Recently, Snapchat, the preferred social media platform for people who know how to use the internet in ways that are frpankly baffling to me, released a series of filters that allows you to see how you would look as a member of the opposite sex. Kind of. Poorly. Look, it’s not that good, and it’s poorly executed, but it was something that took the online world by storm for the 24-hour period that stupid things tend to live on the internet for. It also lets you see what you would look like as a Meerkat. Which to be honest is something I’m much more interested in
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I tried this. I have taken, and posted, a picture of myself with the male filter on. It does not look like me at all. Well, the former me. The thing about this was that I recall taking a picture, and that moment while you wait for the filter to apply and the concern sets in of “will I see my former self looking back at me?” What I saw was best described as the human version of Homer Simpson, but still. The concern was there. The female version of the filter really only added some smoothing effects and glitter and whatnot, which is all any algorithm can think to do to make something Girl. Which is extremely telling of where we place our expectations on being a woman. Only the most glittery and smooth among us shall stand. The meerkat filter was spot-on, as far as meerkats go. So, mission accomplished?
For trans folks, this app isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen or done before. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, but I used to use the ever-loving hell out of an app called FaceApp before, and during the early stages of, transition. FaceApp allows one to see what they would look like as the opposite sex, with different hair, makeup styles, glasses, etc. I used to use this to gauge what I would look like as a woman for years before I transitioned. It allowed me to see behind my beard and disguise to look for who I was really trying to find. This is of course selling yourself a bill of goods. This doesn’t allow you to see yourself but provides an idealized version of self. It also operates in an extremely binary way of beauty and gender. Men look like handsome, rugged, withered in that sexy way people with full beards and full hair are supposed to look, according to most advertisements. Women are soft and glitter and pretty and demure. I get we’re not going to get nuance through a free app with in-app purchases, but when you’re searching for answers the binary is hard to look at. It’s hard to look at an idealized form of beauty and figure out how you’re going to get there. In the later stages of this transition I use FaceApp to see if I’ve tricked the algorithm yet. When it sees a photo of me, who does it see? When it asks if I want to flip genders, which one does it default to? I’ve gotten woman more than once now, which fills me with a sense of pride, but also concerns me that it’s reading me for the same defaults. Can it tell I have makeup on? My hair is longer now, my face softer.
This is all a long road to bring us back to Snapchat, a sentence I never thought I’d write and yet, here we are. Now, to preface all of this, this is not to cast shame, blame or anything upon anyone having a fun with these things. A lot of friends, ally’s, etc were posting themselves with this filter. A lot of “LOL, look what a hot chick I would make” or vice-versa. This is, again, all well and good. But, and you knew there was gonna be a but (spoiler: there’s always a but), you may have noticed trans people in your life taking issue with this. It’s not that we’re mad at you, just disappointed at the execution.
It’s difficult because this all becomes a bit of a game at some point. A cultural thing that everyone is taking part of and having a fun time with. But here’s the rub; I don’t get to play this game with the same set of rules. The conversation surrounding it is that of playing with gender. Playing being the operative word I suppose, as it’s all in good fun. I understand this, I get “fun”. I also can completely understand how doing something like this, playing gender in this way, is fun for people. I can appreciate the feeling of “oh this is how I would look as X gender, isn’t that something”. But now, as an exercise, imagine you’re a woman. Now, imagine you look like a dude in a lot of places that allow people around you, but most importantly your brain and your eyes and your brain eyes to look at you at think “ehhhhh, not quite”. Imagine there was a filter that added glitter and smoothness and airbrush only to have to face yourself in the mirror, or bus shelter glass, or really any reflective surface you happen to catch yourself in. Imagine the severe disconnect between these two things. I don’t get to play the game the same as everyone else because the same endgame doesn’t exist for me. I don’t get to see how I could look, or how I did look, and revert back to zero. I exist now in this endless world of possibilities and what-ifs that don’t relate back to the real world.
This is because dysphoria. And dysmorphia. Two different things that get confused for one another. Dysphoria, more specifically gender dysphoria, is a fundamental disconnect. It’s my brain, my heart and and most of my soul living with the express knowledge that I am a woman, but my body working directly at odds with that. Dysmorphia, dysphoria’s mean older sibling that throws rocks at you while you’re already crying, is your brain eyes looking at your body at not processing what it’s seeing. It lies to you about what you’re seeing and misinterprets the data on its way back to you. It’s like a cursed camera that uses funhouse mirrors designed to only see the things you either don’t like about yourself, or that you think exist but really don’t. Dysmorphia destroys me. Some days it doesn’t allow me to like myself to the point that I won’t leave the house, or if I do it takes hours of courage. I have to psych myself up, I have to avoid mirrors whenever possible (vampire rules) and cover all the things my brain tells me are wrong with me, and it’s not a simple “oh I don’t like how I look in these jeans, or my skin looks flawed here” it’s an anxiety riddled attack, that keeps me rooted in place. It is so hard to describe how difficult it is to manage your own body when you don’t get a say in how you perceive yourself.
Sounds fun, right? Some trans folks suffer from both, all, or the truly lucky ones – none of these. Some cis folks too, suffer from these things, dysmorphia especially. We’re all in this together, society and capitalism work in tandem to ensure we never like ourselves just enough to keep throwing money at the problem. But it can’t be stated enough that the rules of engagement are different for trans people than they are for cis folks. It can be triggering for trans folks to see cis people so easily play with their gender, because these two demons we keep at bay don’t allow us to be so free. It’s a mix of jealousy and sadness that leads us to this place, that makes me feel uncomfortable when I see people so freely add glitter or grit to themselves, laugh about it, and know that they are who they are underneath regardless. I apply a filter and see things that I will never attain in this life, and the inverse shows the world I left behind. There is no filter for the middle ground, no amount of smoothing or light leaks can accurately describe what it is like to be trans, no matter how hard we sell playing with gender. And that’s what we’re doing now, we’re selling and marketing playing with gender, just like we market queer content to be palatable to straight people we’re finding ways to commoditize gender expression. We allow people to play this game of “hey, me too” while not really providing context for how it feels to be in the game every day.
And look, I’m happy that we’re at this place societally that we can pay with gender in public like this. I truly am. When I was younger, I felt like this wasn’t acceptable. Had there been a filter I could apply to my life in the 80s and 90s that made me look more femme, I’m not sure I could have done it. It wasn’t considered playful; it was something that would bring violence into my life. So, I lived and grew under that oppression. Expectations are a hell of a bedfellow; they tend to create issues and problems where there are none. Surely, there were people that played with gender and expression when I was growing up, but they had the express backing of being themselves comfortable in their gender. And therein lies the rub, it’s easy to play with gender when it’s seen as acceptable to do so. Cis folks playing with gender is Brave, Bold, and a cause for admiration. Trans folks expressing themselves as they feel everyday face violence, derision, exclusion. We’re stared at in public. Laughed at on the bus. We’re not a filter, we don’t get the luxury of being brave, we carry the weight of the game every day. Because it’s not play to us, it’s not fun to be trans, regardless of how hard we’re selling the idea of gender expression and variance being fun and exciting and trendy at the moment. This isn’t to say it’s not beautiful, affirming, and rewarding to be trans. This I truly believe, being trans is something I’m proud of. I wouldn’t want to be anything else, nor anyone else. I look how I look, and while sometimes that makes me not want to leave the house, I love myself all the same. But sadly, my life is not something that is a fun online experience. Most folks can turn the filter off and resume their normal lives. I can choose two modes: go backwards and be unhappy with myself or leave the filter on and face the slings and arrows.
Unless you choose meerkat. Everyone loves a meerkat.