Loving the Skin They're In: How Gender Expression Coaches Help Transgender Women Embrace Their Authentic Selves

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 31, 2019

Grace was almost at retirement age anyway. Soon to be 60, the high-powered physician administrator, who lives in Northern California, figured she'd wait until she'd left her job and then "stay home and hide" as she transitioned into a female presentation. She'd even picked out a grocery delivery service. Grace says she was "pretty reclusive" anyway, due to her inability to express her true self.

And then she connected with gender expression coach Monica Prata, who has successfully helped hundreds of transgender women and those exploring gender fluidity embrace their authentic selves. Just 18 months after first meeting Prata, Grace had transitioned full-time, was throwing a party to introduce office colleagues to her female self, and had banished thoughts of living in self-imposed isolation.

"She helped me with clothes and makeup, coached me on how to walk and speak," Grace says. "I didn't have a female adolescence. I didn't have a mom and sisters play with makeup and clothing with me, so I was pretty klutzy. I didn't know foundation from primer or what clothes would be appropriate for me or female body expressions. It's important to remember that every transgender person is incredibly different than the next, and not everyone has the same goals. But my ultimate goal is to seamlessly live in the world as female. So learning those things immediately made me feel much more comfortable."

But as Grace F. says, every transgender woman is different, and not all want or need a femininity coach. Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, notes, "Most trans women I know trained themselves — if at all."

Branstetter worked on her voice on her own, without a trainer for a few months, finding a comfortable register that seemed to get her gendered correctly over the phone. It worked so well that when she called her insurance company to update her old account with her new name, they refused to give her access.

"For the first time in a year, I was forced to drop my voice just to update this information," she recalls, adding, "It felt awful, like being made to bark for my food.

Although a study published last year by JAMA Surgery found that the number of gender-affirming surgeries increased by four times from 2000 to 2014, Prata is an outlier, or what Grace calls a "unicorn."

Prata, according to Grace, "Goes way deeper than the cosmetic — what are your goals, do you want to try to go back to work, what makes you anxious, how does your family feel, how do you do functional things like fly on an airplane, how do you get your gender documents? She helps with all of it."

Prata got her start helping people explore a feminine experience at 17 while working in the women's wear department at Nordstrom in the Chicago suburbs. She sensed that a few of her male-presenting customers were shopping for themselves rather than their wives, and began gently and discreetly steering them toward styles to suit them. She continued this work with cosmetics when she took a job at M.A.C., before founding her company NouveauShe in 2008.

"I've probably become most well-known for working with people on feminizing their wardrobe," says Prata, who charges $500 for an in-person, two-hour session (Skype and FaceTime appointments are $200 per hour). "I think what sets me apart from other people who do what I do is that I'm not using bulky padding, or undergarments to create a feminine body shape. I would say the overarching theme that I work on is self-acceptance and helping people decide to like what they see in the mirror. Instead of fighting with the shape of their body or face, they find what's beautiful about themselves, and we work on accentuating that, instead of trying to conceal or hide."

There are a few other somewhat similar resources in the U.S. for transwoman— The Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, now offers a "Feminine Immersion Program"—but the most commonly provided services are far less in-depth.

Philadelphia-based gender-reassignment and plastic surgeon Dr. Sherman Leis provides what he calls "a day of beauty" to recovering clients. "We'll cut, color and style their hair," Leis explains, "and give them a manicure and pedicure and teach them how to trim their eyebrows and put makeup on. Some people say no, I don't need anything, but I would say the majority of our patients love that makeover day. They can see the pretty woman that they are."

Gabrielle Spierer, a New York City woman who had gender reassignment surgery with Dr. Leis in 2015, still recalls clearly how much that day helped her. "Having somebody who can tell you what your best style is and what works for you is wonderful," she says. "When the outside matches what you are inside, it helps you to feel good. I cried off and on for three days because I couldn't believe I finally got there, and things matched physically, mentally and emotionally. It's a gift."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.