A pencil sketch of Amy’s face, with blotches of pink on the cheeks and lips.
I’m learning that beauty is both performed and bestowed. Credit: Amy J. Ko.

A profile in choosing beauty

Through the window
A wilting sky
The last light
Of a crescent day

It was flush
Heavy with notions
But lightly woven
A crystalline web

Inside a brilliance
But fleeting
A fragile home
For a pupa.

I’m no poet. But I do play with words, trying to express feelings for which I have none. I wrote the poem above a week after going in for a consultation for facial feminization surgery. This one 30-minute appointment about my flesh and bones triggered a wave of foreign emotions, about my gender dysphoria, about beauty, about risk, and about my identity, not just as a woman, but as a person. I wanted to nothing but hide and cry.

I chose the word pupa to cheer me up. I love words that are unexpected, that provoke, and that are silly. But as I lingered on it, I realized it was exact. As an adult, I have never been fully developed, since I suppressed so much of my self for so long. But I’ve also felt alien; not a man, reluctantly binary, but skeptical of my claimed womanhood. And unlike a chrysalis, which evokes the richness and color of a future butterfly, I felt much more grotesquely larval: something sticky, insect, disgusting. Beautiful in the way that nature is beautiful, but certainly not beautiful in the human sense.

I despaired at the price of surgery. Out of reach, it meant a lifetime of aesthetic self-loating. I posted my feelings on Facebook, desperately asking friends to tell me that I’m pretty. And many did. Some to be nice, some because they love me, but some—whom I adore for their blunt honesty—because they genuinely believed it. What was at first a post meant to express my anguish turned into something both validating and revealing. It was the first time I realized what beauty is: powerful, unfair, produced, performed, bestowed. No wonder I felt anguish, beauty seemed impossible.

I spent the two weeks after that post settling into my reality. I could not afford surgery, but after seeing the man that would cut up my face, and hearing how my community felt about that, I no longer wanted it. I agreed. I have a good face. Subjectively, objectively. And if there are things I don’t like about it, there is so much I can do that is less destructive that affords me so much more agency, whether it’s skin care, makeup, hair, clothes, or (defiantly) nothing. It’s hard to accept that I can control the face that I have. But last week, I began to.

Last night, I watched Greta Gerwig’s beautiful, textured, layered adaptation of Little Women. As a child, I read the book voyeuristically, one of my few chances to see into a girlhood I couldn’t have, full of love, loyalty, and unbridled play, but also its limits and injustices. I looked back on the book throughout my adolescence as a kind of reassurance. While I could not be a girl, and would not be a woman, at least I would have the privileges given men. This was no prize to me, but it was a salve that life as a girl would not fix everything. Except that I was a girl, and that was why everything was broken.

Watching the movie last night, then, meant something quite different. I saw it as an allegory of loss of innocence, of transformation, of our limited agency in life, and of the immensity of that agency. The movie showed me that every girl loses their innocence in a different way; sometimes it is illness, sometimes it is love, sometimes it is regret. In my case, it was my parent’s divorce and the devastation of puberty. These are the kind of things transform us into adults, that teach us that we all have choices. Adulthood is about stoically accepting that some choices are given and unchangeable, but then passionately living within those constraints.

I don’t have the choice of a cis body. My choice is in how I perform my trans beauty. Not just how I dress, how I paint my face, or how I wear my hair, but in what my performance of beauty says about who I am, how I see myself, and how I want to be seen. I get to shape the idea of my beauty, and reflect that idea through my appearance and actions.

After these two weeks, the idea of my beauty is clearer. I am not a pupa. I am a nymph. Wandering the woods, in search of womanhood, imperiled by the myriad gifts of nature that compel my curious soul. I don’t know what that that means for my face, but I see now that part of womanhood is deciding.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.