“You look like a suburban mom.”
Under other circumstances, it might have been a compliment. For some trans feminine people, looking like a suburban mom would be the ultimate symbol of passing, a sign that you no longer stand out as something different. Except, it wasn’t meant that way.
I was at a Pride watch party in DC chatting with a trans man I vaguely know, when he said his goal for the day was to find a cute boy to make out with. I replied that an anonymous makeout session was likely not in the cards for me, since I’m terrible at flirting with people in real life. Being non-binary, I started to explain, it can be difficult to know if I’m what any particular person is into. So sometimes it’s safest to just not flirt at all, even when surrounded by queer crowds.
Oh, he said, there are definitely people who would be into me, I just needed to switch up my style. And then came the dreaded words: “You look like a suburban mom.”
It probably shouldn’t have bothered me, but I actually tried to look good that day. I wore a cute rainbow unicorn romper, carefully did my eyeshadow to recreate the Pride flag, and was even wearing a pageant sash in the colors of the non-binary flag that read “They/Them.” (Plus, my ever-present purple hair.) It was an outfit that literally read queer.
It was my lipstick that did me in. After deciding that my eyeshadow was a bit extra, I opted for something more subdued for my lips—a pink lipstick finished off with Too Faced’s Fairy Tears lip topper, which gave them a pearlescent shimmer. But, apparently my lips were a bit too pink, and “the blush pink palette lipstick has associations,” as he later told me on Twitter.
The conversation stuck with me all day, as I wondered what I should have worn instead, or if it would have been better to forgo makeup entirely. But every option I thought through had a downside: more makeup or less, romper or t-shirt and jeans, sash or no sash, there was no way I could have won.
Not when clothing and makeup choices are weaponized against trans feminine people.
One of the persistent critiques of trans women and other trans feminine folk is that we are a caricature of women, upholding gender normative roles and fashion. While this is based more on dated stereotypes than on reality, it is still regularly used as an attack on any trans woman who dares show her face in makeup or a cute dress.
On the other hand, if we don’t wear makeup, if we just show up in jeans and T-shirt, we are criticized for not trying hard enough. “If you were really a woman, then why are you dressed like a man?”
Faced with this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, many trans women and other trans feminine folks end up leaning into femininity for the simple reason that it seems to offer a better chance to simply blend in, to — dare I say it — pass.
For many trans feminine folks, it’s an outright necessity. It can take a lot to overcome the not-so-subtle ways in which bodies read as male, especially for individuals who are not able to or have decided not to medically transition or have only recently started hormone replacement therapy. Everything from the shape of our hips to the contours of our faces scream “MAN!!!” to the people around us unless we layer on culturally-accepted signs of femininity.
I discovered this the hard way when I first came out as non-binary. I had been putting off getting my hair cut for a while as I debated what to do with it, and it had gotten long and shaggy (at least by my pre-transition standards). I finally decided on what I thought was an incredibly cute pixie cut that I thought would play off my androgyny.
It didn’t work out that way. The stylist did a fantastic job, and my hair ended up pretty much exactly how I wanted it, but I didn’t really read androgynous. I just looked like a man with short, well-styled hair.
A big part of the problem is that with rare exceptions, our culture defines androgyny in terms of women adopting male fashion, not vice versa. Whether it’s short hair, pants, suit jackets, or ties, androgynous fashion is still largely male. Even when retailers release “gender neutral” lines, they all-too-often leave feminine fashion behind. Unless we just want to look like men, AMAB trans folks have to buy into some version of femininity.
The medical profession has also played a significant role in enforcing gender normative fashion on trans women. There is a long history of trans women being denied care because they did not present feminine enough, and while clinics working on an informed consent model have mitigated the issue in some places, many trans feminine people still face a reality where their access to care may disappear if they do not look the part.
And, to top it off, there’s also the horrific level of violence against trans women, which can make many of us simply want to fade in as best we can.
Even if all of that weren’t true, though, there’s still nothing wrong with wanting to look feminine. Cis women wear flowery skirts, awesome eyeshadow, and, yes, even pink lipstick without people blinking an eye, and yet when trans feminine people do the same thing, we’re seen as caricatures, as trying too hard to be women.
That’s what I found most frustrating about my experience at Pride. I have tried to find a style that works for me, something that is feminine, but geeky; fun, but vaguely age-appropriate. And yet I was still criticized for looking too normative. It made me feel like there was no way to win, that no matter what I wore, someone would always be ready to criticize.
I should probably get used to that...
On the bright side, though, there are worse things than looking like a suburban mom. I could look like a suburban dad.
Image via Getty