“Presenting” is when a transgender person puts forth effort to project themselves beyond the mask they have been wearing. The mask is how we hide ourselves from others, to present means you are leaving the mask behind. Not everyone chooses to present as their gender, more comfortable in their mask and that is their right and makes them no less valid. I have worn my mask for 40+ years, I was ready to leave it behind and to present myself to the world as just me.
There are presentation mistakes that almost all transgender women do at first that can be improved on. When most of us transition, we do not have the luxury of early years of learning normal things like cosmetics or hair styling. Instead, as most of us are hidden during the teen years, we are learning things that our mask would need to continue being effective at hiding us. So, (for most of us) our formative years are spent doing what is expected of boys, taking sports, working on cars, etc. We did not learn to apply cosmetics or style our hair, shaping eyebrows, etc. I know this sounds like the most sexist thing, that girls can do sports and work on cars, and it is true. But when you create a mask, you build it along gender expectations. I posted a detailed list of things to purchase in my “The Cost of Being” series earlier in the blog, so I won’t go into the specifics. But I do want to point out the common presentation issues we all generally face when coming out. This by no means, suggests that you need to do any of these things to be transgender, being yourself is all anyone should aspire to.
“I say a little prayer for you
The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
I say a little prayer for you
While combing my hair now
And wondering what dress to wear now
I say a little prayer for you” – “I Say a Little Prayer” by Dionne Warwick
My first cosmetics attempt was trying on my mom’s lipstick and I panicked once I got it on, worried that it would stain my lips and it would be noticeable. I was all of 8 or 9 and there I was in the bathroom, close to tears that I might get caught trying to wipe off lipstick with toilet paper. With clothes, I could be very careful and remove them, hide them until I could return them and nothing was left in evidence. Cosmetics had to be left off, it took too much time to remove and some I learned belatedly, didn’t remove with simple soap and water.
Most of us don’t learn to use cosmetics until we are far older. When we apply it, typically we go too far and too much. In a lot of cases, we are trying so hard to hide shadow from a shaven face or imperfections that we don’t see the overall effect. We are a bit too heavy handed and don’t know what colors look good on us. This is our learning moment, we will make these “mistakes” like any young girl learning to use cosmetics.
I have learned, like most do, the same thing every girl eventually learns, less is more. Learning how to highlight your positive attributes and to camouflage your less flattering aspects without caking on makeup is the trick. Even when using concealer to cover facial hair shadow, using only what is needed and the right shade is best. I made the mistake of caking concealer on and not blending properly, so it looked as if I had the inverse of a 5 o’clock shadow, it was very light colored and in the shape of a beard, ending abruptly at just under my chin along the jawline. Looking back, I can’t believe I went out like that. But, it’s part of learning. Get the right shade concealer for your skin, get a blender sponge and go lightly and evenly. If you decide to get laser or electrolysis hair removal, then you can use markedly less concealer.
There is something I found out about nail polish when I was still wearing the mask full time, most men won’t know this at all. My wife had gone out of town for a school conference, my daughter was spending the night at a friend’s, I was alone in the house which was a rarity. I went through my wife’s dresses and found one that I liked and wore it. (I know it was wrong, this story is about the nail polish) I was feeling good in the dress, very feminine, so I decided to go against my rule and wear cosmetics. I put on tinted lip balm (all I had) and I went through the communal nail polish box that my wife and daughter openly shared. I found a really nice shade of red nail polish that looked like it had never been used. Here is the thing, red nail polish and some other colors are almost impossible to remove without some obvious telltale remnants, no matter how much you scrub with a cotton ball and acetone. So, I put on several layers of this very red nail polish and wore it most of the day. I decided to try another color as I had all night, and I tried to remove it and panicked a bit when the red tint stayed on my nails but mostly on my cuticles. I found a YouTube on how to remove stubborn nail polish, (putting cotton balls soaked with acetone on each nail and wrapping them in foil to hold them in place and leaving them for several minutes) and this did indeed work pretty well, though the cuticles still had red around them. Some colors of nail polish are stubborn, so if you aren’t out to your family or are planning on going outside, I suggest you test it on one nail first. I have found that my favorite color, lavender, removes very easily. By the way, the reason why the red nail polish looked brand new? My wife and daughter found they hated the color and it was too hard to get off. Lesson learned.
