Kat, Through the Looking Glass (Literally)
"It was much pleasanter at home,’ thought poor Alice, ‘when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole — and yet — and yet — it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one." - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
As a transgender woman I’ve thought a lot about the idea of myself being flawed. I struggled for 24 years overexamining every tiny indicator of “maleness” that I saw in the mirror. I carry the flaw of having identification, documents, and records in a name other than my own. I carry the flaw of genitals that are seen as incompatible with my gender. I still feel flawed in my fashion choices and the fit of the clothes I wear on my body despite not looking or feeling right in men’s clothes, either.
Simply put, I have felt for most of my life that I’m caught in a perpetual state of being flawed - caught in the inbetweenness of “not” and “not quite yet”. I’ve been always expected to measure up to a standard that as a deviant I can only approach, but never attain. A human asymptote.
Nevertheless, these “flaws”, due to nothing but blind luck, were something that I could hide and bury from the world, because they saw me as physically beautiful and thus somehow more worthy of owning the identity that I had fought for. I would tuck, powder, and blend away the flaws, hold my head up high, and walk with a confidence that I was very much privileged to have, simultaneously freed from my own mental prison and dragged down by the guilt of knowing that there were prisoners like me not so lucky to happen to fit into socially constructed beauty standards.
Though I would often ruminate on this and try not to, there were times when I took my identity for granted. Thinking about it, that seems like something anyone should be able to do, and cis people, no matter how conventionally attractive, do so all the time. Yet in my case, this was something I had to feel guilty for. I tried to minimize my cognitive dissonance and live for the first time proud of who I was and how I looked and how others saw me - attractive and unflawed.
Then, yesterday, it happened.
I got out of bed and wrote a little bit of an essay and decided to take a shower. I felt a little lightheaded, but I ignored it. I took for granted that I would wash my hair and my skin and then dry off and head for the store. I took for granted that I’d be able to go print off the poster I had made for a class assignment and get coffee with a friend. I took my health and lack of visible flaws for granted. I took for granted my consciousness and the wholeness of my identity, until I lost it.
I passed out when I stepped out of the shower and was in the process of putting on my bathrobe. I don’t remember the fall, only waking up covered in blood surrounded by shards of a broken full-length mirror that once stood on the floor.
"Oh, fuck,” I said.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck."
I looked in the mirror above the sink, which was unbroken, and it revealed to me that I had suffered hideous gashes across my forehead and nose and deep into my cheek. I would later learn that the forehead gash was 3cm deep and my nose had a trench 1.5cm deep. I was bleeding profusely, and the amount of blood already on the floor combined with the still-woozy dehydrated feeling that I had made me wonder if I would lose consciousness again as I frantically dug through the cabinet for something, anything, to stop the bleeding. I tried to apply the 1 piece of gauze we had left, but it was small and drenched in blood before it had any shot at being effective. I tried to apply bandages but they slid off my face, unable to adhere to my skin in the viscous blood flow that would not stop. I finally applied all 3 of the towels I own to my face in rotation as each of them became covered in my blood.
With my bathrobe on, I managed to amble into the kitchen and get a drink of water in preparation for what came next. Little crimson droplets left a trail behind me with each frantic footstep.
"Okay, I can’t go naked… FUCK, I can’t afford this, I don’t have insurance! Maybe I should just try to stop the bleeding myself… No, then it won’t heal right and I’ll be a scarred mess… FUCK, I’m going to be hideous…"
I was sobbing, my blood mixing with my tears as they fell to the floor and I frantically searched for a bra and my black V-neck to throw on. I pushed my still wet hair aside and called my parents, who advised me to go to the emergency room and “not to worry” about having no insurance, which was of course impossible. I then called my roommates. They were at work, so I just left a voicemail and told them that I was going to the hospital. Once I was dressed, I actually took the time to scribble a note for them so that they knew the house was not a murder scene and apologized for the mess.
I grabbed the least visibly blood-soaked towel and my purse and keys and got in my car. Somehow I was able to drive to the emergency room where I checked in. It was normally uncomfortable any time I had to take out my identification with an outdated picture of myself and a name that was now foreign to me, but with the entire room focused on my bleeding face and thrown-together appearance, I felt suffocated.
Once checked in, I took a seat and my roommate called to let me know she was on her way. She soon arrived and comforted me, holding me in her arms.
"I’m… sorry…" I said.
"Don’t you even.” She replied. “It’s going to be okay. Don’t apologize for this.”
I heard my birth name called out. Embarrassed, I got up and sat down in front of some woman who asked for basic health information.
"Now… your name is…" She said.
