Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Interview with Alison Ashdown

Monika: Today I am going to talk to Alison Ashdown, an inspirational transgender woman from Toronto, Canada. Alison is a fashion model, actress, film writer/director, and transactivist. Her artistic short film “Forever Changed” was produced and released online in 2020. Hello Alison!
Alison: Hello Monika! Thank you for having me!
Monika: You are a woman of many talents. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alison: Yeah certainly! Let’s see. Well, I love to try new things when I get that passionate interest peaking. It’s how I ended up in modelling, film, fashion studies, and ballet. One day, I asked my friend to do a photoshoot with me and that blossomed into a dream come true with modelling. I’ve been published four times and participated in several runway events.
In fact, at the end of my first year in 2019, I was chosen to walk the runway in Los Angeles for the Equality Fashion Week. Had the time of my life! And with the confidence I gained in front of the camera and on stage, I moved to try my hand at writing a film and subsequently acting and directing it as well. And since then, I moved to Toronto to study fashion management at George Brown College and recreationally train in the Royal Academy of Dance classical ballet program.
Monika: "Forever Changed" portrays the inner struggle of a transgender woman going through transition as she begins to explore the outside world and how she fits in society. What inspired you to write, direct, and produce the movie?
Alison: Well, I wanted to create a story that showed a real message to the audience about the trans experience. Something raw and powerful with a lasting impression. I just find that a lot of trans portrayals in film these days focus on the transition itself as opposed to the reality of social interaction. And the euphoria and danger that can simultaneously exist.

"I wanted to create a story that showed a real message
to the audience about the trans experience."
Link to "Forever Changed".

I wanted to show that a trans woman existing in the world outside of her home was both wondrous and extremely treacherous. And the constant internal battle of those emotions and wanting to live your truth. In the end, I wanted to showcase the dangerous reality that exists for trans women and that the world still does not completely accept us.
Monika: Are you working on any new film now?
Alison: Not really no. With the state of everything, I’m not rushing any new projects. And my focus has been my studies and dance. However, I have started writing a new script that I am very excited for. It will be written as a feature length and my goal would be to pitch it to a professional production company once finished. But I am taking my time developing it.
Monika: How did you develop your interest in ballet?
Alison: Well I’ve always loved classical music. And three years ago, I was looking for a way to get into better physical health so I chose ballet barre fitness. I was extremely nervous in the first class because I felt like I wouldn’t fit in and didn’t know anything about technique or terminology. But my friend did it with me the first class and then after that I fell in love with the atmosphere of ballet. My studio was so supportive and respectful towards people of all demographics that I felt safe as a trans woman in that space. So I guess that aspect allowed me to really relax and enjoy the fitness.
After a while learning the basic ballet barre movements, I realized I loved how ballet spoke to my heart. The elegance and structure combined was perfect. I had done technical sports like speed skating and golf before, so I appreciated the technical and physicality aspects of ballet. And that drive to succeed and push my physical self-motivated me to train in a more specialized program in Toronto where I’m learning classical technique and choreography. And I just started pointe work! Such a momentous day!

"As for coming out, the hardest thing was telling my parents."

