Deconstructing Transgender Beauty Standards Is Vital to Ending “Passing” Culture

Deconstructing Transgender Beauty Standards Is Vital to Ending “Passing” Culture
Photo: Candace Ross.

Beauty is defined by a combination of qualities—shape, color and form—that please the aesthetic senses. Over time, our conception of beauty has evolved as our cultural and aesthetic values have changed. (The shift from our Twiggy days to our collective obsession with the Kardashians comes to mind.) More recently, our beauty goggles have expanded, making room for different races, shapes, sizes and more. While this shift has made room for many more people to see themselves reflected in society’s understanding of beauty, some relics of the old guard remain—especially when it comes to transgender beauty standards. Transgender women, for example, still face one rule: You must be a “believable” or “convincing” woman. This unwritten law has given way to an extremely damaging lifestyle called “passing.”

First of all, what is “passing”?

Passing is best understood as the ability a person has (or doesn’t have) to be seen as a member of an identity group different from their own. That includes race, ethnicity, social classic, sexual orientation, gender and even age. As a “passable” transgender woman, I lived five years after high school without ever having to disclose to anyone that I had transitioned from male to female.

The ability to pass, or “passing privilege” is largely affected by two things: socioeconomic background and genetic makeup. If you have socioeconomic passing privilege, you can afford doctor visits, hormone treatments, new clothing and, if you choose, gender confirmation surgery—all of which can make it easier for you to pass. If you have genetic passing privilege, you may look more like your mom (or dad, if you’re transitioning from female to male), have naturally feminine (or masculine) features, have a higher (or lower) pitched voice or possess a smaller (or larger) frame. All of these elements affect your ability to pass, as does the age at which you start transitioning.

The desire to pass has historically stemmed from a concern for safety; the more you’re able to pass as the gender with which you identify, the less likely you may be to encounter hatred or vitriol from those around you. This cannot and should not be discounted. Not to mention, transitioning can be hard, and you should do what you can to make yourself feel comfortable throughout the process.

That said, in my time as a passable transgender woman, I’ve found that society tends to put pressure on transgender women to look and act in certain ways. These expectations can be damaging in both the short- and long-term. Many transgender women live in fear of being “found out” or “read” or “clocked.” All we want is to be seen and treated as anyone else, but in the process of striving for this kind of acceptance, we’ve been taught to strive for certain appearances and to emulate certain behaviors—and these things have dramatically impacted the way we move throughout the world.

How does passing culture impact those within the transgender community?

No one exists within our culture without encountering beauty standards to which they aspire. But the stakes are particularly high for transgender women. If we don’t meet those standards, our entire identities are at risk of being invalidated. If we want to be treated as “real” women, we have to be perceived as “real” women—which has created, within many of us, a deep and desperate desire to pass. For many, this means surgery, though a medical transition shouldn’t be our bar for accepting someone’s sex or gender. No trans person needs to have bottom surgery or facial feminization in order to be a “real” woman. These procedures are wonderful if they help you feel like your most amazing self, but genitals and appearance have nothing to do with the validity of your identity; being a woman is a feeling—it’s the divine feminine.

Still, when we put such emphasis on transgender women embodying certain beauty standards, we must consider: Do these expectations make a trans woman’s entire life experience about being recognized? As someone who’s been there, I can honestly say the answer is yes. During those five years living in secret, I lived in fear. In fear of being “found out,” of being treated differently, of being harassed, assaulted or worse.

Erasing part of your life—part of yourself—to appease others is no way to live. During my years living in secret, I quite literally lived a double life, splitting myself between those who knew me before college and those who met me within the following years. I couldn’t mix my two worlds, and I can really only see the effects of this division clearly now, in hindsight. I constantly worried about people staring at me. I hated talking in front of people I didn’t know—or going to loud places because my voice always gets deeper when I have to speak louder. I felt angry, scared and trapped all at once, even though I was living out my wildest physical fantasies.

I also noticed that passing culture tends to pit trans women against one another. There’s enough in-fighting with women as it is; in the trans community, we have to lift each other up—not fight to be seen as the prettiest, or the girl with the most cookie-cutter lifestyle.

Where do we go from here?

We can begin by eliminating harmful phrases from our vernacular. When we say “real women” or “trans women” or “cis women,” we draw unnecessary distinctions within our gender—rather than just seeing trans women as women, period. I’m admittedly guilty of using words like “trans” or “cis” to define women, but it has to stop—with me and everyone. We need to shatter the image we’ve collectively crafted of the picture-perfect woman. We need to stop urging trans women to speak softer, walk slinkier or undergo surgery to qualify as “real” women. There is no single, right way to be a woman. There is no single, right version of what a woman is. We all need to stand up for our trans brothers and sisters and make our support loud and clear.

Transgender people shouldn’t have to conform to society’s conventional definition of beauty in order to be seen, respected or accepted. Our journeys are so much more than just becoming what we’ve dubbed as “feminine” or “womanly.” More than anything, they’re about becoming our most authentic and comfortable selves.

Gender identity is about how we feel on the inside. Being a woman—being in touch with your divine feminine—is up to you and your experiences. There is no appearance you have to conform to—any build, any shade, any hair, any scars, any genitals. Woman is your soul.