Why Trans People Can Shake Up How We See Beauty
Since appearing on the June cover of Vanity Fair, it's clear Caitlyn Jenner has been treated like a woman in the same way nearly all women are treated — by others evaluating every part of her body, judging her based on her resemblance to stunning actresses and her beauty regime.
"When you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you're a woman," Jon Stewart quipped in June on the Daily Show. "Your looks are really the only thing we care about."
We know sexist media representations of women can negatively affect young girls' self-esteem and identity. Just as young, cisgender girls see women are valued for their beauty and men for their substance, the message seems to persist for trans women and girls too: Jenner, actress Laverne Cox and journalist Janet Mock are often praised for their ability to embody stereotypical standards of feminine beauty. Now, it seems, no matter what gender they are assigned at birth, all female-identifying individuals effectively learn that beauty is inherent to womanhood.
The trans standard: Even more damaging might be the idea that the media only celebrates trans women who embody these beauty standards, which may shape which trans women the public accepts at all. But while cisgender women may attempt to live up to beauty standards in order to fit an ideal of femininity, trans women's attempt to do so may be just to meet the baseline standard for passing as female — and perhaps even as completely human. As Meredith Talusan wrote in the Guardian, "It's vital to ask ourselves whether our acceptance and celebration of [Jenner's] humanity is partially predicated on that beauty."
And yet, this standard isn't just one trans women shouldn't feel pressured to meet — it's one that many who occupy particularly marginalized intersections of socioeconomic factors simply can't. As Cox acknowledged in a May Tumblr post, the ability to "embody certain cisnormative beauty standards," is largely "informed by race, class and ability among other intersections" like "genetics and/or lack of material access."
The cost of passing: As Cox notes, plenty of trans women genetically don't fit society's aesthetic standards of feminine beauty. "Being a trans woman of color, I feel I am put in a box because I don't fit the mold," Rajah Jones, a trans community activist and Support Group Co-Facilitator of the organization Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders (T-FFED), told Mic. "Because I don't fit the social construct, I am not acknowledged as a woman."
There is also a circuitous economic reality to beauty. "Passing" can be costly. Gender confirmation surgeries and other procedures can cost as much as $50,000, according to a Washington Post report.
Although some insurance providers now must cover these procedures, trans women typically face a notable economic disadvantage, due in no small part to employment discrimination. Aside from lacking national protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace, transgender workers report unemployment at twice the rate of the population as a whole, according to a Human Rights Campaign study. Even if they have jobs, transgender workers are nearly four times more likely than the general population to earn less than $10,000 annually, the same report found.
Sadly, this financial disadvantage, activists note, is often directly related to transgender individuals' ability to pass. "I've seen a real division of people who pass and people who don't in terms of employment and ease of employment," trans activist Juno Roche told Vice.
This just isn't about being considered attractive: The ability to pass as feminine, let alone meeting ideal standards for beauty, is not just a matter of obtaining basic rights like employment, but even survival for many trans women. The consequences for "not passing or for not conforming to a specific look or body type or standard," trans activist and Program and Policy Coordinator of T-FFED Dagan VanDemark told Mic, "are potentially lethal." The fact that 11 known transgender women have been murdered in the United States this year alone seems to bolster this.
The trans standard of beauty is not just about public acceptance of those who embody stereotypical standards of feminine beauty and considered sexually appealing and therefore of value in a male-driven society. It's also that trans women who do not meet these standards are rarely represented in the media or in some instances even considered equitable humans. The overwhelming inequitable treatment many trans women face, and lack of public consciousness about that treatment, is based in no small part on their ability (or lack thereof) to embody a stereotypical understanding of beauty.
That's why trans activist and T-FFED Co-Facilitator Jaden Fields told Mic that visibility of a spectrum of trans identities "is crucial." And this goes for both trans women and men. For example, one of the most high-profile trans men in the media as of late has been Aydian Dowling, an attractive trans man who is in the running for Men's Health's cover contest — a contest based largely on physical appeal. Yet those like Fields did not see himself represented growing up in a black, female body or after transitioning.
"There aren't many visible, very mainstream, black trans masculine folks," he said, adding that "not seeing yourself anywhere" is a "really detrimental" experience. "I think it's important to address all of the systems of oppression that dictate what is beautiful."
Even beyond a wider range of trans-masculine and trans-feminine visibility, representations of androgyny are also important. Historically, the media has portrayed "androgyny and visible queerness as David Bowie or Tilda Swinton or these very thin, very white, often young, able-bodied models," VanDemark said, adding that this narrow representation of trans individuals, "does impact how trans folks see themselves."
But trans women are pushing back. "This is why we need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities," Cox said of her decision to start the campaign #TransIsBeautiful, adding that we must, "celebrate all those things that make trans folks uniquely trans, those things that don't necessarily align with cisnormative beauty standards."
And she's not the only one. After the Vanity Fair cover featuring Jenner became public, and the fact that she embodies mainstream, feminine beauty standards, one Tumblr user named Crystal and her friend Jenn Dolari launched the hashtag #MyVanityFairCover to create visibility for trans women who may not meet these standards — but whose experience should be validated and represented all the same.
"Not all of us adhere to those [beauty] standards," Crystal wrote. "Not all of us want to. Not all of us can. Some of us do, but only out of fear. Some of us do but we aren't sure why. And whether we fit those standards or not, we're beautiful, and we all deserve to feel beautiful, and be acknowledged by the world."
Using beauty for good: Even while Cox and Mock know beauty privilege can be problematic, the two often use their own fame to elevate broader trans issues including violence, the politics of passing and generally fighting myths about what it means to be trans.
It's a model that other trans activists, like Fields and VanDemark, hope Jenner will follow — especially with the premiere of her show, I Am Cait.
VanDemark hopes Jenner will continue her streak in talking about trans lives as she did with during the ESPY Awards earlier this month. If Jenner "talks about the trans women of color who have paved the way" and "uses her platform to invite other people to the stage — figurative and literal stages — who have been doing the work, who have been fighting for years, that would be amazing," VanDemark said.
While the recent proliferation of media coverage of trans women is inspiring, therefore, it's crucial we consciously and carefully engage with and make visible trans individuals in a way that centers on their experiences over their appearance.
As Cox wrote of the media's focus on Jenner's beauty, "Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities ... Her courage to move past denial into her truth so publicly. These things are beyond beautiful to me."