Sunday, April 4, 2010

Transitioning as a Feminine Hygiene Ad

Magazines like Glamour are sometimes reviled for reinforcing rigid femme gender roles paid for by businesses heavily vested in those roles. Clothes, cosmetics and feminine hygiene products are endlessly pushed in ads and editorials which reinforce a "girl lifestyle" of friends, fashion and guys. Yes, it is a very binary/gender normative space in which such publications operate, but they do occasionally dip into worlds beyond their version of norm. One such example is the May/2010 edition of Glamour which includes a long feature article on a young trans woman from LA named Amy Karn. And this trip outside the women's magazine norm is, let's just say, a rather harmless journey for their readers through mostlyvery comfortable territory.

A part of their ongoing series called Real Stories/Real-Life drama, this story announces itself with a large photo of a pretty young blonde standing in a field framed by canary yellow balloons. The title reads: Just Another Girl (who used to be a boy). For all the world, it reminded me of images I see in feminine hygiene advertising: bright colors, smiles in the face of pain and affirmation of girliness. Another image has Amy and her friends, yes, riding their bikes through wine country. It IS a tampon ad! People having their periods love riding their bikes through wine country.

Good job
What I do like about this story is how it's directly tied to that issue's theme of friendship between women. Much of the core of the story is how Amy got support from her two female college friends, Valerie and Allison. It models how friends can be supportive to one another during a transition and is subdued in characterizing the process of transition as something overly exotic or strange. The article does a good job accepting how a trans person can be a part of 'mainstream society' and doesn't have to live on freak island (eg a place where they don't red Glamour). In general, the writer, Genevieve Field, accepts Amy's womanhood and doesn't overly dwell too much on her past. What I also appreciated was the author actually used relatively up-to-date statistics on trans prevalence... 1 in 500 instead of the bizarrely high numbers you often find. She calls GRS "genital reconstructive surgery"... one of the more neutral terms for SRS, which I appreciate. Nor is it given some mythic place within transition. There is much to like in the story of Amy.

Whee, if you transition and look like this, you too
can ride your bike through wine country!

Blow job
But, that said, there is also almost the full compliment of transition story cliches to be found. Her transition is "mind-blowing." (why?) Her assigned male name is mentioned almost immediately. She played with dolls (don't they all?). She came out as gay but it didn't feel right (if you're going to be a trans woman, better like guys). Her housemate Alison wasn't surprised her gay friend might be trying on makeup in private because "Amy's personality was feminine, she was more fashionable than me and she could act like a bitch." Um, okay. Womanhood distilled in 20 words or less.

Amy = former boy! Got it?

Not so feminine fresh?
While the theme of supportive woman friends is empowering, there are some other threads in the piece which seem not as empowering to trans women. The cissexual friends come off as much more mature, grounded and understanding of Amy's issues than she does. Allison seems to recognize Amy is trans before Amy does. Amy falls apart when telling her friend she needs to transition while Allison is totally grounded and understanding. It's almost as if trans people don't even know what's happening to them.

Second puberty or second babyhood?
While it's certainly true there are very supportive and loving cissexual people who stand by their trans friends during their transitions, there are also a lot of people who freak and leave and even more who smile in front of you but do a lot of processing when you're out of the room. Moreover, I think it's fair to say, just because someone supports you at first doesn't mean they'll support you a year from now and just because someone initially freaks doesn't mean they won't be there for you several years later. I've heard a number of stories of "caretaker friends" who were supportive during transition but faded away once transition was substantially completed. My concern is how the story has a tendency to follow the media trend of infantilizing trans people in a way which doesn't get applied to others going through profound life-changing situations (eg, people with cancer, victims of violent crime).

There is a relatively thoughtful description of some of the drama Amy went through with her parents who basically cut her off for months and only reconnected with her after she was hospitalized for severe depression. (She was unaware of her depression and it took one of her cissexual friends to point it out). And where did parents and newfound daughter take their first trip after reconnecting? Of course, it had to be wine country! We are left to understand her twin sister didn't want to participate with the article about her trans sister, so maybe even the tampon ad butterfly world includes some uncharacteristic clouds.

