Paris Lees: ‘I Grew Up Thinking People Like Me Didn’t Matter’

For the journalist and trans activist, self-care is saying "I’m worth looking after and treating nice".
What Works For Me
HuffPost UK
What Works For Me

When Paris Lees has had a particularly bad day, she’ll head straight home and start running the mother of all baths. “While it’s running I’ll light candles and put my hair mask on,” she says. “And just really take that time out for myself.”

It might seem superficial to some, but this form of self-care has got Lees through some really tough times – including the years during her transition when she hit rock bottom and didn’t want to leave the house.

It was at this time that Lees started attending cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions and was given homework, much to her surprise. “My first piece of homework was, go and do something nice for yourself,” she recalls. “And I was so confused because I was like: that’s my homework?

“It’s up to you how you define what ‘something nice for yourself’ is. But for me, I was like: ok, I’m going to have a bubble bath, or I’m going to light some candles, or I’m going to do a face mask or put a conditioning treatment on my hair.”

It was a defining moment. Since then, these pampering sessions have become a way to deal with the day-to-day challenges life throws at her. And being a high-profile journalist and trans activist, there are plenty of those.

“I feel incredibly privileged to be doing what I do in 2019,” says Lees, who lives in London. “But every situation has its stresses. As women, we’re scrutinised to the nth degree, but as a trans woman you can multiply that by a billion.”

Paris Lees
Paris Lees

Lees is no stranger to scrutiny. The first time she appeared on a TV panel, people commented on her looks. “At first, people were saying: ‘Oh, she’s fit.’ Then you had other people coming on who knew about my background who said: ‘You know that used to be a man.’ Then you get people saying, ‘Oh yeah, look at her hands’, and looking for ‘evidence’ that either wasn’t there or wouldn’t have occurred to them if someone hadn’t have told them I was trans.”

Unsurprisingly, those comments stuck with her. “It’s really hard,” she says. “People scrutinise you when they know that’s your history and that’s the community you’re from. You see it when you’re talking face-to-face with people and you tell them that you’re trans. You see them scanning you because of this stereotype that ‘you can always tell’.”

Focusing on her appearance is an important part of her self-care routine – she loves getting her nails done and describes visiting her hairdresser as “another type of therapy”. In fact, she used to go for a blow dry every week after her counselling session.

“I would say it’s all therapy because there is nothing that my hairdresser doesn’t know about my life,” she says. “It’s just a relief. You can talk, get your head massaged, you walk out of there and feel lighter.”

Growing up, Lees says she would plait her aunt’s hair but didn’t get to experience the same thing. “I think it’s a bonding thing. A lot of what I do in my life – I go for facials, I get my hair done, I get my nails done – you’re almost paying people to mother you and care for you,” she says. “You want to look nice, but it is a social experience. We are social animals and I think it’s so important, actually, just to be touched.”

Paris Lees
EMPICS Entertainment
Paris Lees

Lees’s love of pampering has its roots in years of not feeling valued in society, she notes, acknowledging that many people in her position “don’t have any validation in their life”.

“They don’t have people telling them: you look great, you have value, you have worth, good job!” she says. “And so actually, that self-care is a psychological process of saying: I matter, I’m worth looking after and I’m worth treating nice.

“I think that was the big lesson for me, because I grew up feeling like I didn’t matter and that people like me didn’t matter.”

A study by charity Ditch the Label, published in October 2019, uncovered the degree of hate transgender people are subjected to online. The analysis of 10 million public posts over three and a half years revealed 1.5 million of those were transphobic. The issue was most prevalent on video sites and forums. Liam Hackett, founder and CEO of Ditch the Label, said it showed “the many inhumane ways” transgender people are targeted and abused online every day.

Sometimes this abuse can also stem from media coverage, adds Lees, who says the “hostility” towards trans people in the British media really upsets her. Past incidences of inaccurate reporting is not only misleading people, she adds, it’s also not giving people the information they desperately need.

“I’m probably one of the most privileged trans women in Britain. If you’re a LGBTQ kid in a council estate in Manchester and you’re getting bullied every time you leave the house, you feel like it’s not safe to go to school, and you’re seeing all of this horrible stuff in the press – how is that going to make you feel?”

But Lees struggles to know the best way to change the discourse in the media. “I’ve tried everything I possibly can,” she says. “I’ve taken young trans people to meet journalists through All About Trans; I’ve tried to write pieces that I feel are powerful; I have gone in and done a lot of advocacy with different publications.

“Although we’ve made huge progress – there are at least role models now – it is still very much the dark old days and that breaks my heart.”

It’s a bleak reality that trans people are more likely to be subjected to violence. One Stonewall survey found two in five trans people have experienced a hate incident because of their gender identity in the past year, and a survey by the Scottish Transgender Alliance found 84% had thought about ending their lives.

This is not surprising to Lees, who has lost a number of friends and acquaintances to suicide. “I get a lot of people who message me who are despairing, they think things will never get better and are really struggling to have hope,” she says.

Her advice to those struggling (and she acknowledges it’s a cliché) is that things get better – although sometimes they get worse before they get better. “I’d say don’t lose track,” she says. “Because I’ve been there, I’ve felt like I wouldn’t go on, I didn’t want to live – and that was very real. There have been a number of times in my life when it’s been pretty close. I catch myself all the time now and I’m just like: Oh my god, thank god you didn’t do anything stupid.”

Despite the abuse she and others have experienced – and continue to face – there are glimmers of progress. Attitudes towards the trans community have come a long way in recent years, she believes. Trans actor Laverne Cox has graced the cover of magazines, best-selling books are written by trans people, and Lees has been appointed as an ambassador for Pantene. “I’ve never felt more at home than being in a hair advert,” she says. “One minute you’ve got nothing to live for, the next you’ve got a book coming out and are in a Pantene campaign.”

Lees adds: “When I was growing up, I never saw trans people in the public eye. Advertising is aspirational and we weren’t included in that because we weren’t aspirational, we were stigmatised.

“It’s not the same world [now]... I never thought we’d be celebrated, that’s what’s blown my mind. I thought we could remove some of the stigma, but we’re out here thriving and doing really well and I just think that’s so great.”

Paris Lees is an Pantene UK Power of Hair ambassador, celebrating the transformative power of hair to make women feel stronger and more powerful.

In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about their self-care strategies.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
  • Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
  • LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
  • Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
  • Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK