Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What does Caitlyn Jenner's transformation say about beauty?


Apparently, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) broke the internet yesterday, drawing over 17 millions viewers according to The New York Times. Unless you are a luddite mole man (no judgment), you know what I mean, but to help out the less tech savvy of my readers, Caitlyn revealed her new look with a teaser of Vanity Fair’s upcoming July cover and excerpted story. While I’m thrilled for Ms. Jenner on her transition, and a strong supporter of the trans community — shaky ground here, starting with a “while I’m thrilled” statement — as a feminist, I’m less than pleased. I certainly don’t want to create a backlash against this brave woman’s effort to share her story and I don't want to be the asshole who proclaims to have friends who are trans so that I can say something offensive, but the bottom line is I’m struggling to understand why prominent transgender women look like Barbie dolls?

The answer to this question, I discovered, lies in the Vanity Fair article. Jenner underwent 10 hours of “feminizing facial surgery.” When I read that phrase for the first time, my double chin dropped two inches. What exactly does a plastic surgeon interpret as “feminizing facial surgery?” I checked out the MSN.com article "9 Fascinating Facts About Transitioning From Male to Female," to better understand this procedure. Then I took a quick look at Jenner and Laverne Cox’s professional photos and noticed that, according to surgeons who perform this surgery, women have the following features: high cheekbones, plump lips, almond-shaped eyes, arched brows, and a narrow, straight nose. I understand why someone transitioning from male to female would want her face to look more feminine. I understand wanting to eliminate male traits such as the Adam’s apple, squared jaw, and receding hairline, as well as facial hair, and feel I have no place what-so-ever in offering my straight, white, female opinion or support in these matters. Where I do take umbrage is with plastic surgeons’ interpretation of what is feminine.

For thousands of years, women have tried to beautify themselves both to be accepted by others and be attractive to potential mates. I grew up during the Third Wave Feminist movement in the 1980s and 90s, a time when we didn’t burn our bras; we just didn’t wear them. Or shave our legs or pits. We didn’t wear makeup, or if we did, we left off the foundation and blush and just went out the door with a smear of lipstick. I belong to the age of Gen Xers who have tried for twenty years to convince older and younger generations that “fat is a feminist issue,” know yourself/love yourself, and “be who you is.” Who I is means I have crazy, naturally curly hair that defies any and all styles. Who I is means I have a muffin top, big thighs, a round butt, and wiggly upper arms because I’m middle-aged, have delivered two kids, and don’t exercise enough. Who I is means I have a long, Semitic nose, stained teeth from a life-long coffee habit, and bushy eyebrows that were “in” when Brooke Shields was a teenager.

I applaud the wealthy trans women who can sculpt their appearances with the conveniences of modern plastic surgery, but I can’t help but wonder what their appearances are saying to young women (trans or not) who aren’t happy with their noses, hair, teeth, and bodies. Are we buying into the beauty industry by giving Caitlyn Jenner a standing ovation? What kind of double standard are we enabling when BUST Magazine — one of my favorite feminist publications — congratulates Jenner’s outer and inner beauty, but in another article (referenced on the sidebar) also congratulates Lena Dunham for her bravery in showing what less-than-perfect women look like in their undies?