I just came back from witnessing Nina Arsenault’s deeply evocative monologues about her transformation into a bombshell beauty. She definitely demonstrates that the measure of a woman isn’t her cup-size, the length of her eyelashes or hair, her waist-to-hip ratio, or the tone at which she speaks. It is her soul. Nina embodies this message in her candid honesty about her journey. And tonight, for a solid two hours, I had the privilege of seeing hers. I hope someday that she privileges me a second time by reading this journal entry, in which I attempt to explore and express how I experienced her story tonight — how I experienced plural intersections between us.
Despite heading in opposite directions, Nina and I have been moving in the same worlds for the entire course of our lives. Because of the vector of our respective movements, without a cable television connection, I’d have never been exposed to her. And I have little doubt that because of our opposing momentums, she has yet to hear about me for the first time. Regardless, there has always been something about Nina that captivated me. She has always carried herself through public life with such a profound confidence, that it has persistently humbled me. It was with that humility that I silently stepped into the theatre tonight and took my seat in the very upper right corner of the orchestra seating. It was with that humility that I let every urge to cry overwhelm me until the tears were streaming down my face. There was so much love in that room tonight, I can’t even begin to form an adequate gesture of it.
Nina’s monologues began in her childhood, with a photograph of herself at 5 years of age, with the words “sex/object” printed across it. I knew immediately what that meant to me, and suspected it might mean the same to her too. In her monologues about seeing perfect feminine beauty in a mannequin and in erotica, I heard myself affirmed. I heard her speak to an embedded societal obligation on the part of all women (starting when they are young girls) to measure their femininity relative to the unattainable proportions of still life — mannequins and magazines. I heard her speak to how women tend to experience this differently than men tend to. The way some women gaze upon the immutable curves of a department store mannequin and subsequently look at or touch their own, in unforgiving contempt, in the change rooms just a few feet away. The way some boys (and ultimately, some men) gaze upon the airbrushed shapes on the glossy pages of erotica, and act out in violent gestures against the women inside; tearing, cutting, burning, and mangling the paper.
There’s also something to be said about how most men will tend to observe that mannequin as unremarkable while observing women as well and experiencing their own gaze as entirely unremarkable; letting it wander amidst female-shaped objects however and where ever they see fit. And Nina’s feelings, seeing mannequins, magazines, and the difference in how men and women gaze upon each, sounded not unlike my own. I felt constantly inadequate in my body, and this drove me to overcompensate with a hyper-feminine gender presentation. But in particular ways that are unlike Nina’s experience, my attempts to overcompensate with hyperbolic femininity were radically unstable and I often interchangeably attempted to convey hyperbolic masculine presentation and methodically calculated androgyny. I was desperately attempting to soothe my self-hatred and self-objectification with what I felt I might look like if I were being more genuine. And yet, I wasn’t fully conscious of how deeply I had internalized the entitled male gaze: I had yet to realize myself as a Subject for the first time.
At this point, Nina describes embarking on the pursuit of a hyper-feminine gender embodiment. This feels simultaneously like a departure from my experience of a fractured gender identity (as I attempted to embrace gender-congruence), and a parallel to my experience trying to forge a new identity (by pursuing the same goal as she set out to accomplish). While she began using her wiles and sexuality to earn admittance to an operating room for the first of many times, I began using my wiles and sexuality to distract myself from self-hatred and gender dysphoria by fully embracing an identity as a Sexual Object. While she began to live as authentically as she dreamed of being from an early age, I began living as artificially as I ever have.
While Nina was privately tormented by how her body was shaped, I was privately tormented by how my body was shaped. While her curves became more exaggerated, so did mine. While she tried repeatedly to bury gender dysphoria, I tried repeatedly to unearth it in myself. What’s even more remarkable is that these experiences of ours literally happened on the same time line. She spoke of how people acted towards her, early on in her feminization, as though being visible in a public place during the daytime was either regarded as an act of bravery or an offence. This spoke to my experience, of being homeless at approximately the same time, when I was either invisible or my mere presence was an atrocity everywhere I went in public spaces.
A great deal of Nina’s monologues are also concerned with a distinction between Private Life and Public Life, or, presenting different parts of herself in different spheres. And in this respect, she is distinguished from me, in that the only privacy I had for a great deal of my life was in a bathroom. She spoke a fair bit about baring a false sense of confidence from recreational drugs that made her feel free from the anxiety she dealt with in private. I couldn’t help but think of the false sense of confidence I conveyed in public, like a façade that fell away in private, for the ten years I was modelling myself as a hyper-feminine Sexual Object.
There was a growing sense as I watched her speak, in which I feel her Private Life is directed entirely towards transformation, while her Public Life became more and more exclusively about performance as time went on and she began to live authentically as the bombshell she dreamed of being. Perhaps I am seeing parts of myself in her again, but I, too, have been in this place of increasing tension and sacrifice. Like the dichotomy between the Nina everyone sees in public and who she is in private, I too, experienced a dichotomous splitting of my identity. People only acknowledged the model I carefully crafted myself as, and I diligently buried the other part of myself as deeply underneath as I could tolerate. But unlike Nina, no matter how much it hurt, I never had or wanted the privacy to begin dealing with it. I wanted to pretend that the person everyone else saw was who I genuinely am in private.
I couldn’t recognize my Authentic Self in the mirror because he was buried under an artificial, hyper-feminine identity. Still, I told myself that it was less work to keep the public performance going, than it would be to convince everyone else that the person they think they see was artificial. And what I didn’t anticipate at all, was hearing Nina say these things too, about herself. After a great deal of her transformation had been accomplished in private, her public presence matched how she had always dreamed of being. It is at this point that she began describing what immediately sounded to me like anorexia athletica, driven by the tension and sacrifice of constantly putting on a performance of hyperbolic femininity. As she described the exhaustion associated with this condition, and the self-doubt it cast on her self-image, I recalled the constant fatigue of my metabolic disorder. As she described her body becoming emaciated, I remembered what I looked like 50 lbs ago (I am currently 165 lbs and don’t even look that heavy, at a well-distributed 5’9″). And as she took off her wig, I recognized in her, what I looked like with a shaved head.
I heard her finally put down the performance when she let go of her hair. This is when I saw her for the woman she truly is — when her soul laid bare and vulnerable. I saw a woman in grief. A woman with profound depth and a complex emotional make-up. A woman just as devastated by sexism as I have been. And I loved her with all my heart and soul, fighting against the urge to stand up with the tears still streaming down my face, to pour myself out to her while she continued her final monologue. She was speaking about the same struggle for self-acceptance that I am now immersed in, for different reasons. I wanted to tell her, looking her in the eye, that the measure of a woman isn’t her cup-size, the length of her eyelashes or hair, her waist-to-hip ratio, or the tone at which she speaks. It is in her soul.