Friday, January 3, 2014

Family Photos and the Value of Selfies as a Trans Person

A while ago someone decided to write an article slamming selfies as being anti-feminist.  I tweeted some about it, but I didn't write a whole essay at the time because that particular manifestation of the issue really wasn't about me and I didn't want to "derail it for the men" so to speak.  However, as somebody who does take a lot of selfies, I do want to explain why, because as a transgender person I'm well aware of the power of photos and how they shape and reinforce peoples' perceptions.

Like many trans people, my family is in the category of those who pretend to take it well.  This last holiday season was a parade of misgendering and depression for me because there aren't that many times people both are given the opportunity to talk about me in the third person (exposing me to the obscene number of times they refer to me as "she") and they try shoving me into watching endless family videos from when I was a child.  The latter, which is perceived as harmless family fun by everyone else, is particularly painful because of course when long-haired childhood me comes up everybody has to point and laugh.

At one point I went to a relative's house to find they had a sort of family-photo display with me and my brothers.  They chose recent, adult photos of my brothers to represent them, but literally hunted down an old female picture of me from somebody's Facebook account, printed it, and used that to represent me.  Bringing up that this is obviously an intentional denial of my current identity brings waves of defensive behavior from cis people.  The first time I pointed out to my mom that she was doing this she went on a rampage, saying "What am I supposed to do, burn all your old photographs?!"  The concept of "You can keep your old photographs but understand that this is not me anymore" flies right over their heads in a wave of false nostalgia.

Interestingly, "false nostalgia" is much more accurate than my cis relatives would assume.  When I identified as a woman, I identified as butch as well as a crossdresser.  To find reasonably feminine pictures of me as a woman is actually a very difficult task, as a good chunk of my photos once I grew to be a teenager are not that feminine.  So people wind up cherry picking this:
Even though around the same age I was more likely to look like this, where in case you didn't notice I'm actually binding my chest:
Now, it's important to recognize that in my case I'm not inherently bothered by old female photos of me (or I wouldn't be posting them).  I very much prefer the more pretty, dolled up pictures of me to the ones where I'm scrubby, unkempt, and scarred up from depression and self-harm.  Instead, what irritates the hell out of me is peoples' insistence on printing more and more old photographs of me to display... it's very clear to me that this is their way of pretending that I'm not really transgender.  It idealizes my past in a way that is extremely painful.

Unfortunately, "get new pictures of me" isn't always useful advice, either.  The problem is other peoples' cameras.  It's not so much that people who take these photographs are intentionally highlighting the features that make me dysphoric, because they're not.  It's more that the process of identifying which pictures to print, post on Facebook, or whatever is different, and so when other people take photographs there's a good chance I'll be barraged with requests to post pictures on my timeline that the photographer prefers because I look more feminine in them.

For instance, I've learned that "Oh, your hair looks so nice in this picture!" is a pretty good indicator that it's time for me to get a haircut.  From my parents, "your hair looks nice" directly correlates with when my hair starts getting long enough where I become more gender ambiguous.  There's a whole laundry list of traits that really make me uncomfortable that are sure to show up and be emphasized whenever people post pictures of me.

That's why I like selfies and why I like having some control over the posting of pictures taken of me.  It's a way to make sure the majority of pictures I encounter depict me the way I see myself without other peoples' girl-filter shoved all over them.  Selfies are a way to mitigate the self-styled family or friend paparazzo who finds such perverse pleasure in Facebooking everybody else's perceived flaws without regarding--or perhaps even understanding--the emotional damage that that can cause.

So with that said, selfies aren't "anti-feminist."  They aren't even that narcissistic.  They are a useful way of putting a vision of yourself out there that's based on you and not other peoples' interpretations.  If it's not going to be the whole story anyway, it may as well at least be MY story.