With Heart and Teeth is a radical trans* punk lady’s exploration of embodied selfhood wherein she takes voyages through the permeable boundaries of self and the ever shifting sea of identity. She claims investigation of self as a worthy venture and critiques social construction with the compassion and fierceness that inhabit her heart and teeth.
feature image via shutterstock
I have a mad fetish for mannequins.
I’m not talking about the mainstream (Freudian) definition of a fetish, wherein the fetish is explicitly erotic; I mean the hip, obscure (Marxist) form, wherein some value, beyond “use value,” is ascribed to an object/idea/whatever.
For as long as I can remember I have absolutely adored mannequins. Specifically, I’m left in gape-jawed, jewel-eyed awe of lady mannequins. Whenever I see mannequins with tits and angled postures my lungs expand quickly and retain my breath. Instantly, I start fantasizing about embodying the advertised outfit, living the suggested life.
This used to be the most frequent and doleful outlet for my trans* experience. Before transitioning the first time (yup, I’ve done it twice… three times if you count both directions), when I was too nervous to enter into a women’s clothing section for fear of discovery, I would consciously work to not pause too long when passing fabulous mannequins. Breezing past summer dresses, I would often find myself in the bittersweet position of being glad for the chance to bask but sad for the lack of opportunity to live. One of my favorite hobbies became shopping with the more feminine folks in my life, living vicariously through them.
But after transitioning and detransitioning to avoid violence, when I was hyper-aware of my transness and acutely afraid, I went mannequin shopping alone. I’d pick up a pack of Pall Malls — because what the fuck else are sad kids supposed to smoke — and get on a bus from my pretentiously punk west side apartment to a shopping district. I’d shamelessly window shop with sticky, sad smoke dripping from my intentionally chapped lips—girl, I did masculinity right.
Mannequins were living gorgeous, liminal lives that I wasn’t able to achieve. Ignoring the reflection of my beard in the large panes of glass, I’d stare. Unfortunately, I’d experienced a stark constellation of violence that left me feeling as if I could not live in a body that was visibly queer. So I’d chain-smoke cigarettes and pretend to be living whatever life the mannequin was living.
Eventually my pretending transcended outfits and fake lives. Their bodies were perfect – perfectly impossible. They were smooth in a way that I was not, and I don’t mean their skin, I mean their genitals. Their bodies were a perfect expression of how I imagined mine would be in some vague, impossible future.
When I was a young person being raised as a boy I was afforded the luxury of a Barbie – a Belle from Beauty and the Beast Barbie, to be precise. She, perhaps more than anyone/thing else, shaped my bodily desire. I would tuck back my dick in the shower as a child (a practice that continued until I no longer had a dick), wishing upon the brightest star that my body would be like hers someday. After being mocked by an older family member and packing my Belle Barbie into a trunk forever, mannequins became my only access point to this latent desire to have nullified genitalia. This desire, dripping hot wax, stuck to me, stinging my skin.
Later, or maybe always, who cares, this desire materialized, linked to an explicitly trans* desire. Like anyone else in Western society, my desires are shaped by an over-the-top capitalist consumer culture… desires are produced and sold, blah blah blah. When linked with sexism and homophobia, this capitalist creation of personal aesthetic needs inadvertently created some very difficult terrain for me.
Not only could I not live my life as a woman (at least not without the massive amount of harassment and violence that I endure to express myself in a way that feels comfortable), there was no way to achieve my bodily desires. This is true for most women, let’s be real, mannequin bodies are not readily attainable realities. They are a sexist fantasy that inscribes impossible ideals onto women’s’ bodies. But my experience is more pronounced than that.
Because these bodies were so long the stand-in for living my life in a way that felt good, they unintentionally constructed a truly impossible desire. Sure, if I found access to a veritable shit-ton of money, I could get genital reconstruction surgery, but I’d still be left with a body that only came closer to my personal ideal. Now that I’ve miraculously had that very surgery, I’m living with the reality of having a body that’s more near my desires but still not quite right.
I think that part of coming to terms with that reality is to recognize my desire as being located and produced in a particular social context. So often trans* folk are told that our desires are wrong, by the very same culture that enforces and creates gender. If and when we are “accepted” we’re told that our bodies should conform to a very narrow set of parameters. But the cultural construction of my gender was not so neat as all that, leaving me with a set of desires that mapped more easily onto the genital region of mannequins than of archetypal men or women. But, like all trans women, my genitalia are not the end of my experience.
The first time I wrote about this I was afraid to say what I’m about to say for fear of how it may be read: spending so much intense time fantasizing about becoming a mannequin left me wanting to embody myself in ways that are only tangentially related to my trans* status. The limitations of expression and marginal existence that I expressed via mannequins for so long left me wanting even more changes to my body.
I not only wanted a smooth, flat genital region, I often found myself wishing I didn’t have arms. Although this desire was/is experienced to a much lesser degree than my desire for bottom surgery, it was/is a parallel desire. When I look in the mirror I will frequently yearn for armlessness in the same way I used to earn to cut off my dick. I’ll hold my arms behind my back and feel the same relief that I used to feel when I tucked my dick between my legs. Somehow, this image is easier for me to interpret as “self.”
This desire may at first seem ridiculous, but I believe that’s because there is not a template for it to be understood. There is a specific, transnormative narrative that my desire for a nulloplasty maps onto, at least in some rough sense. People seem to understand my desire, because they’ve heard something vaguely like it before.
But this other desire is more marginalized. In fact, I’ve more often heard things similar to this desire from conservative humans who don’t think that trans* folk should have access to surgical care. It’s an “extreme example” that is tossed at us by people who believe we are doing nothing but “maiming” our bodies. This infuriating discourse is used to delegitimize trans* desires.
But this conservative argument is right about one thing: these two experiences are not dissimilar from one another, at least for me. They were both shaped by a particular culture. They are both desires that could only have been imposed onto my body. I am hyper-aware of where these desires join with material objects. I had been afraid to speak of this for fear of playing into a discourse that so often inhibits trans* peoples access to care.
But why could one be more legitimate than the other? Neither is based in any sort of “biological reality” (another conservative discourse that needs deconstructed). Just as the hyperbolization of height/weight/etc. in mannequins creates aesthetic desires that are difficult-to-impossible for all women, cisgender women notwithstanding; both of the desires I’ve gleaned from mannequins are similarly out of reach. Most women will never have Barbie’s proportions and I will probably never have a total nullo and will probably have my arms for quite some time.
Again, I worry about the implications of conclusions people could draw from this line of thinking. None of this is to say that trans* desires are wrong, or even that we need to create aesthetics based on “real bodies.” This would be a simple feminist solution that is so often gestured toward by activist communities. I do indeed want to cut against the top-down construction and imposition of corporeal desires while simultaneously celebrating desires to achieve the impossible.
My body would not exist without a history of people reaching for the impossible. All of the trans* women who came before me helped to create a world in which I was able to have the surgery I had, and although it is not exactly what I wanted, it has created more space for me to breathe in. I’m incredibly thankful to these women, exactly for their culturally constructed desires, because they made space for me to exist as I am. I only hope that the impossibility of my desire helps to make room for someone else to breathe a little on down the line.
About the author: Ellie June Navidson is a blogger, poet, workshop facilitator, dressmaker, and all around crafty radical. Last year, in 2012, Ellie was name as a Windy City Times 30 under 30 Honoree; this year, in 2013, she was named a Trans 100 Honoree. More essays and contact information can be found at her personal blog:invisiblyqueer.tumblr.com.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.