"Katharine." I replied. "That’s just my birth name.”
"So are you male or female?"
"I’m a woman. I’m… I’m trans."
Always a scary admission to make in East Tennessee.
After talking to her, they admitted me back into a room. I disrobed and put on a hospital gown as strangers laid me onto my bed, uncovering my body to examine it and determine what was wrong with me. They then wheeled me out and into a dark hallway where I waited to be thrown into the CT scanner. A woman came out and asked my name as they wheeled out an old man and prepared to wheel me in. I told her, and her reaction was accepting, but in a way that seemed as if it were more to humor me than actual acknowledgement of who I was.
They strapped me onto the stiff, phallic bed of the CT machine and slid me into the alien womb. I remember feeling totally helpless, disoriented, exposed, and alone as the machinery whirred, scanning me until finally it had finished and I was birthed back into the world. The woman from before gave me another robe to more fully cover myself where the first had been pushed aside. She seemed more concerned with my exposure than I did, but I put it on and slid back over in my bed so they could wheel me back.
Once I was back in my room, the doctor finally saw me. They said that I’d done a hell of a job injuring myself. Congratulation on my wounds, still dripping blood on my face, was not exactly the most comforting thing to hear. I asked him if I would be permanently disfigured and he told me that with the severity of my lacerations there would likely be permanent scarring. Tears again welled up in my eyes.
As they prepared to give me my stitches, I talked with my roommate and my aunt, who had just arrived, and the conversation seemed to revolve around how I would learn to accept these flaws and eventually forget about them. How there were people who were once beautiful, but then learned to live with being damaged. I did not want to hear that. I didn’t want to be formerly beautiful. I didn’t want to be damaged.
It felt like the actual process of being stitched took an eternity, but I am glad that the doctor seemed to be meticulous. I was talkative with him as the blood and anesthesia fluid dripped down my face, trying to find humor in my situation to deal with the emotional and physical pain I was feeling.
"I’m just like a little stuffed rabbit with its stuffing falling out." I said.
I received 30 stitches, and the doctor said that I looked good. I still hadn’t seen how bad I looked, but relative to when I walked in the doors I suppose that was true. My aunt took a picture to send to my mother so that she wouldn’t be as worried. Everything still felt like a bad dream. Soon after, a strange man who fittingly had a voice that I would describe as “Mad Hatter-ish” came in to confirm that I was uninsured and unemployed, and they wrote me a prescription for antibiotics and sent me on my way.
In my friend’s car, I saw my reflection for the first time since I was stitched up. I remarked that I looked like a “last girl” from some horror film who had just fought with Jason and emerged victorious. I didn’t feel triumphant, however. I realized that I could no longer hide my flaws. That I would have a permanent marker upon my face, the defining characteristic of my identity to others, that I was to be categorized under words like “damaged”, “lacking”, “inferior”.
I was not whole, so I was not beautiful.
I never really thought much about that feeling, and the way that our society views bodies and faces which deviate from a “norm” apart from the feelings that I experienced as a transgender woman. Even then, however, I could hide my “flaws”. I could conform to the standard with relatively small effort. I could do “beautiful”. Now that isn’t an option. Defective is written on my face.
I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way and I see now that beauty is more something that is done than something that one is, and that those who cannot do beauty as well as others are marginalized for it through no fault of their own. I know now that I had a lot of internalized shit that made me value those beauty norms in myself and it very likely colored my perception of others.
I feel a lot of emotions about my face right now. I know that it will “get better” and that it will heal but my face is likely permanently changed and I can’t help but feel the tears welling in my eyes writing that. I wish I could be like Alice through the looking glass and say that I’ll come through it stronger. I wish I were in a wonderland that I’ll return from or a fairy tale with a happy ending but I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t really deserve it to be. Other people have to deal with a lot worse than this and I was privileged beforehand being seen as beautiful. If I’m honest, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to leave the house and venture out of this world beyond the looking glass. I don’t know if I’ll be stronger. I don’t know yet if I destroyed the mirror or if the mirror will end up destroying me.
If I am stronger, however, I can’t help but think about how great the metaphor of a trans woman destroying a mirror and coming out the other side to self-acceptance despite her “flaws” is. I was selfish, though, in being okay with the idea of being able to avoid that adventure to a much greater degree than some other trans women that I know. Maybe I needed to be humbled. I’m not really sure, and if my life has taught me one thing, it’s that I will be learning lessons from this fall through the looking glass for years to come.
Maybe it will make me stronger and a better person.
Maybe I should just think of it like Alice did.
"After a fall such as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs!"