Monika: The fashion industry seems to be more and more inclusive towards transgender women. Do you think you can take advantage of this?
Alison: I think there is definitely a market growing for trans women in the fashion industry. I think it’s often related to our life struggles and that we can inspire others, cis or trans, to go for their dreams. Trans women offer the world this view of harmony I think because we often know a lot about “the other side” of the gender spectrum. And I think other people gravitate towards us because of our perspective. I feel that the way of the future in fashion is respect, understanding, and inspiration. Trans women, trans men, and non-binary people personify those qualities so they are more sought after as time goes on.
For me personally, I think that my future career in public relations and marketing can be bolstered by this perspective for sure! The key to that type of career is often knowing your market. As a woman who has experienced so many perspectives due to transition and even career changes, I already have such a wide range to better understand the market.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your social media followers? What do they ask for?
Alison: I get some reaching out privately sometime, yes. But I also try to give them a space to ask their questions through interactive stories. For example, I recently asked my followers what sort of topics they’d like me to discuss in upcoming videos. The topics ranged from being trans in sport to relationships to general political debates. I try to be very open and honest with my followers so that I hopefully answer their questions before they’ve even asked me.
I think a lot of people follow me for my experience and perspective on life’s challenges related to transitioning. I’m obviously only an expert to my own experience, but that seems to resonate with others who are still looking to find themselves in the haze of pre-transition and then during as well.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfilment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alison: Thankfully my family, friends, and workplace were very supportive when I first came out. But with transition I became such a different and better version of myself that I drifted away from a lot of my old friends and subsequently my engineering career. I began to see what truly mattered. Where a lot of my pre-transition friends were cis and hetero men, I now find myself surrounded more by women and gay men for example. And just generally people who have struggled with their own journeys like with mental health for example. I feel more drawn to people who know themselves and reflect on their lives. I think there’s a mutual respect from knowing that we both have endured hardships.
"It’s so important to love yourself."
Secondly it was the change of career. It wasn’t a “price” I paid for transition because my work was very supportive, but I realized I needed a change in profession and atmosphere to truly love my work and feel fulfilled. So that reflection had me leave the engineering world to pursue my career in fashion and the arts. It’s scary at times for sure having switched career paths because engineering was stable, but I was not happy in that industry. And to me, happiness and passion is everything.
As for coming out, the hardest thing was telling my parents I think. I have a great relationship with my parents, but prior to telling them, I don’t think I had ever had such a vulnerable moment with them. I had to do it over video chat because we lived across the country from each other, but I was incredibly nervous. To tell them that how they knew me was partially incorrect. It made me feel like I was letting them down. Like I wasn’t who they thought I was. When the moment came, I did my best to just straight up tell them and their first reaction was partly contemplation and partly sad I think. I remember my mom was very emotional at first because her “baby boy” was not actually a boy. It broke my heart to tell them. But I am so glad they were supportive and remain so today. My dad took the comprehension route just trying to understand what I meant. So the experience, while personally difficult due to the magnitude of emotions, was very positive. 
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Alison: For the most part, yes. The parts of myself that give me the most dysphoria are ones that hormones don’t really affect. I have large feet for example. Or some of the bone structure in my face. But I don’t think I’ll ever get excessive facial feminization surgeries. Partly because it’s expensive, but also because I believe it’s important to learn to love yourself as much as you can. That being said, I don’t love my feet being so long because shoes are really difficult to find, and I often have to order online or accept that most brands won’t manufacture my size. Otherwise, I have loved the skin softening and muscle/fat changes, and lighter hair.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Alison: This kind of ties into my previous answer. It’s so important to love yourself for both your strengths and your self perceived faults. And that includes physically. Part of this is just positive self-esteem. I am much more confident in my looks now I think mostly because I try to focus on the positives like my collarbone and accentuating those features. When you feel good about those, your confidence will soar and look past the parts you may not like or cause you dysphoria.
I think that’s the key to feeling better in public: accentuating your favourite qualities. Personal fashion stylists for example can be such an asset to finding that confidence. They can show you how to look and feel your best. Then the whole “passing” goal might just fade away. Why? Because you’ll feel so awesome and be strutting your stuff down the sidewalk.
"I am much more confident in
my looks now."
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Alison: Oh for sure! You actually interviewed one of my role models, Claire Michelle. She was an early inspiration for me and her videos on modelling are what helped me get the confidence to try modelling myself. And that makes me smile because if she could do that for me, I can only hope that my visibility and work shown has helped inspire other trans women to follow their dreams too.
