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  • Writer's pictureHarley Preston

Pretty Privilege and the Absence of Transness

A look at the divisive reality behind “you don’t even look trans.”

Read more on HERE.

Every so often, I’ll receive the occasional “you’re so lucky” comment from a fellow trans woman. The sentiment is usually in reference to my body or my looks and their proximity and similarities to that of a cisgender woman’s. In other words, it’s usually always in reference to my ability to “pass” in a cisgender world. At first, that comment, “you’re so lucky,” made me viscerally uncomfortable. It was easy for me to comprehend how passing privilege is a gateway to survival for many trans people, and while it isn’t a privilege afforded to all of us, words like “lucky” or “easy” left me thinking. Thoughts would race in my mind, a feeling of guilt would weigh on my heart, and I would wonder if my attractiveness or “passability” negates how difficult it is to exist as a trans woman in a cis-normative society. To counter my discomfort, I would often reply to such comments with a self-deprecating joke, almost as if to minimize the existence of my attractiveness as a privilege. A privilege I did not earn nor work for.

I suppose you can say the word “lucky” had become a bit of a sore spot for a while. Uncomfortable with looking at the ways in which I benefit from my looks, I was adamant to prove how I wasn’t lucky. After all, at the end of the day, I will always be transgender and that comes with its own prejudice and discrimination, right? To acknowledge the unearned advantages of physical attractiveness felt as if it would undermine everything I had to overcome to get to where I am. I mean, how lucky could I actually be?

In my search to validate how I was feeling, I stumbled across the opposite. It’s called Pretty Privilege.

Pretty privilege is the concept that pretty people benefit in life from being perceived as beautiful. Studies have shown that pretty people will more than likely receive higher earnings or better grades. But what is beautiful? Like the saying “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder,” what we find attractive is often thought to be subjective. However, society inherently bases value on certain attributes over others and it becomes multilayered. Those attributes are often based on whiteness, able bodiedness, leanness, straightness, and cisness to mention just a few. Pretty privilege is much like how being white or being male provides people with unearned advantages in society.

Pretty privilege benefits and hurts all types of people, both cis and trans, across all races and sexualities. The intersectionality of our existence must be addressed when speaking to the topic. Kelsey Yonce refers to intersectionality perfectly in their 2014 thesis, “Attractiveness Privilege: the unearned advantages of physical attractiveness.” Yonce states “intersectionality refers to the idea that different areas of privilege and oppression do not exist in isolation from one another; instead, they overlap and interact with each other in ways that create unique experiences of privilege and oppression for each individual.” For example, the privilege and oppression experienced by a transwoman of color will look very different from the privilege and oppression experienced by a white transwoman, despite both experiencing the stigmatization and oppression of being transgender because of the inherent societal heirachy towards race.

When speaking to pretty privilege in the context of cisness specifically, it could be argued that the barrier for entry to such a privilege is more difficult for a transgender person because that hurdle is our very sex assigned at birth. Or in other words, my “maleness.” It’s the belief that in order to achieve such a standing in society it would require a distancing, squandering, and rejection of our transness as a whole. This reinforces the false reality that in society, a transition is deemed “successful” only when she is conventionally beautiful by cisgender standards. When in actuality we all know the real value a transition can bring to one’s life is more than mere aesthetics or looks, but rather living more fully and freely as one's self. Suddenly, it began to feel like not addressing my own pretty privilege head on would be disadvantageous to what my mission is, and that's to uplift and advocate for all transwomen.

Having defined it, it has become shockingly easy to see how I benefit from such a privilege. In hindsight, pretty privilege in the context of cisness wasn’t something I was always presented with and might be why it has felt so obvious. I haven’t always existed in the world looking like this. While I can acknowledge how I’ve always benefitted from certain privileges like whiteness, able bodiedness, and leanness, benefitting from my “cisness” is a very forgein thing for me. I started my transition 21 months ago, meaning only two years ago I started hormone replacement therapy and recently underwent facial feminization surgery. As my body and features began to change and become more cis-passing, I had started to witness peoples’ treatment of me change right before my very eyes. It was almost as if one day people saw me differently. They started smiling at me as they walked by, doors were being held open, and drinks were being bought for me by those who simply wanted my attention. These are only a few small examples but at first it all seemed unnatural and uncomfortable because my experience in the world had been different for nearly 30 years. The exact moment of where it changed is hard to pin but looking at my transition in its totality, it’s jarring and impossible for me to not see the difference. It is now my responsibility to swallow my guilt and acknowledge that such experiences are not afforded to everyone and I have benefitted from the unearned privilege of assimilating into a cisgender society because of my pretty privilege. This has, in fact, made my transition easier than some but it is not without its own challenges.

