'Gorgeous' is a multi-genre work, exploring physical attraction as a consuming source of self-esteem in non-binary identities for both Seager's protagonist, Esme, and the central character of Andrea Lawlor's novel 'Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl'. Seamlessly blending essay and screenplay, Seager's work is searingly personal and uncompromised.
Collage by Millie Norman
My essay starts nine years before I read Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, when I began to engage in critical theory of the heterosexual matrix without my knowing, through LEGO roleplay. Little did I know, my policing the sapphic love between my LEGO figurines was symptomatic of my 'production of an unconscious sexuality', that being heterosexuality (Butler, 73). Butler would argue that I exerted 'prohibitive laws' upon my LEGO fantasies to ensure they remained heterosexual – an action which was fed by the unconscious desire to institute my sexuality and gender as a heterosexual female – a performance which is considered the hegemonic standard for people born with vaginas. As a woman I was meant to be attractive and available to men. I couldn’t even imagine myself as ‘Princess Esmerelda’, the object of attraction in my LEGO fantasies, without adhering to the patriarchal standards of femininity: thin and conventionally attractive (I already had the privilege which comes with being white). To be loved romantically without adhering to such standards of femininity was foreign to me, as it contradicted the logic behind the bullying that I received for being ugly in high school. To be ugly and a lesbian was to Other myself entirely from the gender I was meant to perform.
I was not consciously invested in gender politics at eleven years old, so did not have the language to reject the norms of femininity imposed by my high school peers. I felt I had to correct my sexuality and appearance to that of an attractive girl, in order to be worthy of human decency. Paul, the titular character of the novel, also manicures himself into an object of attention that cannot be critiqued by hegemonic ideology. Paul describes the sexual attention he receives as 'better than the nothing he had' which implies he has a poor self-image outside of his sex appeal (Lawlor, 31). Because of his experiences with hegemonic ideology, namely bullying and his girlfriend Diane's trans-exclusionary feminism, he experiences a deficit of pride in himself outside of sex, charm, and taste. He becomes fixated by only the traits with which he can make people attracted to him. His ability to morph his body into whatever gender and appearance will make him 'fit... In the most agreeable way' to the desires of his partners is the only asset he can find to build a sense of esteem when his gender-fluid identity would otherwise be shunned by cis-genders of both the heterosexual and gay community (Lawlor, 104). Like me, Paul has built a sense of self-worth by making his facades more appealing to the hegemonic cis-normative and hetero-normative eye. Through the comparison of Paul to the semi-fictional representation of myself, Esme, I will explore how one’s self esteem can rely on achieving hegemonic standards of physical beauty, and how this conflicts with being non-binary, an identity which rejects the association of gender codes to physical appearance.
I put my LEGO away at the start of Year Eight, put my angst into an emo phase, before engaging in seven pubescent years of finding the style that would get me what I wanted: attention.
I wanted to make sure people knew how good I looked. Whether I had to demand for it...
Or, when I felt worse, make myself smaller: completely disregard my own boundaries and play the whiny bottom.
What I wanted to do, and who, did not matter. Attention in any form was capital. Anything to affirm that I was sexy and gorgeous and finally had the power.
And so, after a year of throwing myself at anything that looked my way, I had finally found the ultimate source of self-esteem:
Whilst I had been graced with a girlfriend who was more understanding of gender politics, Paul gets Diane, a Trans-exclusionary radical feminist who refuses to understand Paul’s fluid gender. It is in this arc that Lawlor presents Paul’s lack of self-esteem, despite his cool exterior. Given Paul's aloofness from other gays, namely for their subpar style, it seems out of character for him to be so uncritical of Diane's politics. He does not contradict her, even when she imposes a gender identity on him as 'chemically female', dismissing his mutable gender identity, so she doesn't have to confront the contradictions in her own 'gold-star' lesbianism (Lawlor, 114). But hey, that's infatuation. You miss the red flags.
Paul's response to Diane's TERFism comes less from love than the need to be loved. He tries to persuade himself that maybe he always was a woman, which Lawlor performs structurally through a montage of the typically 'feminine' things he's done. In order to gain the approval and love of others, he changes himself to fit their hegemonic standards. This policing is also present in how he views other queer people. In policing the style of others, he mimics the language of homophobes. He calls the bar patrons ‘fags’ for 'still squealing when Dee-Lite came on' – the same slur which he was called in high school (Lawlor, 236; Lawlor, 140). Paul polices gay people with the slurs which have policed him before. He feels he has been rejected from heteronormative society as 'repulsive, apart from the human flow of life' (Lawlor, 41). In response, he rejects the more camp stereotypes of gay culture, because it is recognizable by straight people as homosexual behaviour. He cultures himself into a sense of style which makes him feel better than the stereotypical gays. This may allow a vent for the exclusion he feels as a non-cis person among the LGB, but ultimately, he aims to create a 'masculinity that distracts men and women' (Lawlor, 63). By policing his gender expression to the fetish of his partners, he maximises the amount of hegemonic approval he receives.
She would buy me curry to keep me from leaving. When I eventually got bored, I would struggle and struggle to get up from the bed but would find myself dumbbell-ed down by the weight of my stomach. If she fed me enough pilau.
