Hailie’s journey to womanhood began on a winter’s evening in Cape Town on August 21, 2020. Sitting her parents down, she announced that although she was born physically male, her body does not match with how she feels inside.
“I’m a woman,” she said. “I feel so stupid for not realising it earlier, but it feels like another piece of my puzzle has just fallen into place.”
Her family was not that shocked, explains mom Joanne Chemaly. However, it was a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, Hailie was becoming her rightful self and living her authentic life. On the other, they were also mourning the loss of a son.
“The biggest part of my heart was so happy to see my child finally step into herself, to be so brave, to live her most authentic life. To declare to the world ‘I am different, I do not fit into a predefined box, this is actually who I am and I’m ok with that’. Even as adults we sometimes struggle, not sure who we really are, let alone being able to stand up and declare an unpopular truth,” says Joanne.
“We were both so incredibly proud of Hailie, and yet at the same time, there is a sense of loss. In one small fragment of time, we lost our son. Yes, we gained a beautiful teenage daughter, but suddenly our vision of the future unraveled from what we had imagined and now we needed to put new pieces into some of the places in our mind’s eye.”
Society assigns gender based on a child’s sexual makeup at birth. For those who are transgender, however, their gender identity does not align with their born sex. Many decide to transition to live according to their gender identity, a social and sometimes legal process that can take years and be incredibly tough.
In general terms, ‘sex’ refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences. ‘Gender’ is more difficult to define, but is used to refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity.
Sometimes, a person’s genetically assigned sex is not aligned with their gender identity. These individuals thus are transgender, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming – and these terms are not interchangeable as they each have strongly outlined definitions.
While statistics on transgender people in South Africa is hard to come by, a 2016 report by LGBT+ rights group The Other Foundation estimated that about 430 000 people in the country present themselves in public “in a gender non-conforming way“.
South Africa’s constitution protects individuals against any discrimination based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation, but social norms are still slowly evolving to support this. Across the world and in South Africa, many transgender individuals still face discrimination, violence and even death.
Joanna and Hailie sat down to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of womanhood and the journey ahead. From bras to voice feminization, infertility, boobs, hormonal moods, blossoming beauty and the emotional roller coaster journey Hailie was going through, her social transition was not easy.
Her family has also faced challenges throughout the journey. For Hailie’s younger sister Isabella, it’s been the hope that everyone will love and accept her sister for who she is. For her father Anthony, his biggest challenge in the process has been the worry that people will discriminate against Hailie. For her mother, it was tough accepting the grieving process and understanding that the loss of her son was in no way a betrayal of the love and acceptance she feels for her daughter.
Days after she announced her transition, Hailie and mom Joanne went to a bra boutique to have her fitted with a bra and a set of small prosthetics, which was an exciting and pleasant experience. However, the next day as she got ready for dance and theatre school was a turning point.
“Dressed in her leotard, so pleased with her boobs, but so devastated by what was so obviously there for all to see, the bikini area of her leotard was not flat, as it should be. Her body dysphoria was made so much harder to deal with,” explains Joanne.
Body dysmorphia is a condition in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance and is especially common among transitioning individuals. It results in feelings of embarrassment, shame, and anxiety that can cause people to socially isolate and even lead to suicidal tendencies.
“It’s another really difficult thing to explain but imagine the single part of your body you hate the most and then multiply that feeling by a hundred times and then another hundred times and then imagine that everyone in the world doesn’t see you at all, all they see is that one part of you that you hate.”
It was at this moment that Joanne promised her daughter they would make things right. She began researching tucking underwear online but found nothing available in South Africa. She even reached out to two NGOs working in the trans community and asked Hailie’s doctor, and they all confirmed the deep lack of underwear designed specifically for transgender women.
“How is it possible that we have a whole section of our population who are deprived of the basic dignity of underwear?!” says Joanne. “Thinking of the things we take for granted. The very basics like being able to go into a shop and choose beautiful underwear that makes us feel pretty or sexy and even just basically comfortable. How could that not be a basic human right for all women to experience?”
A conversation with her friend Ilse, who has a background in fashion design was the catalyst for Tucking Gorgeous, a brand of underwear created to give trans women a gender-affirming experience. After five months of designing, prototyping and testing, the brand is now live.
The underwear has a front compression panel, as well as a ‘secret’ tucking pouch which provides a secure and comfortable tuck for wearers to achieve a flat frontline.
“We want every woman to know – they are gorgeous, and they should feel nothing less than absolutely gorgeous. Trans women ARE WOMEN! We believe our product will be life-changing for many women,” says Joanne.
If you would like to support Tucking Gorgeous, you can visit their website HERE.
If you would like to know more about the transgender community in Africa, please visit Gender Dynamix, the first registered Africa-based public benefit organisation to focus solely on trans and gender diverse communities.
Picture/s: Joanne Chemaly and Tucking Gorgeous