FaceApp Photos from Another Timeline

A girl looking out the window of a train, a face looks back at her of the opposite gender.

In the last few years a new tool appeared in the gender dysphoria toolbox. Trans women early in their transition, or ones just discovering that, ‘oh hey, I might be a girl’, can use technology to get a glimpse at their other selves. First there were Snapchat’s Gender Swap filters and a little later, FaceApp. FaceApp, aside from being a possibly Russian spy vector, has dozens of machine learning models for changing your face to a more generically feminine one, adding longer hair, trying on makeup, aging you, de-aging you, etc.

You can, from the comfort and safety of your own phone, imagine what life would be like if you didn’t go through the wrong puberty. If your cheeks were a little bit fuller, your skin a little smoother, and your lashes a little longer. It can be kind of frightening. I remember Irma showing me a Snapchat gender swap filter a few years ago when she was playing with them with the kids, and while the words that came out of my mouth were “I’d take that”, inside it was like a wound.

Sometimes trans women share these FaceApped pictures, or post only the FaceApped selfies to social media. The world is cruel and unforgiving and our self-images are painful, tender things. In the trans circles I’m in, sharing a FaceApped picture often results in someone giving the loving encouragement of “You’ll look better than that.” Let the hormones do their work for a few years. You’ll be you, but you’ll be better than that machine learning model can imagine. There will be light in those eyes.

For me, after transition started I didn’t want to look at those pictures anymore. A few months into hormones I no longer saw a guy in the mirror. I saw a girl who needed more time on HRT. FaceApp wasn’t going to tell me anything useful, it would just make me feel bad about not having started sooner, or it would do its machine learning analysis on my selfie, decide I was still a boy, and present me with boy options, which wasn’t good for my mental health.

The Past is Already There, it Just Isn’t Evenly Distributed Yet

In the last few weeks some trans friends of mine have started FaceApping their old photos, to see what they might have looked like back then. I have no idea who started it. I may have seen it first in Magdalene Visaggio’s thread FaceApping the presidents to look modern, but June Joplin went with it, and then Mae Dean posted one of her old pictures, and soon enough I was downloading FaceApp after swearing for years I wouldn’t.

Trans women, like many foster kids, don’t have pictures of themselves when they were younger, really. If you do a team building exercise and ask everyone to share a picture of themselves when they were a kid, or a teenager, well… just please don’t. There’s a hole there, a gap in memory, a category of artifacts which don’t exist.

My friends were posting pictures of themselves, pictures of them when they were 20, or 9, or 15, and they all looked… right. It was them, but younger, and less weary. Them as young girls and young women, caught in the moment, wild and free. 20 year old girls ready to take on the world, enjoying their dumb crap, being goofy. Teenage girls awkwardly posing for yearbook photos.

Suddenly these hard to look at pictures became approachable. They become ours. Memory starts to unwind a bit. You get a glimpse of a past that might have happened, of happiness that might have been yours.

So here are some of mine.

A Past and Future Jennifer

A girl standing with her hands spread apart, a wry expression on her face. She's wearing a black WIRED Magazine shirt, with shaggy unkept curly hair.

Here’s early 20’s cyberpunk Jennifer. She’s really into WIRED Magazine, as you can tell. She’s living in San Marcos, having finally moved away from her parents. She lives in a bright teal and pink house with big windows, which she loves for the natural light. Being on her own is really freeing, but she’s still absolutely a mess who doesn’t know how to get what she wants from her life.

When I saw this photo, it was like another timeline snapped into focus. That is, obviously, me. Even Google Photos face detection algorithms think it’s me. But it isn’t. I was her back then, but I wasn’t.

A girl sits behind a low Japanese table wearing a yakuta. She's looking at the camera, holding a shrimp between a pair of chopsticks, smiling. There's a large spread of food on the table in front of her.

Pretty soon Jennifer got an opportunity to go to Japan with her girlfriend, Irma. Her birth mom was stationed in Japan when she was pregnant with her, and she lived there with her parents when she was little, so going back is a big deal. They stay in a Ryokan in a little mountain town and have amazingly delicious food.

This photo makes me really happy. The thought of being myself and being young and exploring the world is delightful, and somehow isn’t as sad as you might think. I am happy for this Jennifer, and excited for her adventures.

A girl stands next to her father and mother in a living room, in front of a framed Kadinsky print and a blue sofa with yellow cushions. The have their arms around each other and are smiling.

Here’s Jennifer with her parents, who’ve come to visit her colorful little house in San Marcos. Some how Jennifer got the tall genes from her birth parents.

