Monday 12 March 2012

Makeover sparkle

In order to have a good time you don’t have to actually look good; you just have to think that you do. - Andy Warhol
As I mentioned before, I am not very good at crossdressing. However, I am quite encouraged by this comment from The Lazy Crossdresser by Charles Anders:
Looking good in women's clothes isn't the same thing as looking like a woman.
(The last time I read about Charles Anders, I seem to recall him saying that he went out dressed in women's clothing at least half the time, and didn't mind whether his friends called him by his male name or his female name (in the book this was Julia). I basically aspired to this situation, whilst knowing it would never happen: someone invites you to a party not knowing (or minding) whether you will show up in a shirt and jeans or a dress. I see just now that Charles Anders' identity is now Charlie Jane Anders. On her Wikipedia page and her personal website, feminine pronouns are used exclusively. It seems I am now finding Charlie at a different stage of the journey. I wish her well, with the merest touch of envy! Her book is fantastic in every way, and her website is hilarious (the flowchart alone is worth a gold medal)).

Anyway, enough with the pronouns already! For people who are not convincing crossdressers, or who can't do it at home, or both, you go and get a makeover. I have done this about four times now, with an average of once every two to three years. That's not a lot of activity, and I would like to apologise to those businesses right here: I would be round your place three times a week if I could possibly manage it.

My second-ever makeover was in England, at a business which caters for the entire male-to-female transgender spectrum. Naturally they offer a dressing service, where you can turn up and be pampered for a few hours, or indeed all day. They even cater to specific themes such as maid, bride or schoolgirl (those archetypes again!). When I (nervously) went along it was afternoon on a weekday. I had arranged a two-outfit makeover; you get the first one, then sit for a bit and drink tea, then the second one, then drink some more tea, then go home.

When I arrived it was just after lunch. I was met by the first assistant, (let's call her Monica). She showed me to a room full of outfits, and asked me to pick one. All I could see were rows, and rows, of clothes on hangers. In one sense, it was a treasure trove, but I couldn't see any of the clothes clearly, and didn't know what I would find, and couldn't therefore easily choose something without pulling out each item at a time and holding it up. I asked her for some help, and she asked me what sort of outfit I wanted. I don't know, I told her (truthfully). Nothing too tarty. Just a normal, girl-next-door sort of look.

She looked at me a little quizzically, before rummaging among the hangers and bringing out some garments. She asked me if I wanted a corset and I said yes. She showed me to a changing booth, and left me to get dressed. For me, this was a special occasion, and I had prepared carefully, including an all-over shave which was beginning to itch. I started off by putting on the tights, and immediately put a big ladder in the leg. I had to get a new pair. Not a great start. Then once I had the bra and the panties and the tights on, I went outside where Monica helped me put the corset on. Then I went back in the cubicle and put on the rest of the clothes. There was a shiny blouse, a very short skirt, a pair of shoes which had heels so high I couldn't walk (and I couldn't easily bend down to put them on because of the corset). I emerged very unsteadily and not feeling at all feminine. Monica provided a pair of silicone boobs. Again this was a first for me (now I have a pair of my own), and I was very keen to try them, but they were too big.

The makeover wasn't a success either. It seemed Monica put on too much of everything: too much mascara, too much lipstick. When the wig was finally on, I felt like a caricature. What I saw in the mirror was not very attractive, and certainly wouldn't have been manageable on the street. Not to worry, I thought. Give yourself some time to settle down a bit and relax and maybe you will start to enjoy it. But I didn't.

In a sense, I thought, this is probably what most people want when they come here. They want exaggerations of femininity: the corset, the heels, the thick makeup (if not the actual maid outfit or bridal dress). I notice when crossdressing after a long period of abstinence that I am voracious, and I remind myself of the quotation "All things in moderation-- even moderation" during those times. It was forgivable for Monica to think that was what I was after. But really, it wasn't me. What I saw in the mirror (and there were of course plenty of mirrors) wasn't the image I saw in my mind of myself as a woman. I began to feel quite despondent as I drank my tea, even though I enjoyed leaving lipstick smears on the cup.

For my second makeover, Monica was busy doing something else, and I had Sally to look after me. She looked me up and down. "How do you feel?" she asked. Awful, I replied. This isn't what I had in mind at all.

Sally took me back to the garment room, and had a brief rummage. She brought out some more things. "Let's have the boobs," she said, and she gave me another pair, at least two sizes smaller. The clothes were better: a much more modest and sensible blouse, a much more comfortable skirt, and a short jacket. The shoes were better; at least I could walk in them. We got rid of the corset and my eyes stopped bulging outwards.

