self reflection

I Thought I’d Make a Handsome Man. I Was Wrong.

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

“You can do anything you like, just make it look deliberate” says my older brother as he hovers over me, a pair of scissors in one hand, a razor in the other. He snips at my beard for a few minutes before stepping back to reveal my face in the bathroom mirror. It took me three years of monthly testosterone injections to grow my facial hair. And now it’s nearly gone.

He’s right; it looks more deliberate. It’s less scraggly around the edges. I no longer have a jagged neck beard hanging out under my face like a patch of pubes. Less pube-y — that’s apparently the best I can hope for when it comes to facial hair. Great.

Going through female puberty was a living nightmare for me. First puberty for most transgender people is pretty traumatic. It feels like your body betrays you every day in new and terrifying ways. The first time I put on a bra I wanted to tear my hair out. I vomited later that day and hid the bra under my bed for weeks before I could stomach putting it back on.

But male puberty seemed like another story. To wake up one morning tall and muscular, my jawline chiseled and dotted with scruff, my voice cracking as I tried to speak — that was the dream, an actual dream I had more than once. As an unhappy girl child, I longed to wake up one morning and be jacked, the kind of big guy that most little boys look at as the paragon of masculinity. I dreamt of washboard abs and big biceps, of a body that looked the way I felt.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” says my endocrinologist as he hands me a prescription for testogel, a topical testosterone cream I am to rub into my gut every morning. “Well, your muscles will get bigger,” he says, “that’s all the science we’ve really looked at.” I’m a human guinea pig, I think, then swallow the feeling, to be dealt with in a later panic attack. “Can’t wait for big muscles!” I tell him, smiling wide.

I came out as trans a whole two years before I did anything surgical or medical to my body. I told myself I was being responsible — not rushing into things, not changing everything too quickly. At the time I was most afraid of what might happen if I took hormones and ended up unhappier than before. But in truth I was being responsible for other people’s feelings about my transness. I was waiting for them to catch up with me before I did anything too “radical.” I didn’t want to lose anyone I didn’t absolutely have to.

There are a lot of things no one tells you about second puberty when you start hormones. They do tell you about the menopause (it’s coming) and hot flashes (more like brief, unplanned excursions to the surface of the sun) and possible cancers and complications (all a terrifying blur). They say that maybe your heart will get bigger, like the Grinch, and maybe it won’t; maybe you’ll grow an inch but don’t count on it. Some people say their hands and feet get bigger, some say their skin feels different, some report that they cry less frequently, and some people’s uteruses just fall right out of them (fodder for further panic attacks).

But they don’t tell you about all the invasive questions (How do you have sex and with whom? Are you possessed by a demon? How do you pee?) and that even the people you thought safest will ask the strangest things. They don’t mention that the hot flashes are hot enough to have you outside in shorts during a snowstorm.

No one ever talks about the in-between days when you’ve still got boobs but now also a thin mustache and a chin strap coming in thick, and your government-issued ID looks more like your cousin or your sibling. Cops don’t give you tickets because they don’t know what to say, and you look just enough like a white guy to not be worth the trouble.

When I started hormones, I had a vision that it would be like that scene at the end of Beauty and the Beast. A part of me would die (the ugly, beastly part) so the rest of me could be reborn into the body of a handsome prince, a golden Adonis awakened into manhood by the kiss of a fair maiden.

The important part there is probably the fair maiden bit. Sure, it would be nice to be jacked like the Rock, but I think the most important thing was to be visibly, undeniably male. To be read by women as a man, a desirable man, would mean that I was passing as someone not trans. I wanted my handsomeness to hide me.

I got hairier, I got thicker, more Beast-like. My muscles grew — but all of the fat in my body regrouped over my stomach, so it was a much less impressive transformation than I envisioned. And now I have a beard, a strange straggly thing I can barely control. It saps all the moisture from my face and varies in thickness so I can never seem to clean it up just right.

Male puberty didn’t make me heart-stoppingly handsome, but it did make me able to smile in pictures again, to look at myself in the mirror, to put on clothes and go out into the world. Most of us aren’t as good-looking as we’d like to be (or as good-looking as our mothers say we are), but there’s something especially painful about cisgender standards of beauty when you’re stuck in a gender that doesn’t belong to you. As a girl, I was always being told to reach for a standard (Get thinner! Have a better fashion sense! Do cuter things with your hair!) that felt impossible. A perfect six-pack is probably impossible for me (I like pizza too much), but now when I workout or put jeans on I feel like I’m at least reaching for something that’s closer to the truth.

“You look — well you look like you now,” says my younger sister, who works in fashion, when I ask her on the phone. “You just looked uncomfortable before, like you always wanted to take something off.” I don’t disagree.

I regret a lot of things I did in my teens and early 20s — drunken college nights and so many girls I ran away from because I was stupid and scared. I regret not liking myself more and treating myself better and not taking myself more seriously. But I’ll never regret transitioning, even if I am just a mediocre-looking dude.

I Thought I’d Make a Handsome Man. I Was Wrong.