How difficult and expensive it is to be a certain kind of pretty

A friend drew this Comment is Free piece by Meredith Talusan to my attention.

When I heard that Caitlyn Jenner debuted her new name, her upcoming Vanity Fair cover and a new Twitter account, I went online to welcome her. Then I noticed a trend on my Twitter feed: people – including feminists, people of color, queers and transgender folk – commenting on how beautiful she looks. While I welcome all the positive affirmation of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender identity, it’s important to not forget how the forces of economic privilege and beauty standards affect most trans women. And, though all women are subject to conventional beauty standards, the ability and even necessity to adhere to them is rife with even more tension for trans women.

Of course it is. So wouldn’t it be nice to do our best to erode that necessity? To keep trying to nudge the world into realizing and accepting that not all women are gorgeous, and that gorgeous is not all any woman is?

Jenner’s womanhood and the beauty for which she went through many trials to gain certainly shape the person that she is, but it’s vital to ask ourselves whether our acceptance and celebration of her humanity is partially predicated on that beauty. If we accept her in part because she fits into our understanding of the gender binary, then we’re celebrating not just her transition but her economic privilege and her allegiance to a beauty standard that, for non-trans, cisgender women, may mean being more desired or liked, but for trans women is often an insurmountable barrier to being considered women at all.

That’s not worded well. The beauty standard emphatically does not mean, for non-trans, cisgender women, being more desired or liked. It can mean that for the women who succeed in meeting the standard – but at the same time it can create even more hostility. And as for women who don’t succeed in meeting the standard, and/or don’t want to and don’t try – nope, it doesn’t mean being more desired or liked for them, for sure.

But having said that, yes of course for trans women it can be an insurmountable barrier to being considered women at all. There are many reasons to stop treating beauty as a requirement and duty for women, and that’s one of them.

The way in which socially progressive, cisgender people – who are otherwise critical of conventional beauty standards and economic privilege – give themselves permission to talk about trans women in aesthetic terms reveals a certain truth that sometimes feels insurmountable to trans people: affirming trans women’s attractiveness also often affirms our sometimes-limited understanding of the gender binary.

Exfuckingactly. That’s what I was talking about yesterday. People who know better than to reduce cis women to their looks fall all over themselves to do that to Jenner, and I would like to know why.

In Jenner’s case, there’s little doubt that she desires to be complimented for her attractiveness, and it’s hard to fault people for giving her that. But there’s a fine line between complimenting Jenner and considering her beauty a condition of her womanhood, and that line does not escape other trans women. As my friend Lilith Gütler wrote on Facebook: “I’m sorry, it’s hard to be ‘proud’ of someone who has had the financial means to achieve unrealistic goals for girls like us”. She then explained how painful it is to see someone spend as much money as Jenner did to look good, while Gütler has been unable to put together enough funds for the sexual reassignment surgery of which she’s dreamt for many years. Her understanding of the economic conditions required to transition with such aplomb were echoed by a number of other trans women on my social media feeds, even those who celebrate her visibility: we all know too well how difficult and expensive it is to be a certain kind of pretty.

And how oppressive and claustrophobic it is to be expected to.


  1. xyz says

    Laverne Cox points out something similar and adds a lot of interesting nuance to this discussion.

    A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am “drop dead gorgeous” and that that doesn’t represent most trans people. (It was news to be that I am drop dead gorgeous but I’ll certainly take it). But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves . It is important to note that these standards are also infomed by race, class and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representstions of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities. I started #TransIsBeautiful as a way to celebrate all those things that make trans folks uniquely trans, those things that don’t necessarily align with cisnormative beauty standards. For me it is necessary everyday to celebrate every aspect of myself especially those things about myself that don’t align with other people’s ideas about what is beautiful.

  2. says

    And all of that can be said about non-trans women too. I sort of kind of ambivalently wanted to meet [some] cisnormative beauty standards for about ten minutes in my teens, and then I got over it. The cisnormative beauty standards can be hugely oppressive for all women, trans and cis alike.

  3. xyz says

    Or we could talk about the uniqueness of trans women’s experiences for, idk, 2 or 3 seconds? To be quite honest, if a man came up in your comments on a post about sexism wanting to talk about how he gets interrupted in the workplace too or how restrictive standards of clothing hurt him just as much as they do women who are required to wear high heels because his leather oxfords pinch his toes, I don’t think you’d be super enthused about it.

    And yet. Everything about this issue has to be stretched and warped to include ALL WOMEN. I don’t get it.

  4. says

    Oh I don’t know…Maybe because I’m not trans? But I am a woman? And what Cox described does describe me too? And this is my blog? So I can talk about what interests me on my blog? Maybe all that is why?

  5. says

    Or to put it another way – a way I’m sure you’ll attack me for – I disagree with this assumption, if it is one, that cis women are just fine with cisnormative beauty standards. Maybe it’s not an assumption; maybe Cox isn’t assuming that; but the way she worded it seemed to imply she was.

  6. octopod says

    Right. Those standards cause misery for ALL WOMEN, trans or cis. They’re just more dangerous (a lot more, in fact) for trans women.

  7. xyz says

    “a way I’m sure you’ll attack me for”

    Hahahahaha. Right. Much vicious, so attack.

    octopod is right – I made a similar choice about avoiding traditionally feminine beauty standards for a while there, Ophelia. But let’s not pretend that choice to get over it is equally open to all. TW for transphobic violence – I once met a woman who made that choice, to present exactly how she goddamn wanted to everyday, including lipstick, fishnets and letting her body and facial hair grow how it naturally did. As it happens, I met her at a fundraiser for her dentures because she’d had the majority of her teeth kicked out by skinheads. Most cis women? Not taking that type of risk if we refrain from shaving our legs.

    But anyway, it’s your blog, so I will now cease my Nuance Attacks and be off.

  8. Sassafras says

    A trans woman’s looks being complimented is done in defiance of a societal backdrop that constantly tells all trans women that we are intrinsically ugly, repulsive monsters who are better off dead. Judging women by their looks is bad, but that’s not the only thing going on when someone compliments a trans woman. People are showing support for her and it may not be the best way to do it (personally I’d prefer people focus on how she looks much more happy and comfortable), but less rich & famous trans people need to see that there is any kind of supportiveness out there.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    Those ‘cis-normative standards’ are plural. And wildly contradictory: Stick thin women with huge plastic breasts?

    I suspect the driving force isn’t beauty, but shame and discomfort in ALL women. Shame for unwanted and assaultive attention, paired with self loathing for not being….just anything besides oneself.

  10. karmacat says

    I don’t know for sure but it seems that women transitioning to men don’t have pressure to be super masculine. It points to the double standard that women (cis and trans) face

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