I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of makeup as warpaint. It can be a kind of disguise, a metaphorical suit of armour you can hide behind when you’re feeling far from cute or confident.
I use makeup as warpaint quite a lot. If my eyes are smoky, my lips ruby red and my lashes thick with mascara, you can be reasonably sure that I’ve done it to distract from how I really feel. It’s not just the makeup. It’s my entire presentation. If I’m in a baggy top with bits of fried egg on it you know I’m feeling comfortable and confident in myself. If I’ve really dressed up it means that I’ve spent most of the day in a pit of self-loathing, that I’ve forced myself to come out when I don’t feel like it or because I’m scared of going somewhere new, or a combination of those things.
The makeup and the clothes enable me to get into character. The character is still Carrie, but it’s a more confident, more self-assured and a lot less frightened version of me. When I’m feeling scared or sad I can send her out as an advance party until the real Carrie feels safe enough to show up.
Sometimes I send her out because I want other people to see the right version of me.
I spend a lot of time being seen as the wrong version of me. I’m under no illusion that anybody looks at me and thinks “Oh my god! It’s the beautiful and talented actor Emma Stone!”. But I’m aware that a lot of people don’t look at me and see an overweight middle-aged woman either. They see the gender I was assigned at birth, the person I pretended to be, not the person I actually am.
I’m not making that up. It’s pretty obvious quite a lot of the time. It’s there when people stare openly at me on public transport, or talk about me in voices that aren’t quite quiet enough. And it’s there when I’m misgendered, when despite my best efforts I’m coded as male.
So sometimes I want to kick back against that. I’m naturally a jeans and baggy cardigan kind of girl, but sometimes I’ll go what’s called High Femme: ultra-feminine presentation, whether that’s a little black dress and red lipstick or something more suited to skipping through a meadow with a flower in my hair. When I do that I want to be seen, not as who I used to be but as who I am. And if that means turning the femme stuff up to eleven, so be it.
I was out with an old friend the other night, someone who’s been a strong ally since I first came out. I put a lot more effort than usual into my presentation. Part of it was because I was feeling pretty crappy and wanted to try and cheer myself up with a cute dress I’ve been meaning to wear for ages, but if I’m honest with myself a lot of it was because I wanted him to tell his wife later that “honestly, Carrie’s looking amazing.”
I’m so vain, I know. But I wanted him to report back because – and I remember this with the incredible high definition clarity of all my worst, most embarrassing memories – shortly after I started to come out, my wife and I went for dinner at his house. It was the first time I’d tried presenting as me in front of friends, and I realise now that I looked like an ironing board somebody had drawn a face on.
In the last three years I’ve learnt a lot about makeup, about clothes, about not looking like an ironing board with a face on it. At the time, I hadn’t learnt any of those things.
I felt good before I left the flat, but when I got to the pub I started feeling different, self-conscious. And it wasn’t until a friend at the bar asked me if I was on a date that I realised what it was.
The self-consciousness I was feeling was embarrassment.
I wasn’t embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for my friend.
I was embarrassed because, well, imagine people thinking you’re on a date with that.
This is what’s called internalised transphobia. Instead of being flattered or amused (We’re friends! I like women!), I’m ashamed and embarrassed. I’m ashamed and embarrassed because for most of my life I’ve been told that people like me are shameful and embarrassing.
As I’ve written before, this goes through the culture like the word “Blackpool” through a stick of rock.
One of the most famous scenes in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is when Carrey discovers he has kissed somebody who’s trans. This revelation causes him to throw up twice into the toilet bowl and then clean his teeth so vigorously he goes through an entire tube of toothpaste.
It happened in The Crying Game too, and in Naked Gun 33⅓. Horror at trans women is also played for laughs in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover Part II and in a particularly repellent example, in the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The “trans as disgusting trickster” trope is widespread on social media.
Still, it makes a change from portraying trans people as murderers.
It’s everywhere. Comedy gigs, TV shows, newspapers. A constant drumbeat of trans people are this, trans people are that, trans people aren’t really people.
You try not to let it get into your head but it’s like trying to stay dry in a monsoon. And it affects everything. How you feel when you’re out with friends, how you feel when you go to work, how you feel when you walk into somewhere you haven’t been before. It’s what stops you going to the thing you said you would go to, what stops you from swiping on anyone on a dating app because you don’t believe anybody could ever possibly desire you.
What I felt for my friend had nothing to do with how my friend felt. As I wrote earlier, he’s a strong trans ally and a good friend; he couldn’t care less what other people think. But I do. I try not to, but I do. The reason I’m so quick to assume what other people are thinking, so quick to feel shame and embarrassment, is because that’s what I think, because that’s what I’ve been told to think for so much of my life.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t think “honestly Carrie, you look amazing“.
I think “imagine being on a date with that.”