Gender / Personal Is Political

Photo Project: Obsessive Self-Portraits

Two years after my last attempt to throw my life away, and a year and a half since I came out as trans and genderqueer, I decided to commit to doing a photo project. This journal entry concerns a description of that project–of why I’m embarking on this journey alone, instead of just getting someone else to take the photos for me while I direct them through my creative vision.

Ultimately, the most immediate aspect of why I choose to do this photo project alone is because I have unending patience and comfort with being by myself. I’ve been using myself as a test subject for photographic technique for years now, but the time has come to compile a collection of deliberate self-portraits. My self-portraits are usually generated by a completely obsessive repetition–often requiring at least one mirror as a visual aide–the greatest challenge is often just to capture a photo that is clearly in focus. I’m convinced that the only person in the world with enough patience to endure this repetition for the photos I seek of me is myself. But I’m also the only person I can trust to hold a lens 2 cm away from my eyeball, pointing directly at my navel, or resting on my chest to get the angle I seek on my hip while I’m injecting testosterone straight into my leg.

But another part of my motivation comes from an effort to capture and hang onto my own emotions. Because they are part of who I really am, and because they have been absent for so long in my life until recently, only I am fully conscious of how important it is to me, to be able to cry and stay in that moment of overwhelming sadness or joy. I am, in a sense, simultaneously exploring my not-yet-fully-stable identity and the innumerable fractures and faults that represent my mental health history. I am trying to build a map of my emotional landscapes, as I am sure they are in there somewhere. If I look hard enough, I know I will find them. And if I try hard enough, I know I can share them.

This project is also inspired by a relatively recent flood of insight, precipitated in part by my last suicidal gesture. I made a bid for my own death when, in the end of 2009, I literally put my body into the hands of a complete stranger. I was trying to throw my life away, and instead, was raped and sodomized before being abandoned in a random location. I didn’t speak, look down at my body, or look at myself in a mirror for two days. I found information online associated with the pseudonym my perpetrator had given me, that suggested that if I had fought back, I might have been beaten, had a gun held to my head, or a knife held against my throat to subdue me–that he had done this to other women he has raped. I told my psychotherapist at the time about this event and the allegations I had found about my perpetrator, and didn’t tell even a syllable of it to anyone else for two years.

I am still grieving because of this event. That night changed the way I look at myself–it brought me to terms with the fact that my body is mis-sexed, and that embracing an identity as a woman literally drove me to suicide. Only one person other than myself, my perpetrator, and my psychotherapist at the time (now retired) knows the full details of this event. That night also taught me that I am a survivor–it affirmed my warrior nature despite the role that my masochistic nature played in getting me there. Having my life handed back to me by someone who thought so little of it–of me–that it wasn’t worth the effort of extinguishing it, was the same gesture that put my life back into my own hands. I am now living, using that overwhelming sense of grief to express myself through art.

My decision to shave my head to come out as trans and genderqueer fully precipitated six months later (I had also removed a piercing from my body in the mean time, which made me feel the impulse to bind my chest down and never look at it again). I continued to shave my head for a total of a year and a half. Once my hair was gone, everyone I knew started treating me differently. The shower of remarks about my superficial appearance virtually ceased overnight. It was only when parts of my body were exposed to everyone in the room that people would approve of my body. But complete strangers also started treating me differently. It wasn’t clear to me until recently, but historically, women’s heads were shaved to publicly humiliate and shame them for certain behaviours that were generally frowned upon–but especially when women engaged in them. Contemporaneously, we continue to internalize the idea that a woman with a shaved head has violated an unspeakable social taboo, and this informs how we gaze upon them in public spaces. Perhaps, on an unconscious level, I shaved my head to express my shame and grief.

My insight into the public treatment of women’s bodies also precipitated out of a single conversation, with a woman who was unknown to me as a Muslim until the day she freely identified herself as such. Our conversation occurred mere weeks before my decision to shave my head. She told me that she wears clothing that obscures her figure, as an expression of her faith in Islam, so that what lies beneath is between her and Allah. So that, when she meets her husband and shares herself with him, it is that much more meaningful. In my entire life, I had never before been so moved and so humbled by how a woman spoke of such a publicly visible, but deeply private choice, about her own body.

Her insight shed light on how public my body has always been–that I was never taught to think of my body as sacred, and that, in addition to physical and sexual abuse and sexual harassment, I was constantly bombarded from as early as I can remember with images of scantily clad and nearly nude women in mass media. It made me realize too, that the Burqas Oppress Women ideology of the West is constructed on an assumption that Muslim women aren’t autonomous–that they are treated as child-like in different ways than the ways Western women are infantilized. It made me question whether or not I’ve ever really had a choice (while being forcefully gendered as a woman) in how I present my body in public, or how and when I wield my sexuality; and that process of self-interrogation helped me to come out as trans. Once the light was turned on, I would never be able to live in the dark again.

These experiences two years of my life have taught me the startling degree to which women’s bodies are treated like public objects–subjected to ongoing speculation, criticism, inspection, scrutinization, and fetishizing by all and sundry. This photo project is my deliberately visceral, completely unglamorous retort to my own history as a former woman. Being a woman (with or without hair) is nothing to be ashamed of. Women covering up or dressing scanty, just flirting or fiercely loving, are never simple choices for women; and do not dictate who or what a woman is.  No woman is an object. At the same time, my experience of womanhood was a prolonged, silent partnership of self-hatred and intense gender dysphoria, from which I am still recovering. This photo project is a depiction of the way I am–take it or get the fuck off my internet.

In the same vein as this recurring theme of gender dysphoria, I’ve recently decided to use this photo project to document my transition process as well. I am injecting intramuscular testosterone weekly, to masculinize my body. When I started this photo project, I had been injecting for just one month. As I am writing this, I am thinking about the dull  throbbing sensation that creeps down my leg for up to a couple of hours after each injection, as I just finished one before I began this journal entry today. I am also thinking about the many possible side effects: including headaches and increased risk of heart disease, facial hair and a deepening of my voice, a faster metabolism and a change in my body’s shape as my fatty deposits change consistency and location, among many others. These are things I don’t expect to be able to document, but time will tell.

I am a real, whole person; and I have feelings that run very deep. The album(s) I am creating will depict my journey, to the best of my ability, with unwavering honesty. My work on this series of portraits is entirely unedited.  You can follow my journey here.

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