Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Can I Support My Newly Out Trans Friend?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time reader, first time (cis, female) writer. Recently my best friend in the whole world came out as a trans woman. I’ve known her for over 10 years and we spend most of our free time together. We’re your typical geek cloister: we live movies and comics and taking them way too seriously and having college-thesis level discussions on how media intersects with society, etc. I’m sure you know the type! I was so excited that she was finally leaning about herself and learning more about her true identity. I’m trying to be 110% supportive of her transition, but here’s the problem:

Now that’s she’s becoming a woman, I feel like I’m losing my BFF. Because the woman she’s becoming is this preening, pretty, make-up obsessed “girly girl” that I just can’t stand. Now, I don’t mean to s

t on any other fellow females who are into that scene – but its NOT ME. I’m NOT a girly-girl… in fact I’m pretty staunchly one of those women who is very outspoken by how “traditional femininity” is toxic and harmful. I hate how women are expected to adhere to certain beauty standards and are expected to wear make-up and do their hair to be taken seriously in almost any social situation – including job opportunities. I’m not against make up and pretty clothes on principal – but I do have issues when you’re not taken seriously as a woman if you’re not “made up” or skinny enough or adhering to a certain beauty standard.

But it seems with my friend – let’s call her K – is transitioning that’s what she’s obsessing over. She’s made changes to her appearance for her “every day” look that makes her feel more comfortable (she wears earrings, got a new hairstyle, paints her nails, etc) but whenever we want to go ANYWHERE where other people may be, she wants to be “dressed up” – and I mean to the nines. She spends about 2-3 hours doing her hair, make up, jewelry, fully co-ordinated outfit…even if we’re just wanting to grab a quick bite to eat or go catch a movie. She says she doesn’t feel “right” unless the outside world is treating her/recognizing her a woman so she’s become increasingly obsessed with clothes, shopping, make up, voice-training – basically all the trappings of “femininity” that makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little. And while I can understand how she wants to “feel like a real woman” and be treated a certain way in public – my issue is that it feels like she’s succumbing to every little thing about what women are “expected” to look like, sound like, and behave like that I find so disturbing.

If she doesn’t feel like a “real” woman unless she meets these mental standards of what femininity is in her mind – in my opinion she’s feeding straight into the toxic subculture I hate so much. And again, I don’t have a problem with girly-girls if that’s what they truly enjoy (women can look however they want to – as long as it’s what THEY want, and not because they are bending to some societal pressure imho), but what’s terrifying me is that I feel like I’m losing my best friend. I want to go back to being best friends who talk all day about Marvel and politics and space…. not bras, dresses, and make-up.

I know there’s a lot of stages to transitioning, and I’ve tried to talk to K a bit about this and she basically just says I’m being intolerant and that it’s not her fault that society treats women like they do (which is true, but I think by succumbing to their demands you’re feeding into it) and that she won’t ever feel like a real woman as long as other people see her a woman. I’ve tried to explain to K that she’s a woman regardless if she’s just in a t-shirt and jeans or all decked out for a night on the town.

Help? Am I being unreasonable by being so dodgy and uncomfortable about her new obsession over being a “pretty girl” or is she just becoming a new person that I may have to let go? The thought of losing my best friend is devastating, but I kind of feel like I already have.

Not A Girly Girl

DEAR NOT A GIRLY GIRL: OK, I’m going to qualify this with a disclaimer: I’m a cis straight man, so this is all coming strictly from my limited perspective. I will probably miss some angles here that will be glaringly obvious to someone who’s trans, genderfluid or non-binary. So, everyone please take what I have to say with all appropriate amounts of salt and my sincere apologies if I step wrong.

That being said: welcome to a complicated intersection of gender performance, trans acceptance, passing, feminism, beauty standards and a whole host of other issues. This is one giant-ass knot that’s very nature is going to defy any easy unpicking. But let’s start with the most obvious. Your friend is transitioning and – quite understandably – is wanting to be accepted as her gender identity by the world around her. As I’m sure you already know, there’s a lot of pressure for trans men and women to pass or measure up to an “acceptable” level of masculinity or femininity. There are plenty of people who will take any example of a trans woman not being perfectly femme as proof that she’s not “really” a woman. This is a world where people still feel empowered to talk about “chicks with d

ks” or making jokes about dudes throwing on dresses and calling themselves women in order to win the Olympics or sneak into bathrooms. That alone is going to put a lot of pressure on her to “be a woman” in a specific manner; it’s easier to “pass” and be accepted as a woman if you present a more traditionally feminine exterior.

On top of that, there’s the fact that while you grew up with the cultural ideas of “what is a woman”, K… didn’t. Not the same way you did or the way that I grew up with the cultural ideas of “what is a man”. For us, our gender expression is second nature, even if our personal values may or may not conflict with the culture around us. Your friend K is having to learn and adapt to these. Yeah, she’s always been a woman, but she grew up being taught how to be a man. She’s correcting the mistake now but it’s still going to be closer to learning a second language instead of using the one you grew up with. You’re fluent in “being a woman”; she’s still learning. There’s going to be a lot of adjustment there and it may be easier to veer to the very traditionally feminine until she feels more fluent.

(Incidentally, if you want to see a great example of this from the other direction, writer, editor and podcaster-par-excellence Jay Edidin has written a fascinating series for MEL about having to learning how to perform masculinity as he transitions. Check it out.)

She could also be experimenting with just who she is and starting off at one extreme for a while and may decide she doesn’t want to be as girly later on down the line as she gets more settled into her life. She may decide that she isn’t as concerned being femme and could adopt a more androgynous or butch style.

Or she may just be really femme and likes feeling pretty. Gender performance does fall on a spectrum after all. Some people just like coordinating their outfits and making sure their hair and make-up is perfect when they leave the house. For the first time in her life, she’s now in a position to get done up the way she’s always wanted to, so she’s indulging. It may be a permanent thing – the tiger’s finally off the leash – or it could be that it’s new and shiny and for right now it’s where her interest lies. It may well be like someone who’s suddenly gotten into a new TV show or a new diet or some other new part of their life that takes up 90% of their attention for a while.

Is it excessive? Maybe? Is it permanent? Dunno. It’s impossible to say.

For right now, I’d say give her some space and find herself. She may level out, she may veer in the other direction. It may help both of you if you introduce her to some people who are more into her style of femininity. This way, you’re not feeling like you’re getting dragooned into being her guide to a form of femininity you’re not crazy about and she’s got someone she can geek out about makeup and dresses with. That may take the pressure off and she’ll be ready to talk more about comics and politics with you again.

The thing to keep in mind is that this is probably the first time in her life she’s felt entirely her. This is an exciting and scary and possibly overwhelming time for her so she could really use her friends right now… even if you were wishing she wasn’t quite so girly.

Good luck.

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