Wise boy turned Disney princess

Valentijn de Nijgh is impressive in many ways. It’s not the sheer beauty of her presence, or her 190 cm body, or the fact she was physically a boy until less than a year ago. Valentijn is one of those people who talks in such a comfortable, yet free way about herself that you can’t help but being drawn to her. When she talks about herself, she knows what she is talking about.

Three years ago I saw the documentary on Valentijn, it showed a little boy who's interior world was so rich, I saw a kid who was able to verbalize a very complex desire. That kid was charming and intriguing. Today, Valentijn doesn't seem to have lost any of these qualities. As she points out, the big surgery doesn't change anything.

'I don't have a protocol on how to tell new people I meet. Because of the documentary people only need to google me to find out about my story, it's kind of scary. I do try to be careful, but the movie forces me to be more open about it. I would rather be the barrier of the bad news. Well, 'bad' news… I am jealous of people who can leave it all behind them after their surgery, my story is traceable.

Sometimes, they contact me for another interview but I think T.V. is to big of a medium. You can not control it. And now, the documentary is available online. I did some modeling for a while and people would post the film on blogs, some guy even made English subtitles to it. Especially here in Amsterdam I get a lot of responses on the film. When I started going out here, I noticed so many people had seen it and they would tell others to watch it, too. It can be annoying, but at least I don't have to explain anything anymore.

The film did reach it's purpose, I work with young people who have gender disphoria. When I go to this support group, and people tell me they saw the documentary, and how it made a difference to them it means so much to me.'

'It's hard to say how I knew wanting to be a girl at such a young age. I never hated my body. I have my parents to thank for that, they were so supportive and just wanted me to be happy. I've always felt free to be who I wanted to be, so I never had the feeling I had to change. In the end, that's what made it hard to decide what would make me happy and how far I wanted to take this feeling.

Especially during my puberty, the big question was: how was I gonna develop the feeling I wanted to become a woman? I took it step by step. Do I want this, do I want that? In the end it came down to one question: 'How do I want to experience life, as a man or as a woman?'

It's really hard to explain the deeper feeling of wanting to become a woman. With me, it was all so out in the open that it was almost not there. The drive to have a sex change was almost absent because I felt everything was possible. I can't even remember I gave the matter so much thought. I was just Valentijn and that always worked out. I wanted to have long hair, dresses and I wanted to play with Barbie dolls, I didn't want to do boy things. That's what it came down to. Then all of a sudden I had to take a decision, if I wanted to postpone my male puberty so that I would have the choice to take female hormones.'

My puberty was tough, but I am not scarred for life or anything. I did feel it was hard to connect to my friends. Relationships, boys, it's always been hard. Because my puberty was postponed until I reached the age of 16, I was two to four years behind on my friends. At that point I started with taking female hormones.

I am super tall and to control my growth the doctors decided to give me more female hormones. My length made it impossible to continue modeling. Two years ago I was taking 6 mg of estrogen a day, that equals the amount of estrogen a woman has in her blood right before she gets her period. There were moments I was really unstable, it was not an easy time. I arrived in this emotional roller coaster where I had a lot of problems focussing.

Yesterday, I heard I stopped growing and that I can take two ml. of estrogen. I'm one ninety, now.

Modeling was fun while it lasted, but now that I am too tall, I don't really mind. They hired me in the same time Agyness Deyn was really hot and the agency told me they liked my boyish look. I am curious to know what makes me look androgynes, cause I don't see it. Is it the lack of boobs? Is it my length? That is something I can wonder about.

I had to quit modeling when I was 1.86 m., then I had already been taking the extra hormones for six months. I now work as assistant at another modeling agency. Next year I will start studying Literature. I just read this great book, Expecting Adam. It's about this woman who is pregnant with a child who has Down's Syndrome. The parents are both Harvard graduates, they're basically geniuses. The woman has these spiritual experiences during the pregnancy, though she is this completely rational person. Because of what happened to her, she had to change her look on life and learned more than during her years at Harvard. I loved it. And I also love reading chick lit!

