence in their personal beauty. Michelle, it isn’t what’s on top of your head that makes us love you, it’s what’s inside it. Keep the garden growing. Blog on.

  5. Like Joani, I so admire the way you have processed this experience. One of my research areas is disclosure in classrooms, and I’m actually not a fan of assignments such as the one you were assigned because they can and do sometimes lead to secondary traumatization and retraumatization. Instructors mean well, but in such cases, the assignment can end up inadvertently re-enacting oppressive power dynamics rather than serving as an empowering experience and learning can be impeded rather than fostered. There are dangers in treating class like therapy. And there are other ways to facilitate meaningful learning about privilege and oppression in the classroom, or to mitigate the risk of retraumatization and secondary traumatization when integrating such assignments. Kudos to you and your classmates for the support you showed one another, and thanks for sharing the experience and what you have learned from it with us. Sounds like you found not only your Achilles heel but also a very, very powerful source of inner strength and compassion for yourself and others.

  6. This is beautiful. I’m a woman, and had such a yearning once to stop wearing cosmetics, embrace myself without the cover-up. I did it for about three weeks, people kept asking me if I was ill. I went back to using. I don’t know what the lesson is here, only that I still sometimes get that longing to go without.

  7. Jayden Alfre Jones

    You go girl! Take it off. Take it all off. keep Transitioning as all humans must/should ! Spit it all out, after all I see you, and hear you, as do countless others. Welcome back! Your #1 fan, Jayden!

  8. I truly respect and admire your courage, not so much for the “reveal” as for the processing of the entire experience. Brava, Bella.

  9. So very brave. I’ll bet you aced that assignment!


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