Friday, 21 February 2014

In a different skin


This is Sherry. Just as you might have seen her, if you were strolling on the pier at Newport Beach in California one sunny afternoon in 2013. If you were a man, she would have caught your eye as an attractive forty-something woman in sunglasses, all on her own. It would have seemed almost unnatural, that such an attractive woman should be walking by herself. Where was her guy?


Very smooth, almost flawless skin. Very pretty for someone who must be forty-five or so. Tallish, statuesque, impassive. You'd want to get closer. And that would be potential terror to her. For this was her first public outing. She was taking the plunge, driven by an urge to get out of the closet and into the real world. It was a step into the unknown for her. But you'd never know, because the look on her face stayed the same and would not crack. And yet behind that black throat-band she must have been gulping with apprehension.


All things considered, she looked astonishingly confident. Sherry was experiencing for the first time what it is to walk around in a public place, and meet other people. My goodness, that takes courage. And I say that with feeling, based on my own past experience. And if you are like me, you'll agree too. This lady had guts. But it went all right. For instance, she met a man who really liked her, and said so:


So who was she? By now you may have guessed. Back in January, Channel 4 screened a TV documentary called Secrets of the Living Dolls. I missed it at the time, but it was screened again four nights ago on More 4, and I made a point of watching it. I had an idea that it would have something to say to me, some parallels, some resonances. I wanted to know who Sherry and the others shown in the programme were. Apparently 3.7 million viewers were similarly intrigued back in January. Presumably not all for the same reasons, but 3.7 million is still an impressive figure for such a documentary. If you still haven't seen the programme, there are reviews and comments and YouTube clips that you can dip into on the Internet. I've picked out what I consider the best of these. And in this post, I'm giving you my own take.

Let's begin with Sherry. She was clearly the most engaging of the 'living dolls' featured on the programme. Two of them were shown 'coming out'. Sherry was one. What you see of her is a silicone skin that a male person puts on, to make himself look like a woman. It's a bit like donning a breathable wetsuit, except that it comes in sections. A main one (the torso and legs), then separately the arms, the face, and whatever hairpiece is desired. The face is effectively a mask. The men who put on a costume like this are called 'female maskers'. On the face of it, it looks like a form of cross-dressing, to achieve a look and shape that cosmetics and conventional padding alone cannot match.

There is a tendency among post-op transsexuals to regard cross-dressing as a lower-level manifestation of gender discomfort, or merely a fetish. I'm inclined to take a more sophisticated view of it, but hadn't come across a coherent explanation of what made cross-dressers tick until I read the latest post featured on T-Central this morning (Alice Jane in Newcastle's post on 16 February titled An Essay on Sex and Gender). I feel better-informed now. And I think that what Alice Jane was saying must have some bearing on women like Sherry. By the way, I'm perfectly happy to call Sherry a woman, because she is shaped like one, and besides it's the mental self-image under the skin that matters, not the details of the presentation. Even though Sherry's appearance (as with all the dolls) depends on a manufactured skin, and is not natural flesh.

This is Sherry unmasked:


He's a retired, divorced property developer who (for the purposes of the programme) calls himself Robert. There is nothing wrong with his looks, as a man of 70. But though vigorous, he is conscious of his age, and of having a skin so tanned that he has almost acquired that leathery 'Rolling Stones' appearance. Think Mick Jagger. It's too masculine. It can't be softened and transformed with make-up. He's tried to do it (there's a woman inside him that needs to come out). Then six years ago, he discovered FemSkin, a Florida-based company who make silicone body skins to wear. And that's how Sherry has come to be.

Robert has an explanation for needing Sherry. Since his divorce, he has wanted to date women in their fifties and sixties. But although he admits that some of these potential girlfriends are remarkably well-preserved, none of them look as good as Sherry does. He puts her on, and becomes his own beautiful woman. I think this means that he adopts a different personality as soon as he steps into this other skin, and has attired her suitably. His new persona is much, much prettier than his male self. The various masks he uses with the body skin all have a mouth that is slightly open, like a woman ready for a kiss. For him, she projects sexiness and allure. I can see that, although to my own mind there is also something rather innocent about Sherry's face and blonde hair. She looks like a nice lady with straightforward, uncomplicated appeal. I have no idea what Robert's real character is like (he was a successful businessman after all, and owns a large house), but if his notion of a pleasant but sexy girlfriend is this, and not something garish and hard-faced, then I commend his judgement.

