Le Regard

Jean-Paul Sartre said that “hell is other people”: the “look” of others objectifies us. When as a subject I regard others, they become to me objects; and to other subjects I am an object. It seems to me that for many of us who are trans, our objectification in the “look” of others has a peculiar significance because we hope to be objectified as female, which is what we are not when we are naked. I wonder if this is why t-girls love photographs so much. The inner self knows that it is male, but wishes to be female; while we are out and about we are acutely aware of the gaze of others (in the Sartrean sense – I don’t mean gawping, although that does happen occasionally!). We develop a heightened sense of our difference (physical frame, facial bone structure) in the moment that we are most earnestly trying and hoping to appear unremarkably female. We are acutely aware of our objectification in the look of others.

What we would love most of all is to be objectified as female, as an external reinforcement of the internal yearning that is felt but not manifest externally, except through a choice of clothing. Photographs, organised carefully through social media, provide a means to choose our self-objectification. In a sense, this is an inversion of Sartre’s maxim: if only the others would objectify us as female, then heaven would be other people.

Of course the rest of society has now caught up: every phone has a camera, and everyone on a night out has their phone close at hand. Young women navigate their evenings as carefully through cyber space as they do through “real” space; we are all acutely aware of the “look” of others. When I first went out and about with my digital camera I felt rather self-conscious as I tried discretely to pose for a photo somewhere. But one doesn’t need to sit in a bar for long to see a group of young women composing themselves quickly, efficiently and carefully for a group selfie. Taking a selfie is now so commonplace it has become an almost invisible act.

Is Instagram heaven or is it, indeed, a Sartrean hell? There is a mundane sense in which it is hellish: nobody remembers the daft things I said and did in my teens because they happened in real space before the internet; however, nowadays teenagers have to grow up in cyberspace with every failing immortalised. And of course there is the pressure to be beautiful, happy and surrounded by friends on Instagram; whatever your inner state and your experience of the subjects who gaze upon you, your self-objectification must be carefully curated.

I think that for most of us who are trans, Instagram can be hell in Sartre’s sense. A few t-girls look genuinely feminine, bit it is not hard for most people to spot the imposters (among whom I count myself). I look at my “best” photos and realise that although I’m happy with them as representations of myself, they are unlikely to survive careful scrutiny with the viewer believing that I am a natal female.

If hell is this objectification in the look of others, where does salvation lie? Surely it comes from accepting oneself for what one is, for being content with what one is? It is only by choosing (another Sartrean doctrine) to find our signification in the look of others that we open the door to hell. Demanding that “others” objectify us as female will not solve the problem, because to them, we are objects and it is they who choose how to objectify us. But the path to salvation, surely, is to choose instead to live authentically, by accepting, celebrating and enjoying our trans-ness. If the photograph objectifies me to others as trans, what is that to me? I am what I am. I choose to be what I am. Coming out as trans is an act of will – a choice. I express my inner sense of femininity not for the gaze of the others, but because in its authenticity it makes me happy and whole. In choosing authenticity I find my salvation.

Published by

Karen Smith

Just a girl next door...I was born male, but from my earliest years a part of me deep down always wanted desperately to be a girl. She has grown up with me, and needs to escape, breathe the air and walk the green hills of Yorkshire from time to time. Although she's concealed by clouds for most of the time, the girl within is tied up with all that people think is best in me. These pages give her a little space to articulate how she feels.

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