Then she did the makeup, but she started by scraping off all the old stuff with a trowel and beginning again. This time it was much more subtle and natural. And we finished off with a different wig, one which I had bought on a previous trip to the far East. It had looked amazing in the shop, but whenever I wore it, it looked like a dead animal perched on my head. With Sally's expert hands, and a long-tailed comb, it became amazing again. I had spent much of the makeover time either with my eyes closed, or looking the other way. When I turned round, and looked in the mirror, my jaw dropped. I looked fantastic. I couldn't believe it. Until that moment, I had not believed it would be possible to actually look like a woman without the help of the makeup artists who work for Peter Jackson. And I didn't look like a tart, or a drag queen, or a caricature. I just looked like me, only as a woman.

I was overcome with emotion. I thanked Sally extremely warmly. "You look really pretty", she commented, and I sensed her sincerity. We walked out into the shop area, where Monica was still working. Even Monica looked impressed. I was feeling so good, I wanted to wave my credit card at them and say "I'll take the lot!" and just walk out of the door. Of course, that was never going to happen: among other things, the business expects a certain level of circumspection from its clientele so as not to frighten the horses. So instead I had a cup of tea. It was a very British thing to do in the circumstances.

I stood at the counter and drank my tea. Other customers came and went. I just chatted with Sally and Monica. I felt relaxed, and the chat went from polite to friendly to hilarious, and soon we were all laughing. I realised something at that moment which seemed very profound. It had gradually gone from being a very polite customer-assistant interaction into a complete girly gossip. I felt more feminine at that moment than I had ever done in my life hitherto. And I like to think that, for them, this was different to how their customers usually behave with them (but here I may be completely flattering myself).

We chatted for over an hour. It was long past the time when I should have been getting ready to go, but they were in no hurry, and I believe that they were enjoying the conversation. As closing time began to approach, I hastened to take off my borrowed gear and put my own clothes back on (what some crossdressers refer to as their drabs, and I know exactly why).

Sally took some photos of me, and naturally I bought them. Good though they are, the image seen through the camera is still not as good as the image I saw in the mirror; I think the flash is unflattering. As with all crossdressing photos (for me at least), the photo is there as a tangible and irrefutable reminder of what happened, to aid future reminiscences.

I drove home absolutely purring, with my emotional energy on full charge. Shortly afterwards, I left to live in New Zealand, so I haven't had the chance to go back there. This experience included perhaps the best and worst of makeovers: since then none have been so good, nor so bad. I hope that my life's most fulfilling experience of femininity doesn't turn out to be one lipstick-smudged cup of tea in England in the autumn.

Privacy, Secrecy and Crossdressing

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Thinking Allowed, a BBC podcast by the sociologist Prof Laurie Taylor. At university I found sociology among the most unstimulating of subjects. There was a graffito in the students' toilet next to the loo paper: it read Sociology Degrees: Please Help Yourself. When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed some years ago, I was fascinated by it, without realising that its core was sociology! Since then I have been devoted and, thanks to podcasts, never miss an issue. The programme is insightful, interesting, often funny and occasionally heartbreaking. Once in a while it tackles controversial topics unflinchingly. There is an extensive archive here, to which you can listen for free, and the specific podcast can be found here.

On this particular episode, Laurie's guest was Christena Nippert-Eng, who is Associate Professor of Sociology and Acting Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She was discussing her new book, Islands of Privacy, which discusses the nature of privacy among "oceans of accessibility" around us. For each of us, there are things which we really want to keep private, and particular personal reasons why some things are kept "private" and some things "public", and some things are in between. I found this subject very interesting, and couldn't help applying some of her theoretical questions to myself, such as "How would it affect me if I lost this object and somebody else got hold of it?" In addition, Nippert-Eng was a warm, animated, and highly articulate speaker; a pleasure to listen to.

I haven't yet read her book, but it's now in my in-pile. You can find out more about the book here.

A secret, Nippert-Eng argues, is a piece of information so private that we have made an active decision that we will not share it with someone else, even if they ask about it. A secret is the "most private of the private". At any moment where disclosure might happen, we need to expend work and effort to avoid revealing our secret to someone else. We need to take decisions about secrets: a decision to have a secret, a decision to keep a secret, a decision to reveal a secret, or make a decision to try to find out someone else's secrets.

In addition, she points out each of us "manages our identity in front of other people (what Goffman called "impression management"). We are trying to present a certain image of ourselves to ourselves, and to all these other people around us. If you deny people privacy, you deny them the capacity to control what is known about them to other people, and to shape their identity in a way that they would like it to be."

I thought how much this resonated with me. As a crossdresser, I have many secrets (as I suspect many of us do). I expend considerable energy concealing that fact from other people, both verbally and in other ways. And I try very hard to create an identity for myself which is "acceptable" and "presentable" to the world in which I live. And yet, here I am, attempting to reveal aspects of myself on the Internet: surely the least private thing in the world! I am certain this blog is a safety-valve: it is one way of letting out just a little of the pressure it takes to contain my own secrets. In addition, as a scholarly type, I have always found that words are a very good way to crystallise my feelings.

