From A to T: Advice for Trans and Gender Nonconforming Youth, Adolescents, Families and Allies -- Queer Eye for the Trans Person Edition

01/19/2016 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2017

Queer Eye for the Trans Person

Welcome back from the holidays! All rested, relaxed and reinvigorated?

And now for another edition of:

From A to T: the semi-regular feature in which I address questions from youth and adolescents who identify as trans, transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender expansive, androgynous, agender, bigender, demigender or otherwise nonbinary, as well as from families, educators, school counselors, therapists or any other allies.

Today's topics:
Queer Eye for the Trans Person: What do I wear? And: Why layer upon layer upon layer?

It's always about the clothes.

How we dress is the most visible way we express who we are. Clothing carries complex meanings about history, class, geography, culture, gender, sexuality, identity, body image... how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to our world. But as we change our gender, clothing can be one of the most intimidating obstacles we face. What do we do?

Today I'll address two of the many issues that face us in early transition, whatever those transitions might look like. The first speaks to expressing who you are, the second to hiding who you aren't.

Once again, the obligatory pseudo-legal disclaimer: These are for general guidance only. I'm a therapist, but probably not your therapist. Please use the better judgment I know you have, and decide for yourself if my comments work for you. If you need more specific information, seek out a therapist or doctor.

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Question #A: I'm a trans girl and I'm just starting out. What do I do about clothes? I don't have much money, and I have no idea what I like. Help???

Buying clothing: one of the biggest challenges for someone just coming out as trans. It's scary. What to wear? Where to get it? What size? How do I afford a new wardrobe? And how do I even figure out what I like???

As kids, our parents get our clothes. Maybe we have some say, but what we wear doesn't necessarily reflect who we are. It's only as we grow up that we can hopefully begin to develop a personal style. But how do we do that when we change our gender?

It involves a lot of trying on, in person and in our heads. Start by looking around and noticing how others dress, then consider how you might imagine yourself. Are there any friends, television characters or people on the street you'd like to emulate? How would their style fit you and your resources?

(HINT One: Almost none of us can afford what we see on reality TV.)

Play 'dress up'. If you're lucky, you have a best friend whose clothes you can try on in front of a mirror.

Is there an older sibling or cousin whose clothes you might borrow? (Don't do it behind their back. That's nonconsensual and weird.)

Also, if you're not already familiar with them, thrift stores provide a great opportunity and generally don't care who tries on what... their racks always have a wide variety of styles from modern to amazingly retro, and you can try on shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, vests, coats and sometimes even shoes (if you're brave). It's a great way to figure out what works for you. And their prices are usually very reasonable, so it's less difficult to build a new wardrobe.

(HINT #2: Take friends who can provide feedback as well as moral support.)

(HINT #iii: It's normal to negotiate at thrift stores. They expect it.)

Clothes are a form of communication; they show who we are. Think about what you want to convey. Ultimately you'll create your own style over time, partly through looking at others, partly through crafting it on your own.

It's fun. Go for it.

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Question II: My son is trans and recently started living as a boy almost everywhere. We love him, and he seems to be getting more comfortable, but he always wears so many layers. I keep telling him it's ok, but he won't stop even when it's warm. Help me understand?

First: Wonderful... family support is invaluable.

Body image is an everyday crisis during early transition. The external rarely matches the internal, and many find living in their birth body to be an ongoing torture. It can hurt merely to exist.

For someone transmale, the dysphoria is usually most severe around their chests, obvious signs of a gender that feels inauthentic. (Many prefer 'chests', as 'breasts' implies femaleness.) In Western culture chests are also fetishized, something most transmen are anxious to avoid. Just acknowledging their existence is often traumatic; some people are so anxious they shower in the dark, unable to bear even the slightest glimpse of themselves naked.

There are also safety concerns, as transmen whose chests are prominent can be at risk for bullying or sexual violence.

To address this, most transmale people wear 'binders'. These tight undergarments compress to present a more masculine appearance, but they may not be enough, especially for those with larger chests. Transmen might add undershirts, button-downs, sweatshirts, hoodies and jackets to project 'stocky male' rather than 'masculine girl' and to make moving through the world a bit easier, but this is often an imperfect solution. Many are still in agony.

So layers can be physically and emotionally protective.

Your son's clothing suggests he may be experiencing an intense disgust for his body, or at least a strong discomfort, something he can only address by covering up as much as possible. He might be suffering in ways he is demonstrating but can't articulate verbally. Maybe he can speak with you about it, or maybe he can speak with a therapist.

As an ally, sometimes all you can do is demonstrate sympathy.

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Another installment ended. Feel free to email questions at Laura@LauraAJacobs.com so I have material for future columns.

You can find information about me as a psychotherapist, speaker, writer and activist at my website: www.LauraAJacobs.com.

Enjoy 'winter', everyone.