Transitioning on a Shoestring: No-Frills Femininity

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

by Michelle Dixon

When I called myself a crossdresser, I would have dressed in fancy clothes if I had the money; however, I?ve been on an limited income for years. In the late 80s, the internal pressure to dress in public was intense. I adopted a mode of dress I called walking the line. I wore simple, solid tunic tops that could go either way. A few skirts, and I had a femme wardrobe.

I wore inexpensive gold-tone or silver neck chains bought at flea markets. It was a simple task to cut neck chains down to fit my wrists. This was all part of my walking the line wardrobe.
In April of 2000, I realized I wasn?t a crossdresser, but a transsexual woman. The few hours per week I spent as myself were wonderful. I felt so comfortable, relaxed, and normal. The time when I was pretending to be a man became increasingly painful. I realized I had to transition?now! With my therapist?s approval, I transitioned six weeks after my epiphany.

The first week, when I was trying my transition on for size, I visited a girlfriend. I wore my 10-year old bra. My prostheses were gallon-size food storage bags filled with the blue gel from ice packs. I got out of my car and bent down to pick up the keys I had dropped. My right breast fell out and plopped on the ground. I quickly turned around and stuffed it back into my bra. I knocked on the door and went in. When my friend hugged me, my breasts crinkled. She looked at me, puzzled. She reached out and squeezed. We both laughed. A few minutes later, she said ?There?s a stain on your top.? My breast had sprung a leak! ?Uh, do you have a plastic bag I can borrow??

Since my clothes budget was about one hundred dollars a year, I had to go with what I had. Besides my walking the line wardrobe, I had one wig, four skirts, and a pair of dress sandals with a broken strap which I had repaired with a coat hanger. I had to accept the fact that it?s not the clothes that make the woman, but the woman that makes the clothes.

When I first transitioned, like everyone else, I thought I had to create the image of a perfect woman. I thought my hair had to be perfect, my makeup had to be perfect, my beard had to be completely covered before I could pass. I didn?t realize at the time that there are very few perfect
nontranssexual women in the world. A doctor friend told me, ?You look better and more convincing than some of my female patients.? I didn?t believe her. I do now. Now I sometimes get lazy and don?t shave for a couple of days. I?m still accepted in society as a woman. I may look butchy in T-shirts and jeans, but at least I?m a woman!

The easiest and least expensive first step in transitioning was to get my ears pierced. It made a huge difference in the way I saw myself. In some ways, it takes more of a commitment to get our ears pierced than it does to start hormones. We feel we can hide our developing breasts, but we can?t hide pierced ears. When we see the number of men with small posts or hoops, it becomes easier.

The only essential expense is a good gender therapist. Use a therapist who relates well with you. It may take a few sessions to be sure. One of your initial questions should be if they follow the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care. Most therapists take insurance. My therapist accepts Medicare, so I had to spend only $20 per session. If you really don?t have any money, see if you qualify for Medicaid.

It?s not essential to start hormones before you transition. I didn?t start hormone replacement therapy until eight months after I transitioned. The important thing is to get healthy by functioning in society as soon as your therapist gives you approval. It won?t get any easier if you wait.

Just like any woman, I wanted my breasts?but I didn?t die in the time it took for me to start HRT. Unfortunately, quite a few women have to have mastectomies. They are no less women without their natural breasts. Neither are we. I tell people ?God put a woman?s soul into a man?s body. Changing my body is just cosmetic.?

You don?t need hormones to live full-time. Don?t play games with herbal or black market hormones. Hormones are expensive. If you can?t afford them or the doctor visit, don?t use them.

If you do start hormones, watch out for the mood swings. They?re awesome! I tried to run my boyfriend over with my car. I enjoyed every second. Don?t be surprised if your sex-ual preference changes when you start hormones. Mine did.

Most of my girlfriends had electrolysis before they transitioned. Electrolysis costs about $60 per hour. You can count on 200-300 hours to take care of all facial hair. Electrolysis can cost as much or more than SRS. Laser treatments are less expensive. I?m told that the greater the contrast between your beard and your complexion, the more effective the treatment. Another option is a hair follicle-suppressing cream called Vaniqa. It?s supposed to slow hair growth. I didn?t have much luck with it. It costs $40 for a one-month supply and is available by prescription only.

