Monday, 27 January 2014

Through the Looking-glass

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is trying to persuade Kitty to imitate the Red Queen in the chess set:

…however, the thing didn’t succeed, principally, Alice said, because the kitten wouldn’t fold its arms properly. So, to punish it, she held it up to the Looking-glass, that it might see how sulky it was ‘- and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through into Looking-glass House. How would you like that?’

Standing, or more often sitting, in front of the mirror, I ask myself the same question. How would I like it in Looking-glass House? Once upon a time – to use the storyteller’s cliché - I’d have confidently answered, ‘Very well, thank you.’ Twenty-five years ago, when I first got into cross-dressing, the clothes were an end in themselves. The pleasures came from the tightness of the clothing and from catching my reflection in the mirror. Now, the clothes are a means to an end, little more than a prop. The present journey starts from the unclothed body, and I add only those few elements that will enhance the realism of the illusion without the mind losing tactile awareness of the ‘female’ body underneath the clothes. It is, in essence, a transformation fantasy. (Whether the fantasy itself has become ‘hypersexualized’, as some might suggest, is a moot point.) The transformation doesn’t involve ‘forced feminization’ but is voluntarily undertaken, for I see it as a route to plumbing a deeper, more intense state of being.

Grappling with this problem, I discern three stations, or levels, of self-perception:

1) Without use of a mirror, I ‘feminise’ the body. Wig and heels are essential but not other clothes. Looking down at as much of my body as I can see, I’m stimulated visually. Feeling hair fall down my back and touching it, running fingertips over dolphin-smooth skin, brings tactile stimulation. At this level, subject and object are in closest alignment.

2) I look at myself or act out scenes in mirrors. The mirror starts to turn me into an object. Now I see all of myself, moving in synch with my mind, and perspectives I can’t achieve without it. But it also adds a risk. I see a face which is inescapably male (and I seem reluctant to do the full make-up that would minimise that risk).

3) I take photographs or videos. This is the furthest step in disembodiment, in the separation of subject from object. I have photos (face obscured by hair or camera) where I hardly recognise myself, seeing only a young woman. This is arousing. But again it adds a risk. At levels 1 and 2, I dispense with my normal specs, so that to the myopic eye everything appears slightly and flatteringly out-of-focus. The camera, however, does not lie: it reveals, unless I avoid close-up, the imperfections of a middle-aged body.  

Are they three vantage points, offering a panoptic view when alternated? Or are they, as I’ve presented them here, three stages in a ‘journey’? And if so, a journey in which direction – from 1 to 3 or from 3 to 1?

The maximum sense of erotic embodiment comes with wig and heels alone. Each item of clothing added over and above that enhances realism at levels 2 and 3 but reduces the sense of embodiment at level 1. A paradox I’m at a loss to explain.

Level 3 is the maximum gap between subject and imagined object, allowing me the masturbatory pleasure of being aroused by my own recorded image. At level 1 the gap is closed to a minimum. If a person underwent full sex reassignment, that gap would close up altogether (I assume), so that she’d have to find her erotic high somewhere else.

Moving from level 1 to level 2 is curious. You look up from your lower body to the mirror and there’s a judder of misperception – the person you see in the mirror isn’t quite the person you were feeling like seconds before. The problem at level 2 is the face, which remains recognisably my face more than the rest of the body is recognisably mine. You can try to break down this stubbornness, to defamiliarise the face, with makeup or by concealing it with hair, but the level 2 response may be a psychic defence. Just as her imagined lovers are faceless men, so when I project myself into her, she lacks a defined face. I speculated earlier that the ‘faceless man’ phenomenon is a form of self-protection. The imagined femme is hetero. To bring her to life I imagine her in a variety of realistic situations, including intimate scenes with men; but they are of necessity men without faces, because if they were vividly characterised, this would create conflict with my primary sexual orientation. The fact that she is more convincing when faceless suggests that she, too, is protected by a similar psychic mechanism. There must be walls in the mind preventing a lapse into schizophrenia or ‘multiple personality syndrome’.  

I used to believe that the mirror was necessary to complete the illusion; now I suspect the looking-glass may subtract more than it adds.

Postscript 1. Not for the first time I find myself out of step with the prof here. In a 1993 study Blanchard compared groups of men who were aroused by images of themselves as nude women with those aroused by images of themselves as fully clothed women. As well as finding the Nude group was more gender dysphoric than the Clothed, he found that the Nude group was significantly younger than the Clothed, and concluded: “This outcome makes it unlikely that erotic fantasies of having a woman’s body are the end result of some progression that necessarily begins with erotic fantasies of wearing women’s clothes” [‘Varieties of autogynephilia and their relationship to gender dysphoria’, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 22, 241-251.] This runs counter to my experience, having been in the Clothed group as a young man and moved to(wards) the Nude in middle age!

Postscript 2. Marina Warner eloquently describes the downside of what I have here called ‘level 2’:

Because the face, and most especially the eyes, cannot look at themselves except in reflection, reflections in the glass conflate self as subject and self as object into an insoluble enigma, as the myth of Narcissus so powerfully (and piteously) dramatizes. For while the self appears detached and bounded in the mirror, any move or gesture changes the image accordingly, through that indissoluble twinship that makes Ovid’s Narcissus cry out in agony when he cannot reach his beloved alter. This extreme doubling turns the field of the visible into an extension of the beholder: a state akin to extreme delusion and mental disturbance. [Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (2006), p173]


  1. Interesting stuff. I can identify with this (sort of). If you don’t mind me asking… what you call ‘level 1’ – is that still ‘crossdressing’, even if you’re practically starkers?


    1. Good question, Steph! I’ve come to think of ‘crossdressing’ as constructing the feminine from the outside in, as it were, by deploying the most obvious markers of femaleness – clothes, hair, etc. ‘Crossdreaming’ is maybe the reverse: expressing an innate femininity, beginning with the mind and moving on to the unclothed body, working from inside to out. So there’s rather more crossdreaming than crossdressing going on at level 1. But that’s a crude dichotomy, since we know that many crossdressers regard their activity as the outward expression of an innate femininity; conversely, the naked body always carries with it the potential to be clothed – you can imagine yourself wearing some delicious figure-hugging frock, even if you’re not. I must come back to this problem in a future post. Perhaps I’ll call it ‘The Empress’s new clothes’! D