It felt as though acknowledging my privilege was the first step but where do I go from here? I kept thinking about the “you’re so lucky” comment I’ve received from time to time. Others like “you don’t even look trans,” or “I would never be able to tell” would also find their way into my reality. More often then not these are said by a cisgender person with the intention of it being a compliment. Comments like this are no doubt products of pretty privilege because what this implies is that the existence of my transness is better not seen and that I am considered attractive because of its absence. It reinforces that the existence of pretty privilege is due to my proximity to cisness, and when looking at the intersectionality of privilege it is also due to my proximity to whiteness, able bodiedness, and leanness. That said, while it has become easier for me to look at the ways in which I experience pretty privilege, celebrating the absence of my transness will never sit well with me and when such comments are made by a cisgender person, I chop it up to a lack of understanding and an opportunity to teach.

Where it becomes more insidious is when such standards of beauty are perpetuated by a fellow transwoman. When we, as transwomen, celebrate another transwoman for appearing to be cis we are basing our value on our cisness or “passability.” This further perpetuates the belief that our transness is something to be ashamed of or hidden. When this happens, we fall victim to continuing the cycle of pretty privilege, particularly its exclusion of transness. Instead of celebrating the ways in which another transwoman appears cis, we should be celebrating the very fact that she is transgender. And the irony of all of this is that no matter how much privilege you possess, or how “passing” you might be, there is always someone with more to compare yourself to. I fall victim to the comparison and it can feel like a never ending cycle. I say, let's all get off of the hamster wheel. We have to acknowledge that we live in a culture that equates a woman’s worth to her attractiveness and we must be aware of what attributes our society deems worthy (like whiteness, cisness, etc.). We have an opportunity to break that cycle for each other and while the world may judge us based on things like our cisness, we do not need to. Easy for a white cis-passing trans girl to say, I know.

But alas, while a girl can dream of a day where these privileges no longer exists, or better, a day that all of us can benefit from such privileges, my idol Janet Mock speaks to the acknowledgement of privilege best when she states in her column “people with privilege do not want to discuss their privilege — whether it’s privilege derived from whiteness, straightness, cisness… but we must acknowledge our privilege if we are to dismantle these systems and hierarchies.” So here I am acknowledging how I continue to benefit from pretty privilege. From my whiteness, able bodiedness, leanness, and cisness. I can now say that I am, in fact, lucky for the benefits that have been afforded to me without earning them, while simultaneously knowing that the acknowledgement of my privilege does not negate how my experience has its own set of challenges that vary from the next person.

What I will not do is celebrate another transwoman for not looking transgender. And the next time I look at another transwoman and think she is “lucky” for looking cisgender I want to question why I think that because I refuse to reinforce the belief that the presence of transness is something to be ashamed of or that it isn’t beautiful. It’s almost as if to think she’s “lucky” cannibalizes the very things I know make our community so unique. Personally, while my transness is not the entirety of my identity, I feel that being transgender is one of the most beautiful and interesting things about me. Yes, I was born with a feminine disposition and a petite frame and I need to own the fact that I had absolutely nothing to do with it or how it has benefited me throughout my transition. And while I can’t “turn off” pretty privilege from a societal perspective, what I will do is acknowledge my privilege and wield it in ways that better serve my community at large, like writing this piece and baring my soul.

And for society at large, I want to encourage everyone to own their pretty privilege and the ways they’ve experienced unearned benefits throughout their life, because if a little trans girl can do it, you can too. And maybe, just maybe, in doing so we can have the capacity to see beauty in all things.


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