When I did this photo is was like someone had dug their thumb into a tender spot I didn’t realize I had. I just hurts to look at. When you do a gender swap in FaceApp on a photo it does something subtle to the smile. I look at this picture, and that girl looks happy to me. Her parents are happy to be standing next to her. She’s a mess, but she’s trying.

A girl stands, in an extremely oversized blue Amnesty International t-shirt, in front of the front doors of a school.

Here’s Jennifer standing outside the Christian elementary school she went to for 6th grade. She didn’t have a great time there. She tested into an advanced math class, and then got moved to a lower one after a month. She bought a typewriter at a rummage sale, thinking that she should be the kind of girl who should own a typewriter, but it was old and didn’t work well. Even at 24, she hasn’t had enough time to really grasp how weird it was to move schools so often. She also still hasn’t figured out that she has ADHD.

A girl stands, messenger bag over her shoulder, wearing a flannel, in front of a large waterfall.

The next year Jennifer goes to Mexico to visit Irma’s family. Here she is, in full adventurer regalia, standing at the bottom of a waterfall. There will only be enough horses for everyone else to ride, so Jennifer volunteers to walk back up, even though she’s as athletic as you’d expect for someone who sits at a computer all day. At the top she ends up throwing up in the middle of the road because she’s exerted herself too much. But it’s a good trip, and she gets to meet a lot of lovely people.

A girl looks out the window of a moving train. Her reflection in the curved window glass is of another gender.

Fast forward to 2004, and Jennifer is on a train in the Netherlands, possibly haunted by the specter of a different life. She’s traveling with Irma again, but this time there’s an engagement ring nestled in her bag, and she’s going to ask Irma to marry her when they get to Paris. She’s nervous, but not as nervous as she was when she stood next to Irma’s dad’s pickup truck in the parking lot at his job and asked for his permission to propose.

This photo is the pretty surreal. I’ll kinda leave it at that.

A girl raises a glass in a dimly lit bar, she is wearing a flannel shirt and has a goofy smile on her face.

Fortunately, when Jennifer proposed in Paris, Irma said yes. Here’s Jennifer in Oxford, at the Turf Tavern, having the first drink of her life at 27. That’s what being raised evangelical will do. She still doesn’t drink much, and she still doesn’t like the taste of beer, but she isn’t worried that she’s going to be the kind of drunk who goes too far and tells people her deepest secrets, like that thing about being a girl.

A woman stands next to her son and two daughters. The son has his arms over his mom and one of his sisters. They're looking at the camera and smiling.

A year of planning later, and it’s time for Jennifer and Irma’s wedding. (In this alternate universe gay marriage was legal in Texas in 2005, just go with it.) Her birth mom, Mary, her brother Don, and her sister Lisa come down for it. Here they all are at the reception location the day before the wedding during setup. Jennifer’s tall genes must have come from her birth father, who exists somewhere out of time and space.

A selfie of a girl wearing a beanie, standing next to her mom in an airport. They're smiling at the camera, but it's a little sad.

Several years later, and Jennifer’s birth mom, Mary comes down to visit. She has cancer, and this is the last time she’ll visit Jennifer at home. She stays with her for a while. In the alternate universe, Jennifer and her birth mom get to have mother/daughter time, and have lots of deep, meaningful conversations about life and children and growing up and the choices we make and the pain we hold.

Looking at this photo makes me cry. I guess it’s pretty obvious why.

An Epilogue

FaceApp has given me some scenes of a life that alternate reality Jennifer might have had. A glimpse into another universe. But this isn’t a universe that I live in. They’re fake memories, but memories which make me hope and smile more than the real ones. Somehow, to me, they feel more true.

I haven’t FaceApped any photos of myself with Irma or our kids. Those artifacts of memory belong to them, too, and changing them for myself this way, without acknowledging the change, feels wrong. We still have photos of our family on the fridge from before I transitioned. I was fine with it for a long time, but a few days ago I strategically put magnets over my face. Having photos around of myself is fine, I think, but I look at the refrigerator every day, multiple times a day, and it’s just too much, especially on the days I don’t feel good. But if I ridded my house of photos of me with my family, then what would I have? What artifacts of memory would exist for everyone else, or me? It’s so sad to think about.

I’m not going to print out these FaceApped pictures and put them up. At least I don’t think I will. I’ve had the train photo up in a window on my computer for a few days, and I think it’s something I need to close. She’s there, happy, living her life, and me getting a glimpse of that is enough.

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