When I finally grow up, I will own a white waffle-print shower curtain from Target because Sweethome says it’s good for most interiors and doesn’t shrink in the wash. When I “finish” my gender transition, I will own merino wool t-shirts, because a travel blog told me they wear well multiple times and have a good dollar-to use-ratio. When I get my shit together, I will drive a Honda Fit, eat the most “worth it” salmon, take pictures on my solid beginner DSLR, and have a home espresso set up perfect for my budget and tastes.
I have it all planned out. When I finish my transition, when I get my shit together: there’s a whole life’s worth of objects I know I’ll accumulate. These men’s swimtrunks-which-double-as-shorts, that sensible towel, this carry-on duffle bag, those noise-canceling headphones. In the past year, I have become addicted to consumer review sites and building elaborate fantasies around those objects. I’ve only bought two of the recommended items, because I’m also a broke millennial and remember: this is for after all the chaos stops. These objects will be an indication the chaos has ceased.
Consumer reviews aren’t new, obviously. I remember my parents idly checking out a Consumer Reports before buying a car, and Princeton Review college guides are just very large, floppy books of consumer reviews. They are also everywhere, now. I can read people’s detailed opinions of any kind of object you might ever want—or never want. Amazon goes thousands reviews deep on some items; PopSugar is there suggesting the best gifts for each and every major and minor holiday; my own day job is for a website that revolves largely around recommending you books to read.
And so, somewhere between starting testosterone (the fun, puberty 2.0 version of your 20s!) last September, the election, and now, I ended up reading, well, most of SweetHome/the Wirecutter—twice—as well as a slew of travel blogs’ gear guides. And, you know, probably a good 2/3 of the gift guides for the last holiday season. The Wirecutter started innocently with “what new TV should my parents get” and the travel websites were because I am planning some long-term travel soon and need to pick a backpack/pants/waterbottle/tent. The present lists just happened. I think even my niche backpacking blogs—the ones that bicker over differences in windbreakers in tenths of ounces—had gift guides last December.
We pay more attention to the trials and tribulations that transgender people go through in this highly transphobic world, but a wonderful silver lining is that one does get to completely reinvent oneself and one’s wardrobe. For most of the past few years, my daydreams were, 80% of the time, variations on “But what would that shirt look like after I transition?” “What if I wore that shirt with a vest, huh? Or with a messenger bag and Really Big Boots?” My hidden Pinterest boards are a war between two ideals I aspire to: a cool NYC bad-boy-sensitive-artist tech-bro with a leather jacket, and straight up LLBean Boyfriend. Hundreds of pins deep. Not kidding. Wish I were. Again, I don’t own much of these fantasy wardrobes, but I know what I would get if I did.
The medical part of my transition involves, for me, taking a carefully calibrated dose of testosterone every day, and basically re-creating what 13 year old cisgender boys go through. On purpose. I pay doctors for my acne and plummeting voice and a host of other things. To say it’s a bit chaotic is to say that it’s a slightly turbulent year, socio-politically. I am an adult this time, and therefore exert more influence in my life than my first go ‘round at puberty, but it’s still a hectic time of hormone fluctuations and never knowing what I’ll wake up like.
Really, the only thing I can control about my body, during and post-transition, is what I put on it. I’m changing too fast to really bother buying clothes now, so I’m out here wearing the same five shirts all summer and constructing elaborate, nigh-on militaristic plans of what I will buy once this all calms down and I am the same size from one month to the next. Owning these things will indicate to me and others that I’ve got this. I’ve got my shit together and I’m in charge of my own body.
Finding coping mechanisms to deal with chaotic lives isn’t solely the purview of transgender people, obviously. We do have compelling reasons for getting fashion right, because screwing up what we’re wearing can lead to more violent consequences than a sartorial faux-pas. But cisgender people also deal with stress and trauma, and fantasizing about wardrobes or perfect apartments or perfect weddings is a daydream we can all share in.
I don’t think I would have done such a deep swan dive (we’re talking making detailed fantasy house Pinterest boards during boring conference calls, here) into consumer reviews had my gender transition been the only thing on my mind. There are some other general stressors going on these days. Mainly, well, [gestures vaguely at world political sphere for the past 18 months]. The world has done its best, aided by a frenetic media and my own flicking through Twitter in 2am horror, to make me feel very small and powerless.
When it feels like the world is falling down around you and you have no control about your body or the world you live in, it becomes very easy and natural to seek an escape, any escape. Some friends have buried themselves in art projects, others in their families or Golden Girls binges or in running marathons. Some, I think, have just started toking up a lot more. We do what we must, when there are four months’ worth of devastating headlines in as many days, every week.
But I don’t think I’m alone in building fantasy possession hoards for myself here, or the websites I use for my addiction wouldn’t be so prolific in providing me access to my favorite escapist drug. I’m not sure where we are in the subway tile vs anti-subway tile debate, but Apartment Therapy is there in my inbox laying it out for me with tasteful interior shots and worrying headlines asking me if I’ve really thought about farmhouse chic for my renovated bungalow. Buzzfeed assures me that the Korean BBQ at X price point is the most “worth it,” and that if I do these 7 things in May, I might be #adulting. Okay then. Click.
There’s no shame in disassociating from reality a bit when reality gets difficult. Subsequently channeling that into daydreams about buying new stuff is merely following what our brains have been primed to do, if we weren’t raised under rocks. The advertising that surrounds us mostly works on conjecturing problems for us to worry about and then offering to fix them with something you can buy. Negging, but for your whole life! So it’s no wonder a desire to accumulate objects or experiences is a stepwise progression from feeling that the world is full of problems. We are predisposed towards looking first for material solutions.
I’ve scaled back on my escapism into the lands of consumer review sites recently, either because the summer is easier, always, or because my transition is progressing. I’m still clocked as ma’am by well meaning waiters, but small children are puzzled by me on the subway and I’ve started receiving dirty looks in the women’s bathroom, a backhanded sign the testosterone is working. My wardrobe is still deeply in flux and I haven’t decided on a backpack for my next trip, but I’ve invested in one new rain jacket and decided I’ll only pick a bag when I have the money to buy one.
“There’s no shame in disassociating from reality a bit when reality gets difficult.”
As my long-suffering therapist helpfully puts it, “disassociation is helpful until it really isn’t.” Or, to quote a famous gay icon, Albus Dumbledore: “It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Retreating into consumer reviews or fantasizing about objects you can’t and shouldn’t buy is the American way, but after a certain point, it becomes paralyzing.
I’m not telling you to cut it out completely or smell the roses, but next time the world feels like too much and you want to deeply consider the ins-and-outs of car reviews, think about the last trip you took in yours that you really loved. A kitchen implement? Instead think of the meals you’ll make with it. I think my therapist calls this mindfulness, but to be completely honest I was thinking about where he might have gotten his plaid shirt and if it might be on sale when he was talking about paying attention to reality. •
KJ Gormley lives near the water, currently in Maine and recently Europe. They move ISBNs around by day and write by night. Featured writing in Brooklyn Magazine, Millennial Gospel, with plays produced by multiple companies in Manhattan. They are the worst and best person to take into a bookstore. More writing here. You can follow them on twitter.