The silicone skin is apparently breathable, and doesn't mind getting wet. Robert can do some everyday things wearing it. Such as enjoy the sun on a lounger by his own poolside:


I think those are Robert's arms, but the rest is genuine Sherry. Blimey, I wish I had a lower body and thighs as shapely as that! FemSkin evidently make very good products. Here is Sherry in the water, after a plunge off the diving board that seems to have whisked off her bikini top. Fortunately only the film crew were witnesses:


As it's California, Sherry has many opportunities to wear summery things. Here she is, putting a yellow outfit on:


Right. Let's take stock. A retired man needing female expression has tried ordinary cross-dressing, hasn't been satisfied with the result, and has turned instead to a putting on an outer skin that transforms his appearance into what he wants. He can dress or not, as the need arises. He stays sane, and has a glamorous solution to late-life loneliness. The inner urge to be Sherry in some form has been a personal secret for some years, but now he is ready to be open and public. Sherry, his alter-ego, doesn't look freaky; she looks pleasant, someone you'd want to know. Close-up, it's obvious that her face is a mask, so nobody can be fooled. She seems harmless. Perhaps you can pick holes in this scenario, but I for one am not inclined to.

Let's shift to another doll. This one is Jessie (although The Mirror Online seems to think that her name might be Viktoria):


Jessie lives in Southend, that big seaside town in Essex. It's the UK. Jessie is still housebound, and not even the neighbours know about her. She is well aware that it's best to keep it that way for now. But her girlfriend, a care worker, who shares the house, knows and accepts.


And Jessie has a doll friend, Tiff, who is 'out' and comes around to help her dress.


The situation is not like Robert's. It's much more social here. A small number of people do know. That small circle is bound to grow. Jessie is otherwise a 28 year old pub worker called Joel:


Joel has been experimenting with masks since his teens. He originally began with a fascination for exotic masks of the Hallowe'en variety - a fascination shared by his girlfriend - and it progressed to female masks. Plus of course the rest of the attire. He says it's an escape, an outlet. Yes, it clearly meets a need. I also think that here is another person with a feminine side, and finding expression for it. And here is the same drive from within to let Jessie, the alter ego, be shared with more people. The programme makes the point well that this urge to be open has consequences. At one point Joel introduces Jessie to two close friends who have never met her before. I didn't catch the male friend's name, but his girlfriend is called Clare. She's the one to watch. In comes Jessie. They hug.


But commenting afterwards, you can see that Clare is wobbly, upset, fighting back tears.


Perhaps Jessie was too much to take in all at once. Perhaps she liked Joel as he seemed to be, and now he isn't the person she thought he was, and can never again be that person. A much-valued friendship may be on the point of collapse. You've got to empathise. Clare does in fact find a way to deal with Jessie. In another scene, she is in Jessie's garden - so far as 'going public' is concerned, this is the equivalent of the pier at Newport Beach - with Jessie and two other dolls. It ends in another hug.


I really do admire Clare's behaviour here. She is the odd one out, in more than one sense, but she copes.

The programme also had much footage of the Rubberdoll Rendezvous convention for female maskers in Minneapolis. Sherry attended:


There was a sort of requirement to dress over the top. And some of the American maskers had attitude. Perhaps, as they were most definitely 'out and proud', they needed to look pretty assertive. Here are some shots:


Sherry looked much too gentle for this company.

During the Rendezvous, FemSkin gave a talk about their products, and how they could help people who wanted to cross-dress using a silicone female skin. If you want to see what FemSkin are offering, their website is at http://www.femskin.com/home.htm. And a detailed look at their products is at http://www.cinderelladream.net/femskin2.html.

As I said, there have been plenty of reviews and comments on Secrets of the Living Dolls. I would draw your attention to The Guardian article by Angelina Bouc at http://guardianlv.com/2014/01/men-who-dressup-as-rubber-dolls-star-on-secrets-of-the-living-dolls-video/, and the Daily Beast article by Nina Strochlic at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/07/the-secret-world-of-men-who-dress-like-dolls.html.

