Do You Applaud Caitlyn Jenner Because She Is Brave, or Because She's Pretty?
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.
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.
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.
Especially when so many trans women’s appearances are disparaged – Jenner has hardly been spared these insults – there’s a certain positive aspect to seeing the beauty of another trans woman celebrated. But, at the same time, the financial resources and medical procedures that enabled Jenner’s beauty are inaccessible to the vast majority of trans women, who remain one of the poorest demographic groups in the country even as so many of us are in need of expensive medical services to feel comfortable in our bodies.
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 GÃ¼tler 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 GÃ¼tler 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.
Jenner was just as much of a woman a month ago during her Diane Sawyer interview in a blue button-down as she is today in a white corset: her womanhood is not and has never been defined by what she looks like outside, but how she feels inside – which is true of all trans women. So sure, we can notice, and even praise, the elegance of her cheekbones or her resemblance to Jessica Lange. But let’s also notice how we may be thinking of her as “more” of a woman because she presents herself now according to conventional standards of beauty – and thinking of her as more of a woman because she’s more conventionally feminine on the outside excludes the many trans women who don’t have the money to make themselves look like she does.