I resented my girlfriend for encouraging the date-night weight-gain, as I felt I had lost that source of confidence: the sexual desire of others. Lesbianism is not a haven safe from the patriarchy’s keen eye: the feeling of being monitored was present regardless, because under patriarchy humans are taught to monitor themselves. The male gaze still influenced the way I critiqued my body; in fact, having a girlfriend allowed an easy reference for a body which I deemed, with rose-tinted glasses, to be more attractive than mine. Like myself, in policing his body and style to be attractive by hegemonic standards, Paul feels no love for himself when his body does not meet these standards. He holds disdain for '"straight-acting, straight-appearing GWM seeks same" liars' because in a way he is the same (Lawlor, 136). He doesn't idolise white heteronormative masculinity as he notes many gay white males do, but he does mold into whatever standard of gender or attractiveness is set when he meets the person. Like myself, Paul is left by his girlfriend in a body which has fallen from the standards of conventional attraction. Paul finds himself unable to morph for the grief of losing Diane, and so is left with little love for 'all his old inadequacies', because he has not allowed himself the time to build confidence in his 'potbelly', or his 'body hair', instead he has erased them for the instant gratification of conformity (Lawlor, 196). I have spent so long carving bits of myself out to fit the feminine standards of thinness, as if others will view my body as critically through comparison to celebrities and models as I do. When I have built my self-worth based on superficial attraction, hookups and dating apps, how can I accept my body when it no longer fits the ideal?
Genny Beemyn notes, as a transgender nonbinary person, that they feel 'no interest' in having their body look 'traditionally female' (Beemyn, 44). But I identify with Paul because unlike Beemyn, he changes his body to the genders considered attractive to hegemonic norms. I sculpt myself into the shape of a woman because I am afraid that to present openly as nonbinary would get me less sexual attention. Likewise, Paul plays as attractive men and women, only going for a form of in-between – that is still attractive – when his university peer Dallas reveals his inclination to 'play with both' (Lawlor, 35). Beemyn, being assigned at birth as a male, runs the risk of being misgendered as a 'he' by people who disregard their transness, and as a 'she' by people who disregard their nonbinary identity. This constant misunderstanding of their identity has forced them to find an inner confidence that 'society may never accept me in my lifetime, but I can only be myself' (Beemyn, 47). Lawlor does not explicitly state Paul’s gender identity, rather his fluidity is presented in his fantastical ability to physically morph his body between genders. Nonetheless, Paul avoids the feeling of someone disregarding the way he presents his gender by changing himself in such a way that always lives up to their expectations. Paul and I, unlike Beemyn, have much interest in 'looking female', in the pressure to conform to cis-gender presentations to find a source of esteem, but also in our interest in fashion and pop culture, typically considered 'feminine'.
The harm of conforming to the perfect body standard becomes evident when you are not able to mold your body to whatever shape you wish at will. I, along with Ana and her heel-induced Scoliosis, hurt myself to maintain a shape to be considered conventionally attractive, which is to be thin. It is hard, therefore, to engage in 'feminine' media and culture when it is manipulated by old white men to dictate what is attractive – and you know that you do not fit to that ideal, and never fully will. It is an odd contradiction when Desperate Housewives, a show about complex, forthright women, perpetuates my eating disorder because I've spent too long looking at Eva Longoria's legs and then back at my own. Never have I built esteem in my body when it is heavier, because I have always had the quick release of purging to remove myself from it.
Whilst being non-binary for me and Beemyn is a release from hurting ourselves to conform to the narratives of our assigned genders, 'a political challenge to the dominant gender system', I still want to engage in feminine culture, despite this leading to me being misgendered, and being thoroughly doused in patriarchal constrictions (Beemyn, 47). Even if I am actively critical of hegemonic ideology, with low self-esteem it is hard to reject the self-comparison which occurs when you engage in patriarchal forms of media. Do I betray myself as a nonbinary person, to follow so many hegemonic rules, especially when I hurt myself in doing so?
When Paul meets fellow shapeshifter Robin, he burns ‘in pride and envy of Robin's authenticity’ as he inhabits the ‘San-Francisco black-haired girl’ (Lawlor, 307). This statement is somewhat ironic, given that Robin is authentic in pretending to be someone else. Lawlor’s use of paradox presents the complexity of Paul and Robin’s gender identities: they find solace in adopting many bodies, so there is no one true body which will represent their gender identity (this even applies to Paul's original body). In the short fairytale which follows their meeting, Lawlor metaphorically presents Paul and Robin’s struggle in feeling true to such a complex gender identity. The young prince, who we can interpret to be Paul given his feelings of naivety in the face of Robin, is asked by the 'mysterious king' to defeat his 'rival' (Lawlor, 302). That the king then changes the prince into the spitting image of himself suggests that the king's rival is his own body. He asks him to 'take off your clothes', suggesting they are going to have sex – in short, inferring that only way for the king to beat his rivalry with his body is to love it.
Paul starts to build real esteem when his ability to morph on will is stunted by his post-breakup depression. He cannot change his body to suit the whims of his hegemonic indoctrination, so he must get in touch with how he wants to look without easily being able to conform to these pressures. But how to tell what wants are organic or indoctrinated? Paul rests from comparing himself to other people in the final paragraph of the novel. Instead, he relates to his surroundings, ‘as good-smelling and various as himself', noting aspects of the landscape which are like him, rather than changing himself to fit in (Lawlor, 307). In stripping down the superficial, his attractive appearance and the people who do not validate his gender, Paul becomes more affirmed in his self. Lawlor presents Paul's attempt to become grounded in a literal representation in the final scene of the novel. Paul finds, after being influenced so heavily by the needs of others, that to find himself he must lie alone on the ground, ‘his fingers in the dirt’.
Collage by Millie Norman
Beemyn, Genny. "Being Genderqueer Before It Was a Thing." Rajunov, Micah and A. Scott Duane. Nonbinary : Memoirs of Gender and Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 41-47. Document.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble : Tenth Anniversary Edition. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002. Document.
Lawlor, Andrea. Paul takes the form of a mortal girl. New York: Vintage Books, 2019. Document.