I would love to write myself. Fashion journalism, perhaps, or a column, books. I would write about people who don't fit in. About the insecurity that is in all of us. That is what occupies my mind lately and I think I can translate that given to fiction, to any story.

When it comes to music, I don't know so much about what's going on right now, I listen to older stuff like Blondie, The Mamas And The Papas, Janis Joplin. And as long as I can dance at the club, I'm happy. My secret love is Beyonce! I love her tack and she is such a good singer! My cousin has a DVD of her latest tour, so we know all the dance routines.

I'm a sitcom person, Absolutely Fabulous is the best! There is just no kindness in the world it shows, everything about it is so gloriously nasty! Really my kind of humor. Y Tu Mama También is my all time favorite film, I've seen it over a hundred times. I can vividly remember the first time I saw it, I was home alone and I crashed on the couch. At one a.m. the movie comes up and it really hit me, it killed me! I ended up sobbing on the couch. And I love older films, Roman Holiday, Barbarella, Casablanca, Una giornata particolare. Yeah, I'm never on trend. I'm really into fashion, but besides that I am clueless.

Fashion has been my passion for years. It's a total addiction. I'm such a dreamer and I love the dream fashion represents. Fashion is my playground. It's where I can play with certain boundaries and expectations. And I see a lot of that happening around me. I love wearing a tuxedo to a party, I love men wearing female things and vice versa. Fashion can shape who you are and it can tear up taboos. When I was younger the Disney princesses were my roll models, now that I am older I don't think I have any. I love seeing people in Amsterdam going crazy, girls who wear a fake mustache to party. I love it when people push those limits.

I've never thought: after the surgery my life begins, I will be reborn. It was never a 'new beginning' to me. It was more like the last hurdle I needed to take. I didn't feel I needed that surgery in order to survive

I'm still me, the same person I have always been minus a bit of skin. I never understood transexuals who send out birth announcements after their surgery. Or people who celebrate two birthdays, their real one and the date they had the surgery. I actually don't know how they celebrate, maybe they have a little pie.

There are a lot of transexuals who don't want to think about the time before their surgery and they call themselves '100% woman'. It's a lie they keep up, some people even buy tampons every month. They are convinced they are biologically female, I don't see myself that way. You can cut what you want but I will always be transsexual. Everyone has to find their own way of dealing with it, but I don't think it's smart to say you're a biological woman and to pretend nothing happened or to blame yourself for not having been born as a woman. I've learned to accept I will never be able to let go of it and that is not my goal either.

True, a lot of male transexuals dress horribly. Stereotypically female. They are somehow stuck in their manly role, they usually walk and talk very masculine. In our society we don't teach men how to dress, it's just not in their system. I think a lot of transexuals are lost, they don't know what looks good on them and they end up choosing what seems female. They represent this outdated image of a housewife. You see it happening, that they love to do chores as soon as they are a woman. Well, whatever makes you happy. When I pass a transexual with my girlfriends and they say: 'Wow, with him you can really tell he is a man.', it hurts me a little. I have so much respect for people walking down the street, totally being themselves. For me, it has been so easy compared to them. They've had so much more to overcome.

The ballet school was the one place where I was forced to be a boy. I had to cut my hair, I couldn't wear a dress, I was bullied by my teacher. I felt really unhappy there, because they forced me to be a boy. I started picking fights with other children, I would come home crying. When I watched 'my' documentary I thought: that must have been it, the moment where I realized not everyone would accept me. I would have to fight for my place in society, the ballet school was the first place where I felt that.

Before the surgery I couldn't handle the two sided part, that the outside of me was different from the inside. And that feels better now, but it didn't change me as a person.

I have to find that security elsewhere. Moving from a small town to Amsterdam helped. I lived in a town where everyone knew about it. And I knew how they felt about it. In Amsterdam it was easier for me to blend in. I arrived in a scene where I was more accepted and where people seemed to understand. So I feel a lot more at home. Besides that, I have to solve it myself, because a surgery didn't fix anything.