Let's look from the outside. I am a professional, family man. I have a responsible job at a moderately prestigious institution. My professional reputation is good. I recycle. I give to charity. I don't drink heavily. I don't gamble. I don't have noxious habits. I don't even play golf! I have a house in the suburbs of my city, which is pretty similar to lots of houses around me. Most of the time, I am happy to do manly things: I chop trees, I ride my bike over mountains, I fix my car. I do dad stuff and husband stuff and supportive, pillar-of-the-community stuff and sociable, salt-of-the-earth stuff. It is easy to be that man, most of the time. I am not pretending to be this person: I am him (OK, technically I am he, but let's not split grammatical hairs).

When I look around at the other guys I know, I believe that none of them remotely suspects that I am a crossdresser; not my best friends, not my workmates. My wife knows (of which more later). Two very supportive friends looked after me once when I fell to pieces in their kitchen and confessed it all (the friendship endures but they have never mentioned the episode, or the crossdressing, since). And one friend once confided in me that he was struggling at work because he is gay, so in a quid-pro-quo moment, I told him. Unfortunately he moved away and we are seldom in touch now.

Secrecy: Christena Nippert-Eng
Now let's look from the inside. Inwardly, I long to express some aspect of femininity more or less constantly (there are some short respites from time to time). But this is where the problem begins: this is just not OK. My wife (who, let's be clear, is beautiful and funny and generally brilliant) just can't bear the notion that her husband is a crossdresser. We've tried a series of coping strategies including marital counselling, which hasn't made much difference (though I believe it saved our marriage). What she wants in a husband is 100% "man", and instead she has someone who is about 95% "man" and 5% "woman" (maybe; see my other post here for more discussion of this).

From her perspective, crossdressing is fine, provided I (1) tell no-one about it, (2) don't ever mention it, (3) do it alone, at home, with the phone off the hook and the blinds down. In all fairness, it's not that she hasn't seen it: she has come with me to one or two crossdressing social events, and has accompanied me to a couple of makeovers. I can't in all honesty say that she hasn't had a look at it. But she has only observed these events, not participated in them, and afterwards, when all I want to do is to talk about it, she sits in silence, and gets angry (or maybe angrier) when I try to bring it up later.

So why don't I just accept that? Well, there are loads of reasons. First, I am not very good at crossdressing. To look good as a woman requires a lot of practice; ideally an entire adolescence spent experimenting with every beauty product on the market. Though I watch women closely (using every erg of cognitive power I can muster) I just haven't got it right: the clothes, the cosmetics, the whole package still looks a bit weird. What I really need is a bit of help to get the basics right, then I can work on the fine tuning. That's where I keep hoping that she will come in, even though I accept she never will.

Second (and much more importantly), for me, crossdressing is an intimacy. It's about expressing the most sensitive, emotional and vulnerable part of me (the part I keep hidden deep down when I am in a leadership role, metaphorically roaring and beating my chest in front of the other silverbacks). I don't want to express that alone, and I certainly don't want to express it in front of strangers. I have no desire to take that intimacy anywhere outside my marriage. But I wish that my wife would recognise that as a good thing and share it with me!

I function primarily on two levels, the emotional and the intellectual. Deprivation of the emotional content of crossdressing is painful, but being denied the intellectual aspect of just talking about it is doubly painful.

But my family and my marriage are the most important things in my life. It is more important to me to be a husband, and a father, than it is to be a crossdresser. So I keep it hidden, and keep my mouth shut about it.

What would happen if my work found out? Well, I wouldn't lose my job: my institution has an Equality and Diversity programme. My colleagues would laugh at me, of course, and there would be a series of subtle shifts between some people I now get on with who would gradually turn their backs (stop inviting us round, stop bringing their kids to play), and some people I don't get on well with now who would unexpectedly be supportive or unchanged. I could cope with that, I suppose.

What would happen if the kids found out? At the moment they are young enough for it probably not to be that much of a big deal. They all enjoy playing dress-up. I don't think they would love their dad any less for it. (I am certain that my wife would view that situation with horror). But I do worry about what would happen if the other kids at school found out. Kids can be really cruel to each other, and all it takes is one tiny stigma for the bullying to start. It's tough enough to grow up without having to deal with daily taunts about your father's underwear predilections.

So, just like Nippert-Eng suggests, my secrecy about crossdressing is a deliberate choice. It's not that I lack the confidence to crossdress publicly and happily. It's not that I lack the wherewithall to accomplish it either (a bit of judicious expenditure and some careful practice would work wonders). But actions have consequences. Having considered those consequences extremely carefully, I think that the situation as it stands is the least painful. But it's still painful!