“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”
I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.
I’ve been thinking about facial feminization surgery. It’s rare that I see a photograph of me that someone else took and don’t see everything it would fix, the lighting making my brows so much heavier and my jaw so much more asymmetric. My tracheal cartilage is my largest remaining source of gender dysphoria. My jawline is angular and mismatched, not something I quite understand. Asking a surgeon to re-sculpt these foci of insecurity and distress feels like a path to the contentment and beauty that I have ever craved, and it is not a possibility I discard lightly. Every one of these things seemed to matter less before my vaginoplasty, when that overwhelming need made all of the others harder to even notice, but with that baseline agony purged, I can see everything else, and it makes me think. Facial feminization surgery is a life-easing and life-saving relief from dysphoria for so many of us, to the point that the lack of public funding for it even in places that fund vaginoplasty is a deep injustice; could it be that relief for me?
Part of the calculation is easy. I am not purist or primitivist enough to imagine that there’s something sacrosanct about the way my body has developed. I feel no misplaced, perverse sense of duty to challenge gender norms by maintaining parts of myself that cause me pain. One of my refrains is “Suffering is not holy, and suffering is not good,” and another is “It is our nature to defy nature.” Science has granted the possibility of customizing this body to a degree never before seen, and that fact brings me hope, not fear. This body is me, and I will reshape myself as I see fit, because no one’s claim over these nerves and muscles and bones will ever hold me more strongly than mine does.
But it doesn’t all feel the same as my genital dysphoria did. My insecurities around my bust and brows and the rest don’t come with the empty sadness I felt before I commenced hormone replacement therapy, nor the now-realized promise of relief that propelled me toward vaginoplasty. These insecurities, almost to a one, feel far more aesthetic, and that makes them malleable.The thing is, the vision of femininity offered by facial feminization surgery isn’t uniform. I’ve been privy to discussions among white people urging caution about accessing lower-cost FFS providers in Mexico, because Mexican surgeons specialize in Mexican faces and might provide new features that look misplaced on a white patient. This whole cultural milieu is saturated in white visions of white femininity and looking at my ethnic kin provides a shocking reminder of how different my world is. When I look at America Ferrera, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and my grandmother, I see women who look like me in ways that most white women don’t, a kind of familiarity some part of me craves no matter how alienated from my heritage I become. And something that sticks out on all three? Their brows. Their brows look like mine. Some of them are stronger than mine. This nose is as much my grandmother’s nose as it is my father’s. I look like them. I look like women do where I’m from. And I don’t have to hate these brows if I know what they mean.
I could still have them reshaped. I owe no one their maintenance; this body is mine alone. If I want my brows and nose and jawline softened until they look like the cis white women I occasionally date or the transfeminine white people I know who have journeyed ahead of me, the only barrier is cost. But recognizing them as an ethnic signifier rather than a relic of testosterone poisoning…that makes it hard to want to, anymore. I did not embrace my gender to better fit into white molds and white frames, and my womanhood defies their norms. If these brows seem masculine to others’ eyes, that is their error. I am Hispanic, and my beauty is not shaped like theirs, and that fact brings me no shame. I was born alien, and in this, I am called home. If there is any path that is truly mine, it is embracing my heritage when it brings me freedom and sending it on its way when it doesn’t.
“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.” This world is deeply invested in that insecurity. This world and its multi-thousand-dollar price tags for FFS would rather I never went through this self-examination, aspiring to a whiter visage that keeps my kin out of the light. But I did, and I learned something about myself that they can never take away.
And I’m still saving up to have this throat cartilage corrected, because what those three faces showed me was the difference between dysphoria and marketing.