Munroe Bergdorf has a face that’s recognized by millions, having fronted beauty campaigns and walked in New York Fashion Week. But last year, the model and activist’s face changed. After years of relying on makeup and fillers, Bergdorf finally went through with the facial feminization surgery she’s always wanted. One year after FFS, Bergdorf tells us, in her own words, how it’s changed her life. The following story was told to Rachel Lubitz and edited for length and clarity.
Your face is how you look at other people, and it’s how you see yourself. You can’t get away from it. When I’d look in the mirror and notice some primary male characteristics, it would make me feel like I wasn't seeing who I really was. One of the biggest things that used to freak me out was dressing rooms, because the lighting is so horrendous. There was just something about the way the light hit my brow ridge and showed the width of my chin and my nose.
I had wanted facial feminization for a very long time, but the surgery is so expensive. In the meantime, I used makeup to make my face look more feminine, and just knew my angles for photographs. Contouring is a great way of reshaping your face, but I was more concerned with when I took off all of my makeup. How was I going to feel when I looked at myself in the mirror then?
I was looking for more semi-permanent or permanent solutions to make myself look the way I felt. When I was 23, I started getting fillers to soften my features, starting with my lips. My face is naturally quite slender and long, and I didn’t have much cheek volume, so I got my cheeks done, and had my chin elongated with filler. I had my smile lines filled in, and Botox to paralyze certain muscles. I did all that, but it still didn’t give me the face that I really felt was mine.
I was more concerned with when I took off all of my makeup. How was I going to feel when I looked at myself in the mirror then?
There was a point where I was afraid to leave the house. I couldn’t go out in the world, and that’s no way to live. That’s when facial feminization really became crucial to me. I just wanted to live a life where I wasn’t affected by gender dysphoria to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on my job or be vulnerable in sexual situations. I wanted freedom.
I had facial feminization surgery almost a year ago, while I was filming a documentary called What Makes a Woman, which followed me as I had it done. I wanted to be part of the film because I didn’t feel like there were many examples of facial feminization surgery that I could refer to in a real, relatable way. It was all very clinical or unofficial on YouTube.
I got mine done in Belgium with maxillofacial surgeon Bart van de Ven, MD, who is one of the most amazing facial feminization surgeons in the world. I got my chin re-contoured and moved forward, my brow bone re-contoured, a brow lift, and liposuction under my chin. Facial feminization surgery is not covered by the National Health Service in the U.K., and I got a deal on mine because of the documentary, but you’re looking in the range of €12,000 (or $13,590 in U.S. dollars).
Healing was a long road. If you’re going to get facial feminization surgery, be prepared to heal slowly. For the first few weeks, your face is a balloon. It’s so big and full of fluid and it’s very uncomfortable. But after the third week, you can go out in public. I was actually on the runway after three weeks, walking for Gypsy Sport. It was a little disorienting. There’s a lot of numbness and you can't really move your face in the same way. Your brain is recalibrating with a new face. Having a new smile was the weirdest thing for me.
Now, I feel the best I ever have. I can leave the house without makeup on and not feel like I'm going to be attacked. I didn’t realize how dysmorphic I was about my body until I got that surgery. I didn’t know how much I was holding back in regards to intimacy, either. If you can’t feel a connection with your body, how can you form a connection with somebody else? Getting closer to how I saw myself allowed me to get closer to other people, too.
I don’t regret waiting as long as I did. I’m not trying to make anyone think that I’ve always looked this way. I look at those pictures from a few years ago and I still see it as me, but just in a different chapter in my life. It’s like looking at myself as a child. I feel proud of myself now, and I feel proud of myself in how I used to look. I worked so hard to survive.
No Filter is a week-long series of frank, honest stories about cosmetic procedures — without judgment, sugar-coating, or stigma.