Uncovering Healing Through Black/Brown Trans-Women’s Beauty

“I am not beautiful, I am baggage!” -Darielle Fernandez

Last year, on a train ride home I wrote a piece about what I had internalized about myself. I wrote about hating my broad shoulders, my tall height, all the dark patches on my body, and sadly, my brown skin. Back then I didn’t realize it but what I really hated about myself was that I didn’t feel beautiful and thereby I didn’t feel like I was “feminine enough” to be self-assured of my womanhood. All my life, even before my realized gender-fluidity and femme identity, I would only find comfort in my femininity. Back then, my access to femininity was through dolls, my sister’s makeup, and my mother’s hair; all three things were constantly being snatched out of my hands by the members of my Dominican family as a way of forcing me to swallow the masculinity they expected me to present boastfully.

Growing up, I digested beauty as an adjective only accessible to women and girls and so, at home I had no association with the word. At the same time, I did not like being called handsome, as it didn’t fill the gaps of femininity that I desired. When I was old enough to navigate my own spaces and travel without my family, I was finally able to construct different versions of myself that varied in relation to beauty and comfort.

At home, I remained “cis-straight Dariel” but at school, I was “Trans-genderfluid-queer feminine Darielle.” During high-school, I began the process of presenting myself as more feminine and so I began my search for beauty. At school, I felt more beautiful because for the first time in my life, I was finally called “pretty” by my friends and I was finally femme. However, no matter how many chokers, earrings, scarves, and “feminine clothing” I wore, it was never enough for me to be beautiful and it was never enough to assure me and everyone else that I was girl enough.

It seems to me that before I could be understood and seen fully as a girl, I would have to be understood and seen as beautiful. However, while I kept looking for my beauty I would keep finding more and more baggage in my body that prevented me from acquiring my beauty and thereby my femmeness. I began feeling embarrassed about my body and neglected it for not presenting me with what I wanted, a smaller, cuter, less “tainted” body.

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Torch Group-Black and Brown youth-centered sexual and retro health program offering workshops through an Intersectional, Feminist, Repro-Justice Lens. Photo Credit: Stephanie Zapata

When I first got a job at TORCH, working with other black and brown youth on reproductive justice and its relationship with intersectionality, I was not expecting to feel the most beautiful in a space filled with 11 cis-black and brown folk. At TORCH, people didn’t need me to present my femininity outwardly in order to recognize it and to recognize me.

What my job really showed me was that I actually needed healing!

I needed healing surrounding the messages I had internalized about the master’s norms around beauty.

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When we talk about feminine beauty standards it is imperative to know that these standards were created by and for white-cis-“able-bodied” women.  These feminine beauty standards are synonymous with having fair (white) skin,  robust breasts, and a “thicc booty,” as well being small and petite. In Janet Mock’s essay, “Being Pretty is a Privilege, But We Refuse to Acknowledge It,” she writes:

“I remember when I was a teenager and my classmates would praise me by saying, “You don’t even look like a boy anymore,” “You look so real,” or “I can’t even tell” — backhanded compliments that still follow me when someone hears my story. It communicates our culture’s misconception that equates cisness with attractiveness and equates one’s ability to be seen as cis with being seen as attractive — as real.”

I battle with the idea that the only way to be beautiful is to pass as cis- and fit standards of feminine beauty and yet, that only way to be beautiful is to be cis. It is a double-edged

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Google search: Trans-Women

sword. These standards create a vicious cycle that blocks out Black and Brown Trans-Women by challenging us to fit unrealistic and unachievable beauty standards. When I searched “Trans-Women” on Google images I was only presented with images of feminine cis-passing women, all of which fit societies concepts of beauty.

When you have the ability to pass as cisgender, your safety from transphobia and trans-antagonism is more secure. Because you pass as cisgender, and thereby fulfill some of the standards of feminine beauty, your gender identity is recognized and validated.

However, when Trans-Black and Brown-Beauty go unrecognized, the need for validation and visibility of our identities can often drive us, Black and Brown Trans-women, to try to change our bodies, which feeds into the master narrative notion that there is only one way to be a beautiful woman. These changes can be in the ways in which we act or dress. These changes also happen through receiving operations to make us thinner, more rounded, and ultimately, more feminine. These operations, such as Facial Feminization Surgery, are extremely expensive and continue to feed into systems of imperialist capitalism.

In addition, through understanding the intersections between race and class, it is important to acknowledge that in reality, very few Black and Brown Trans-Women can afford these surgeries. In other words, society is telling us that we don’t get to feel comfortable in our bodies, that we don’t get to exist, and that we are not real. By society continuing to deny Trans-beauty and making Black and Brown Trans-Women embarrassed by our bodies, it denies us access to societal “beauty,” while also controlling our bodies.

But I have realized that SOCIETY IS SCARED OF TRANS-BEAUTY! If people recognized trans-beauty that would mean that they would no longer hold not only the master’s  expectations of femininity but also masculinity. In other words, Trans-Beauty is what splits the ties that society uses to control everyone’s body, mind, and spirit. We cannot continue to force ourselves to fit “digestible” norms that only come easily and free-flowing for others who are cisgender. In Tara Hardy’s essay, “Femme Dyke Slut,” she writes about femininity among the LGBTQIA+ community and the label of “femme.” She writes,

“In contrast to the understated, deflective femininity of the privileged, ours is a wide-mouthed, unapologetic ability to devour.”

TRANS-BEAUTY is not digestible because, in order to recognize Trans-beauty, we must abandon the master’s tools of masculinity and femininity and take steps beyond the binaries set up by society. We must be unapologetic in the ways in which we express our beauty. We as trans-women must understand the beauty of our Trans-identity and Trancestry, and expose the roots of the violence of Transphobia.

The beautiful Black, Lesbian and cisgender sisters who created the Combahee River Collective and wrote the Black Feminist Statement 40 years ago wrote,

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

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Barbara Smith, who is one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective, visited my high school Feminism class via Skype (photo source: Ileana Jiménez)

I agree with this statement and would also revise it to say, “If Black TRANS-Women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.” I believe that this is how we will bring visibility to the ways in which Black and Brown Trans-women are one of (if not the most) marginalized community. I know that Barbara Smith, who is one of the originators of the Black Feminist Statement, would agree with my revision because when she visited our class via Skype and she said, “My feminism was always about expanding […] we respected the justice for all” and continued to speak on how the women she has worked with embrace trans-rights and visibility. 

This year, my high school feminism class, taught by Ileana Jimenez, attended an event at Barnard College called “Invisible No More Resisting Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color in Troubled Times.” This event started with Harriet’s Apothecary leading an activity where we rubbed our hands together and placed them over parts of our bodies where we felt hurt and needed healing.

Throughout this activity, I really didn’t know where to place my hands; my hands can’t cover my whole body. I knew that my entire body, spirit, and energy hurt due to my beauty (or lack of) and yet I didn’t know where the source was coming from; where in my body did this pain fester?

After the event, a fellow non-binary person came up to me and complimented me to say “Your hoops is poppin! I’m so proud to see you so open and cute in your spaces!” In this moment I felt really warm and recognized. With my experiences at TORCH and with fellow Trans-Non-Binary people, I realized that instead of internalizing all my pain and trying to heal myself alone, my healing had to come from finding people to do the healing with me; people who had an ancestral, institutional, and spiritual understanding of the roots of our intersecting oppressions and the healing-activism that must blossom against it. 

We Black and Brown, Women, Trans-Women and Femme folk must hold up the mirror for one another and shine a light on our collective TRANS-BEAUTY! It is our duty to reconstruct “beauty” and thereby build a space for our healing!

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