As for celebrities, I was drawn to Jamie Clayton back when she played Nomi on the Netflix Series, Sense8. And since then, she’s just been so solid as a role model for other trans women. She’s classy and elegant, but also real and genuine.
Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Alison: Hmm. Now that’s a tough one. I actually am not sure the first time I saw a trans person on TV. It always felt like when I was a kid, trans women characters were still lumped in exclusively with sex work and always as a joke.
As for the first time I met someone who is trans, it was probably a group session I attended back in Calgary. I remember I was excessively nervous about fitting in. My self-confidence was very sporadic back then too. I think I was worried I would compare my transition to theirs in a negative way. Like by being jealous of their progress. But the meeting went well, and I actually got recognized by some attendees because of my YouTube videos I had done back then. So that was pretty cool.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Alison: In Canada, I think our government has made some great strides overall in the past 10 years. Gender identity is officially protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that protects trans people from discrimination in the workplace for sure. But there is still a lot of work to do with the overall feeling of the public towards trans women. There is still a lot of misinformation and ignorance at play in the cis world, which does give rise to transphobia. Thankfully it’s just more hidden than on the surface in daily life.
Monika: Being mindful of your fantastic fashion background, I am curious what kind of outfits you usually wear yourself? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Alison: I actually am not a trend-follower for sure. I’m not necessarily a trend-setter, but I love to see what makes me feel good about myself. Whether that be sexy, warm, or comfortable. My current favourite trends are Victorian corsets, berets, and jumpsuits. I love traditional styles and repurposing them for a more modern style. So I’m very excited to rock my new corsets later this spring and summer once it warms up.
Monika: Do you often experiment with your makeup?
Alison: Honestly, not really. Makeup for me was a very tricky thing early in transition. I think for a while I was incredibly intimidated by it. I didn’t want to appear “caked” or look too much like I was in drag makeup. So I learned the basics early on, and since then I’ve learned a bunch through my modelling experience. But I often don’t wear much unless I’m going out somewhere at night. I love my natural skin tone and texture. That being said, I do love having my face all glammed up for a shoot by a professional makeup artist. They always do amazing work!
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Alison: Yes, I love it! I often can get stuck in my own head with my dysphoria, so getting compliments helps shut those voices up.
"I love traditional styles and
repurposing them for
a more modern style."
Photo: @katherinecalnanphotography
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Alison: I actually haven’t had one yet. I transitioned while at my old job, and now I’m back in school. So I’m very curious to see how it goes this spring when interviewing for my internship.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment? 
Alison: Go into the interview believing that you’re worthy of respect and you deserve the job. You aren’t inferior to cis women vying for the same job. Also, never feel like you need to disclose they you are transgender to the interviewer. I believe that that part of your identity is protected under most countries’ citizen’s rights to privacy.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Alison: I haven’t been able to get involved in the Toronto LGBTQ community since my move last fall, but I’m hoping to once restrictions ease and regular events can start once again this summer.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alison: I have a lot of love to give and a huge capacity for it. I’m working on self-love all the time and dance and school has helped me with that because I’m doing those for myself. But I do want to find a lifelong partner and get married one day. But this time, I’ll be the one in the dress everyone is looking at, haha.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Alison: I’ve started to write some stuff. Several of my friends have suggested I write a book about my experiences and adventures. I just need to get in the groove and really go after it. I think it’ll be an amazing read one day.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Alison: Well the main goal is to finish my school program and get a job, which will be in about a year. But after that, I want to start a family sooner than later and have kids and a fluffy dog. But first I need to find a partner for me. I just aim to live fully and follow my passion with fashion and dance. It will guide me to where I want to be.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Alison: I would say that being afraid is something we all experience. But that fear comes from the unknown. Trust your instincts and they will guide you. Live your truth and the fear will melt away.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Alison: yes totally! The transition itself is a means to get us to the beginning of our main journey, which is life’s journey. The transition is a journey, but it’s also intended to help us find out where to begin the next stage. That’s when we need to let ourselves be free and open and follow our passions. Because we owe it to ourselves to be the best version of ourselves possible. 
Monika: Alison, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Alison: Thank you so much! I had a lovely time.

All the photos: courtesy of Alison Ashdown.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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