My research before I started HRT indicated that facial hair is not affected by estrogen. That was not my experience. My facial hair has been growing slower and is less coarse than before hormones.

I have a friend in her mid-30s who is still menstruating. She has to shave every morning before she leaves home. I have another nontransgendered friend in her mid-50s whose beard is heavier than mine. She still passes! Because of my age, I?m accepted by society as a postmenopausal woman with some facial hair. If your beard isn?t too dark or dense, you don?t need hair removal. If your hair is dark or dense, consider having just enough treatments to get it thinned.

I prefer a simple but elegant wardrobe. It?s inexpensive and versatile. Stick with solid colors. Take a girlfriend or knowledgeable person with you to an upscale dress shop. I know it can be frightening, but you?ll have to do it eventually. Remember, they want your money! You?ll be
surprised how compassionate and understanding they are. Get expert advice from the sales clerks on what colors work best with your complexion.

My wardrobe is mostly black, white, and earthtones. Black and white are striking together, and you can wear either with earthtones. Skirts and tops are more versatile than dresses. It?s easier to mix-and-match them for variety. Don?t forget, adding a vest, jacket, or scarf turns casual into dressy casual.

The key to a versatile and elegant wardrobe: accessorize, accessorize, accessorize! My favorite outfit is a short-sleeve light cotton top the color of muslin. The skirt is ankle length, the same material and color as the top. Together, they are a two-piece dress. If I wear it with wooden beads, sandals, and a denim bag, it?s a hippie dress. If I wear it with a wide belt, scarf and colorful bag, it?s sporty. If I need something dressy, I?ll wear it with long sparkly dangle earrings, an expensive-looking pendant, black hose, black heels, and a small black shoulder bag. See? It?s simple!

It?s confusing to shop by yourself at first, so take a friend. A good place to shop is a thrift store. You can get a bagful of clothes for about $10. Outlet malls, dollar stores, Wal-Mart, and
K-Mart are also excellent options. Even expensive dress shops have great sales at the end of the season.

Makeup is also simple. Go with someone you trust to an upscale department store. I like the Clinique counter; they have trained cosmetologists. Stay away from Avon and Mary Kay. I?m sure the makeup is good, but the salespeople are rarely fully trained. Every cosmetologist I ever consulted made me feel comfortable. They were always understanding and sympathetic to my special needs.

The most difficult part of buying makeup is choosing the correct foundation. Until you get used to it, you might want to buy the foundation from the department stores. Also, if you have a heavy beard, you may want to get Dermablend. J.C. Penney sells it. It?s an opaque concealer, used to cover blotchy skin. It?s expensive, but quite effective. You won?t need a foundation if you use it.

Makeup can be expensive. Don?t let the salespeople talk you into a lot of colors. You can always buy more later. Have them show you neutral colors that go with your complexion. Look carefully at the colors. You?ll need to know them later.

I carry a small pouch in my purse. It contains concealer, liquid powder foundation, eyebrow pencil, slate gray eyeliner, gray and charcoal eyeshadow, brown/black mascara, blush, and lipstick. This is all I need! Most days, I don?t wear any makeup.

Once you know the colors that are right for you, go to a discount makeup department. Most of my makeup is Cover Girl and Maybelline. They?re of good quality and relatively inexpensive.

Have your friend help you pick the colors. Stay away from blue, plum, purple, green, and red, at least at first. Also, unless you know what you?re doing, stay away from black. It draws too much attention to you.

The key to no-frills femininity?in fact, the key to passing?is keep it
simple! Many women wear little or no makeup. Most women have a keen sense of how to dress for the occasion. If they?re going to wash the car, they wear an old T-shirt and jeans. They don?t wear a party dress. It?s fun to look like a fashion model; however, it?s expensive, and you won?t blend in with the other women.

Michelle Dixon transitioned in June, 2000. Her favorite words are, ?I?m a person who is trans, but I?m a person first. Transitioning is not a goal. It?s simply a means to an end, an enabling step to get on with my life.? Michelle volunteers at a local hospice, supporting many patients and their families. She also works in a soup kitchen every day. Her favorite hobby is singing in the local choir.

She can be contacted at