How Conventional Beauty Standards Hurt Trans People
Confronting and expanding our society’s narrow ideals of beauty is crucial for true trans liberation.
In n 2013, Skylar Kergil set out to make a photography project about the different expressions of masculinity he saw in the trans community. Described as an “on-going photography project focusing around the day-to-day lives of trans-masculine identified individuals,” Kergil asked his participants to use disposable cameras to take pictures of themselves in their everyday lives, along with their family and friends, and then send them to him for display. More than 20 transmasculine people were featured in an exhibit later that year, and the photographs were then gathered in a book to share.
I’ve thought of this project a lot since the start of 2017. I profiled it when Kergil first began collecting the images, and I used his project as a way to figure out what it meant to be transmasculine, both in and outside the confines of surgery.
These issues are still with me today as I continue to work in trans studies — but they seem even more pressing than ever before.
In this political era dominated by hyper-conservatism, a trans person’s right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has been increasingly threatened; our president scaled back bathroom protections for trans students, and the Supreme Court recently passed Gavin Grimm’s case back down to the Fourth Circuit.
What’s unsettling about the recent activism around the bathroom issue is its consistent focus on looks.
Michael Hughes’s viral selfies in women’s bathrooms and Brae Carnes’s selfies in men’s bathrooms both rely on conventionally attractive features to point out the ridiculousness of having to use spaces that don’t match one’s gender identity. Because Michael is, by conventional standards, clearly a handsome man, it looks absurd for him to be in the women’s restroom; because Brae is, by conventional standards, clearly a beautiful woman, she looks out of place in the men’s room.
In cases like this, traits that have been typically associated with binary gender — strength and ruggedness for men; delicate, soft features for women — are moved to the forefront in deciding who gets to use a bathroom safely.
The notion of safety comes up again and again in the bathroom debate. Cis people claim to be afraid of trans people using the same spaces to evacuate, but to respond to cis people’s baseless claims with conventionally beautiful selfies of trans people who “pass” as cis undermines the larger argument. When transgender people pass, they blend in as cis, and they have more access to public space because of it.
When Laverne Cox gave an interview on The Daily Show, she said the bathroom issue was a matter of public space — but that’s not really telling the full story. To exist in public space without being harmed means that trans people must look cis, and, as a part of this, must be considered attractive by conventional gender norms.
The bathroom problem is not just about the right to exist in a public space — it’s about the right to exist in a public space looking however trans people want, even if that means they don’t fit our cisnormative ideas about how men or women “should” look.
The bathroom problem is not about the right to exist in a public space — it’s about the right to exist in a public space looking however trans people want.
There’s another reason, too, why I don’t quite resonate with Hughes taking photos of himself in women’s bathrooms — he’s not part of the exact demographic that’s most harmed. More than being masculine by cisgender standards, Hughes is a white man, who would have an easier time passing than Barnes precisely because women (cis or trans) tend to be policed for their bodies more. The beauty standard is mandatory for everyone, but it’s women who face the greatest burden.
To be a woman, as John Berger pointed out years ago, means that you are looked at. It means that even in private spaces like a bathroom, women cannot escape scrutiny. Transgender women must deal with the male gaze and the cisgender gaze.
Instead of cis women reaching out to trans women and bonding over the beauty myth itself, they’re turning around and using that same beauty myth to attack or discredit trans women as not real women. Being “real” in this case is just another way of saying beautiful, of saying they pass, of saying that womanhood itself is something so innate and magical that it can only be possessed by a few who meet a narrow set of ideals.
Trans women aren’t the only group that becomes vulnerable because of this emphasis on beauty. Anyone with a non-normative body is affected, as are people of color whose features are often white-washed in order to be considered beautiful. Since our conceptions of beauty hinge on the idea of two and only two genders, non-binary people also become vulnerable under this rigorous scrutiny. There is no such thing as “passing” for non-binary people, since this concept is rooted in the idea of only two genders existing. The possible ramifications for a non-binary person and for someone like Chrissy Lee Polis may not be the same, but these are two poles on a larger axis of normative standards and oppression.
I already know that trans people are beautiful. I have my own community of trans and non-binary people who remind me of this fact with their presence. But not everyone has access to a queer community, and each and every person’s queer community has its own demographic limitations. Even with community support, I still have to consume media that only seems to reward trans people when they adhere to these beauty standards.
I already know that trans people are beautiful.
That’s part of why I started to think about Kergil’s photography project four years later in 2017. His work helped me to understand that masculinity itself wasn’t black or white, and it also contained a key tool in diversity work: If you don’t see what you know to be true in media around you, create it yourself.
And if you can’t create it yourself, then you must actively seek out and cultivate beauty outside the norms until it becomes the norm.
Author Lindy West does something similar in her book Shrill. Using Leonard Nimoy’s The Full Body Project as her inspiration, she attempts to normalize the fat body by viewing pictures of fat women until they seemed normal, then beautiful, to her. This type of rigorous viewing and cultivation of images may seem strange, stiff, and completely unnatural. But our ideas of what is “beautiful” are already unnatural. The only way we change them is by actively challenging what they are and what they could be.
There are already other projects like Kergil’s photo book. Chloe Aftel, Jennifer Jackson, and Laurence Philomène took photographs of their non-binary friends and those from the queer community to help change the way we envision these identities. YouTubers like Kat Blaque and Dakota Hendrix — alongside other trans writers, artists, and activists like Harlow Figa and Reina Gossett — have spoken eloquently about their own desire for “more trans beauty.”
When asked about beauty standards for this article, Harlow Figa responded with, “Years later [after transition], I recognize that beauty doesn’t have to be gendered, nor do I want people’s perceptions of me to be gendered. Masculine people can be pretty, beautiful, stunning; feminine people can be handsome, dapper, suave.” It may take a while to get there — but Harlow’s response, like Kergil’s project in 2013, gives me hope for a more beautiful future.
These creative projects are important and necessary. In order for trans and non-binary people to feel safe in public space, we need to be familiar with them in all facets of their identities and body types. So I encourage everyone (cis and trans, but especially cis) to take a page out of Lindy West’s book and sit in front of your computer and look through #transisbeautiful until every single image is gorgeous.
I’ve got you started with some of the lovely people from my community — but there’s still more work to be done to create even more beauty in this world.