As A Trans Woman, I Understand The Pressure To Pass. But It’s Holding Us Back

From health inequality to discrimination, there are many pressing issues which affect transgender people today. The politics of passing – in particular unrealistic and damaging beauty standards – is something that trans women and men are keen to shed light on, too. And with Transgender Awareness Week happening right now, it's never been a better time to ignite the discussion.
By definition, passing is where a transgender person is perceived to be cisgender, says trans activist Eva Echo, who founded the Pass It On campaign in collaboration with LGBTQ platform, Unite UK. The aim? To break down the barriers of internalised beauty and image ideals and to provide trans and non-binary people with a safe space where they can be their authentic selves, both mentally and physically.
"The idea of passing can be toxic," Eva tells Refinery29, "especially if you don't meet the typical standards." Thin, pretty and white: the triad pervades all aspects of beauty, even for cisgender women. But for the trans and non-binary community, particularly trans women, it is exacerbated by gender dysphoria (when a person's biological sex and their gender identity do not match). "Cisgender women find it difficult to achieve the beauty standards which the industry sets. It's bad as it is, let alone having gender dysphoria on top of that," says Eva.

For trans and non-binary people, passing equals safety, but it can put serious mental strain on individuals

Of course, passing goes deeper than surface level. Mainly, it offers trans and non-binary people protection. "Passing is an important thing, especially at the start of any transition," says Eva. "It's affirming and it makes you realise that you can be accepted by society. It's also about safety. When you're going from A to B, it helps, as no one takes any notice and you can move through society easily."
While Eva hasn't experienced violence, she recalls an incident which occurred soon after coming out. "I was closing my tattoo studio and a man was staring at me in his car," she tells R29. "When he realised I was trans, his face showed absolute disgust and anger. It was as though I was to blame for making him feel dirty or cheated and deceived. I've had similar experiences on nights out and at that moment, it feels like anything could happen." Eva says that while the idea of passing can be empowering and liberating, it can also be destructive.
"In my experience, many people focus on the physical side of transitioning and about looking the part," Eva tells R29. "I used to think that having HRT and surgery would make me who I am. Three years into my journey, the way I see myself now is so different to how I saw myself back then. There is a lot more peace because I am no longer trying to chase this ideal body image." Eva mentions that the race to accept an ideal simply puts increased pressure on trans people. "This heightens gender dysphoria, mounts up to mental health issues, such as depression, and can increase risk of suicide," says Eva. A recent study found that transgender people who have experienced discrimination, including harassment and violence, are more likely to suffer with their mental health, while Stonewall reports that almost half (48%) of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide at least once and 84% have thought about it. More than half (55%) have been diagnosed with depression, the report states.
The overwhelming need to look the part in order to get on with life is especially consuming, says Eva. "Some people think that no matter what they do, they will not pass. They think, What's the point? I recently spoke to a student who desperately wanted facial surgery before going to university out of fear that people would 'out' her there. She hadn't even been diagnosed or even started hormone therapy but the way she would look to others was eating away at her and that's really heartbreaking."

The race to accept an ideal simply puts increased pressure on trans people. This heightens gender dysphoria, mounts up to mental health issues, such as depression, and can increase risk of suicide.

Eva echO

The desire to pass sees some trans people risk their health for cheap, quick-fix surgeries