And what of the trans point of view?

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch, who gave evidence at last year's Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards, wrote this Pink News article, at http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2014/01/09/comment-channel-4-did-not-help-trans-people-by-broadcasting-secrets-of-the-living-dolls/. The thrust of this is that Channel 4 has regressed, and produced a 'freak show' documentary that does not help the trans cause. But I don't think that many viewers would have made a connection between female masking and MTF transsexuals. I'm not even certain whether many would place the maskers with mainstream cross-dressing. Inevitably some viewers would obsess about the 'rubber suits' and the 'realistic anatomical details' and the apparent artifice of it all, connecting it perhaps with fetishistic bondage wear. Tsk. Trans people have been there before: the same misunderstandings, the same fixations on irrelevant prurient detail. Hmmm...maybe Helen Belcher is making a good point after all.

A while back someone asked a question on Roses - or it might have been The Angels - anyway, one of the serious trans and cross-dressing online forums that cater for The Community. This person wanted advice on whether it would be a good idea to wear a female face mask - a close-fitting one that would allow proper facial expressions - as a way of presenting a pretty face while undergoing the tricky initial stages of transition. The question was met with puzzlement and disbelief. Why would you wear a mask? Yes, your face would take time to soften and feminise, but surely it was better to endure a few months of that, while still presenting a natural face to the world - your own face. Certainly if you wanted to make new friends, and keep them, a mask wouldn't help at all. At the time I thought so too. And yet there must have been a female masking community online somewhere. Nobody seemed to know that. Well, they do now.

12 comments:

  1. This "Jessica". What do you think?

    http://www.torontosun.com/2014/02/15/a-sex-predators-sick-deception

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  2. I am sorry, but this is seriously F**KED UP!

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  3. I have to agree with Senrub. People like this have a problem. I could never understand why people cross-dress, I have always thought them to have psychological problems. For those who are transsexual it is a different matter, it is a gender problem and not a fetish like it appears to be with cross-dressers and people who want to be 'dolls'. even more disturbing are those who alter their physical appearance to look like a doll. One such woman (I saw this on AOL) has spent a fortune on having breast implants to make her a 36JJ and she has regular Botox injections to make her look more like a doll. She even undergoes hypnotherapy in an effort to become 'brainless'! Definitely psychological. I have seen these manufactured skins which cater for those who like wearing them. I can only conclude that people who have this fetish must be lacking something in their lives.

    Shirley Anne x

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  4. I do wonder why so many people regard cross-dressing as a sign of mental disturbance. I'll allow that the extreme examples are startling, but then what about extreme tattooing or piercing? And what is costume acting on stage or in a film really all about?

    It's surely concerned primarily with finding a comfortable identity that properly fits the individual. And I therefore think the general reaction is nothing but a conventional prejudice. Rather as prejudice against trans people is knee-jerk, silly, and very far from adult.

    Forget the extremes. This programme was mostly about two ordinary female maskers. They did not come across as inadequate misfits. Nor as perverts. The programme hinted at tensions and problems for those close to these maskers, but the masking did seem manageable, and a reasonable option for dealing with the urge to find female expression. Even rational: two big advantages with masking are that it can overcome the problem of being impossibly masculine, and that one can take off the skin and be a normal-looking person again without leaving any traces. And the fact that you are obviously wearing a mask dispels any doubt or ambiguity about what you are doing. None of the maskers had faces that would fool anybody. They can't be accused of setting sexual traps for innocent men to fall into, as pretty trans women who pass superbly are liable to be.

    All right, in some cases the presentation was over the top, even crude. But if the wearer of a skin and mask derives a much-needed comfort boost, then doesn't it save the NHS money, as expensive medical resources are not being used up? And a masker can't possibly offend the lobby that sees hormones and surgery as an unwarrantable and tragic interventions.

    I have no need to be a masker. But I do see it as a solution for some.

    Look, the other day Jeremy Paxman finished his short series on the First World War. he spent some time telling us about the terrible facial injuries that soldiers suffered, when caught in a hail of shrapnel. And how a surgeon pioneered remedial plastic surgery, to give them their faces back. At that time, it was enough to close up holes with repositioned flesh stitched into place, but the results were still unsatisfactory by modern standards. Unbearably so, to some men. If it had been socially possible to wear a mask to cover the scars, some of these men could have had better post-war lives, and not hide themselves away. Whatever you may think of masks - they can have frightening associations of course - they can have a good purpose. It's simply a question of current attitudes.

