About 10 years ago, I was browsing the remainder shelf at a bookstore in Berkeley and I found a copy of "Beyond Beauty"1. I added it to my browsing stack and when I got home, I found myself drawn to it over all the other things I’d picked up. I ended up reading it cover to cover in a single sitting, immersing myself in the photographs and interviews and discussions.
For those not familiar with the book, it’s a series of profiles of young women from very different backgrounds; beauty queens, equestriennes, activists, movie stars, and many more. The profiles include a variety of content revolving around bodies, beauty and self-image.
What struck me about the book, and still strikes me now, is that it dramatically turned discussions about beauty on their head. All of the women in Beyond Beauty are beautiful, and there are no value judgments in the book, no comments about “conventional beauty” or what beauty is supposed to look like. Each woman is presented as she is with what she brings to the table, and she is undeniably beautiful.
For many years, I have rejected “beauty” as a thing that I needed to be or have interest in. I’ve spent a lot of my life being told I look weird, unusual, funny, abnormal; the only time I hear “beauty” in reference to me is when people think I want reassurance. That doesn’t mean I’m lacking in self-esteem. It does mean I have a complicated and sometimes tormented relationship with my body and gender expression.
"Beyond Beauty" was a reminder to me that bodies and self-expression take many forms. I still reject beauty as a thing I need -- for me, I really have moved “beyond beauty,” even though I respect it is something others may need. Like Margaret Cho, I fight fiercely against any attempt to hurt people by trashing their looks, to mock people for being brave enough to post pictures of their bodies online.
My ability to move beyond beauty as a personal priority for myself also radically changed my self expression.
I spent much of my life shrouded in corduroys and long-sleeved shirts, hiding my body and attempting to pretend it wasn’t a body at all. I thought if I hid it long enough and hard enough, eventually it would go away.
Over the last few years, that started changing, as I developed a personal style that includes a lot of femme elements.
I dress femme, but I am no lady. And I dress femme, but not feminine, and this is something some people seem to struggle with. My personal style is often contradictory and confusing; it creates visual tension with elements people don’t know how to reconcile, like masculine glasses and a very feminine dress; in fact, when I got these new frames, my optometrist pressured me hard to get something “more flattering” and finally resorted to “These glasses are too mannish for you,” and I said “Ah excellent, perfect, I’ll take them.”
It took me a long time to learn that personal style can be a mode of gender presentation and performance, but it doesn’t mean you have to allow your clothing to gender you. You can wear a dress and not be a woman, for example, and you can play with that and create jarring visuals by changing the way you style your hair or which accessories you wear. You can wear combat boots with a tutu or you can show up at a fancy event in full-on high femme drag.
Some people say I don’t do femme right, or that I am not succeeding in going for a feminine look, to which I say “bollocks,” because there is no “right” way to be femme, nor am I cultivating a feminine appearance. Femme is a huge, diverse, complex, fascinating method of self-expression and it covers a huge range of identities.
Femme can be fierce and sharp and taloned and ferocious and ANGRY! It can also be demure and lacy with ruffles and a warm smile.
And drag is very much how I think of it when I go into deep femme. I love drag! It feels delicious and fun for me to play with, and it intrigues me to see the way people interact with me when I am in drag. When people perceive me as something and realize that perception is actually deeply, deeply wrong.
Throughout high school, I used to wear an assortment of outfits which often featured odd elements, and I was mocked relentlessly for them. My friend Danae used to ferociously defend me from all comers, asking people why they cared so much what I wore and how I arranged it, how I chose to express my style.
Thinking of Danae, and Margaret Cho, and all the other people who refuse to stand by in the face of mockery, I think, this is the kind of person I want to be. I don’t want to stand by while people are made to feel small and worthless for being themselves.
I know there are whole columns dedicated to style dos and don’ts, back page features on horrible celebrity style mistakes, much “common wisdom” about what is and is not allowed in fashion, and I thumb my nose at that. Because when it comes down to it, style is about personal expression for you, whatever that looks like, and if you are happy and comfortable in it, or exploring it, that means it’s right for you.
Even if other people want to tell you it's not; it's your personal expression, not theirs. It's your body and you get to decide how you want to dress it.
And if you are brave enough to post pictures of it, even though you’re not sure how you feel or you’re still testing out a style, or you share images of your body online, you deserve to be able to do so with dignity. That is perhaps one of the reasons I publish images of myself dressed femme, though I am not a lady -- because I like it, and because I also want to send a message that this, too, is a valid expression of style.
Because I want people who may be struggling with style and gender identity and gender presentation to know that they are not alone and they should come on in because the water is fine. There are lots of people in the world with bodies like mine, and lots of different ways to dress (and undress) bodies like mine, and I’m simply showing people one way to live in this body. It doesn’t have to be your way.
Beauty is whatever you want it to be, for you. So is ugliness, and ugly pride. It’s a harsh, dangerous, mean world we live in together, and I’d like to think we can make room for all kinds of bodies doing all kinds of delicious things with fashion, gender expression, and style.
Let’s move beyond beauty together.
1. I know, the thought that any Jane Pratt publication would be remaindered! Horrors! Return