Why I Chose to Be the Cover Model for My Own Novel

In 2021 a man on an island approached me and asked me if I was trans. When I said yes, he told me “I could barely tell, you’ve become very attractive to men, you must feel like you’ve reached your goal.”

Playing with the male gaze seems to be a losing battle. You get judged and reduced by men and, perhaps even more so, by women. Internalized misogyny seeps out as jealousy, and people find other ways to feel superior to you: well, she’s not very intelligent, well she’s trans. How dare she not abide by the rules: be sexually attractive, but not too sexually attractive, lest you want to be seen as the town slut, or in Pamela Anderson’s case in the 90’s, the world’s slut.

I’m not willing to turn myself inside out and deny sides of me that are equally important to my life and being.

Pamela Anderson became a sex symbol, and decades later she’s reached the status of a much deeper icon. Why did it take society so long to realize that she had a brain, that she could write superb poetry, that her main motivation in life has never been to be the hottest girl in the world? Women who pose nude, or even semi-nude, as I did on my own book cover, are rarely taken seriously as intellectuals and artistic subjects, especially if your body is considered normatively attractive to the male gaze.

Within the music industry I can list many examples of women who’ve challenged this notion, from Courtney Love to Lil’Kim, from Madonna to Beyoncé. All artists who insist upon both being hot and sexy and being taken seriously as artistic creators. Their endeavors have not gone unpunished, detractors say that Kurt Cobain wrote Courtney Love’s songs and Notorious B.I.G. wrote Lil’Kim’s…Seriously?

The literary world is even more conservative. Just look at the backlash to Sophia June’s article “The Makings of a Literary It-Girl,” where women finding new, sexier ways to market their books and their personas was frowned upon as ultra-capitalist and frivolous. How predictable. The mainstream publishing industry is already doing a good job at being capitalist and trying to get rid of any writing that’s original and experimental, because regardless of literary quality they need proof that it will sell.

In my case, I wrote the novel Love the World or Get Killed Trying, and it’s original and experimental and I’m posing semi-nude on the cover and marketing the shit out of it. Does that make me more of a capitalist than someone who let an editor at a big publishing house cut their book in half in order to make it more sellable?

I asked my cover photographer David Uzochukwu to make the photo both artistic and sexy—Björk meets Pamela Anderson, because I knew that if I insisted upon only making it sexy, like a Playboy-cover, I wouldn’t stand a chance in the game of being seen as a serious, lyrical writer of literary fiction. Yes, I too make compromises and concessions.

But I’m not willing to turn myself inside out and deny sides of me that are equally important to my life and being. It is a deeply feminist act to insist upon being both sexy and intellectual. Why would a woman’s sexuality make her less intelligent? If women’s liberation is truly about freedom it should be about the freedom to be as sexy or unsexy as we want without judgment.

We should be able to tower in the highest heels and shortest skirts with a full face of contouring makeup… or not… Wear gray or pink… Pose nude on the cover of one’s novel, or choose a cover that looks like a book by Albert Camus from the 1940s. I guess I run the risk of being taken for a frivolous memoirist, the only genre where you’re even allowed to be on your own cover, but I’ve always done things differently. I’m not about to let this be an exception.

But there’s another reason I chose myself as my cover model. In a society which still often carries the prejudice that a trans woman is “a man in a dress,” showing myself as a trans woman who’s naked, and a conventionally attractive woman, is subversive—it changes perceptions, and challenges bigotries. We can acknowledge that, while also remembering that our worth is not connected to becoming what most straight men would rate a 10 out of 10.

I demand the right to still be taken seriously as an individual woman.

I chose to put sensuality, artistry, and vulnerability at the forefront; my naked body begging to be protected. A white cis feminist may argue that this is already what’s expected of women, disregarding that the specific category of women they are talking about is white, cis, middle-class women. Trans women belong to a category of women that aren’t protected, and are rarely allowed to be artistic or sensual, only hypersexual. Trans porn is often cited as the bestselling porn category among straight men who seldom want to deal with our emotional depths, who just want us to serve as empty canisters with whom they can enjoy exploring their fantasies before leaving to return to their boring “normal” li(v)es. We quickly learn that being vulnerable is too big of a risk. We are rarely protected by anybody, especially not men, thus requesting it becomes radical.

Maybe I am normatively femininely sexy on the cover, but this is a type of sexiness that has generally been denied us. The trans actress Trace Lysette replied to the compliment: “you’re so beautiful and talented”, with: “Thank you, but nowadays it’s hard for me to take that compliment since it doesn’t lead to what it usually leads to for other women… I don’t win prizes, I’m rarely even invited to the awards ceremonies, I struggle to get new roles, and it is difficult to find a man who’ll stay by my side. So what does that beauty and talent actually mean to me then?”

This says everything about our structural position, still in the shadow of social stigma regardless of how extremely attractive and incredibly intelligent we are.

There’s just so much that must change. Beginning to pass as a cis woman who’s often found attractive by men has clearly shown me how deep the stigma against us is. Before knowing I’m trans most men protect me, are impressed by me, and treat me like a goddess, but in 90 percent of cases I either get hypersexualized or desexualized once I tell them my t. Equally, I’ve noticed that many cis women who early in my transition saw me as a token, someone to perpetually call beautiful, have begun seeing me as a rival. Their well of compliments has dried out, and a lot of hostility comes out. If I am going to be one of them, I better keep to my place as a second class-one of them.

The conundrum of passing is that you go from invisible individual to hypervisible symbol for everyone’s projections once the room knows you’re trans. Perhaps this is precisely why I wanted to be both a cover girl and a literary fiction author. I want to take up as much space as possible, both body and soul, not either or. And I demand the right to still be taken seriously as an individual woman.


love the world or get killed trying

Love the World or Get Killed Trying by Alvina Chamberland is available from Noemi Press.

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