[Warning: Painting and removing polish, especially doing it frequently can weaken your nails very quickly. I use a nail polish remover that strengthens and I take Biotin at 5000mg daily, my nails are doing well now.]
Being the lucky woman, I am, I had my wife and daughter there to show me tricks and explain how to use a lot of the cosmetics. But YouTube is a great resource not only on applying them, but reviews on the brands. Everyone has their own style using cosmetics, find what fits your style and comfort level, practice makes perfect!
“Darlin’, give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer
Here, baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair” – From the 1968 musical “Hair”
I am pathetic at hair styling. I am horrible and terrible to my hair. When I left the military, I let my hair grow long, but as I was still presenting male, I just put it back in a ponytail, slicked back. Otherwise, my hair has always been neatly short or way too short. So, consequently, I never learned to use a blow dryer and brush to any good effect. I currently wear a wig when I go out. I love the way it looks and that it holds its style. However, as I said in an earlier post I am letting my hair grow out and it is now at my collar, though my “bangs” are a bit shorter. I pretty much brush it like a man, parted and swept back and then heavily hair sprayed until it stays because it is in that unmanageable stage for me. I have thick, curly hair, which sounds great unless you don’t know what to do with it. I am growing it long, I am hopeful that it will just look long and I can brush it a lot and lightly spritz it with hairspray or something. I honestly don’t know what to do with it in the meantime. I have been going through YouTube, which is a good resource, but I honestly think you must find a hairdresser you can trust and that won’t have issues with you being transgender and put yourself in their hands to make you look good and tell you how to style it. Don’t be Frenchy, you should never put yourself in a position to have “Beauty School Dropout” sung at you by Frankie Avalon.
That said, what if you have trouble growing hair or have problem bald spots? Testosterone is not kind to many of us and an excess of T can cause baldness. There is medication to help generate hair growth, I know several trans women who are going through this now. There are varying degrees of success with this, but I think that for it to work there must be working follicles. Also, wigs are great, I love mine, the drawback for me is that they are hot. Also, there are times where I feel disingenuous wearing it. It’s not a legitimate feeling, just like wearing breast forms, it is the same for cis women, sometimes it is just needed to help complete the look. My advice is that if you have problems growing hair or bald spots or just don’t want to do it, invest in the best wigs you are able to. Wigs are a lot like wine, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s good. If there is a wig shop available, I suggest going there and letting them help you. It’s better if you can try them on and see how you look in them and how they fit. They can also help you find a wig based on the level of care you can give it, if you want to style it, etc. If you don’t have a shop, like me, then the internet is your friend. Do your research, Hair type (synthetic vs human hair), hair textures (straight, curly, etc) and just as important but often overlooked by those new to wigs, is the “cap” (monofilament, lace front, etc). These combinations, if chosen carefully, can give you a comfortable and complimentary wig that will you forget you are even wearing. It took me a few misfires before I found a wig that fit my face, had the right color and style. Even my closest friends complimented me on my hair and were stunned when I told them it was a wig.
“My milk shake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they’re like,
Its better than yours,
Damn right its better than yours,
I can teach you,
But I have to charge.” – “Milkshake” by Kelis
There is an inclination, like with wigs, to go without these as it can feel like you are trying to trick people. It just isn’t true at all, had you been a cis woman and had a mastectomy then you would likely wear breast forms for one reason, it fills out your form. That is the reason to wear breast forms if you don’t have breasts, to give continuity to your form. I was given great advice by a friend of mine, Avril , who is cis, but her wife is trans, “don’t go too big, fit your frame and don’t wear underwire bras with breast forms as they will look odd”. I’m paraphrasing, but it was great advice! I am not a small woman, I am 6 feet tall and I am a bit overweight (not telling), so I went with breast forms that are C cups, I could very well have gone with D or DD cups, but the C form felt comfortable and natural.
