Don’t Judge A Girl For What’s Between Her Legs
By Ana Valens
One trans woman’s journey to avoiding the knife.
Content warning: discussion of transphobic messaging
President Trump’s election finally did it for a lot of trans women. They weren’t sure what health insurance would look like by November 2018, or if they’d even be able to go under the knife during the administration. So one after another, other trans women around me started signing up for consults to get gender reassignment surgery, just in case Trump’s repeal and replace plans left us without care.
The idea was tempting for me at first. I mean, wouldn’t it be great to finally have a pussy? Maybe having a vagina would feel nice. Maybe it would fix up some of my gender dysphoria. Maybe I’d finally get the chance to have some of the sex I’ve always secretly wanted, the kind that’s assumed in The L Word, the sort that’s depicted in queer zines and lesbian erotica.
I seriously considered getting a vagina for a long time. Except there’s one problem. I actually like the junk I was born with.
And I’m not in a particular rush to change it.
Let me start off by making something clear: Gender reassignment surgery is absolutely necessary for many trans people. For them, GRS is literally a life-saving surgery. So if you need surgery, go do it. If you want surgery, go consider it. If you’re simply curious about getting GRS, then be curious. Your body, your rules.
But not all trans people need nor want surgery. And for me, gender dysphoria — or the incongruency a transgender person feels between their gender identity and their gender assigned at birth — doesn’t start and end with whatever happens to be between my legs. Gender dysphoria is something that I experience beyond my junk. It’s about my body in its entirety, not just its genitals.
For a long time, I bought in to society’s ruthless lie-peddling about the “grossness” of trans bodies. As a result, I absolutely hated looking at trans women in pornography. How could a trans woman’s body be female if it was still “biologically male”? If a trans girl’s body was exposed to testosterone from the start, didn’t it still posses the telltale signs of being “masculine,” anyway? Didn’t it still have the wide shoulders, the chubby stomach fat, the narrow hips, and the flat chest we come to know and understand as a “male” body?
This was the message that our culture drilled into me. In some of my favorite TV shows as a kid, like The Simpsons and The Daily Show, transphobic punchlines regularly depicted trans women as ugly, disgusting, perverted men in dresses.
That disgust stuck with me through the very start of my transitioning. And during my first few months on hormone replacement therapy, those fears became directed (or perhaps redirected) back at my own body. I was worried that HRT would make my body freakish. I heard about other trans women’s penises atrophying, and I immediately felt fear and disgust at the thought of my genitals shrinking in size.
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I was afraid I would see myself with breasts and a penis and spend the rest of my life in sheer agony while looking at my body. The idea of penile atrophy grossed me out so much, I even wondered if I could go on living if it happened to me.
I was deep in self-hatred, and scared about the future. But there was no turning back — I knew if I didn’t take HRT, my gender dysphoria would grow from anxiety and depression into suicidal ideation. So as my first few weeks on HRT began, I wondered what I would look like as I continued taking estradiol.
And then something unexpected happened. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I started falling in love with my body.
I adored my growing breasts. I loved my soft skin, and how smooth it felt as I glided my fingertips across my cheeks. I felt feminine watching my blocky masculine figure turn into a curvy feminine frame. And instead of looking at my crotch with revulsion and disgust, I actually felt kind of amazing for having a clit. I started to cherish the body that was being reborn in front of me. It was the first time I actually liked how I looked.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I started falling in love with my body.
It was also the first time I realized that being transgender was not just cool, but special. There aren’t many women out there who can point to their bodies and say they have the same configuration as me, with my soft skin, round breasts, and the parts between my thighs. If less than 1% of the U.S. is made up of transgender women, then I’m an extremely unique person.
My personal transformation in turn helped me question the transphobia I’ve internalized. Trans bodies, contrary to what I’d been told, aren’t disgusting. They’re beautiful. Amazing. Symbols of self-determination.
I was incredibly proud to have one.
Like most personal narratives, this one isn’t tidy, though. One and a half years later, it’s still hard to shake society’s relentless and dangerous transphobic messaging. Some days, I feel horrendous about my body. I want it to change. I want it to conform with the rest of society. I want to feel cisgender.