    It was, after all, fashionable and alluring to wear masks in Venice when Casanova was around.

    Lucy

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  5. A can't accept that crossdressers have psychological problems but we do not. I spent decades believing that I was simply a compulsive crossdresser and it was only psychotherapy at the gender clinic that finally convinced me otherwise.

    For me, the most telling sentence in Alice Jane's well-written post was: "For someone whose body says male but their brain says (or screams) female, there is a need to alter the appearance so that most other people will see them as female." I know that feeling only too well and the biggest difference between her and me is that she can counter it with occasional forays into femininity. There have been many times when I've wished that I could too!

    There are many forms of so-called 'deviant' behaviour that bring psychological comfort to their adherents. So to the living dolls, bondage enthusiasts, adult babies and sissy maids of this world, I say "Pursue your eccentricities with vigour." If it brings you contentment and harms no-one else, then I wish you well.

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  6. Well Lucy you can try to justify the wearing of such things and cross-dressing if you wish but to me people who have to hide behind a mask or feel the need to dress to look like someone of their opposite gender have a psychological problem. Making the comparison with prosthetic aids isn't justified. Those who need or feel the need to cover their war wounds have no need to justify themselves because it is not a fetish. What has acting got to do with it? Actors are only telling a story and don't wear masks for fetishism. As for piercing and tattooing well I think people who do those things also have a problem. I look at these things from a Christian perspective by the way. We are taught that these things are wrong but of course that is not everyone's belief. What I say about these things is what I think about them, no amount of justification by others affects that. I am not saying people shouldn't indulge either, that is entirely up to themselves. We all have the choice in life one way or the other.

    Shirley Anne x

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  7. I have to agree with Shirley Anne. People can choose to do whatever they please. However, it seems to me that those who find such behavior bizarre, also have the right or the freedom to see said behavior or practices as bizarre.

    People choose to engage in self destructive behavior all the time. They smoke, use drugs, and self indulge in all sorts of unsafe and unsavory sexual practices. I cannot see how anyone can argue that these actions are not deviant from the norm.

    Also, I am curious who it is that Miss Kay includes in "her" we..

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  8. Senrub, you have nothing in your profile to indicate who you are, and what qualifies you to give an opinion. This isn't a free-speech forum. It's my personal blog, and I won't permit snipes at my friends. Say who you are, or leave now please, before I delete you.

    Lucy

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  9. I am sorry. I am a 40y/o male crossdresser. I wish I were not so addicted but I am. I do not think that my fetish is healthy as it is all consuming and it makes me feel terribly guilty and inadequate as a man. I am very ashamed. I just see this rubber doll thing as a crossdressing fetish on steroids. Since Angela Kay has no profile either, I was just trying to understand her(?) perspective-no 'snipes' intended. From her post I assumed 'she' was a male, who enjoyed occasional part-time CD'ing.

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  10. Senrub, I apologise for my own anonymity. I hadn't realized that Google+ didn't point to my own blog. It does now and you're very welcome to trawl through my posts and comment if you wish.

    I sincerely hope that you can come to terms with your crossdressing. For some, it will remain a part-time fetish; for me it was merely the outward manifestation of something much deeper. And yes, I know the feelings of guilt that it can produce.

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  11. Thank you, Senrub. At least I now have an idea where you're coming from.

    I think you might be advised not to recoil from your leanings towards cross-dressing, and certainly not to feel ashamed, but to find out exactly what is going on in your own mind. Not that I wish to propel you in any particular direction, but you might have a gender issue and that will need attention. Fortunately help is available. But I wouldn't just sit on it and feel awful.

    Lucy

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  12. Thank you both for your kind understanding. Didn't mean to hijack your blog. I just think it is really weird for grown men to get off on dressing as women.
    The rubber doll thing just seems totally over the top.
    Just my own personal point of view, you are certainly entitled to yours.

    ReplyDelete

You must be registered with a proper blogging platform if you wish to make a comment. I have had to deny access to completely anonymous commentators.

This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford