The aesthetics of acceptance

By Sophie Pizzimenti

Kimberly Crossley, a friend and co-worker, was working on a project on visibility of transgender people, when we talked about what I called the ‘aesthetics of acceptance’: the idea that when one grows confident and happy with their own identity, in an accepting environment, the person doesn’t only flourish in the inside, but also their outside appearance changes.

It’s a phenomenon I have observed with all of my friends, in their process of understanding and accepting their gender identity. I then decided I wanted to learn about people’s relationship with their appearance, their gender identity, with Groningen and its spaces of acceptance. Joining forces, Kim let me stick around while she was working on her own project, so that I could interview the people she took pictures of.

I asked all of them questions about the same three main topics: their journey in their relationship with their gender identity, their relationship with their appearance and their aesthetics, and the relationship between their identity and the space around them and the city of Groningen. Their answers were all different from one another, and I decided to simply present them to you as they were presented to me.

Thomas Grant

Thomas is a transgender man whose relationship with his gender identity today is “pretty chill”. He says that for him, his identity was never really a question, and that he knew who he was all along. He remembers that when he told his father he wanted to finally transition medically, his father looked at pictures of young Tom and said “yeah, it makes sense.”

What was the most important thing for you in the process of becoming ‘pretty chill’ with your gender identity?

“It differs a lot for everybody, but for me medically transitioning was important… Shortly after I started taking hormones one of my friends was saying that I didn’t change a lot, but that I smiled a lot more. It was those kinds of things that made the biggest difference.”

Concerning his social transition, Tom explains that it was totally unplanned. At 16 in the UK, students change schools, so Tom found himself in a new environment with new people. The teacher went around asking people’s names. “She comes to me and says ‘what’s your name?’ and I went… ‘Tom’.” Tom laughs with a huge smile, remembering this moment when he spontaneously socially transitioned.

What is your relationship with clothes since the transition, both medical and social?

“The first thing I said I was gonna do when I was gonna get top surgery (breast removal) was to wear a white t-shirt.”

Because he was bearing items to constrain his breasts, which could be seen under tight or white clothes, Tom always wore oversized t-shirts. “I really became a master in the art of subterfuge,” he says. “When I came back home (after the top surgery) my dad bought me a white t-shirt and it fit tighter than anything I ever wore before, which is not to say it fit too tight, it just fit properly. The biggest shift in my wardrobe was probably that I started wearing clothes that fit.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“As a member of the general population, I have experienced it as being a super safe city,” Tom explains, referring to his masculine appearance, which help him feel less threatened.

“Growing up, I was still socialized largely as female, there was a lot of ‘you can’t go out, it’s dark, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Because you know, what if a man…’ I still have that kind of hangover, in the sense that I am still very much aware of what’s going on around me.”

“On the flip side, if I am walking on the streets behind a woman more or less the same age, I am aware that I am a 1.95m not small individual walking behind her. So, I cross the street, and I will remove myself from this because I know now, what it is like for women.”

“So for Groningen, personal space of acceptance, yay! General space of acceptance… there is room for improvement.”

Nicholas Sledzin

“I identify as a man, and my gender pronouns are he/him,” Nic says.

Nic walks me through his personal story with his appearance. From being a kid wearing ‘masculine clothes’, to wearing more feminine clothes in middle-school years due to outside pressure. “Most of the time that was tiring and uncomfortable,” he explains.

Then, when he came out as bisexual, and then transgender, he started wearing very masculine clothes, but that also didn’t feel right.

Recalling the period in which he felt like having to dress more feminine, Nic says, half laughing, “conforming to gender roles brings a lot of social acceptance, it’s very easy.”

What were the main issues in this process of externalizing how you felt?

“The biggest one was the fear of regret. I sit here now, and I don’t regret anything I did, but I was very hesitant to make decisions along the way. It was actually only three years ago that I threw away all of the clothes that I didn’t like wearing, that were feminine but in a way that I didn’t like. It was very freeing, but also very scary to let go of them.”

Did you have a moment where you thought ‘yeah this is me’?

