Bustle presents our Beauty IRL package, a tribute to our readers' love of beauty and the way they use makeup and skin care to express themselves, to embrace their identities, and to self-soothe. Check out more of those stories here.
Societal standards of beauty affect us all. From birth, we're encouraged to internalize various myths, from the good ol' "no white shoes after Labor Day" to the much more harmful "fat folks can't wear tight clothes." Transgender people face the same beauty myths, plus an extra helping of transphobia-flavored fashion rules, like "if a trans man wears makeup, it means he's not really a man" and "all trans people must have gender affirmation surgery."
One of the most common "compliments" trans people get from cisgender people is, "You don't look trans!" Even folks who identify as allies use this to separate us, like reaping stalks of wheat: good trans here, bad trans there. People who identify as a binary gender and whose sex appears to match that gender are "good" trans people. People who exist outside the binary gender and sex lines are not.
Like many other people, I didn't realize I was trans until I was nearly 20 years old, but I still absorbed beauty myths as a child. And as a transgender adult, I encounter harmful standards and myths every day from within the trans community as well as from outside it.
Learning self-acceptance and self-love can be the hardest hurdles for trans folks to overcome. But we're not alone. And just knowing other people out there face the same challenges and harbor the same insecurities can be enough to remind us the journey, though difficult, is worth it.
Here are 20 trans people talking about how dealing with beauty myths has shaped their lives, for better and worse.
Scout, who is a trans man, tells Bustle, "I internalized a lot of the beauty norms that are applied to women even when I didn't identify as a woman — I thought facial/body hair was unattractive (at least on me) and that I would never feel cute or hot or whatever if I wasn't dressing to mainstream feminine style norms, and that being a dude meant being gross (at least for me) because I'd been raised with the idea that it was gross for people like me to have any characteristics in common with dudes."
Milo, who asked to be referred to by first name only and identifies as nonbinary, trans, transneutral, and queer, regularly experiences the intersection of fatphobia and transphobia.
"I personally feel like the standard of 'you must be thin or you are unacceptable for public' has affected me throughout my life," Milo says, "Even more than any racial or gendered standards. [...] And being black adds another layer of complication (with the asexual mammy stereotype being common for my assigned gender at birth).
"I'm really bothered by the idea that femininity isn't considered neutral, even in trans/NB circles ... As of now, I try to evenly blend masculine and feminine styles with a slight edge towards femininity. However, due to my size, I feel like every gender presentation I could possibly do is wrong ... I try hard not to, but I do feel terrible sometimes about not being the thin, masculine-of-center ideal of NB people."
Rogers, a trans woman, tells Bustle, "As far as myths and beauty, there's the 'You have to have your makeup flawless or people won't take you seriously as a woman.' I hate to say it but people still don't take me seriously as a woman no matter how much makeup I wear and how flawless it is."
She adds, "Part of the reason I studied to become a cosmetologist and hair stylist was because I wanted to learn to do it better, and even when I'm at my hottest, have had others do my makeup, and dress in the most stereotypical of female attire, people still call me sir ... I think the biggest myth is that there is anything I can do to affect how people perceive me."
Haworth, who is transmasculine, came out in her mid-twenties, after becoming a parent. She explains that she dealt with negative comments about having short hair when she identified as femme, and that, "I wasn't supposed to have short hair because I was a 'girl' ... Now that I'm trying to present more masculine, I am having some of the opposite problems ... I feel like a 'man in a dress' (I'm sorry, I know this is a horrible phrase) because I have a hard time accepting that I can still be masc and wear a dress if I want to. I have an even harder time with makeup. Even when I want to wear some, I have to convince myself that it's OK."
She adds, "I am slowly trying to reclaim my ability to feel good in feminine clothing but still be able to say that I am transmasculine, and that I am genderfluid. It's an ongoing process."
Durbent, a trans woman, also struggles to combat fat myths and trans myths. "Throughout my life, I've been big," she tells Bustle. "Not simply fat, but big ... My size was something that was always coded as male. So, even as I struggled to figure out my identity, those lessons were something I had internalized and struggled with. 'You're huge. You're not small like a woman. You're not dainty like a woman. So you can't be a woman.'"
She continues, "I'm working on it; acknowledging other trans folks with a variety of bodies has helped. There are very muscled trans women and seeing those bodies helps me. There are other fat (in a positive sense) trans women and seeing those bodies has helped me. There are trans women taller than I am and that has helped. The community, as a whole, has been what has helped finally push me to come out and be myself."
Zen, a trans man who asked to be referred to by first name only, is 18 months into his transition. "Before I came out as transgender, some friends struggled with the concept of my masculine energy because I am involved in cosplay and loved using very ornate makeup and accessories in my costuming," he explains. "I didn't feel 'feminine' doing this; I felt that makeup and elaborate costuming was a way to be hidden while being seen."
He adds, "I still find it hard to relate to a majority of trans posts that you see on Tumblr or Twitter. I'm not a white, 100 percent 'masc' shredded dude, or a rainbow-colored-hair waif. I am a biracial (Asian and African-American) trans man who can deadlift twice his body weight and have more of a wrestler's body. I train more for functional strength and power than mere aesthetics, and I still rock eyeliner and makeup."
And being viewed as more masculine than feminine means a stark difference in how he's treated as a biracial man. "I have a strong, dominant personality [and when] I was seen as an Asian female [that] was considered 'hot' and 'exotic.' But now as a male I can sometimes feel overlooked in mainstream American society because I am not a blue-eyed, 6'0" typical Hollywood hunk; I'm 5'0", more Asiatic looking and generally Asian men aren't cast in the leading roles and aren't sexualized. I would love to see more roles for trans people in interracial relationships on screen just being, ya know, people in love."
Graham, a trans man, says, "Even before I came out as trans, I was very much aware that I still enjoyed makeup, and if it was the right cut, wearing dresses on occasions, and I knew this was going to be grossly at odds with what society dictated was suitable for me."
Now, Graham says, "I am still also overweight, so even as a guy, whilst judgement isn't as direct, because there are whole marketing campaigns for larger guys where athletes and celebs are celebrated despite their bigger frames, my non-binary presentation still causes a lot of issues."
Ultimately, "The gender binary was the biggest myth I struggled with after learning that trans men were indeed a thing, but because I learned about non-binary folx, and gender versus gender presentation. It is so prevalent in society, in advertising and white culture that looking back now I am amazed I was ever able to get past it."
David, a trans guy who asked to be referred to by first name only, tells Bustle, "A lot of pressure came from my mom, who wanted me to get highlights in my hair, wouldn’t let me cut it shorter ... My first gym membership was at age 16 because my mom said I was ‘losing my figure.' After high school it was always ‘you should dress nicer for your boyfriend’ and ‘you have to jazz yourself up to keep him interested.' Even after I cut my hair short a few years ago, she STILL gives me a hard time of it, saying ‘surely my boyfriend would like it better long.'"
He continues, "Now, of course, I’m navigating a world in which literally no one reads me as male, as I’m on the shorter side with a very feminine face and figure, so I have to try and compensate with clothing as much as I can. My challenge now is mainly to reconcile the gender dysphoria with the ‘style’ dysphoria caused by dressing too 'bro,' which is a fine line to find."
Ullman, a trans woman, tells Bustle, "American concepts of beauty shaped how I saw myself. You have to understand that when I was growing up in the '80s, the only real representation of trans people were the kind of people that you’d see on shows like Jerry Springer. Usually outrageously dressed and, in the end, more performative like Drag than anything else. So, at the time, trans people really had one of two options: Be one of those people or be so well passing that nobody would notice that you were trans."
She continues, "In order to pass, you’d have to be able to fit yourself comfortably in those beauty standards that constantly push at us, and I knew that I’d never be able to reach those in any way. Women were supposed to be thin: I weigh almost 300 pounds. Women aren’t supposed to be tall: I’m 6’3”. Women aren’t supposed to have body hair: I was pretty hirsute. Women don’t go bald: I did. The evidence in. By any form of beauty standards, I was a gorilla." She says that today, "I still struggle against these standards. Mangling my body to conform to them is expensive ... At the end of the day, it’s all just a balancing act between what I can afford and what will make me pass as a regular woman the most."
Burns, a trans woman, says, "The most prominent way that societal beauty standards has affected me personally is in delaying my transition. I was 6'1" by 8th grade and I didn't know it was possible to transition until the following year. From there it became a case of 'too blank to transition.' In other words, my internal voice would tell me that I was too tall, too fat, too ugly to ever be believed as a woman. It was internalized misogyny that I believed that you had to be pretty to be a woman, just as it's misogyny to impose artificial beauty standards on women.
"It took me a long time of just noticing the vast differences in the women around me and realizing that the myth of the ideal women's look was complete bullshit."
Cook, a trans woman, says, "One of my earliest memories is my body betraying me." After admitting to herself that she's transgender, Cook investigated magazines and media, trying to unlock the secret of being feminine. What she found wasn't heartening. "To be a woman, the media told me you had to be good looking, made-up, thin, and usually blonde, it was a look designed to appeal to men," she explains. "I couldn’t be this ideal personification of women and I’d no interest in dating a man. Could I really be a transgender woman?"
Now, after starting her transition without comparing herself to anyone else, Cook is on hormone replacement therapy, and says she can now see that "the real world has every size, shape and color of women, and is slowly starting to include out trans women."
King, a trans woman, tells Bustle, "I tried growing out my hair when I was in 8th grade, which I thought would be a relatively small departure in terms of gender presentation. It turned out to be a bigger deal than I thought: my male friends relentlessly bugged me about cutting it after a few months, and I eventually gave in. That same year, I was harassed for wearing the 'wrong' type of underwear (read: briefs instead of boxers or boxer-briefs). I was regularly shoved and called a faggot in the locker room while I was trying to change for gym class.
"After my second-ever trans march in Seattle, I was walking back to my car in a short skirt, loving the summer air on my legs. I was two months into my transition and didn’t pass yet, but I was finally starting to feel like a fog was lifting. As I rounded the corner, a car drove by and two men stopped just long enough to yell, 'Your skirt is fucking ugly!' The similarity between these stories is clear: men were the primary arbiters and enforcers of image norms in my life, both before and after my transition. They obsessed over my body and my choice of clothing and wrestled with that obsession and their fear of being attracted to me, and ultimately reacted by trying to force me into some 'acceptable' appearance."
Maverick, who asked to be referred to by first name only, explains, "As a kid, I had two kinds of clothes: hand-me-downs from my brother, or girly dress-up clothes, and by the time I was five I’d made the realization that I could pass as any gender depending on how I dressed. My mum let me wear pretty much whatever I wanted, and actively discouraged my friends’ parents from commenting on my appearance."
Maverick adds, "Once puberty hit, I stopped being able to pass as male so easily, and was very suddenly introduced to the idea that boys didn’t 'dress up' anymore ... It wasn’t until I entered theatre in college and saw my gay male professors wearing tailored clothing that I felt like I’d actually found men like me, who wanted to look good and 'dress up.' Despite wanting to be male my entire life, I only started thinking of myself as transgender after that point."
Vidrine, who's transmasculine, found that being plus size exacerbated their dysphoria. "I was pretty affected by beauty standards when I was younger," they explain. "The pressure to be thin was huge, and it was compounded by the dysphoria I suffered as a result of having AFAB-patterned fat-placement and large breasts ... I tried wearing cosmetics and following trends (with subscriptions to teen magazines), pretending to be excited about cute dresses and fashion. I followed all the 'rules' and standards I could find. But it was exhausting to keep up with and made it all worse, so eventually I gave up all attempts to be feminine."
They add, "I'm kind of glad, looking back, that I dropped my interest in makeup and (feminine) fashion trends, because I think it would have just harmed me even more than it already had, had I kept up with it. Now that I'm out as trans masculine, I still struggle a little with body size expectations."
Vidrine also struggles with makeup and masculinity. "The one other thing that has come up recently is the idea that men/masc people diminish their masculinity by wearing makeup. I'm a professional performer, and makeup is part of the gig. Without it, I wouldn't have a face — feminine or masculine — on stage."
Hammer, a trans man, tells Bustle, "The biggest thing I can remember though is in the fifth grade, when I chopped my hair REALLY short (for a girl, at the time) and I was essentially ridiculed by my classmates and shamed for wanting a 'boys cut' and they called me 'men's names' for the whole school year. And that made me so ashamed that I didn't mess with my hair again until I was like 16/17. In middle school, I developed a severe eating disorder that I still struggle with because people repeatedly told me I 'didn't eat like a lady should.'"
He adds, "Now though, because I present as a man, I find myself worrying about the smallest of things. How I walk, my speaking voice, my wardrobe etc. I even donated ALL of my old clothes just so I could dress like a 'man' in society's eyes. I just I don't think before I ever even realized how much those standards were really affecting me and now that I actively think about them it feels like my whole life is dictated by them ... There isn't really one factor, I think, that's affected by this stuff. It's pretty much everything."
Siobhan, who asked to be referred to by first name only, says, "I've always been aware of cisheteronormative beauty standards. I'd internalized so much transmisogyny that I denied my own transness partly out of the fear that I'd end up an androgynous, sexless lump, or the popular ... image of a trans woman as a distinctly masculine person (broad muscular shoulders, prominent Adam's apple, beard shadow showing through a thick layer of foundation) in ill-fitting feminine apparel. Either way, I felt like there was no point in trying to transition since it felt impossible to feel attractive as a woman, and this only became more true as my hairline receded and my hair thinned.
"[It] took years, and actually getting on HRT, before I attempted to present as female again. And, when I did, I felt amazing. I also felt extremely visible, and within a few weeks of going full-time, I had a massive panic attack set off by nothing but this sensation of visibility ... It's an uphill struggle, but even if I'm not conventionally attractive, I have no doubt about the authenticity of my femininity, and that alone keeps me going."
Elliott, a trans man who asked to be referred to by first name only, says he grew up in the '90s and never had the language to describe how "out of place" he felt as a teen. "I remember at some point getting dressed for school every day became this massive anxiety inducing thing and I couldn't pinpoint why ... I remember begging my mom for a subscription to Seventeen because I knew that's what the girls in my class read. I didn't really want to be like them, but a part of me thought those magazines were some kind of secret guide book on 'how to be a girl properly.' I spent a lot of my teenage years thinking if I could just get better at being a girl then I would finally be happy. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self I was so bad at being a girl because I never was one to start with."
Suarez explains, "Many beauty standards already affected me [while I was growing up], as I wasn't exactly the skinniest kid on the block... I didn't wear dresses or skirts unless my family made me, and while it was partially because I didn't feel comfortable being forced into the label of female, it was also because I felt like I wasn't allowed to feel pretty, because I was bigger.
"As I've gotten older, I've gotten better about these things. I know I'm a trans guy, and I know that I can wear whatever I want, because clothes don't have a gender. I can wear cute shorts and shirts and still identify as a man. Although I know this, I also know that people who see me in these clothes will assume that I am female, because I'm not male passing. Even though that does sometimes upset me, I'm not gonna let society's standards of beauty and gender affect what I wear and how I express myself."
Bray tells Bustle she encountered harmful mainstream beauty standards in her abusive home life. "Rule 1: skinny=better," she says. "From age 16 onward, my mother has told me how much prettier I would be if I would just lose 20 lbs, because when she was my age, she only weighed...blah blah blah. It was framed as concern, although this form of trolling is familiar to any woman who happens to exist in public, unfortunately. I developed an eating disorder, as a result. This past year, after losing 60 lbs and shaving my head, I was working on recovery and starting to embrace my identity as gender-indifferent. Her response, when she saw the weight loss (after having not seen me in a while) was, 'You look great, but what the hell have you done with your hair?' No, I did not look great. I looked sick. You could see my ribs. The haircut was a good decision, though, and a good look."
Bray says that now, "I will go from feeling hyper-femme to hyper-masc to sitting bang in the middle. I’m content to let the other person in any interaction decide which gender pronouns to use with me, although I won’t lie, I’m thrilled when I’m given masculine pronouns by someone who hasn’t met me before."
Smith, a trans man, says, "I feel like I was very confused by beauty standards growing up, although part of that is probably because I'm autistic and it just felt like another social thing I didn't quite get. I tried really hard to understand them though, and spent my pre-teen and early teen years making sure to read every teen magazine I could get my hands on and trying to learn and follow all the rules so that I could be 'normal' and make sure I was doing everything 'properly.'"
Now that Smith has transitioned, "There's definitely this pressure to prove my masculinity and to look and dress a very particular way, and if I don't then I'll be seen as faking and misgendered, which is even pushed in some trans spaces as well as wider society ... I definitely feel inadequate because of it, and as though any potential partner would be 'settling' for my inferior body rather than actually being attracted to me above potential cis partners. Even when the logical part of my brain knows this is just the product of social conditioning, that conditioning runs deep and it's really hard to stop thinking it and to completely disregard the rules that come with beauty standards, particularly when there are potential consequences for doing so."
It's easy to see every day how mainstream beauty standards affect all of us, but when a marginalized and often demonized group faces them, the damage can come from all sides — and it takes a lot of self-discovery and self-confidence to realize that no matter what everyone else says, there is no right way to be transgender.