The Pretty or the Brave

Nicola Koh (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

The year I transitioned femme-ward, in 2014, they called me brave. Was it because I was so unapologetic? Or was I brave like a person walking around with a mullet? Was mine the courage of heroes? Or the delusional?

My first experiments with presentation were sporadic. The Calvinist college and then seminary I attended didn’t exactly approve of gender bending. It was my last semester of seminary, right after I’d given up on Jesus, that I went full-time. Hormones, bags of thrift store dresses and skirts and blouses, and expensive makeup department store reps duped me into buying.

Few close to me asked why I’d decided to transition. Many were happy for me. Many admired my courage. No one knew I was just trying one last thing to save my life.

• • •

Since stopping hormones in 2015, I mostly present masculine. I don’t feel dissatisfied about my body or appearance, and — being a lazy bastard taking more than five minutes to dress requires an occasion. When I got started with hormones again, I had to buy another giant bag of clothes. I only sometimes wear jewelry now, and rarely makeup.

People were even less surprised when I stopped transitioning than when I started. Some admitted it had felt like I was forcing it.

Maybe they think my masculinity had just been on vacation.

• • •

During my senior year of college, in 2011, the people in my apartment hosted a Halloween party. I decided to borrow my mother’s clothes and makeup. It had been two years since the only other time I’d been femme in public.

Growing up, I never felt good-looking. But when I dressed up that night, I felt pretty. Actually felt pretty.

Years after that, I set up a camera and took hundreds of pictures of myself in different outfits. I got really good at it. I made a fake OkCupid profile and received a horde of clichéd and creepy messages. I didn’t respond, and eventually closed the account, having lost much faith in humanity.

Still, I like how they called me pretty. 

• • •

At the party, person after person who walked in the door couldn’t hide their initial shock at seeing me. It jolted me every time. By the end of the night, my confidence had eroded away.

Years later — months into transitioning — I steadily lost the energy to put in the hours it took to be full femme. Most days I just brushed on some blush and wore skirts. I told my reflections it was good enough.

But the truth was in their eyes. 

I was only pretty until I walked out the door. 

• • •

For some, transitioning does wonders for mental illness(es). But without trying, you can’t really say if it will work. 

My experiment ended in 2015, almost exactly a year into it, after two suicide attempts within months.

It was hard to let go of years of dreams and hopes. It was hard to let years of pain come out to be nothing but life lessons. It was hard to surface without finding what I’d been looking for.

No one called me brave when I let go.

No one calls me brave any more. 

• • •

When I first started dressing up, I think now it wasn’t my body people were complimenting when they called me beautiful, but how daring they thought I was. I don’t think anyone saw how pretty I was in the mirror. 

Now, masculine presenting, I can roughly approximate that people think I’m decently attractive. It doesn’t really matter. I just want to slide past the eyes — blend into the crowd.

It’s easier to go unseen. Being pretty to myself only buys me so much satisfaction. It doesn’t make up for what I see reflected in that cloud of eyes. 

All that pity is more than I can handle.

In the end, I’m not brave enough to be pretty. 

Nicola Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian, a seminary-trained atheist, and a Tetris demigod, who is pronoun-flexible and non-binary. They got their MFA from Hamline University. When not procrastinating, Nicola takes too many pictures of their animal frenemies, makes overly complicated excel sheets, and plays the guitar.