The feeling of needing cosmetic surgery can override safety, says Eva, who knows a number of trans individuals who have flown abroad for cosmetic surgery, only to come away with issues. Popular destinations include India, Thailand and Turkey, where surgeons report cosmetic surgery can be less than half the cost compared to the UK. But things can go wrong. Eva continues: "In the UK, it isn't uncommon for the NHS to refuse to treat you if that does happen. But thanks to the idea of passing being essential in the trans community, a lot of people focus on cost, rather than their health or safety."
The desire to pass and to present a certain image of beauty often leaves trans and non-binary people vulnerable and easily taken advantage of when it comes to surgery. As an ambassador of the London Transgender Clinic, Eva wants people to know that it's important not to wing it or hope for the best just because your head is telling you that you need to look a certain way. Eva has spoken openly about cosmetic surgery on her blog, Square Peg, Round Hole. "Surgery is a grey area," she says. "It's there to alleviate symptoms of gender dysphoria and to correct certain things that you dislike. It's there to help us, not to define us. There's a timeline that many trans and non-binary people seem to follow: get a diagnosis, go on hormone therapy, maybe get a boob job and then facial surgery. But you don't necessarily have to. This only perpetuates the notion that if you want to be an accepted trans person, you are only that once you get to the end [of that timeline]." For Eva, it's less about the physical, image-focused goal and more about the journey that is transitioning.

There's no need to judge if someone doesn't look as 'good' as you. That doesn't make them any less trans. Looks aren't everything.

Eva Echo

Acceptance needs to come from within the transgender community to spark real change

In the transgender community, there is a lot of criticism, says Eva. "It's not unusual to judge each other on whether we pass or not," she adds, recalling a particular uncomfortable moment at an event. "It was meant to be a safe space for trans people but you could feel the Mean Girls tension. I've found that there is also sometimes a hierarchy at self-help groups," Eva continues. "Those that present closer to the binary and pass better seem to take the lead. Things like this can really eat away at a person."
The whole idea of Pass It On is to educate not just cisgender people but trans people, too. "There's no need to judge if someone doesn't look as 'good' as you," says Eva. "That doesn’t make them any less trans. We need to be sharing that message. If you have passing privilege (which means you pass 'better'), it's a good idea to use your voice as a platform. Looks aren't everything and the jealousy and bitching has to end. We can stand together and move on from that."
Social media has a part to play in unattainable beauty standards, too. Platforms like Instagram can be difficult for cisgender people but there is added pressure when you are trans or non-binary. "As much as social media helps me to connect with people, it throws lots of very similar images at me." Eva says that some people Photoshop their face onto female bodies, which paints the wrong picture of who trans people are. It can often be overwhelming and has got her down in the past. "Scrolling through my feed, I often see trans women who are thin or have curvy body types. When younger people or those coming out want to reach out for help and support, that's all they see. As far as they are concerned, that's what they need to aspire to in order to be accepted and it creates a dangerous, toxic narrative."
Someone Eva admires is American writer, musician and actor, Chaz Bono. "When it comes to trans men for instance, it's always about getting a six-pack and going overboard to be masculine," says Eva. "But he's just your typical guy. On an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race recently, he was out there representing being a trans male but having a different body type. There needs to be more of that."
There are plenty of things that cisgender people can do to help, too, starting with being sceptical of the loudest voices. "We shouldn't be moulding ourselves to fit society. Society needs to make room for us – accepting us as we are," says Eva. "We aren't here to steal things or be whatever people like J.K. Rowling say we are," she continues. "Simply listening to trans people and sharing our experiences helps."
Eva sees allies as individuals who sit between trans and non-binary people, and the people who hate. If anything, cisgender people are at an advantage to tell trans stories. "As a community we come together," adds Eva, "but society looks at us as though we have chosen that path. Encouraging people to understand what we go through gives us another layer of protection."

Here's what to do if you are struggling with your image and mental health as a trans or non-binary person

Aside from getting involved in the campaign, where you can share a photo with the hashtag #PassItOn, a statement, open letter or even a poem for example, there are some online resources which Eva recommends for transgender and non-binary people who are struggling with their image or mental health.
"Switchboard LGBT are helpful as they are properly trained and can put you in touch with other resources," says Eva. She also recommends Gendered Intelligence. "This is a fantastic site. They are activists and educators and there is lots of information and workshops for finding out more. Mermaids is also helpful if you're young. Young people are still finding their feet and at that age, you're so focused on image, so it's even more urgent that young people have support and access to help if they need it."
Click here to find out more about the Pass It On campaign.

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