Saturday, March 11, 2006

Lifespan Development and Aging in Transgendered Persons

Human development spans a lifetime, at least for most individuals. Humans develop physically, cognitively, intrapsychically, socially, and spiritually throughout their lives with twists and turns and critical readiness periods as they shift into each successive phase of development. Piaget explored the cognitive development in humans while Kohlberg, more specifically, addressed how humans develop morally. Freud was concerned with psychosexual development and Erikson focused on how humans develop psychosocially. Developmental theorists typically posit that humans change qualitatively not just quantitatively from one stage to the next. For example, Piaget says that thinking becomes different as humans begin to learn primarily through touch and exploration of their environment then shift to the ability to symbolize and pretend and shift again to a focus on the concrete and real to a final shift to the ability to hypothesize, plan, and problem solve. Some theorists, like Gilligan believe that cognitive development transcends the ability to reason formally and that evolved individuals learn to think post formally. Such individuals discover that there is no absolute truth and that truth depends on context and feeling rather than raw facts.

While overall, their growth may follow patterns described by these theorists, such theories seem inadequate to describe the unique sets of experiences of transgendered and bi-gendered individuals. While Erikson says that an excessive focus on how others view a person is a normal part of adolescence, for a transgendered person in his or her 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s who has is spiritually and emotionally evolved in his or her core personality, it may be surprising for her to find herself concerned that others are watching her every move. More surprising still is her focus on how she looks physically to others. How is it that a person can achieve a sense of spirituality or completeness in her core personality yet be so immature in the newly developing gender persona?

For such individuals, due to societal pressures, personality aspects that do not fit within societal norms tend to be denied, ignored, or locked away, sometimes forever. For those of us lucky enough to find a key to unlock these hidden gender parts, we may be surprised to discover that they are immature. While we may have achieved a degree of integrity in our core sense of self, we realize that transgender aspects lag way behind the core self in terms of maturational development.

Why is it that many transgendered persons seem to focus so much on their physical appearance? Are they just narcissistic adults indulging in self-gratification? In talking with others, it seems that in many cases, the only thing holding a female form together for a transgendered person is her feminine make-up, hair, and clothing. Without these, she would cease to exist physically. She would return to her male form. If she did not exist physically, would she exist at all or would she return to the dark recesses of the mind where she lied buried and dormant for years?

Along with the idea of differing rates of maturity for the core self and the developing gender aspects, the notion of aging and the transgender woman is quite intriguing. During a recent outing with other transgendered and genetic women, I had the fortune to share ideas and stories with several of the older transgendered women present. A common theme among us was that we had all begun to unlock the gender aspects of ourselves relatively later in life. We all shared the unique phenomenon of having a truncated lifespan in terms of our newly developing gender selves. What this meant was that we each in our own way, felt rushed to “do it all” in a relatively short time span. While genetic women have the luxury of developing physically from being young girls to adolescent girls to young adult women to middle age adult women and finally to older women, we started out in our gender exploration, as middle age women, at least in a physical sense. Yet we wanted to experience what is like to feel young, pretty, vibrant, and desirable, and all of this in our middle age bodies. Most of us had a sense that time war running out on us and wondered for how long would we be able to experience this sense of physical beauty? At what age would our beauty ticket expire? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? Thus many of us felt the need to do whatever it takes to create these experiences including use of cosmetics, cosmetic procedures, life extension and alternative health measures, and the like.

Along with the idea of extending the length of beauty phase in the transgendered lifespan, the theme of physical health was discussed. All of these experiential possibilities hinged on the older transwoman staying physically vibrant and healthy enough to enjoy them. Most of the older transwomen I spoke with were optimistic that although their feminine lifespans were truncated, this disadvantage was offset by the advantages of having had the opportunity to spend time in both genders and to sample some of the breadth of experiences that life has to offer.

By Felicia Conti

3 comments:

Alysyn Ayrica said...

Felicia, what a poignant piece. I have to concur that not all are motivated by narcissism, but, instead, are so consumed with "catching up", as it were, that the single-mindedness with which they express their newly revealed understanding of themselves is often percieved as such. It is so easy to get tangled in the lifestyle stereotype, that the perspective of one's life can become skewed.

Aging in a masculinized body with the capacity for dual gender expression can become problematic, at best...extremely depressing on the downside. Testosterone creates a thicker dermal layer and more dense muscle tissue on its male victims, often emphasising the aging process in the years after 30, when the hormone levels begin to drop significantly and the musculature, especially in the face, no longer can retain it's tone. As well, habits of expression, such as the way we learned to smile, frown, etc., and life-long eating habits all play their part (my advice...lay off the sodas, ladies!).

