The Silicone Diaries offers a cutting gaze

By Kristi Alexandra
[culture editor] 

Nina Arsenault went under the knife over 60 times to achieve her feminine physique. (Photo courtesy of David Hawe)

Make a call to Toronto-based Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Productions’ offices, and a sultry, feminine voice may answer your call. You might hang up, thinking you accidentally dialed that sex-chat operator you talked to last night. You didn’t.

It’s the voice of Nina Arsenault: columnist, actress, former sex-trade worker and professor. She’s also Canada’s most famous trans woman, who happens to be the writer and star of BIBT’s most provocative play, The Silicone Diaries.

The Silicone Diaries is a true-to-life account of Arsenault’s transformation from “awkward man into a 36D-26-40 bombshell” through over 60 surgeries and a long, spiritual trajectory.

“It starts with the idea that I knew I was a woman and that I had to have surgical procedures if I wanted to look like one,” says Arsenualt over the phone from her hometown of Toronto. “When I aged, I masculinized. That doesn’t happen to all transsexuals, but that’s what happened to me. Then, [the play] becomes more about my pursuit of beauty. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Ironic, since the transformation that many trans women experience are long, complicated and diverse — anything but that which can be summed up in “a nutshell.”

And frankly, Arsenault’s personal experience can’t be paraphrased into a couple sentences. That’s where her memoir takes over.

It’s an exploration into the concepts of real and fake identity, both physically and spiritually. And, despite Arsenault’s plastic-enhanced appearance, the story is steeped in authenticity.

“There’s no such thing in this culture as being real,” Arsenault offers. “Every identity has been given to you, every identity is something that’s been bought and sold. [People’s] sense of realness has been handed down to them by their parents telling them what to do and who to be, or hip hop music, or music videos or whatever societal pressures in some way. And I am absolutely part of that. I absolutely bought an identity, I bought an image and I don’t consider myself different from anyone else so when people turn around and call me fake, I’m like ‘I’m just as fake as you!’”

And we are. Whether it’s the tonnes of make-up bought by teenage girls each year, the jock’s football uniform or the continuous upkeep of dyed hair, we are constantly struggling to artificially match our outer appearances to our inner personas.

“You know sometimes they say transsexual women are men trapped in women’s bodies? I think a lot of people are trapped in their bodies,” Arsenault says.

“My experience went like this: the interior never really matched the exterior completely. First, I had the body of a young boy and the spirit of a young girl, then I had the body of a grown man and the spirit of a grown woman, then I started to have hormones and plastic surgery and then I had the body of a transsexual woman and the spirit of a real woman. I started doing more and more surgical procedures, then I kind of had the body of a silicone porn star in a certain way. By the time I had achieved that, I had the spirit of an intellectual, so it has never totally matched up.”

Arsenault’s pursuit of beauty lands on a few more concepts — including society’s “cutting gaze” on what exactly beauty is and where it should come from and society’s general lack of understanding about transpeople.

“I think there’s so much work to be done in Canada to accept trans people,” she says.

“There’s this idea that people are like ‘I don’t understand trans women,’ and it’s like ‘who cares?’ I’m never really going to understand what it’s like to be black. That doesn’t mean that I say racist things.”

Arsenault alludes to her distaste of people calling trans women “hot tranny messes” when they’re having a bad hair day, saying it’s a series of misrepresentations about transsexuals that leads to these often hurtful labels.

“It’s this weird thing in culture that people think they should have the privilege to understand everything. But it’s like, ‘maybe you just don’t understand it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but maybe you just don’t get it.’ Why can’t people have that attitude?”

Arsenault incorporates her remarks about cultural standards of beauty in The Silicone Diaries, but is in no way preaching a holier-than-thou approach.

“There is a kind of commentary on societal standards of beauty, and certainly I critique myself. I have quite a cutting gaze to my society, but I also turn that cutting gaze onto myself — quite literally.”

The Silicone Diaries opens at The Cultch on Feb. 14 at 8 p.m.

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