With breast forms, I highly suggest getting the best quality you can afford, and made of silicon if you don’t have allergies, look for the most natural forms you can find. Those with narrow bodies can look like you put soup cans in your bra. I prefer the forms that have a nice edge taper to my body so that it looks as natural as possible. The better it looks before the bra, the better it will look when it is in the bra. Unless you have a bra that is made for forms, with pockets that hold them, you will want to use an adhesive. The bra itself is not going to keep your forms in place for very long, they will shift and get wonky, which will result in some embarrassing moments of trying to shift one of them out of a bra cup that now has two in there. I learned early on to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS for the adhesive. Most body adhesives have specific instructions for use and almost none of them allow for apply and wear immediately. The ones I use, a medical adhesive and a popular brand, both require that you apply to the forms and wait 15 minutes or until tacky, then apply to body and hold. My trick is to do just what the instructions say, but when applying, put a slightly tight bra on to hold them to you while you put on your cosmetics. When you are done with your makeup, your breasts will be set. I have even worn them without a bra throughout the day, as they are very natural looking and have a nice bounce to them. The medical adhesive is very good for keeping them right in place as long as you read the instructions. Also, if you use medical adhesive, get the remover or you can end up causing serious skin irritation trying to remove them or damage the forms.
In picking bras, as my friend Avril said, choose a non-lined cup or a comfort bra that is without an underwire. I have found that the best bras are those without padding and hard support, it allows for some support and yet lets the forms move in a natural seeming way. I tried with an underwire once because it was the only clean bra I had at the time and it was not good. The wire pushes up against the form and moves it awkwardly and sometimes peels it away from your skin, it certainly doesn’t look natural under clothes.
We all have different experiences with HRT, even though I am older (48 this July, ugh) my breasts are reacting very well to HRT. They have already become a B cup in three months, though they are sore as hell, and I am able to go without breast forms. I can now just wear a pushup bra to generate fullness and cleavage.
“Dress me, I’m your mannequin
J’adore Vivienne habillez-moi
Gucci, Fendi et Prada
Valentino, Armani too
Merde I love them Jimmy Choo
Put it all on me
Don’t you want to see these clothes on me” – “Fashion” by Lady Gaga
Nothing makes me feel self-conscious quicker than being over or incorrectly dressed for a situation. Learning how to dress is as important as the clothes you buy. I love dresses, I simply love-love-love a good “A-line” dress, but they aren’t always the fashion for the occasion. For instance, an evening A-line would be out of place at a baseball game. There is no problem in being a trendsetter or in being the belle of the ball, but if you don’t want that attention, then learning to dress appropriately to the event is crucial.
I would love to tell you that I am a fashion maven, that I have all the answers and that I always know the correct way to dress and impress. I don’t. My wife has a fashion sense I have always liked and her youngest sister wears the cutest outfits I wish I could get away with. I have a fair sense of fashion, though I am learning a lot along the way. Find your style, it will likely be trial and error, don’t be afraid to try new colors and fabrics. I was a dour “man”, I wore mostly blacks and I stayed within polo shirts and jeans. I was trying to hide, not draw attention. Now, as me, I wear lavender’s, tans or browns and creams, even some oranges and pinks, depending on the outfit. Experiment, but be thrifty, if you think buying close in a men’s area is expensive, then you are about to embark on some truly horrifying sticker shock. I suggest first, go to thrift stores, they are wonderful for finding fun clothes to experiment with. A thrift stores low pricing and eclectic collections will help you build a nice starter wardrobe. And if you decide to do some alterations and they go awry, you will have little reason to cry in despair so hard your cat will run for its life and hide under your all too often-unused treadmill, again.
