A recent story in The Sun of London both gives hope and sinks the heart: A transgender couple, Arin, 17, and Katie, 19, are celebrated for being the “cutest sun-baked couple on the lake.”
For a story like this to appear without moralizing in, of all places, a tabloid like The Sun is astonishing. And yet …
Arin and Katie are presented in a way that implies trans people can only be accepted if they promise to be “adorable” and conform to gender expectations.
What kind of reception awaits far less perfect bodies, perhaps those with the scars showing? What happens to those who don’t transition so beautifully?
And what about those who refuse to pass, for whom not looking “right” is part of the point?
As a cis-female (a woman born woman) my bodily concerns pale in comparison to what my trans friends might experience. Still, I’d like to lose an unspecified number of pounds, and I sometimes wonder about what I’ve publicly called my “floopy [sic]” breasts.
To some extent, I’m ensconced in a queer and trans feminist, radical bubble — a social and political network that routinely dissects and rejects normative ideals of what a body should look like.
So, you’ll understand my dismay when a long-time friend demanded that I wear a “proper bra,” and poked fun at me in public for my breasts. Or my unhappiness when she said I lacked fashion sense because I dress like a frumpy male journalist. (I like men’s jackets.) In other words, I was policed on my gender presentation and deemed not “fabulous” enough.
To make it all the more surreal, this indictment came from someone who peppers her conversation with words like “affirming” and “fat-positive.”
I’ve since disengaged from the now erstwhile friend, but I remain concerned about what I see as a disturbing trend among radical queers and trans people. These communities boast about being the most body-affirming, yet, ironically, are heavily invested in their own hierarchies of beauty. It’s not enough to be body-positive, one must be fabulous to the core.
“Fabulous” is hard to define — like porn, one knows it when one sees it. Fabulousness originates from a queer cultural history that includes John Waters’ carefully-crafted mustache, RuPaul’s high heels and singer Beth Ditto’s unabashedly fat body. “Fabulous” is deviance with a high gloss, the most stylish middle finger you could thrust at the oppression of normality.
In the new world of “body positivity,” fatness and gender-non-conformity have been interpellated into an implicit: Be fabulous or else! Dove’s “Real Beauty” ad campaign, for example, insists on affirming that you should find your true beauty — all the while telling you that you really, really need to be beautiful.
The recent celebration of Ditto’s wedding on both British Vogue’s website and alternative sites emphasize her Jean Paul Gaultier gown — it’s not enough that she be a woman of size, but that she be gorgeous. Would she be as celebrated if she wasn’t armed with an arsenal of style? If she decided to be unfabulously fat?
Of course, this addresses what to many is a felt need. In a world where gender nonconformists, trans people and people of color (the ones who aren’t adorably so) are mocked, harassed and even violated, often in public, for how they look, there are reasons to promote an affirming culture. But as venues like the Sun highlight queer style as desirable, mainstream affirmation comes with normative strings attached. Listening to queers give each other fashion advice, I’m struck by how much they’ve internalized both the language and dictates of magazines like InStyle: “You need a pop of color, honey!” and “Wearing a belt will give you a waist.”
What if some of us don’t want waists? Is there a place in this world for sloppy and unfabulous queers? Can we decide that, for some of us, dressing up is precisely that: something we do on special occasions?
I’m not advocating for purity here, and I’m not unaware that we all have contradictions. I might live for a 100 years talking critically about unrealistic body images, but I will always want to lose more pounds. I love fashion, both its history and its glorious seductions. A well-cut jacket will have me swooning; the smallest sign of hand-stitching sends me into ecstasy.
But I do worry about younger queers coming up and out, who feel a pressure to be fabulous, darling, just fabulous, haunted forever by the sneering ghost of Patsy Stone.
Are we — and they — destined to be scolded if we don’t cinch, pinch and pucker all the time?
I’m tired of feeling compelled to affirm every selfie that shows up in my Facebook feed, to “like” yet another image of someone who needs to be reassured that, yes, they’re truly lovely.
In the world I occupy, “body positive” culture has led to a new tyranny of fashion, and a demand that we be fabulous forever and always.
Is it really so impossible for us, radical queer feminists, to create a world where we dispense with the idea that physical beauty is a measure of worth? Instead of greeting every accusation of ugliness with an affirmation of beauty, can we simply shrug our shoulders and move on to bigger issues?
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Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist. She’s an editor at large at Current Affairs, on the editorial board of the Anarchist Review of Books, co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the (Volunteer) Policy Director of Gender JUST. She’s currently working on her book Strange Love: A History of Social Justice And Why It Needs To Die. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.com.