“Well, the great thing about figuring out your identity is that you feel that way every day at some point. Of course, there are bad days, but I think figuring out your identity means that over time there are more and more days like that.”

“I feel like when looking at the media, it is very easy to think that being trans is primarily about all the medical stuff. But the truth is, there is so much more going on inside your head, in your own home, way before you even think about any medical transition, if you even think about it.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“I am defiantly more comfortable in the Netherlands than I was in Poland, and Groningen feels more diverse. But maybe it’s because I have the chance to interact with people I wouldn’t interact with in Poland.”

Michiel Teeuw

“I am pronoun indifferent, any pronoun is good, he/him, she/her, they/them, I don’t mind. I feel like my gender identity, and my general identity is very fluid. I feel like my body is more of a constant, and my soul is constantly changing, also with the things I am learning. I think it is it very natural to change,” Michiel explains me.

For Michiel, all effort to define and fix one’s identity is forcing a stable and fix shape to something in constant change and mutation. We engage in a very philosophical discussion, where I am taken through ideas of post-modernism and the importance of understanding that there is no such thing as one’s true nature . While in high-school, Michiel started exploring the possibility of gender fluidity. In this process, the clothes and style of Michiel also changed.

What is your relationship with your clothes? Do you feel like your clothes are an expression of yourself?

“Sometimes yes, sometimes I would also experiment with wearing clothes that I feel they don’t fit me.”

“I feel like nothing is neutral, everything has associations and meaning, and so there is no point in dressing neutral or normal, because it still has a meaning, you cannot escape that. So, with everything you wear, people have associations, and I like to play with that association.”

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“After all, in this place I feel very safe during the daytime. Mostly when I wear weird stuff I get stares from people, which I think it’s very funny and amusing. During the nighttime, when there are parties I don’t feel safe at all, people are saying weird stuff to me. There are often older men making remarks about how I dress, and also when I was together with my ex in the streets, people were making remarks about this, which feels very alienating.”

The process of acceptance is not easy, Michiel explains. The more one is confident about their identity and clothes, the more people around them perceive that person positively, which reinforces confidence. However, it is not easy.

“I feel like a lot of confidence, especially if you are a marginalized person, is also in accepting that you’ll have to be alone sometimes, because there are a lot of people that won’t respect you and won’t respect your identity. I think there is also the risk that you can be abandoned, and you’ll have to cut out people that won’t respect you. And I think that if you go for that risk and find a community that really supports you, then everything will be alright.”

Tessa van der Horst

“I identify as non-binary, or queer, and my pronouns are they/them but I am also ok with she/her.” Tessa takes me back to their experience in growing up in rural Friesland, where their unique clothing style made them stood out in the middle of people who “all looked the same.”

“I was very into fashion, but not into the fashion everyone was wearing. I made my own things, and went to alternative shops, always wore way too many necklaces and boots that were too high.”

Tessa made their passion for fashion and making clothes their career. “I wear very feminine clothes, and very pink things and make most of it myself. I am a fiber artist, I am really passionate about creating my own thing and what I like.”

For Tessa, being artistic is a fundamental part of their identity. They remember fighting their clothing style, and especially their attraction for the color pink. Eventually, they found themselves wearing only pink, and felt good about it, so they just continued.

How do you experience Groningen as a space for you?

“Groningen is so much bigger (than Friesland) and so much younger than where I am from, but there are still many things in common. I never really feel like they (the people) see me, but they impose a lot of their things on me, they expect me to be this shy, bubbly person, because of how I look, and then I turn out to be not a woman. I curse a lot, so, I am never what people expect me to be.”

What was the most important thing in your process with your identity and your clothes?

“When I saw Alok on Instagram, I felt like, dressing fem (meaning dressing very feminine) doesn’t say anything about your gender. I do notice that dressing fem and dressing feminine makes it easier for me to be misgendered, everyone just assumes I am a ‘girl’. When I saw Alok, I thought, it doesn’t have anything to do with gender, it’s just fashion, and that you should be whatever the fuck you want.”