And on some days, going under the knife sounds tempting. Like getting a vagina would fix a lot of my problems. But then I have to remind myself that surgery isn’t a magic bullet against dysphoria. Having a pussy doesn’t make someone more of a woman. Having a penis doesn’t make a girl any less of one, either. If HRT didn’t kill my dysphoria, then surgery certainly won’t.
Still, I feel programmed to think about getting GRS.
Maybe that’s because our society keeps regurgitating this belief that “womanhood” means “vagina” and “manhood” means “penis.” We even see this in feminist spaces, where movements like the Women’s March equate “pussy hats” with “women hats.” It’s society’s fault that I’m grappling with this issue, I realized. I’m being alienated by the outside world.
For trans women, vagina-centric rhetoric can be painful. But thanks to a kind stranger, my march experience was…theestablishment.co
Think about the stereotypical advertising campaign with an objectified cisgender woman’s body. There’s a message inherent to these campaigns brought forth by advertising executives: Cisgender women are beautiful, valuable objects worth obtaining. Buying our product will earn you sexual worth.
That message already feels degrading if you’re a cisgender woman. But when you’re trans, there’s an extra sting attached. Apparently, trans bodies aren’t even attractive enough to be showcased on enormous billboards in Manhattan. They aren’t beautiful enough to be shown on gym advertisements, in beer commercials, in music videos. Apparently, trans people are only sexy when the taboo of being trans is sexy. In other words, society thinks trans women are either asexual beings or sexually aggressive monsters. We’re only attractive when we’re porn kinks. We’re desirability politics in action.
Even non-objectifying advertisements, ones that treat women with respect, end up taking on a trans-exclusionary lens. Body-positivity ads largely focus on cisgender women’s bodies. Fashion companies put cisgender models front and center. Motherhood ads tend to showcase solely cisgender mothers. Menstruation ads equate cis womanhood with periods.
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The message is clear: Pussies are female. Vaginas are womanhood. Dicks, cocks, penises, members, those are all “male.” And never shall these these two streams cross.
Everywhere around us, the media puts out a unified front against trans women. It screams at us that cisgender bodies are the default bodies. And when trans people finally do appear in media, most of the time, we’re grossly misrepresented. Like Matt Bomer playing a transgender woman in Anything, or Dave Chappelle making sloppy trans jokes, acting as if we’re all just privileged white men in high heels.
Even LGBTQ ally Stephen Colbert has engaged in this damaging rhetoric. I can’t count how many times he’s used the word “tranny” as a punchline. He even joked about picking up “a tranny hooker,” saying he made a “mistake” because he’s “nearsighted.”
It’s no wonder I struggled so much with my body pre-transition; it’s no wonder why a trans person like myself would feel intense pressure to go under the knife.
When you’re despised by society for your most significant symbol of transness, your genitalia, changing it seems like the best solution.
Everywhere around us, the media puts out a unified front against trans women.
But in time, I’ve learned to ignore the noise. Because for me, surgery just doesn’t feel like the right choice. My transness, my womanhood, my sexuality, and my genitals are all interlinked. Taking away one would be taking away everything that makes up my sense of self. Every day, I tell myself to treat what’s between my legs with pride, because there’s no reason I should be ashamed of it. Trans women are too beautiful to be shamed. And if cis feminism has taught me anything, it’s this: Life is too short to let other people tell you what to do with your lady bits.
I’ve debated going for a GRS consult before my health insurance expires for a while now. I’ve even kicked around talking to a doctor next year, just to look at my options for GRS. Maybe I’ll change my mind and go under the knife. Maybe by this time in 2019, I’ll have a vagina. Anything’s possible.
But if I end up going under the knife, it won’t be to conform. It won’t be out of shame. It will stem from what I want to do with my body. It will be a choice I make, independent of society, that’s dictated entirely from my right to self-determination. If I get a vagina, it’s because I want one, not because others want me to have one.
As for now, I’ve made up my mind. And surgery isn’t in the works.