How I’m Seen Differently in a Female Body

Joelle Circé, “Waving Pride”

Joelle Circé, “Waving Pride”

No aspect of my existence, no moment of the day, no contact, no arrangement, no response is not different for men and for women. The very tone of voice in which I was now addressed, the very posture of the person next in the line.

And if others’ responses shifted, so did my own. The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming. If the case was too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.

Women treated me with a frankness which was one of the happiest discoveries of my metamorphosis. But I also found men treating me more and more as junior. I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centered than they are themselves; so I generally obliged.

The above lines were penned by a woman who had transitioned from being, bodily, a man. Certainly there is plenty to learn from our sisters, brothers, and others who live in-between, all of whom have transitioned away from the gender they were assigned at birth. One of the most obvious is the difference in how women and men are perceived and treated. Another is the experience of oppression for daring to cross accepted gender lines.

The passage was written in 1975, early in the movement for gender equality, so I wondered if things had changed. And then I came across artist, Joelle Circé, a woman of transsexual origin, and asked her about it. Here’s what she said: 

I’ve always felt that I am a woman in my heart and my brain, but after I transitioned everything about my life changed. I noticed a very marked difference in how I was treated in public. The important parts of it are wonderful and beyond great. But some changes have been troubling.

Men are more likely to talk down to me as if I were a child. I get challenged by young male art supply clerks about the materials I want. I have over 20 years experience as an artist but they seem to think they know better, grrrrr.

And when I lived in a male body I seldom gave thought to my personal safety as I walked around, day or night. Now I do. Some aspects of my life have become dangerous and frightening.

At first I thought it was solely due to the transitioning and how I presented to others, especially men, but it didn’t take long to figure out that it was because I now look female that I’m harassed by some men, who look at me as if I were a piece of meat.

I’ve also gained weight due to hormones and eating when stressed, happy or sad. So now, like many other women I have felt yucky about my body’s size. I began thinking about self-loathing and of saying no to the media’s insistence we all have a certain body type. I had a friend of mine pose in our bathtub that was surrounded on three sides by mirrors with a sledge hammer in her hands and making as if to hit at her reflections in the mirrors. I call the piece ‘Smashing Images.’

And only after surgery did I begin to fully appreciate my body and those of other women. As a female born in the wrong body I speak to female eroticism, the beauty I see in my sisters, the joys and power of being a woman.

Being a woman of transsexual experience has permitted me to better understand oppression and prejudice, even as a woman by other women. I am conscious of myself, my sexual identity, my gender and my orientation. I am aware of communicating my hopes and fears, my joy and my anger as well as my sadness, my chaos.

My paintings maintain this constant in that I celebrate women, those who are empowered, those who are downtrodden, those who are invisible and those who are despised, hated, feared and oppressed, beaten and abused.

If anything, my art, is a reflection of my path and I hope it has some impact, brings some pleasure and happiness but also introspection and much questioning.

Thank you, Joelle Circé, for sharing your experience. You can go here to see her gallery.

This is a repeat for the holiday 

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 16, 2015, in feminism, gender, LGBT+, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. The subject is too large, hence it is difficult to confine my observation into a few lines. Women are not just designated as the fairer and weaker sex, they are constructed as such. Weak here denotes physical weakness. The compulsions of biology added to comparative deficiencies in physical strength make for an unequal man-woman equation. No social advancement can wish away the aforementioned situation, as the same aspect will continue to prevail and inform human relationships, even though a woman is the more complete being as a creation. Which is why all art, nature and all the beauty in the universe are visualized in the feminine form…season’s greetings and best wishes, dear Georgia…Raj.

    • There are some sex differences between men and women, which are biological. And then there are gender differences which are social constructions. Sometimes we take a sex difference and exaggerate it, leaving us to believe, for example, that women are less strong than they are. When women’s basketball was first started Women were only allowed to use half court, And were expected to pass after three dribbles, Because it was believed that women’s bodies weren’t strong enough to play basketball the way men did. Or, in gymnastics the uneven bars were created so that women could rest on the lower bar after doing a gymnastic move. Now look at them fly around! At one point when most women wore corsets, some doctors believed that women needed them because women’s bodies were too weak to hold themselves up!

