Beauty is not a toothless enterprise. Though we may have casual discussions about the best red lipstick or waterproof mascara, there is a sort of violent utility about beauty that we often don't talk about. What products do we use to feel some sense of being armored against an inhospitable world, and what rituals do we use to feel like women — and what does it even mean to be a woman? Why does it have to be linked to an outward practice?
We ultimately use makeup to present ourselves in a particular way, and for people who are often not read as who they really are, it's a losing battle — with a very high cost to participate. Approaches to beauty, for trans women and non-binary people, tend to be more colored with violence and risk than beauty exploration does for cis women.
A cis woman — that is, a woman who was assigned female at birth and identifies with that assignment as she gets older — might wear black lipstick and a strong eyeliner to be unapproachably beautiful. If a trans woman who doesn't fit into conventional beautiful standards — and "pass," so to speak, as a cis woman herself — tried the same, she might be killed for it.
72% of victims of anti-LGBT homicide are transgender women, and 67% of those are trans women of color.
These women are targeted by people who are disgusted by the fact that they exist outside of conventional and normative standards of beauty and womanhood. How culture presents and performs ideas of beauty determines if women will survive the long walk home.
For perspective on the risks of beauty — and the costs — I spoke to a group of trans women from all walks of life. Until now, so many of our conversations about beauty have centered around a cis, femme experience.
It is well past time to explore other options, and hear alternative stories and approaches to beauty and what it means. If we're going to support trans women in pop culture, we should support trans women in our day-to-day lives, too. Here are some lessons on beauty, trans-ness, and survival that trans women outside the spotlight have to share.
I don't think of passing as a privilege — it's a means of survival.
When we only get interested in the story of the trans woman who has "found herself," or come out after multiple surgeries, and, by linear narrative standards, "completed her journey," we're ignoring the experiences of those for whom this type of standardization is not an option.
Devan Diaz, a Hispanic trans woman in NYC who works in activism, has this to say: "There's this expectation that trans women perform this very binary performance of womanhood using beauty. I feel this expectation to perform hyper-feminine presentation. I think it's gone from wanting to be a very binary identity, wanting to be as close to heteronormativity as possible, to now... It feels basically taboo to step away from it. It has changed the choices I make."
Diaz also thinks that race may come into play. "I've noticed that Black and Latina trans women have this expectation to be 'on' 100% of the time, whereas I've noticed [white] trans, non-binary people are allowed to tag out of traditional femininity, because their whiteness protects them."
For trans women, wearing makeup or doing one’s hair is often a revolutionary act.
When you have every other stranger you meet trying to tell you you're not a real woman because of biology, things can get exhausting real fast. Diaz uses makeup to get closer to her biological connections, not further away from them.
"My eye shape is inherited from my mom and grandmother. That's why I emphasize it. I don't do much else. As trans people, as non-binary people, you're told nothing about you is natural because of hormones, surgeries... To see this aspect of my person reflect in my mom and grandmother, it is natural. You could look at us standing together and instantly know we're related. I want to cling to the parts of me that are my family to remind me where I come from."
If we're ugly despite our efforts we're pitied, but if we're deliberately ugly, we're amoral and deserve the violence we face because we don't aim to fend it off with makeup, hair, or fashionable clothes.
Inés Aaliyah, a trans makeup artist, says: "I loved doing hair and makeup on my friends [when I was younger] because it allowed me to project my ideals of femininity on them, since as a 'boy' I could not apply it to myself. Eventually, male attention became the focus. When I began working in cosmetics, clients wanted their makeup done according to how attracted men would be to them. We see this thinking amplified among trans women. Beyond desirability, entitlement to life is dependent on our attractiveness. It is not only passing that deems us worthy, but attempting to pass that wins us credit. If we're ugly despite our efforts we're pitied, but if we're deliberately ugly, we're amoral and deserve the violence we face because we don't aim to fend it off with makeup, hair, or fashionable clothes."
"First Caitlyn was an easy punchline, then the narrative changed when the Vanity Fair cover came out and all people could talk about was her presentation. Now, we've got talk-show hosts criticizing her looks and talking about how big her hands are or how she needs to do something about her voice,” says Renée. “The scary thing is, people think this stuff means they're being progressive and supportive of the trans community. I'm really sick of everyone pushing the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative. It is harmful, and it doesn't force people to question the gender binary and erases people who don't fit into it. I understand how this narrative might have served people in the community in the past by providing an easy way for cis people to relate to us, but we need more."
Aaliyah says she is invested in the representation of her "trans sisters." "Are they still beautiful? Are they passing? Are they getting enough work done to maintain their beauty, and avoid cruelty and violence? I'm always waiting for their celebrity and success to be taken away from them if they misstep. Those of us who haven't had access to gender-confirming procedures like FFS [facial feminization surgery], SRS [sex reassignment surgery], breast implants, and so on, aren't even seen as women, let alone valued in that way."
If we're going to support trans women in pop culture, we should support trans women in our day-to-day lives, too.
Trans women are tired of the media focusing entirely on a single version of the labor-intensive and class-divisive journey of “transitioning,” because for many trans women, transitioning is never that simple or uniform to begin with. It belies the complexity of their journeys, and it makes the destination seem simplistic and clearly defined.
Mok explains it this way: "When you expect transition photos, expect a laundry list of what's going on with our bodies, who we sleep with and how. There tends to be little question about feelings and thoughts beyond, 'I was scared, I couldn't be myself, and now I'm myself.' It's super-basic — and while it's true for a lot of people, part of the story can never be the whole story."
Renée agrees: "They want to see you go from being a man to a woman — they don't respect the in-between, or girls who aren't worried about traditional femininity. I wish people would expand their idea of what women are supposed to look like. No shade, but my aunt is 5'11" and has more hair on her chest than I do, but that doesn't make her any less of a woman, so I don't get why my womanhood is invalidated because I might have a little hair on my chin."
The idea of a ‘successful’ transition described in media is linked to the idea that you are as invisible as possible.
Aaliyah also links the fascination with witnessing transition to pornography: "People love to...gush over before-and-after pictures, but apart from the superficial elements — primarily surgery and fashion — no attention is paid to the psychological and social implications of transition. I wish the focus on my genitals weren't so acute. It almost feels pornographic, the excitement people feel about asking about my dick and the ownership they assume over its functions."
In my conversations with all of these women, from around the country and from different backgrounds, the consensus was the same: Violence is essentially imminent in a world that is inhospitable and tries to force trans women to be anyone but who they are.
It’s a conversation that has been echoed on Refinery29, in our discussion about gender and fashion. Alok Vaid-Menon said it best: "It’s a world in which whether we’re beautiful or if we’re ugly, we get killed, murdered, or raped. So what we need is a type of world where our worth is not linked to our visibility." How can we write beauty into being something more illuminating, more free, for all women and all people who want to experience it and redefine what it means?
In the upcoming weeks, we’ll explore alternative views on beauty and gender, and try to find out.