Bright yellow balloons and wine country
The article does, unfortunately, dwell a bit on the trans meme of how Amy is so much happier since she transitioned. While I don't doubt that, I can also say most trans people transition more out of a need for mind/body/social congruence, not in a search for happiness. While it would be lovely if transition brings happiness, the problem comes when many people who transition are still unhappy because: a) transition is a far from perfect process; b) it can be financially overwhelming; c) loss of personal relationships can be intense; d) being trans in this society ain't easy; e) being trans continues to possess considerable negative stigmas. If being trans is supposed to bring happiness, it's all too easy for media to search for examples of trans people who are still emotionally struggling after transition and to make assumptions about whether transition was right for them because... 'they aren't happy enough, they made a mistake.'

Looky loos(ers)
While there are mercifully no photos of Amy applying makeup or putting on her hose (thank you Glamour), there is a prolonged discussion what she wore her first day out at work, how she had her hair restyled and wore high heels. It's also not too hard to imagine Amy's story was picked because she's quite pretty, blonde and, yes, looks passable. Once again, media proves authentic womenhood comes from looking like a gender-normative woman (and someone you might find in Glamour Magazine). Amy is cute, Amy is white, Amy is blonde, therefore, Amy is real. Someone else trans might not be cute, therefore, they aren't real. Got it?

And let's be real, when you see the photo of pretty Amy and her yellow balloons and the headline reads, "(who used to be a boy)" you're supposed to drop your jaw and go... "OMG, but... but, she looks like a guuurl not a dude." Yup, even Glamour and cutey-pie Amy can't escape the big transsexual unmasking.

Again, the article is mostly about Amy and her cissexual friends. While it offers some interesting advice about friends valuing each other's travails and not keeping score:
Never again will I tease Valerie for complaining about how hard it is to be a curvy-bodied woman in L.A. A friend does not say, 'My issues are bigger than yours.' A friend listens as long as they can and then says, 'You're beautiful, I love you—now shut up and I'll buy you a drink.'

Best Friends Forever?
While I agree it's important to support friends through their trials and not play the victim, the comparison of being a trans woman is somehow on a similar level of tribulation as being 'curvy' is absurd. Curvy women aren't murdered for being voluptuous while trans women certainly are for being trans. (although there is certainly lookist discrimination... like being mostly excluded from women's magazines like Glamour and other media, and many categories of jobs, etc.) Her curvy friend doesn't have to deal with ID and legal documentation the way Amy does. If pre-op Amy were arrested, she would likely end up in a men's jail. Her curvy friend doesn't face issues of obtaining health care or the same level of intense job discrimination Amy might face if she were out of work. I appreciate how Glamour has chosen to include a trans women's story in its issue concerning female friendship, but transitioning isn't quite yet like a feminine hygiene ad.

Note: The text of this Glamour article is now available online, minus some of the photos.


  1. and yet all i can think is, "Where did she get that awesome pointy chin????"


  2. @Carol, Yup, that is pretty much what we get reduced down to. It's not enough that she's trans, she has to be good looking enough for other women to be jealous of her! :-)

  3. While I think you make some very valid points, I think a story like this is moving things in a good direction; that women can be so fiercely tight friends w/a trans woman is important for Glamour readers to hear. Being accepted as a woman for MTF TS people is generally very important in my experience...

    Of course, you acknowledge both the good and the bad, and I hope our society reaches a day when trans people cannot be fired with impunity, assaulted or killed simply for who they are, and are generally accepted in any case. I suspect, though, those things will mostly come from a struggle for freedom that other groups are still going through.

  4. KimberleyMC... It's a very positive tale, and the friendship angle is wonderful, but also includes a lot of classic transsexual narrative subtext which sends out many mixed messages.

  5. I would just like to add that the reason this article was probably much better than it probably could have been was because of strict guidelines Amy established with the author. She specifically asked that a) they never say he b) no pics between age 5 and transition and c) let her read it before it's published.

