Describing Trans Women

Describing Trans Women

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

A lot of what I’ve written here in the past has focused on introducing characters, writing their experiences, and particular tropes to avoid. However, I realized that there’s a rather gaping hole in these topics — actually describing your characters!

The way you describe your characters is critical to how your reader understands them. Certain descriptions, however, can be particularly insulting, upsetting, or downright offensive. Trans and gender-expansive characters are particularly susceptible to these adverse descriptions, so I’m going to focus on them.

However, there’s not one catch-all way to describe all trans folx, and there are certain things to and not to do for trans men, trans women, and nonbinary folx. So I’m going to talk about this in a series, starting with describing trans women.

Things to Avoid When Describing Trans Women

Trans women have existed in media for a long, long time — but for most of that history, they’ve been subject to negative tropes and less-than-kind depictions. These have cemented themselves in popular media as the only ways to describe trans women, even if they perpetuate transmisogyny.

Perhaps the most frustratingly pervasive of these tropes is the “man in a dress.” When describing trans women, many cis writers tend to zero in on the aspects that mark them as not woman. These writers seem to think that a trans woman looks basically like a man, maybe with some make-up and heels, and often don’t understand how things like HRT or surgeries can fundamentally change a trans woman’s body structure and appearance.

screen grab of Bob's Burgers Season 1 Episode 6, showing Bob driving a cab with three transgender prostitutes in the back of the cab
This scene from Bob’s Burgers makes a point of focusing on facial hair and adam’s apples to mark the women as trans

Now, of course, some trans women earlier in their transition, or those who choose not to undergo a medical transition, may in fact carry more features which are coded as masculine in our society. However, focusing in on these aspects is rude, and also very much not representative of all trans women! If you’re describing trans women in your narrative and find yourself trying to make it clear that they are, in a word, mannish, then I encourage you to focus on other aspects of their appearance.

Many writers will point to something incongruous, confusing, or “off” about a trans woman’s appearance. Often this comes from a cis character describing trans women as strange or suspicious, which often leads to the dramatic trans reveal — a trope you should definitely should.

When describing trans women, don’t harp on this false ideation that they are “hiding something,” that there is something “wrong” with their appearance or presentation. This draws inspiration from the dangerous misconception that trans women are trying to “trick” those around them. 

It’s also hurtful to imply that there’s something inherently wrong with trans women — because this implies that there is a right way for a woman, and a trans woman in particular, to look. This is harmful to those trans women who are early in their transition, as well as those who cannot or do not want to pursue medical transition. It’s also dangerous for fat, disabled, and/or BIPOC trans women, for whom the standard conception of white femininity is often inaccessible.

All of this being said — it’s also important not to take away all aspects of what makes a character trans. Trans women do have distinctive features, and we aren’t exactly the same as cis women (especially when we start our medical transitions later in life!) If this seems like a confusing contradiction to you, I encourage you to read on!

Good Ways of Describing Trans Women

Trans women are just as varied and wide-ranging as cis women, so there really isn’t one catch-all “good” way of describing trans women (shocker). That being said, there are a handful of traits which many trans women share to some degree.

Women who underwent a testosterone puberty may have slightly different proportions than cis women. On average, trans women are relatively tall, and may also have slightly larger hands or shoulders. Hands are notable sources of distress for many trans women, so I’d avoid calling attention to them. However, describing trans women as tall, or their shoulders broad or square, is not on its own problematic, so long as you don’t harp on how different that makes them from cis women.

Those who experienced a testosterone puberty are also likely to have relatively deep, sonorous voices, because once your voice drops there’s not really a way to go back (short of some relatively risky and invasive surgeries). However, trans women don’t just have men’s voices — even those of us with the deepest of voices have something of a lilt to our tone and cadence.

Some trans women train their voices to reach a more feminine-coded register. This is pretty effective — if your character did this, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to notice her voice (though, if she’s describing it herself, she might make mention of the effort involved in maintaining the pitch).

For those of us who have chosen to keep our natural voices, though, I personally like to think of them as akin to how trees sound when they creak in the wind, or the pealing of a large bell, or even the smooth rumblings of a tenor saxophone. Basically, things which are somewhat mid-register, skewing slightly low. If you’re having trouble imagining what this sort of voice might sound like, check out the podcast I make with my partner for an example!

In general, calling attention to body hair on feminine bodies is often coded as negative commentary on their hygiene, which is bullshit overall but a different discussion entirely, and also a reason you should probably be wary of it when describing trans women. 

But trans women do have facial hair! Some of us work extremely hard to get rid of it, undergoing laser removal and electrolysis to combat it, though a lot of women end up with a few persistent patches of beard or mustache that never quite goes away. Because of this, they often shave their faces — not always daily, since our facial hair grows relatively slowly, but it’s a pretty widespread experience for trans women.

Describing trans women shaving their faces is, in my opinion, awesome, so long as it isn’t a gag. I’d avoid describing stubble directly, as it can be a source of distress for many and often plays into the “man in a dress” trope I discussed earlier.

Conclusion

When describing trans women, consider how your description would read if you were talking about a cis woman. Trans women, after all, are women — so if it feels like it would be rude or misogynistic to describe a cis woman that way, that’s probably true of the trans woman as well!

That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week to talk about describing trans men, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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