Once you have found what you like, then you can try upscaling your wardrobe, but do this carefully. As many of us have found and as every woman will attest, unlike male tailored clothing, those designed for woman have many sizes that make little sense and vary from designer to designer. If you go to Cato’s, for instance and buy a blouse, then go to Maurices for a similar blouse of the same size, likely both will fit differently. I have favorite styles and designers because I know how they fit me and that I like them. You will develop this over time, but it should not stop you from venturing out to different places and designers to find new loves. I love eShakti dresses and I only found them by browsing dresses on Amazon and taking a chance with one of their dresses. Now I just love them and look forward to new ones. [I don’t get anything for mentioning businesses on my blog]
Again, if you have a place you feel comfortable, try on things, don’t be victim to your masks attitudes, not asking for directions, throwing away unread user manuals, or not trying on clothes before buying them. It is best to go into the store, if you feel comfortable, and getting real help from real people. Try the clothes on and ask for the shop persons advice. Most of them are not working on commission and will give you an honest appraisal. If not, you are in the wrong store.
If you are not comfortable in a shop, online storefronts are your friend. Though you cannot try on the clothes, you can read the reviews and tell if a particular item runs true to size, small or large. If the online store, like Amazon has the option, ask questions, usually someone will come back with an answer. Also, be a good person and respond in kind if you know the answer, or give good detailed reviews based upon your experience, it helps us all.
I have been putting this off, but we need to go over it… Shoes. I hate shopping for shoes, not because I don’t love the look of a slingback 2-inch pump, or flower-pattern crocheted flats. I love shoes, but I have this attachment to my brain, called a body and that body is stupidly built like a male, so much larger feet than most women. I wear a size 11 ½ in men’s shoes. The conventional wisdom is that you should go 2 sizes up from male to female shoes. So, if you wear an 11 male, you should go to a 13 women’s. Also, you have to watch your width, as most male shoes are wider than women’s. Again, the industry for womens fashion loves to play it loose with sizes, that includes shoes. Some say they are 12 when they are more an 11, some are 12 when they fit at a 13. (going to tell you to go into a store and try them on in.. 3.. 2.. 1..)
You should go into a store and try them on, so that you can get measured and try on different shoes to see how they fit, what widths you might need as well. Again, I know, most aren’t comfortable doing that, I get it, so go easy on your first couple of pair, find some inexpensive flats on amazon and try them out, see how they fit. DO NOT go right to the 5-inch heels, what are you crazy?! You will break an ankle. Start out slow and work your way up to these things. Heels are uncomfortable for most and they can take time to learn to walk in them. I started with flats, and then booties with 1-inch heels, I have a pair of 1 ½ inch heel pumps (the slingbacks) I love but rarely wear. So here is the deal with heels, I love the way they make my legs look, très féminin. However, if you are 6ft tall, then you just added almost 2 inches to your height. It doesn’t sound like much, and if you are alright with that, then great! But if you don’t want to be the tallest person in the crowd, heels should be low to flat. I love my booties and my pumps, I cherish them, but they draw attention like a spark in a gunpower shop. I don’t know why you would have a gunpowder shop, that sounds dangerous and a niche market, but you get what I am saying, lots of attention. As in all things, do what you like and what makes you comfortable. Wear what you like when you like and never let anyone tell you to wear things more age-appropriate. You have one life, live it damn it.
A few parting thoughts, and it has nothing to do with presenting. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, we are all human and mistakes help us learn. Don’t be afraid to be you, life is finite and short, be brave, be courageous. This secret you hold inside may seem like it’s saving you, this mask may feel like it’s hiding you, but they are both drowning you very slowly. Learn to truly trust others, find those that are trustworthy and share yourself, that is the only way to reach the air. Time won’t stop for you, it will keep marching on in a never-faltering cadence, the less time you spend hiding is more time you can spend truly living. You are never truly alone, we are all out here in the world. You matter.