    In her words, "I figured it'd be a good opportunity to spin things in a healthy way." After she explained why, the writer was very sympathetic. She stood up to the confused editors on all of the points.

    More power to her, because I feel that the article was fantastic. Yes, there are some parts that reinforce the trans tropes but overall the article is a sweet and genuine reflection of a wonderful girl.

  6. This blog post makes some good points, but I don't get the claim that her being pretty is a problem. If the editors had chosen instead to present images of trans people who are unattractive by conventional standards, would that be preferable? Frankly, I'm not sure it's her fault that she's pretty, and while it is obviously problematic that magazines like Glamour tend to feature people with particular body types *in general*, I think that tendency, rather than anything related to her being trans, explains their behavior in this case.

  7. It's Glamour Magazine. If they profile an astrophysicist, a Haiti relief worker, a cancer survivor, *whoever*, you can count on this: she'll be pretty, young, and straight, and they'll use pictures to emphasize how pretty, young, and straight she is. Amy's profile fits perfectly into the pattern of everything else they write.

    Seriously, what would you do? Forbid them from mentioning trans people, unless they temporarily transform themselves into a feminist non-lookist queer academic review?

  8. Sara / Catherine, of course Glamour Magazine filters the world through its "aesthetic" and, especially, through its advertising demands. Which doesn't mean that should be totally excused when presenting that view of a transition and trans identity. Which is why I chose the title of the piece... tampon ads speak in codes. They don't mention bleeding, pain or humiliation.

    What does concern me is when larger culture equates 'passibility' or prettiness with authenticity of identity. While I agree Glamour's policies about who's worth displaying in their rag go well beyond anything having to do with trans people, I also think it buys into a discomfort we have with seeing gender variance in images. Amy is more acceptable because she's a pretty, girly blonde. I certainly don't blame Amy for that and, I think, anyone in the trans community knows there is a huge variance in transition experience. But I do think it is a inherent limitation in the story. I also wish we could have had a little more sense of what it's like to be Amy in her day to day life and, perhaps, less of the wine country imagery but then, that doesn't sell cosmetics, tampons or purses.

  9. What does concern me is when larger culture equates 'passibility' or prettiness with authenticity of identity.

    That concerns me too, and I've been mulling over a new post on that for some time.

  10. I think that the "wine country imagery" appeals more to the target audience, which has positive implications for acceptance of trans people.

    Of course passibility should not be framed as essential to authenticity - but I'm not sure the text of the article does that. Are you suggesting that they imply that simply by their choice of subject? If they picked a "non-passible" subject (whatever that means), wouldn't we be criticizing them for reinforcing the idea that all of us are non-passible?

    I think it comes down to the fact that feature articles like this are inherently tokenizing, which places the subject in an impossible position as a "representative" of the group. But it's a catch-22: there would be no "human connection" in such articles if they left out specific individuals - and that human connection is productive of tolerance and other good things. Perhaps the article would be improved by more emphasis on the fact that Amy doesn't represent all trans people - while that fact is probably self-evident for most actual trans people, it may not be obvious to the target audience.

    As for showing more of "what it's like to be Amy in her day to day life" - why? What if she doesn't want to provide the public with that level of intimacy? And how would it avoid the criticisms you bring up?

    I agree that there are some problems with the article, but I think some of what you're criticizing may be simple lightheartedness rather than bias.

  11. Oh, I meant to mention earlier - the article does not use her actual assigned name. That does reveal a problematic fixation - they *still* insisted on making up a fake assigned name for her, even though she refused to let them publish the actual one.

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  13. I am a trans woman and I loved this article. I think you were a bit harsh with your criticisms. First thing, assuming that most of us don't transition to become happy is naive. Before, I wasn't happy because I knew there was something different. When I figured out why I wasn't happy, I made the decision to transition. Now I am the happiest I've ever been,despite the tough road I've had.