I have discovered this same attitude you've emphasized in your article in some of the ts women I've met who began transitioning after about 40. Typically, with some rare exceptions, they had already experienced the difficulty of extreme masculinization, and there was much for them to overcome. Still, they seemed unphased by this reality, and were behaving like pre-teen mall rats.

This is a phenomenon that, though I can make assumption regarding, I am pretty clueless on. I have only experienced a small moment of that feeling in my own life, compared to some who hang on for years, and had to, for the sake of my own sense of dignity, quickly try to find a balance regarding my newly forged female role and my credibility within my age group.

[As an aside, I have to dissent with Gilligan, as his mere statement that cognitive development ultimately produces the belief that truth is no longer objective. In fact, the statement, alone, is a statement of absolute truth and is, as a result, self-contradictory. His dilemma is in making the distinction between reality and perception. Truth, by definition, must remain consistent and intact or it was never really truth to begin with and is no longer subject to the scrutiny it recieves. The simple term "relative truth" is self defeating in that it is attempting to establish a consistent inconsistency. A definite maybe. We may percieve things in one manner and apply that information accordingly, but it doesn't change the nature of that thing on an objective level.

Many people use the car crash analogy, stating that many people see different things relating to the crash, and that "it's their truth...they are all correct in what they saw". This, by way of establishing the idea of relative truth. What is often the fallacy in this type of example is in the conclusion. Consider this: that they are all correct in what they saw...but they are not all correct in assuming that what they saw was the totality of the event. In fact, it is their collective recollections which form a more clear picture of the objective understanding of the series of events leading to the collision.

Well, for me a pleasant diversion, but I don't wish to distract from the meat of your article.]

Thank you for addressing this issue, as it does allow for further consideration of this dilemma. I'm sure if the GE Fashion Dept. ever becomes realized it's going to be pummeled with hits.

With love, and tongue-in-cheek,
Aly

Michele Angelique said...

Re: Lifespan Development and Aging in Transgendered Persons

Thank you Felicia for contributing this outstanding article. The issue of aging and maturity is common to all women, although in some aspects transwoman face larger hurdles in this regard. For transwomen, the natural girl-to-womanhood phases must be condensed into a far shorter time period, in most cases. The sense of urgency to extract the most of the remaining years of "beauty" would compel most people to place tremendous focus in this area.

Biological age of the body does not influence the emotional and mental maturity level of the individual, hence some people act far younger than their age, and vice-versa. In the case of transwomen, many never got the chance to be a teenage girl, yet may have yearned for such opportunity. There is no harm in experiencing this phase of development, regardless what your biological age, just so long as you keep in perspective that in some respects it is a fantasy. A 40 year old person cannot actually become a 14 year old, yet it could be fun to temporarily play the part.

When we speak of dressing styles, or even the condition of the physical body, it should be emphasised that this is *one* aspect of womanhood. Certainly, you want to focus on developing femininity on the outside, however it does not stop there. Oh no sisters, that is only the beginning. Nearly anyone can put on a wig and makeup and appear more feminine. This is the easy part. Even the surguries are the easy part.

The real art and science lies in developing your *inner woman*. The outside's going to fall apart eventually, like it does for every woman. When you're a 70 year old t-girl, all you will have left is your feminine mind, heart and spirit. If you've neglected these most important aspects all the years, while looking only in your mirrored reflection as the extent of your feminine development, you will have nothing of womanhood left when the external vision sustains you no longer.

The statement "the only thing holding a female form together for a transgendered person is her feminine make-up, hair, and clothing"... I would contend this statement would not hold true over the long term for any authentic transperson. While it may certainly be a fear that femme self is composed only of clothing and makeup, I don't believe it would be so easy to bury that inner woman permanently. Even for those who may never dress again a day in their lives, still, the female will continue to come through the male in more subtle ways.

The clothing, makeup, even the physical body itself, are window dressing!! Granted, we all want to look our best, but it's what's inside that makes for a truly special individual. As long as you have inner beauty, you will always have outer beauty... beauty will radiate outward from inside of you, sparkling through your eyes, present in your grace, warmth, compassion, your smile... you need never be robbed of this beauty, as these aspects are independent of age, dress, and even gender.

Thank you again Felicia, for presenting this highly relevant topic with such thought and insight.

Much love,
Michele

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