“What do you think about trans beauty pageants?” That was the question posed to me by one of my girlfriends. The reason for her question was that at the moment the city of Bogota (that’s located in a foreign land known as Colombia, that’s Colombia with an “o” not a “u” for those geographically challenged peeps out there) is preparing to host Mujer T, a transgender beauty pageant that is set up to celebrate the diversity of the city of Bogota all the while supporting the inclusion of local trans women. If you’re still not clear where Colombia is it’s where Shakira, Sofia Vergara and the current Miss Universe are from. Which is fitting because besides coffee and it’s natural wonders, Colombia—much like many parts of Latin America—is known for its beautiful women.
Anyone who’s ever watched Latin American news or telenovelas will tell you that the women are stunningly pulchritudinous. And there is a good reason for that. Many of these women don’t just happen to look like beauty queens—many of them were beauty queens. I once wrote the message being sent is not “You can be anything you want to be. But rather, you can be anything you want to be, but first you have to be beautiful.” With these messages it’s understandable why so many girls dream about becoming a goodwill ambassador to their community while being held up as the epitome of belleza Latina.
Beauty pageants to Latin American women are as much celebrated as a symbol of national pride as fútbol is to the men. Many Latinas take the contest very seriously and treat the competition just as though it were a sport, after all, the stakes are high. Bringing home a national or international title can provide you with countless opportunities and even make you tax exempt in some cases.
Since the year 2000, 9 out of the past 14 titleholders for Miss Universe have been Latinas. With that kind of success rate countries and municipalities from all over Latin America are constantly looking for their next representative that can bring home a title and the tourism dollars that come with it. This places an immense amount of pressure for Latin women to fulfill an extremely unrealistic expectation of beauty, a sign of the region’s strong sexism which feeds the region’s multi-million dollar—and sometimes dangerous—plastic surgery industry. However, due to the high cost of participation and euro-centric beauty standards this limited pathway to success is often restricted to women of higher socioeconomic classes.
Although, you’ll be hard pressed not to find examples of racism, xenophobia and transphobia rampant in many traditional pageants. Trans women are not exempt from these messages or desires to be included in this cultural practice. In fact the desire to be on stage and have your femininity validated and affirmed by members of your own community can be very titillating to say the least. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising why, when probed by officials from the Mayor’s office in Bogota in 2013, what trans women wanted to do for diversity week. They responded with “a beauty pageant”. And therein lies how Mujer T was born.
Criticism from cis feminists came swiftly as is often the case when trans women partake in behaviors or activities that can reproduce the structures of sexism. Indeed, the litany of complaints came in (objectifying, exploitative) as soon as the pageant began to garner publicity. After all when we think of traditional beauty pageants we think of gorgeous women strutting on stage not for the purpose of selling clothes, rather an idealistic and very misogynistic view of womanhood. Their looks and body are harshly judged and then graded. After which foroistas go online to discuss minute details such as their choice of lipstick or body curvature (and that’s putting it mildly).
While many cis feminist will make the case that the women who choose to participate in traditional pageants are being ‘exploited’ and ‘oppressed’. And yet, even though many of these structures are replicated within trans beauty pageants; I would argue that the trans beauty pageant can better be understood as—at least in part—an act of liberation. While in both pageants women are being celebrated for their performance of femininity. Only one of these groups have spent a lifetime suppressing and being demonized for that very same expression, that, within this context they are being praised for.
Although, in trans beauty pageants one could argue that the same gender performance occurs; when analyzing the swimsuit competition from a cultural lens one might observe that while in traditional pageants women’s bodies are utilized as a symbol of feminine idealism to reinforces gender expectations. By comparison, the transgender woman’s body is not a symbol of gender expectation nor conformity, but rather a symbol of agency and will power. In other words, while in both pageants breast augmentation is rather commonplace only one group is told they shouldn’t even have breast. Therefore, this welcome display of femininity—albeit an exaggerated one—is not only affirming to many trans women it embodies their societal resistance and rebellion.
So how can we affirm trans womanhood without reproducing the structures of sexism in this new era of trans-inclusion?
This seems to be one of the unaddressed issues that the second wave may have left behind. While there is an eagerness on behalf of cis feminist to accept trans women—which is a good thing—however, not taking the time to understand how our different life experiences may have altered our world view or even how our identity as trans women is repressed from a societal stand point. Without this context cis feminist concerns’ about trans women’s ‘over performance of traditional gender roles’ has gone unaddressed.
While many cis feminist have fought for so long to not have their womanhood limited to a tightly confined structure, most trans women have been fighting a similar, yet, different fight and that is to freely express their womanhood on their own terms and have that expression recognized and validated.
Cis feminist cannot merely choose to affirm trans womanhood when trans women behave or partake in activities in which they agree with nor celebrate trans womanhood when they deem someone as the “right kind of trans woman”. Cis feminist, you need to affirm trans womanhood in ways that are affirming to us, trans women.
To limit how trans women express their femininity is not only dangerously anti-feminist it’s borderline transphobic. So how can cis feminist affirm trans women who desire to have their womanhood validated, while calling out a system that is consistently refuting them and only feeds that yearning to be affirmed, all the while not reproducing the structures of sexism? I don’t know if I have an answer to that question, but hopefully it gives you something to chew on. After all, the trans woman in her mere existence challenges our culture’s idea of what it means to be a woman and does it really get any more feminist than that?