“Your friend is cute,” he said.
It was a man at the next table over. Bearded and curly-haired, I guessed he was early thirties. He had turned away from his two drink mates just as my friend Lucy—a strawberry blonde who no way looks her fifty years—left our Dinkytown restaurant table for the restroom.
I answered, “Yes, she is.”
The man went back to his friends and that was the end of it.
By coincidence, earlier that day I had watched a much younger Dustin Hoffman talk about playing a middle-aged woman in the movie, Tootsie. The interview went viral because Hoffman, fighting back tears, spoke of feeling like crap when Hollywood make-up wizards couldn’t transform him into a beautiful woman. As the character Tootsie, he believed he made “an interesting woman,” but he also acknowledged that had he—Hoffman—met Tootsie at a party, he’d never talk to her. That’s because Tootsie didn’t “fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out.”
The interview arced when Hoffman said that he’d been “brainwashed” into believing beauty was the sole measuring stick for sorting women. As a result, over the course of his life, he had missed countless chances to meet not-so-beautiful but nonetheless “interesting women.”
It was a candid admission about shallowness.
When I lived as a dude, I never cared about my looks. Sure, I wanted to be fit, but it didn’t matter to me if some other guy was more desirable because of how he looked.
I figured that my charming personality, along with my ability to make an inside joke, were all that mattered.
All of that changed when I transitioned to womanhood. Suddenly, how I looked became an all-consuming priority. Is my eyeliner done right? Does my forever flat hair have even a hint of body? What in the world am I gonna do about that Samsonite—puffy bags—under my eyes?
And my man-handles? They had to go. I dieted and worked out like some twenty-something gym rat.
A year into my transition, I underwent big time plastic surgery, something called “facial feminization.” The surgery seemed to work—a new chin and prominent cheekbones, a woman’s nose, no more eye baggage, and way fewer wrinkles. I was lucky to be able to do this, and I hoped that it would pave the way for a relationship with someone special.
I hoped I’d be beautiful enough.
Thus, you’ll understand that jealousy was my immediate reaction to that man’s comment about Lucy in the Dinkytown restaurant—that she was beautiful enough to evoke a stranger’s compliment.
Another reaction? Real hurt because the stranger didn’t throw in, “You’re cute too.”
As a society, we really are brainwashed about beauty and the privileges that go with it, just as Dustin Hoffman confessed. It happens early and often—in magazines (think Seventeen or Teen Vogue; a recent cover of Justine had the teaser, “Look & Feel Great!”), the movies (Disney didn’t pick the title, Beauty and the Beast, for just no reason), and television. For example, name one even semi-ugly leading female television character. (I’m sure there’s one or two, but you get the point.)
The brainwashing never ends. Those Viagra commercials are filled with pretty people. Jamie Lee Curtis—no slouch in the beauty department—does a great job touting a yogurt to “regulate” seniors’ digestive systems.
There’s one more point. Let’s be honest about the gay community; we all know how much good looks, tight bodies and youth count. For many, they are gatekeeping characteristics.
Personality? What does that matter as long as I get to kiss his beautiful face and lay in bed next to his killer body.
Of course, I paint with an exceedingly broad brush. Please indulge me.
I’m not innocent here, either. While I fret about my looks, I’m damn picky about the relative beauty of those I date. I’ve turned down some very nice—and interesting—people because they didn’t fit my preconceived notion of what’s attractive.
Yet, I felt the sting of that Dinkytown stranger’s remark.
That was until the next day, when another stranger offered, “Hey pretty lady,” as I passed by in a downtown skyway.
For a moment, I felt good about my looks.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org