Editor’s Note: Alok Vaid-Menon is an internationally acclaimed gender non-conforming writer, designer, and performance artist. All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
One of life’s paradoxes is that we are encouraged to “be ourselves,” but are often punished when we do.
When I first told my grandmother I was transgender she responded, “How could you do this to me?” In her eyes my journey was about hurting her, not about healing myself. She eventually passed on without ever seeing me as myself. At her funeral I had to dress as the man she wanted me to be. I wept: for her, and for me.
Despite constant invalidation, so many transgender people transition because we know there is a quiet and fierce dignity to being able to look at yourself and say “this is who I am.”
Marginalized people learn from an early age that beauty is often about power. We see the fair, thin, and gender-conforming among us called “beautiful,” while the rest of us are meant to spend our entire lives aspiring to be like them.
It’s time for a new beauty paradigm.
Beauty is about looking like yourself, even in the face of social and cultural repression. Accessing this beauty can feel impossible in a system that rewards conformity over creativity. But, in my experience, a commitment to honest self-actualization yields unparalleled peace and conviction.
As a visibly gender non-conforming person, I often receive unsolicited advice about my appearance. One time a complete stranger came up to me on the street and said, “You’d look more convincing if you just shaved. Let me buy you a razor?” The sight of me walking with my head high – brown, bearded, and in a bold red lip – was too much for them. Like so many, this person mistook their insecurity as my own.
In moments like these I think about how dangerous beauty can be.
Why do engrained beauty standards so often require some of us to become invisible in order to make other people feel more comfortable? Beauty has a way of justifying violation in the name of benevolence. It gives legitimacy to the way that we police and restrict one another’s appearance. “I’m just doing this to help.” The presumption is always, “Why wouldn’t anyone want to be beautiful?”
But whose standards of beauty are we required to adhere to?
Normative beauty is insecure. If it was universal and just, it would not need to be constantly proven. Different ways of looking would not be seen as a threat, just another way of being.
For so long I lived my life within society’s constraints of who I was supposed to be. It didn’t work. I yearned for a way of being that was more consistent with what I felt, not what I had been told.
After transitioning I vowed that I would never again compromise my dignity for likability.
Although I am constantly harassed for it, I am able to keep going because I know who I am.
I now know that there are as many ways to be beautiful as there are people. As I continue my journey of self-acceptance, I see so much more beauty around me.
I am proud to be part of a generation of artists who are challenging mainstream beauty and showing the world that niche is the new norm. We are not trying to establish a new beauty standard. Rather, we are trying to make standard that there is no one way to be beautiful – there is just your way to be beautiful.
Beauty is no longer in the eyes of the beholder. Beauty is about looking like yourself.
For more on Alok, visit their website.