What is beauty?
How do you feel when someone calls you beautiful?
For the better part of history beauty has been dictated by the privileged. The “normal” was considered to be beautiful, the “abnormal” considered to be ugly.
Queer people are by default considered to be abnormal by the cis-heteronormtive socitey. So when a discussion on queerness arises, it goes hand in hand with questioning our societal beauty norms.
In this article, we´ll discuss Queer Beauty, a topic that we as young queer, trans activists became interested in.
To be able to not only talk about our own thoughts and experiences, but to speak from multiple perspectives, we interviewed other queer people, both from the Slovene community and from abroad, about their opinions and experiences surrounding beauty. The quotes you find in this article all originate from these interviews. To compare in how far answers from a queer point of view differ from a non-queer perspective, we also created an online survey surrounding the same topic for people who identify as straight/cis.
We are aware that our research is neither scientific nor 100% representative and we don´t claim to be experts on “queer beauty” – if expertise can even exist for such a subjective and abstract concept. We merely intend to present what feels interesting and important to us. We want to start a discussion and raise awareness, not only for the maltreatment we, as queer people, experience, but also for the discrimination carried out within our communities. We believe that everyone should think critically about the concepts of beauty that they´re used to and how society influences their beauty standards. And lastly, we hope to inspire changes for the better, changes for a more accepting and respectful community.
We don’t normally question the meaning of beauty, even though it influences our everyday life. Most queer people still define their own value as a person by their beauty at least somehow. Generally this is not as common in AMAB (assigned male at birth) as it is in AFAB (assigned female at birth) people. In a society that always teaches you how you want to look, it is hard to find yourself and your own authentic beauty. Insecurities are the main fuel of capitalism. On a daily basis, we are flooded with ads for products that will supposedly make our skin clearer, our hair softer and our waist slimmer – if beauty standards didn’t exist, a whole industry would collapse. Making us feel like we´re not pretty, not perfect enough and like we have to look like something we’re not, may that be a barbie, a businessperson or a model, is a pretty lucrative move.
Undoubtedly, queer aesthetics exist. In queer spaces, things like dyed hair, unconventional clothing styles, piercings and tattoos and especially gender non-conforming and gender-bending looks are much more common and much more accepted than in the broader society. It’s much more common to see women rocking a short hairstyle and deciding not to shave off their natural body hair, or men wearing bright coloured and close-fitting clothing and having painted nails. Especially on festive occasions like pride parades, NOT wearing crazy make-up, or an extravagant outfit rather makes you feel uncomfortably underdressed than uncomfortably visible.
In different modern TV shows, we see this type of expression increasingly celebrated. Characters like Eric from Sex Education and Jules from Euphoria, who are both openly queer and dressing in colourful, expressive clothes and wear unconventional eye make-up, are just two examples. This positive representation and appreciation of queer looks is important because it creates role models for all people watching to get more creative and authentic with their expression. Moreover, it actually creates a safer world for all trans and gender non-conforming people. In our survey, when being asked how they feel when they meet a person whose gender isn’t clear to them, the vast majority of the straight and cisgender participants claimed to NOT feel negative feelings like frustration, anger or fear, but to feel strongly or at least a little supportive of that person. Half of the people claimed to feel curious and/or amazed. Around the half claim to have never felt uncomfortable around a person whose gender isn’t clear to them, while close to the other half claims to have felt uncomfortable in the past, but not anymore. To emphasise again, this data is regarding to our small survey, which was mostly filled out by our cis and straight friends and family members, so by people who have at least one queer loved-one. It is thus not necessarily representative for the broader population, but it still shows important progress.
This development in the younger straight generation can be connected to the increased depiction of queer-looking characters in media, since the majority of them stated that both social media, movies and TV shows take a strong influence on their beauty standards. Other than that, beauty standards are also formed by family (mostly parents and older siblings), peers, celebrities, class, living area, profession, social media, subcultures, and pornography.
There is a general feeling that we, as a society, value diversity more and more.
But this development is fairly new. Throughout the history, in movies, mainly directed by cis-straight people, queer characters, especially trans people, were depicted either as a joke, a villain or a tragedy and thus characterized by their ability to comply to the cis-straight norm, instead of being their own character.
If a person was queer presenting, then it used to be seen as a character flaw.
And even though the trend to more positive media representation is definitely valuable, it also shows how the acceptance of queer people is still controlled by how fashionable the mainstream society views it.