    Also, mentioning the fact that she went through a "maybe I'm gay" phase in adolescence is in no way asserting that all tarns women are gay. In too went through a similar phase when I was a teenager.

    I think you were harsher on this article than was necessary.

  14. @Sara: There are different kinds of bias. One is intentional bias (of which I don't think Glamour is guilty ), the other is cultural bias where the subject is shot through the filter of cultural assumptions without much reflection about those assumptions. I do think the article has some of that bias. And no, I doubt if Glamour would much care if it does.

    @Knittin: If you read my breakdown of the piece as harsh, well then maybe I went too far in that direction for your liking. I experienced the article is very much a mixed bag. As to happiness, no, I don't think most people transition to be happy. I think happiness might be a product of body/social congruity but I don't think it's a kind of happiness the same way finishing a knitting project or making a delicious dinner (or going on a spiritual retreat) is happiness. The vast majority of the population is born without gender incongruity... some are happy, many aren't. Speaking for myself, whether transitioning is something that would make someone happy isn't high on my list of things I would ask them about it.

    As to the teen thing... I hope I didn't insinuate that Glamour thought all trans women are gay (or some form of gay man). That wasn't my intention. I think Glamour isn't altogether comfortable with anything about this experience that's outside easily digested expectations. The idea someone might transition mtf young (and look cute and femmy) but still be into women is an incongruity I think they'd be uncomfortable with. That's why I mentioned it. If she becomes a straight young women (like their advertisers' customers) all is right in the world. My point was more about her liking guys than being gay and what that means in the world of trans people.

  15. I think I agree with your observation that transition is primarily the journey toward congruence, with the destination being some workable form of ontological "completeness" - YMMV of course. I'm clear that nobody ever promised me a rose garden, or in this instance a vineyard? What I am also clear on is that this newfound sense of completeness has brought with it the removal of that "splinter in my soul" that was itself the goad to transition in the first place. Is its removal still throbbing a bit? Well of course, objectively, transition is not like walking through a door and closing it behind you.

    Am I happy? Well yeah, some days, other days not so much. People you’ve loved depart your life - you find new people to love . . .

    Overall, it increasingly looks like real life without the ad labels.

    R.M. Thomas

    Feminist, Dyke, Architect

  16. This is very well written article. I am the only trans person in a community blog I share with other Q folks called . With the name, I am sure you know I am of Indian origin. Though I wrote a coming out story that was a little cliche', little reality, the reason I wrote that was to let people know that I am out and proud and its time for them (read Indians) to come out. I am sure in a country of billion people there are atleast a million trans folks and I want them to come out and be proud of themselves. Now I would like to start writing articles about trans people and reality. I would like to cross refernce your post. I hope you will be ok with that. I will share the link once its published.
    Again, kudos!

  17. HI Rashmi... sorry for the delay in responding. Of course, cross reference away, I'd be honored! It's very exciting to hear about all the different forms of trans activism coming out of South Asia.

  18. Well, at least she "he" is happy now being the way she wants to be.She is lucky she doesnt have to deal with all of the other feminine problems

    Feminine Hygiene Products

  19. @teamdwms

    Wow miss the point much?

    Aren't her two friends lucky that they don't have to worry about being called "he" at every turn because random schmucks insist on applying male pronouns to them no matter how insulting and inappropriate? Aren't her friends lucky they don't have to be ungendered and condescended to just because they live their lives as feminine women, because their womanhood is automatically accepted as "natural" and not newsworthy?

    And assuming her friends do indeed have to bother with "all of the other feminine problems" are they not also lucky they don't have to be stigmatized as freaks and fakes for having the bodies that they do, and they don't have to be referred to "in quotes" when discussing their medical histories?

    I'd say they ARE lucky that they don't have to have special articles written about their "mind blowing" life experiences just to make the mainstream public begin to grasp that women like them do in fact exist and that it's okay.. And let's not get started about the astronomical rates of transphobic harassment violence, job discrimination, unemployment and astounding lack of legal recognition her friends will never have to deal with. Yes seems like a lot of luck going around...


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