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Miss Conduct

What to say to a friend who is transitioning

My friend is frustrated and concerned about the process, and I don’t want to make things worse.

How do I support a friend who’s transitioning? This person has a lot of concerns and frustrations with the issue of appearance now versus the future and worries about perhaps looking ridiculous. Is saying, “Oh, it’s what’s on the inside that matters” less a compliment and more an insult? I can’t even imagine how hard it is. Maybe my friend can find some solace in the preponderance of cis individuals who struggle with the same thing, but that seems like cold comfort. What do I say? What do I do?

A.S. / Petoskey, Michigan

So many layers! Like baklava, your question.

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First off: “Oh, honey, listen to the voice telling you ‘But you have inner beauty!’ ” is not the way to go. In the history of humanity, no one has ever been soothed and uplifted by compliments to his or her inner beauty. (Perhaps a psychopathic beauty queen desperate to pass for normal? Nope, even the Evil Queen in Snow White interrogated that mirror about her face, not her psyche.) Being told I had inner beauty didn’t make me feel any better when I was a lumpy-faced flat-chested 14-year-old, and it won’t make your friend feel better now.

What kind of relationship do you and your friend (we’ll go with “Taylor”) have? What kind of support does Taylor usually seek from you? Taylor knows, after all, that you are cis and aren’t going to understand or identify with every nuance of the experience. Taylor wants what you can give. What has this been in the past? Tea and sympathy? Gallows humor? Dispassionate analysis? Distraction? Taylor’s problem may be of recent vintage, but your friendship is not. You got this.

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And if you still think you haven’t got it — ask. “I feel so bad for your frustrations. I’ve had similar feelings myself. Does that validate you or take away from your experience? Do you want a sounding board or a shopping trip and some style advice?” Emotional support can come in many forms, and there’s nothing wrong with asking friends exactly which form they need.

Taylor’s situation is universal on one level, but particular to transfolk on another, and you rightly see the need to be sensitive to that. One small but significant thing is to refer to your experiences or feelings as “similar” rather than “the same” as Taylor’s. Find the overlap without claiming the territory as your own. (In general, this is good advice for the white friends of people of color, male friends of women, straight friends of gays and bisexuals, and so on.)

I get the feeling from your letter that, like me, you can’t lie to people about what they look like. Some people can! Or maybe they truly do see that inner beauty and nothing else. I envy those people; I have the gimlet eye of a casting director. Taylor is probably not beautiful, because most people aren’t. But Taylor could be glamorous or dashing or timeless or approachable or scholarly or daring or warm or ladylike or dangerous or eccentric or comfortable or rugged or witty or spotlight-grabbing or elegant. Even the most beautiful people have a type, after all. It’s a gift to have a friend who understands the kind of style you are aspiring to and can help you get there. Maybe you can be this kind of friend? We gimlet-eyes tend to be good at that.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

HAVE YOU BEEN TOLD YOU HAVE “INNER BEAUTY”? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com.
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