What It's Really Like To Be A Trans Woman

This story was originally published on Sept. 23, 2016.

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.

Violence against trans women is, in fact, so prevalent that at least 20 had been killed in 2015 alone, compelling Laverne Cox to call for a state of emergency on Good Morning America. A 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that 72% of victims of anti-LGBT homicide are transgender women, and 67% of those are trans women of color. Transgender people are seven times more likely to be subject to police violence; this rate skyrockets if they 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.

Rashida Renée
Presenting as femme may not be the only option a trans woman wants.
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."
The concept of passing, of having some kind of safety and protection through appearance, is a particularly divisive one for trans women. Says Rashida Renée, a 26-year-old Black trans woman from the South: "Passing requires a lot of time, energy, and money that a lot of us don't have. It's emotionally exhausting to worry about getting clocked [perceived as trans] every time I leave the house. I don't think of passing as a privilege — it's a means of survival. It's relevant to my survival and safety, but it's not relevant to my needs or desires. Passing is really for the comfort of cis people."

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
Annie Mok, an illustrator based in Philly, views beauty as a kind of necessary problem. "The thing about my regimen is if I don't put makeup on, or straighten my hair, I get read as male a lot more. It immediately gets hairy out there. I see it as a burden sometimes. People get smoke breaks, but trans femmes should get an extra 20 minutes of makeup before we go to work. Because it's necessary. There was a time when wearing makeup was the scary thing, the thing that got me messed with. Based on what I look like now…I would sooner die than not wear a dress."

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."
Caitlyn Jenner’s story is not every trans woman’s story — and that’s a good thing.
"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.

"When I saw the Caitlyn Jenner cover, her face looked totally different; she clearly had a lot of surgeries, which is fine and her decision," says Mok. "But cis people beforehand weren't saying, ‘She looks so great.’ They were saying, ‘She is so brave.’ And when Caitlyn sunk a ton of money into her appearance, of course she looked great. She also looked great before, too. All of a sudden she's close to beauty standards for cis women, which by any means are impossible for everyone — but especially for minorities. Then, all of a sudden, she was getting, ‘Oh, she's so gorgeous.’ That bothers me a lot."
Reducing trans women to the sum of their transformation story can be dehumanizing.
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.

Devan Diaz
Diaz traces many people’s perceptions of trans-ness and transitioning to pornography. "In my experience, most men's introduction to trans women is pornography. It sets the basis for this obsession with genitalia and surgeries, and this obsession with transitioning. We need to get away from that. And we have to get comfortable with disclosing. Being stealth is not going to save anyone's life. Not even my own."

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."
There is a particular power in not being seen at all. Explains Diaz: “If you can not get a second glance, then you've successfully transitioned. The idea of a ‘successful’ transition described in media is linked to the idea that you are as invisible as possible. To the public, you're actually unnoticeable.”

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.

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