Monday 31 August 2020

In Search of Beauty

Hallowe'en is a time of year when a lot of closeted cross-dressers feel safe to dress in public. It's acceptable to put on a face and a costume you wouldn't normally wear, and show yourself off. I've read quite a few descriptions of this online. It tends to be more marked in the US, where Hallowe'en is an enormously popular occasion, and where people seem to spend a lot more time and effort on the whole business than the rest of the world, though what I see is that, year on year, Hallowe'en is growing, everywhere.

One leg to rule them all...
So imagine my discomfort when I was invited to a very large and "authentic" Hallowe'en party last year. The party was hosted by a woman I work with. Unfortunately my partner couldn't attend, so it was up to me to go along, with the kids.

I very quickly dismissed the idea that I would go dressed as a woman. First, I'm not out to this woman. Second, I didn't know who else from work might be invited and show up. Third, the irony is not lost on me that Hallowe'en costumes are supposed to be a costume; as I've mentioned before, putting on a costume feels like pretending to be something I'm not, while getting dressed as a woman feels like becoming something I am (even if not every day). I definitely didn't want to do some sort of costume version of Vivienne; I couldn't imagine something less comfortable than turning up dressed as a pantomime dame. While if I dressed nicely, it could be a dead giveaway that this wasn't a once-in-a-year costume, but something I do much more frequently.

Mind you this Gandalf outfit, by Melbourne student Tjitske van Vark, might possibly work for this year. Gandalf the Pink, anyone?

But there was a further catch, which is that the hostess herself is extremely good at both makeup and costume. I've seen some of her work before, in pictures, and it's dazzling. So I knew she was going to set the bar very high, which in turn meant I didn't feel I could just cut two holes in a sheet, put it over my head, and call myself a ghost. In the end, I got a decent fantasy swordsman costume, and some decent props, and I didn't disgrace myself. But that's not what this post is about.

Lex Fleming from MadeYewLook
The hostess had indeed gone to great lengths. Her house was lavishly decorated, inside and out, with skulls and spiders and pumpkins and gravestones. But her own makeup was simply extraordinary; it was clearly professional-quality work. In addition, she had spent a lot of time getting her costume just right. It must have taken weeks of planning to put the whole thing together. While I am not going to include any photographs of the hostess herself, here is a comparable image of a young woman doing something similar, and let me say, the hostess was every bit as striking as this image here; not just her face, but also her costume.

Understandably there were a lot of photographs. The hostess took photos of all the guests; in groups, posed and unposed. And she was also in lots of photos, including photos of me. Standing beside her while those photos were taken made me feel uncomfortable, and I've been reflecting for some time on why this should be.

First, I am extremely conscious of beauty around me. When people talk about beauty privilege, I completely understand exactly what they mean. I cannot help paying attention to beautiful people, and it's almost always female beauty that I am talking about here. So when there is someone beautiful near me, and I want to just have a normal conversation (with someone else, about something else), I can sometimes find it difficult to concentrate unless I sit where I cannot be distracted by the view.

Has anyone got a pen I could borrow?
For me (at least) beauty doesn't necessarily have to be the sort of thing you would put on a magazine cover. There are a thousand things which women around me do which I think are beautiful. It can be as simple as a particular smile, a turn of phrase, or an endearing gesture (such as putting your pencil into your bun, which I think is gorgeous), while others might see nothing particularly special.

Second, beauty is something I really aspire to. Perhaps it's because I had a rough time at school (as a sensitive child I was commonly picked on), I tend to equate beauty with popularity, and I am envious of people who are beautiful.

This is something which I have really struggled with. As I've mentioned before on this blog, it's not enough to look feminine: I really want to look pretty. I don't think that the camera is anywhere near as flattering as the mirror, but I also think the camera comes a lot closer to showing me what other people see when they look at me. I love to take photos when I'm dressed, and I can feel very flat afterward when I look at the photos and don't feel great about what I see.

Meanwhile it's hard not to feel even more dejected when I look at the Internet and see what seem to be thousands of gorgeous images of trans women, and I think that, in a month of Sundays, I could never look that good. I know I am not alone in feeling this. Even Hannah McKnight (whom I admire for many reasons) has posted lately about feeling this way, and I've had conversations with some of my Facebook friends about it. Sometimes I think: why should I even bother? What would be the point?

The third thing which I really noticed about my Hallowe'en friend is that she wasn't just looking spectacular, she was also acting differently. She was definitely acting more flirty, more sexy, especially in front of the camera. She was owning it. She was doing beauty.

So there I was, feeling awkward and foolish in my own costume, seeing my friend completely owning the Hallowe'en femme fatale thing, and knowing I will never look remotely as good. That was a potent stew of emotions indeed. My costume was no disgrace, and I could have been strutting around and posing like Conan the Barbarian--but honestly I just wanted to get it over with and go home.

I know that these feelings are temporary; that there will be times when I feel fantastic--both pretty and feminine--again. I am also enough of a realist to recognise that probably everyone feels a bit like this, when they try to compare themselves to others. And of course the people on the Internet post their best photos--of course they do!-- and they don't show you their mascara malfunctions or their bad hair days or their photos taken at unflattering angles.

Mind you, it's interesting to consider: if I were an attractive man, would I be less bothered about trying to look pretty as a woman? Would I be able to get some of that beauty "fix" in my male persona? It's impossible to know. If Timberland decides to pick up my modelling contract again, perhaps I will be able to let you know.