Learning How to Dress as a Trans Woman
In an excerpt from Juliet Jacques's new memoir, "Trans," the author goes shopping for the first time since undergoing gender reassignment surgery and reflects on what it means to "pass" as a woman.
All images courtesy of Verso Books
When she was 30 years old Juliet Jacques underwent gender reassignment surgery. Between 2010 to 2012, she chronicled her transformation for the Guardian. Now, in her new memoir, Trans (Verso Books), Jacques writes about her life before and after her transition. Following the feminist tradition of making the personal political, her book examines gender theory, media, and the lexicon surrounding the politics of queerness.
Below is an excerpt from her memoir on dressing, passing, and self-acceptance.
I met Laura from Avatar outside Churchill Square. I was carrying an old charity shop handbag and wearing cheap flat shoes that were worn to pieces.
"We're getting rid of those," she said, grinning. "What else do you need?"
"Some new tops, maybe a couple of dresses. Definitely a coat, a bag and a purse. Ideally stuff I can wear to work or the pub, I can't afford two wardrobes."
"Then I'm afraid it'll be the high street rather than the trendy boutiques," she said. "We'll find some nice stuff."
She took me to H&M and started rooting through the sale rail. "This is nice," she said, handing me a purple-and-white T-shirt. "And this." She gave me a black top with silver decorations, and another with a blue arrow down its front.
"This is perfect!" she continued, picking out a black dress with brown polka dots. I threw them in a basket as we found the coats.
Read more: Shifting Voices as a Trans Person
"You need something that gives you hips," said Laura. "Try this."
She handed me a double-breasted black coat that flared out at the waist.
"Try them," she insisted. "I'll tell you if they work."
Laura smiled at the assistant as I asked to use the changing room. Sweating nervously, I tried to relax, carefully checking how to put everything on, terrified of breaking anything. Laura didn't think the blue top worked—"too teenage." Another reminded me that most of my fat went to my stomach—but I liked the dress and T-shirts. Then I tried the coat.
"That's amazing!" said Laura. "And only £10!"
We found a purse and a black handbag. I tried on some pumps, relieved to squeeze into a size seven, and bought some blue patterned tights to go with a black dress from Dorothy Perkins.
"Now you need some makeup," said Laura, taking me to Boots. "You can't keep wearing that Superdrug stuff." She led me around the stalls. I recognized some of the brands from my old job at World Duty Free, trying to remember which ones targeted women older than me and which younger, which went for people more traditional in their and which were trendier.
I suddenly remembered just how many times I'd seen or heard of female friends being propositioned in the street or grabbed in nightclubs.
"Let's try the Benefit counter," said Laura. "The woman there looks young and friendly, I'm sure she'll be fine with you."
"Hi, how can I help?" asked the assistant as we approached.
"My friend would like a makeover," said Laura.
"No problem, just sit here," said the assistant, putting me in front of a mirror. I smiled as she wiped the makeup off my face and then looked sadly at my five o'clock shadow. She said nothing as she put some moisturizer and foundation over my skin, and I started to relax.
"You've got lovely cheekbones," she said. "You're lucky with your features—nothing too big or strong. Try some soft blusher and emphasize your eyes. Pink and black are good for you, and brown as it matches your hair. Now look up." She put some black eyeliner on me, and then mascara and smoky eye shadow, with shiny lip gloss.
"That's great—thank you!" I said. "I took the eyeliner and some eye shadow and went to the till. Laura stopped at the perfume stand, testing a few sample fragrances.
"This is nice. Hold out your wrist," she said. She sprayed something by Clinique onto it. "No, it doesn't work on you—too musty. Maybe this one." She tried a DKNY.
"I like that," I replied, smelling my wrist.
"Great! Get it," she told me, and I paid for everything.
"Now throw those away," insisted Laura, pointing at the old bag and shoes. I chucked them in the nearest bin, hugged her and went home.
The street harassment didn't stop, but it became less frequent as I became more confident, and I held up my head, slouching less. After a while, getting hassled felt like a surprise rather than an inevitability, and I felt angry at people for being so gutless, rather than depressed. They always heckled me in packs, or from passing cars, and the only single guy on the street to laugh at me had an angry-looking dog, which stopped me from head-butting him Zidane-style.
As summer turned into autumn, "passing" became easier: my makeup stayed on for longer, not running in the heat, and I felt less exposed as my coat and thick tights covered my flesh. One September evening, going home alone, I was jolted by a group of lads driving past.
"Alright darling!" they shouted. "Get your tits out!" They cheered and whistled as I carried on walking, trying to ignore them. Christ, I get shit if I don't pass and if I do? I suddenly remembered just how many times I'd seen or heard of female friends being propositioned in the street or grabbed in nightclubs.
One afternoon I went to the Clare Project, and decided to go for dinner afterwards. As we walked down St James's Street, a group of mostly trans women with a couple of trans men, I became conscious of just how many people were staring and shouting at us. I'd recently been to an old friend's wedding in Storrington, a village in West Sussex. That had been the first time I'd left Brighton as Juliet, and I'd been nervous, expecting to feel more conspicuous in a smaller, more conservative place. Nobody commented on my gender—perhaps people didn't notice, or just didn't care. Maybe it was faux middle-class politeness, and they'd just laugh behind my back. Or, possibly, those I encountered were so unused to meeting a trans person that they had no idea how to react. Here, in the queerest part of a city known for its LGBT population, people were looking for us. Spotting us was a game, and the prize was a chance to take out some aggression on a community that few would be prepared to protect.
You're lucky with your features—nothing too big or strong.
We got halfway down the hill. Convinced I was more easily "read" with the group, I walked on ahead. In particular, I thought Kelly, in her big hoop earrings, high heels and leather miniskirt, was making us stand out, and I tried to distance myself from her. I heard a smash. I turned: someone had thrown a bottle at Kelly. It had shattered by her feet. She was shaken; the others were holding her. I knew all too well how I would have felt if someone had left me exposed like that, and realized the abuse wasn't her fault for how she dressed. I walked back up the street, and checked that Kelly was okay. Perhaps we were more obvious together, but we were also stronger.
Later, I reflected: I would try to "pass" when alone on the street, and my gender didn't need to be an issue during small tasks like buying a newspaper, but otherwise I wouldn't try to hide who I was. After all, the whole point of coming out was to stop doing that, I explained to my friend Karin at a Queer Mutiny disco at the Cowley Club. We stood at the bar in 1980s-style dresses with lots of makeup: we thought we would catch a few eyes and make some new friends, but no one seemed to be saying hello to us.
"I think we're too straight for this place," she said. I remembered what Jet had told me at Bar Wotever: not to be too hung up on having trans or queer friends, but just to have friends. It wasn't realistic to expect to get on with everyone I met in "the community," however much I craved it. "Passing" in so many different spaces was a constant balancing act, and I accepted that I couldn't always get it right. Keeping myself safe and staying proud of who I was without being too desperate to please others seemed like a good start, even if I knew that maintaining such self-respect and composure under such intense provocation wouldn't be easy.