Trans Fashion is Not (Necessarily) Trans Empowerment

By Jacob Tobia

Photo by Erin Southwick

Photo by Erin Southwick

Late one Tuesday night, I was at my friend’s apartment for our usual after work ritual of arepas and red wine. Between bites of corn flour and black beans, I lazily thumbed through the fashion magazines that sat mostly unread on her coffee table.

I picked up the May 2015 copy of Vogue, noticing two headlines on the front cover that, at first, I didn’t believe. I’ve always thought of Vogue as a relatively stuffy, out-of-date archive of high fashion and elite culture as determined by wealthy women on Park Avenue. And yet, right next to the cover image of the actor Carey Mulligan appeared the words “Trans America: The Next Frontier in Gender Politics,” and below those, the headline “Androgynous Chic.”

I flipped through the front ads to the headline articles at the back two-thirds of the magazine, and there she was. Staring back at me from a two-page spread was transgender supermodel Andreja Pejic. The accompanying article began with Andreja’s, story and went on to catalogue the substantial leaps that trans and gender nonconforming aesthetics are making in the fashion industry. Sandwiched between a hundred pages of gender normative advertising, the article proclaimed the end of gender roles.

It read:

“The distinction between man and woman is disappearing.”

“Dressing across gender lines now seems like nothing more than an instinctual aesthetic choice.”  

“Nobody cares anymore.”

I continued reading through the accompanying spread and grew increasingly uncomfortable. The bodies that filled the pages weren’t bodies that I recognized, and they certainly weren’t at all like mine. These people had no facial hair, no chest hair, no body hair to speak of. They were thin, with cut cheekbones, narrow shoulders, slender waists, and graceful hands. They were unblemished, effortless, and unrealistic.

Photo by Erin Southwick

Photo by Erin Southwick

I tried to figure out why that bothered me so much. After all, this was just how fashion culture worked, right? For decades, fashion has been creating unrealistic standards of beauty for all people, from cisgender men and women to trans and gender nonconforming people; exploiting our insecurities and interfering with our sense of self worth in the interest of selling clothes. But why was it suddenly bothering me now?

As I looked at the magazine, what I began to realize is this: there is a difference between how fashion culture dehumanizes trans people and how it dehumanizes everyone else.

When you’re cisgender, models are venerated and also understood as pernicious idols, as bodies that proscribe a standard of beauty you will be judged against but can never meet. The modeling industry is certainly hurtful to cisgender people, but it is widely understood as hurtful. By most reasonable people, cisgender models are not held up as true role models.

What’s more, very few people would argue that the visibility of cisgender women on the runway means that cisgender women are empowered in society. Rarely will someone turn to a young cis woman and say, “Look at Gigi Hadid. Just look at her. Her visibility on the runway is proof that feminism is making great progress, and women are finally seeing full equality.”

Instead, most progressive people understand cisgender models—both men and women—as unrealistic embodiments of patriarchal beauty norms. And thankfully, many cisgender young people have mentors and caretakers in their lives who can remind them that they shouldn’t judge themselves against the beauty norms that are embodied in fashion magazines.

But we don’t have that. For transgender and gender nonconforming young people in America today, models are seen in a profoundly different light. As a trans person, I am not commonly reminded to be wary of the beauty norms embodied by transgender models and fashion culture. Instead, I’m told by my community and by the media that the visibility of transgender models is an unqualified indicator of the progress of transgender people in society.

But the reality is that the presence of trans and gender nonconforming people in the fashion world is not an unqualified good. Sure, as a group of people who have been historically invisible, it’s great that a handful of us are being seen by the fashion world in a new way. But this also means that our bodies are being consumed by the fashion world in the same unethical and convoluted ways that cisgender people have had their bodies consumed, all the while telling us that this consumption is empowerment.  

Currently, transgender and gender nonconforming young people are facing new kinds of body image issues and insecurities that are directly related to the rise of trans visibility in the fashion world. Now more than ever, young trans people are comparing themselves to thin, conventionally beautiful, transgender models and celebrities who “pass” as the gender with which they identify. They are looking at models like Andreja Pejic, unrealistically comparing their bodies to hers, feeling ugly and undesirable at the same time as they are being told to feel inspired.

That is the contradiction of trans visibility in 2016.  In one ear, the world is trumpeting that we should be grateful to finally be seen. But in the other ear, another voice is quietly whispering, telling us that our bodies do not deserve to be accepted, loved or affirmed if they aren’t thin, if they aren’t on the red carpet, if they aren’t beautiful according to an editor at Vogue or Vanity Fair.

I looked back at that Vogue fashion spread in front of me. And as I thought more about it, I realized why it made me uncomfortable. The “androgynous” models in the spread weren’t real people. They most likely did not identify as gender nonconforming or genderqueer. They were not actual androgynous people, people who live with the realities and repercussions of gender nonconformity on a day-to-day basis. Instead they were an idea, a fantasy; embodiments of what a cisgender fashion editor thinks gender nonconforming people should be.

But I am not a fantasy. I am a living, breathing genderqueer person who has to walk on the streets and take the subway to work and buy groceries and do laundry and live in the world in my body. I am a real, vulnerable, insecure person who has a big ribcage and a little bit of fat on my tummy and a hairy chest and a remarkable amount of facial hair. I will never be able to embody the “androgynous aesthetic” as it has been defined by the fashion world. I will never be able to live up to the fashion world’s image of what androgynous or trans people are supposed to look like.

And increasingly, I am learning to be okay with that. I am continuing the quest to love myself, my body, and my identity—regardless of what fashion culture tells me is beautiful or interesting about it.

Which is why I have to be honest about my apathy towards fashion culture and the supposed empowerment of trans people through it. I do not deeply care that transgender people are in Vogue. I do not deeply care that Jaden Smith is the new face of Louis Vuitton womenswear.

Instead, I care that trans and gender nonconforming people continue to be fired, impoverished, incarcerated, assaulted, and murdered because our bodies are not deemed “beautiful enough” for the world around us. I care that, in the face of those obstacles, our stories are finally starting to be heard by a world that for so long sought to silence us. Andreja Pejic looked beautiful in Vogue, but I will never be overjoyed by trans participation in the fashion industry until gender nonconforming and transgender people are seen not as an aesthetic, but as human beings.

Photo by Erin Southwich

Photo by Erin Southwich