Trans women do not owe you a beauty standard

Copyright 2020 —

When Christine Jorgensen stepped off her plane in 1952, she evoked a sense of glamour, curiosity, and intrigue. Her journey and transition made her the focus of magazines and gossip, and most images of her from that period show a beautiful woman wrapped up in chic and 50’s ideal of womanhood. Fast forward through the 60s when women such as April Ashley graced Vogue before unceremoniously being torn down when her identity was revealed. Then Caroline Cossey in the 80s and so on and so forth. All amazing trailblazers, all extraordinarily beautiful, all white. Beauty, glamour, and the ultra-feminine came to define what a trans woman was and is in the eyes of the mainstream. Indeed, go onto any forum, sub-reddit, look at any show featuring trans women, read any magazine about their stories and invariably their looks are wrapped up as an intrinsic part of their identity.

Obviously, it goes without saying that being femme is a valid identity, and there is every empowerment in expressing one’s identity as one wishes. However, when every trans woman is portrayed as femme and glamourous, even if that beauty is stripped back from them in the case of Sophia in Orange is the New Black, it creates the expectation that all trans women must adhere to the notion that to be a woman is to be femme. Yes, there are plenty of trans women who eschew notions of impossibly high beauty standards, but their representation in the media are few and far between.

What makes trans beauty standards such a burden is two-fold. One, it wraps womanhood up in a beauty standard that most cis-women find hard to reconcile, and was strenuously fought against by feminists starting in the 60s. Two, it wraps up trans women’s value in their external appearance, both valorising those who ‘pass’ and endangering trans women who could be seen as ‘traps’ for straight men. At the heart lies the notion that to being a woman is bound up in an externalised ideal, and that to transgress it endangers all of society. Trans panic defences, whereby cis-men who murder trans women because they find out she is trans, exist because society views trans women as lesser and outside the realm of empathy, that we are somehow trying to snare unwary straight men into perversion. Our very need to externalise the feminine for our own safety is turned against us in unspeakable acts of violence and hatred.

Copyright 2020 — Photo by Retha Ferguson

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In espousing womanhood as cosmetic beauty, as rarefied air into which all trans women must ascend their personal Mount Everest to peak at glamour, it puts the pinnacle of trans achievement on the external, not the internal. There are many, many smart, intelligent highly capable trans women who fly under the radar because they either do not wish the publicity or they do not fit into the image the media wishes to project of trans women. Either our lives are too normal without the drama that sells a story, or we are manifestly too ‘other’ to deserve photoshoots, slots as writers in magazines, screen time, or guest spots on light night TV. We slip between the cracks, living our lives in ways that society has yet to fully reconcile.

By failing to show trans womanhood in a less glamorised form, the feminist argument for smashing down the walls of patriarchal beauty standards fall short. Yes, make-up and glamour can very much be empowering — I know many amazing women who embrace its power, uplifting themselves and their self-esteem through cosmetics. However, it is their choice and their wish to use such tools. If at any point they set make-up aside their womanhood is never denied, their identities are never challenged. They are free to date, love, raise kids, work, exist as women. This is the feminist argument, that women have the right to choose. Trans women need to be allowed the same path, without fear or recrimination.

The counter argument is that many trans women openly run towards the feminine because they were denied it in childhood and adolescence. The glamour of make-up, dresses, heels, flirting, being pretty, wrapped up in the trappings of an ideal denied fit the transition from manhood into their new identity. It is seductive, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with embracing this side of being a woman, providing that the rub is not an exclusion of anything that could be perceived as remotely masculine. Trans women do not owe the world a penny when it comes to self-definition and external expression, yet if the only expression validated is the feminine then of course we will run head long into femininity for safety and ease of comfort.

Copyright 2020 — Jens Lindner

Cis-women, at this point, will argue that this is highly reductive, and that most women exist in a state that vacillates between femme and butch, often externally expressing their gender in whatever moods strikes them on a given day. Most of us like to wear comfortable clothing, jeans, joggers, t-shirts, slobby shirts, designed for functionality and practical use. Yes, glamour and femme have high appeal for a lot of women, yet we owe the world nothing. Our image is our own, and most women are given the space to express themselves as they wish. That is not to deny that there are most certainly societal pressures to trend towards the femme, as that is what fashion and society tend to expect; however, a woman who bucks that trend is not ignored or in danger of having her core identity dismissed.

Conversely, trans women are in the firing line regardless of how comfortable they get with their identities. Our beauty, our representation needs to break through the standardised femme ideal. Trans women do not owe society any debt or expectation of external expression. A butch trans woman is as every part a woman as her cis counterpart. Masculine womanhood is valid, and is very much a thing. Where are the butch trans women in the media? Yes, I know that butch in general is not portrayed heavily in the mainstream, but having women who cut across the glamour lines, who exist on their own terms would go a long way to normalising all trans identities, not just those who fit a passing narrative. It would state loud and clear that trans womanhood is valid in all its shapes and sizes, that whatever our expression we have the right to exist free from trans panic, free from the expectation that all we are worth is being sold the next beauty product.

Trans women have always existed, it just so happens that in the western mainstream media our definition is glamourous, white, young, and slim. Our beauty standards are a time warp back to when women holistically were expected to be glamourous, white, young, and slim. Yet, in the 68 years since Christine’s plane touched down feminism has up ended all of that. If women in general do not owe you a beauty standard, then trans women sure as hell do not. Our gender expression has to be, must be, our own personal identity. If it runs to dresses, heels, and make-up then all power, but cannot be the only thing that keeps them safe from trans panic or discrimination. Every woman’s identity is valid, and society needs to accept that on her own terms.

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