I walked briskly through Harvard’s campus, but slowed down as I reached the grassy courtyard, where a crowd of mostly gay men and a smattering of women milled about under a giant white tent. It was a drizzly May afternoon in 2017, 20 years since I graduated, and I was there to attend the college’s queer alumni reception. Yet suddenly, I felt unprepared to see people who had never met me as a woman. I took a breath, then ambled over to the drinks, where I soon spied an old friend named Sean.
“I’m Meredith,” I said when he waved hello, to make sure he knew my new name.
“I remember you,” he replied. “You look the same.”
I tried not to flinch; I’d expected college friends to recognize me, but not to say I hadn’t changed, given the sacrifices I’d made to transition. Though come to think of it, I’d recently cut my hair in a short bob and wasn’t wearing makeup; I had on a loose gray jumpsuit someone of any gender could wear; it was actually a look I could have easily sported as a gay undergrad. I realized that Sean’s assessment was accurate — probably even intended as a compliment — especially since I looked younger than my age. Hormones had given me a second puberty, and my Filipino bone structure under my white, albino skin was still undeniably distinctive. Yet the idea of me looking the same still felt at odds with the image I’d long held of myself.
I was obsessed with femininity for years after I transitioned in 2001. I reveled in using cosmetics and flattering outfits to look both more convincing and attractive as a woman, forms of expression my old gender denied me. But apart from how much time it took to dress up this way, I also grew weary of the awful feeling that my beauty was always on the verge of collapse, that a mere rub of the eyes or bunching of the cloth would ruin the effect. Also, the attention from men that at first felt intoxicating turned oppressive over time (especially when it came with the assumption that I wasn’t very smart).
So I stopped wearing so much makeup after half a decade, then often no makeup at all, once estrogen had softened my features enough that I felt safe from people on the street calling me a man. More comfortable clothes steadily replaced my fussy dresses and high heels, but these changes were so gradual that until Sean’s reaction, I hadn’t fully grasped how far I’d swung in the other direction. I’d been so much more concerned about feeling at ease with myself than looking conventionally feminine at reunion, and so I hadn’t treated it as an occasion to gussy up.
After I found a few more friends and made plans to see people later, I walked away from that courtyard to drop off my bag at Adams, my old house where Harvard was putting me up for the weekend. I entered the room I’d been assigned and went over to put sheets on the single twin bed when I caught a glint in the corner of my eye.
I turned to face my reflection in the mirror through the open bathroom door. Those words, you look the same, lingered in my mind, and I suddenly wondered whether I could imagine myself with a man’s face, knowing that for many years now, I’d seen a woman’s face when I looked in the mirror, and it had taken so much sacrifice to bring that reflection into being.
I might have let go of the need to be feminine at all times, but I wasn’t sure it would be healthy to actively envision myself as male. Yet being in that place where I had spent so much time in my former gender, I felt the urge to reconcile the man I was then with the woman I had become, and so lingered in front of that glass.
I imagined my prominent brow, my angular jaw, my flat chin, the features that made me fear I would always be perceived as a man when I started transitioning. I took one step forward, and then another, when I noticed that my jaw was no longer so sharply angled, as fat had settled on that part of my face and turned what was once a line into a shallow curve. Another step, and I noticed my rosy cheeks; another, the natural pucker of my lips.
By the time I got close and leaned against the sink, I found myself unable to maintain the sensation that the face in front of me was a man’s, even though I understood what Sean meant when he’d said that I looked the same. I hardened the muscles on my face, furrowed my brow, and clenched my lips into a hard line. The impression I got was not of a man but of a woman pretending to be a man, as my features softened back to their original expression.
Maybe my mind was protecting me from my male past, and I wondered to what degree the image in front of me conformed to what was real. But I also reminded myself that there is no single, objective truth; that reality is so much more malleable than people make it out to be; that the first step in making something real is believing it could be real; that my very presence in front of this mirror, in this school, in the world, was itself proof of the power of belief in a reality that seemed entirely far-fetched.
When I began transitioning, I perceived the reality of womanhood only from outside and felt the need to embody an idealized femininity to feel like a woman among women. But over time, I’ve come to realize that every woman — whether transgender or cisgender — evolves a unique perception of herself, one that need not conform to any specific model of what a woman should be. Whether I grow my hair or cut it short, wear makeup every day or none at all, it would be an expression of the specific woman I am at that point in time. Making those judgments for myself is at the core of why I transitioned to be a woman in the first place: to express my gender how I want to, regardless of society’s expectations.
In that dorm bathroom, I touched the mirror and felt the truth of its material surface, how it was a piece of glass with beveled edges, coated in silver that had oxidized in places, creating black spots like little islands on the edges of the frame. It was eerie to be on the other side of that glass, when I once stared at my reflection in a mirror so much like this one and believed I could never become the beautiful woman in my fantasies. But in that place where I had once been a man, I came to know for sure, in a way I didn’t before, that my history did not conflict with the reality of my womanhood. I was a woman no matter how I looked or acted, because as long as gender matters to the world, I will always be a woman to myself.