      And here we have an example of a biological male who took on a gender identity as female, who was treated as weaker, and who came to see herself as weaker as a result. Or, another male-to-female transgendered person who began to fear rape when she hadn’t had to before. That can happen whether or not the transgendered person changes biologically (vs in presentation).

  2. I’ve always been amazed by the idea that men will never feel the fear of rape when walking down a dark street, and it’s interesting to read the perspective of someone who has felt both sides.

    Also, is it me, or is Transgenderism big on the social agenda lately? I wonder why that is. (Transparent is amazing btw.)

    • Yeah, I remember being surprised to realize that men walk through their lives without ever worrying about rape when it is continually in the back of women’s minds.

      Not sure why Transgenderism big on the social agenda lately. Maybe because it’s coming more out of the closet? And because it’s something we don’t understand well so a lot of people are curious about it? And then a lot of people feel threatened by it, too — people who want to sustain the status quo.

  3. There are a number of trans* writers today whose work provides fantastic analyses of gender. (And many other subjects as well.) Thomas Page McBee’s work, for instance, is moving and insightful; his Self-Made Man column at The Rumpus–begun close to the time he started taking testosterone–has been a delight to follow. And I am beyond pleased that the T (of LGBT) is finally getting some visibility, though much more needs to happen in terms of meeting that community’s political and social needs/demands. (I think it’s also important to recognize that with the notable exception of Lorraine Cox, the actors portraying trans* characters in film and on TV are almost always cis.)

    All that said, I am often frustrated at how certain stories of “wow, getting perceived as a woman leads to some effed-up social interactions” get elevated by the mainstream media when a transperson is telling it, as opposed to a ciswoman. Because cis (as well as trans) women have been talking about these same challenges of Living While Female for a very long time — only to be accused of imagining things, overreacting, “well, but how do you KNOW that’s because you are a woman?”, etc. This is not an issue of transmen or transwomen (or other nonbinary folks), to be clear — this problem absolutely resides in the heart of the cis world.

  4. Thanks to Joelle for sharing. It is so telling how the way people view/treat us can impact the way we regard ourselves. What a perspective to have lived both sides.

  5. I have a friend who was born a woman, but is now a man. And it bothers me a little that he has made it seem like he was never a woman. He says “females take forever getting ready” females this, females that. And all I can think is you were once a female too. But I guess it all has to do with him being a guy now and how he has to fit into the male stereotype or norm.

  6. In my personal perspective i have never met a transsexual women so just learning more about it gives me a better view what they experience. Me as a women I think it’s great we need that diversity of different views of being a women, I personally think that women are powerful and have a lot of potential of becoming and doing great things. The thing that really caught my eye about this piece was when she mentioned about the painting on how women see themselves and it’s so true because we are never happy on what we look like and with the mirrors all around us most women wouldn’t be comfortable being in that kind of environment because we all have something we would want to change. This gave me a different view of different type of women.

  7. Aaron Burr, Sir

    As a trans person I identify strongly with this post, although I’m FtM instead of MtF. Still, I notice that the things the author mentions (personal safety, feeling talked down to, questioned about purchases) all happened to me too – just in reverse. The most noticeable thing I remember happening was that the way I was spoken to by men in particular changed. I realized that men are much more casual with unfamiliar men than women are with unfamiliar women. Where I’d expect a “hello” or a “hi” from an unfamiliar man before, now I hear things like “hey man”. It really shook me the first time it happened, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know you, what the hell do you want? What?” Something that changed about me when I started passing and being more assertive in being seen and referred to as male was that I became much more outspoken than before. I never used to offer opinions in class, and now it’s hard to get me to shut up (which I’m sure my poor teachers have noticed). I felt like people were much more willing to engage in conversation when I presented as a man rather than a woman, which isn’t really surprising but it was still different to experience it than learn about it.

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