How Department Store Ads Helped Me Come Out As Trans

As a trans woman, denial and fear kept me from myself– but ads brought me closer.

I used to obsess over department store ads. Twelve-year-old me would sneak Target catalogs out of the mail and stare longingly at them, running my fingers on each image, as though I could experience that soft cotton by touching the page. Smiling, happy teenage girls in sundresses were exactly who I wanted to  be. As a trans woman, denial and fear kept me from myself  but ads brought me closer.

Photo by istock

I didn’t know why or how  but women laughing in slacks and blouses were the object of my obsession. I kept copies of ads hidden under my bed. I told no one. How could anyone ever understand a teenage boy keeping a secret stash of Old Navy and Dillard’s ads that weren’t even for lingerie or swimwear, but for sundresses and jackets? I would pour over every inch of the girls I saw in ads, memorizing their shapes and curves and analyzing each strand of their clothing.

Images that made my straight male friends salivate and offer their lewdest suggestions would instead leave me befuddled at most, while the same images that demanded my heartfelt obsession passed by them like nothing at all. Teenage boys don’t get that kind of excitement about ads aimed at teenage girls, it seems.

They would never have spied an ad for sundresses from Old Navy and thought ecstatically, “They’re beaming and laughing and she’s raising her shoulders in a hint of playful coyness and they’re touching each other with that light, physical affection that is so utterly foreign to men, and it makes my heart ache. I want that. Why do I want that?”

I would wordlessly beg the smiling faces in the ads, “give me your girlhood.” Fifteen years later, they finally shouted back, “You’re a trans woman! Live your truth!”

Then I started shopping.

Knee-length flared skirts from Fairweather, crop tops from Garage, fitted blouses from Winners, miniskirts from Sirens, and more. I built it all around the aesthetic I had honed through years of contemplating clothing ads and femininity. My look was inspired by the carefree girls in the Target ad, the laughing women in the GAP ad, all the women that helped me see myself. Putting women’s clothes on was a special, electric joy, enveloping me in textures and sensations I had only imagined. 

Ads are part of the reason I’ve finally found this joy. But they didn’t always represent freedom: there was pain, too. Ads weren’t just visions of lovely femininity, but a time capsule of a paradise lost, a past I never got to have. These girls are warm, cheerful, kind, engaged with one another, and delighted at each other’s company. None of them feel like they are being tolerated rather than welcomed, none of them is dissociated into an anxious oblivion, not one of them looks in the mirror and sees a stranger looking back. None of them are afraid to let the others know how they feel with a lean, a hand, or a hug.  None of them spent most of their lives sublimating who they wanted to be into the image of a teenage girl putting her arm around another teenage girl’s leg in nonchalant affection, never sure if they wanted more to be the holder or the held.

Now, after it’s become hilariously clear that what I wanted was to be both, these ads bring me a deep smile. In them, I vicariously update my own youth, feeling the warmth and ease that I used to crave. I hope that future girls like me will know these joys first-hand.

I’ve been out as myself for three years now, and I still experience a little frisson every time I put on something lovely, because the thrill of being beautiful never goes away. Dressing like a low-cut fantasy on one day and a midriff-baring athlete on another is always wonderful.

Advertising is intrusive, omnipresent, and sometimes filled with unrealistic standards  but it’s also one of the first places where I saw myself. It’s one of the first places I turned to live my truth. I hope ads featuring happy, free, beautiful women never go out of style. Somewhere out there, a little girl like me is counting on them.