Sometimes I feel it is weak I had the surgery done. There are plenty of transgenders who don't have surgery and find their own way, I have always admired that. But it was not for me, I wanted to be able to do what I want without explaining anything. And now I sometimes still have to explain, but less and less.

I have given the whole gender issue a lot of thought and that sometimes alienates me from others. Since I was five years old I am part of this process, since I was three I have known I wanted to be woman. To look at gender in another way, that doesn't work for people. People need those borders. At times they are shocked by my ideas about gender and sometimes I meet people who think exactly the same. Some think carefully about gender and what it means and who gets to decide that and for others it seems to work really simply. To them, it's black and white. And some of those people happen to be transexuals. They too, become really happy. They're probably more happy than I am.

Last summer, one of my biggest fears came true. I went to Lake Bolzena, Italy with my parents and before we left I wondered what I would tell people about myself. This was before my surgery. I met this Belgian guy with great lips. He was very cute, we were flirting, which was already a bit out of character for me. But I thought, let's go for it. One night, we both got a bit drunk and we started making out, he turned out to be the best kisser. And then he wanted more. He was asking: Come with me to the tent. I think would have joined him if I would have had the surgery, but I was like: Oh, I don't really feel like it.. So at some point I tell him: let's return to the others. And out of nowhere he asks me: I don't want to insult you, but are you a boy by any chance? I was so flabbergasted! At that moment I did not see it coming at all. If anyone ask me straight to the point I always tell them. Talking about these things is what I am used to. So I told him about it and he freaked out. He didn't want his friends to know and I just got so pissed with him. I thought it was so short sighted.

I didn't look forward to the surgery. I just realized it was a step I needed to take. Having the surgery was not a condition to live my life. If society would function differently I might not have needed to do it. But I did accept we live in a world were there is a clear difference between men and women and that I needed to conform to those rules. I had to find my place in that world, and that was one as a women. If there were room for something 'other', something in between being 'man' or 'woman', I might have preferred that. To me, gender is overrated. People draw their whole personality from that given.

And I get that, because as you're born it is the first thing you have. Before you develop a character you have a gender. It's the first thing that defines you. That's why it's so important, it's why we have separate bathrooms and locker rooms.

There was this research on what causes gendrodysphoria and what is that the emotional or mental gender is something else than the physical gender. You can have a female brain but a male body. It's an important discovery, cause it means physical gender does not define you. Gender is something cultural, even though most people think it's physical.

I had my surgery last year, in September. It was hell. When I woke up I was in so much pain! I did not know where I was. I kind of panicked, all I knew was that I was in pain. So I asked the nurse for pain killers, who told me she couldn't give me any more. And then I just started screaming. I can remember seeing my parents and at that point I realized what had happened. I told them about the pain, my mother asked me where was the pain. And I yelled: 'In my vagina!'

I had expected the surgery would change a lot. The way I would approach people, more specifically: boys. I had hoped I would be more sure about myself, that did not happen. I thought I would be able to handle the world better. But you go in, you come out and you are still who you were before. That is what the surgery taught me, that gender doesn't matter at all.

The boy stuff was probably the most important motive to have the surgery. I wanted to experience sex as a woman. I expected it to be easier but I tend to avoid it, I don't confront myself with sex. To reach the final step in sharing my sexuality with people is hard. But I don't think I can keep walking away from it. I always be a transexual and that is something I need to overcome and I do need more time. At twenty I'm just leaving puberty and that does put me in an awkward position. I guess it makes me a bit off beat. I'm at another point in my life than my peers.

Sex is the last stumble I need to take. I've tried for a long time to do this for me, on my own. And the last step is to share it. I'm used to my sexuality being my choice and now I'm like: 'No way, it's mine!' Plus, I am petrified. And in a way, because of thinking and analyzing it since forever, my sexuality has become a more clinical matter. That's the funny thing, it is all about what is happening down there. It's what we have been talking about for the last two hours. That is how important it is!

Originally published in Candy Magazine, issue 2, in 2010

Interview by Maurits de Bruijn
Photography by Benjamin Alexander Huseby