Comparing queer people to a standard created by the privileged society is a key element of discrimination queer people face today – and it is largely based on looks. If you look queer, a lot of people speculate you’re an uneducated, unemployed party animal or even that you’re a drug-user. It means you have a harder time getting hired or accepted into specific academic fields, it means not being allowed into certain institutions because you don’t look “appropriate”. The same goes with finding a place to live. Landlords are less likely to choose tenants that look queer, especially if they look gender non-conforming. For an adolescent to look queer means your friend’s families sometimes don’t want to meet you, you are expected to get bad grades from the teachers and you are more likely to get blamed for a violation and get punished.
We need to straighten-up in order to avoid discrimination and get what we want.
Looking queer and walking down the street or buying your groceries, you might get the feeling that your value as a person is somehow reduced because of your looks. The way some people will treat you, talk to you or look at you can make you feel like a stranger even in your hometown. In a world like that it’s hard to feel wanted and it’s hard to feel that you matter.
You have the choice when you go out whether to look like a person you are or look like a person the society wants you to be.
There were just a few straight cisgender interviewees that reported being discriminated against because they were not considered beautiful, compared to almost all queer interviewees. Most of the queer interviewees received hateful comments or judgement because of the way they looked. This maltreatment was often carried out by family members as well as peers and classmates, sometimes even by strangers. The only queer person that said they were not discriminated against because of their beauty emphasized they were discriminated against specifically because of their gender expression.
When I was working as a waiter I regularly received judgemental comments about my gender expression by my boss, because he was worried about “how customers could perceive me”.
Normative beauty has a lot to do with hiding your “abnormalities” and appearing as “normal” as you can. Queer looks, especially if they are gender-bending, seem to be scary and uncomfortable for broader society, which in turn endangers our financial, physical, and psychological safety. This discrimination from the outside can even lead to us discriminating ourselves, because we are conditioned to believe less and less in our own beauty.
Interesting, different, and weird are all adjectives that are often used to describe people who look queer. This can be confusing, since it can be sometimes taken as a compliment, but a lot of times it is said in a degrading manner. Calling someone “interesting”, for example, can be a genuine well-meaning observation, but on the other hand it can be a passive aggressive comment on someone’s race, gender expression, nationality, abilities, or other similar characteristics.
Most queer people agree that we are disliked more by the general society if we look queer to them. If a person is queer but passes as straight and cisgender they won’t be facing as much stigmatisation. For example, a queer woman who presents mostly femininely will be accepted easier and judged less than a queer woman who doesn’t shave her body hair and presents masculinely. Still, no matter how you look, even if you’re look is approved by society, it still doesn’t erase the stigma.
Gender roles are the expectations society has towards a person’s character, behaviour and looks based on whether the person was assigned “male” or “female” at birth.
For example, men are expected to:
- wear darker colours
- not experiment with clothes
- look boring
- not stand out
- be tall
- not talk with hands
- have masculine gestures
- be muscular
- have short hair
- look attractive, not cute or pretty
whilst women are expected to:
- shave your body hair
- dress up and wear high heels for special occasions
- be tidy
- be clean
- smell nice
- wear brighter colours
- wear a bra even if you don’t need one
- be short
- smile and be friendly
Girls are also pressured to look more grown-up the moment they hit puberty. They are pressured to wear make-up, revealing clothes and push-up bras. There is a silent message being passed around that a woman is only as worthy as she looks attractive and adolescent girls and young women are subconsciously aware of it.
Both boys and girls are bullied if the way they look and dress is not considered “normal”. Queer children, especially transgender children, are often the victims of this, because they tend to experiment with feminine and masculine fashion more – although someof our interviewees mentioned that other forms of discrimination, like fat shaming, ableism, and racism, played an equally big or bigger role for them.
It is very common for a queer person to experiment with their gender expression in their childhood to mid-teens and then, because of the backlash they face from their family and peers, forcing themselves to go back to their assigned gender expression.
Transgender men are taken more seriously by the doctors responsible for transition if they present strictly masculine and transgender women feminine. Multiple of our trans interviewees have reported to feel pressure to conform to traditional gender norms when meeting up with doctors, judges or psychiatrists to be sure that they will be perceived as “really trans”. Often, straight people entitle themselves to gatekeep our queerness and our access to menatl and physical healthcare based on our looks.
Beauty standards within the queer community
All that in mind, the importance of the existence of queer communities and safe spaces becomes very clear. Still, discrimination doesn´t stop in front of our communities’ doorsteps – often, it continues within our own circles.
One aspect of this is simply the already described cis-heteronormative standards we, as queer people, tend to internalize and hold each other up to, which leads, amongst other things, to binary trans people denying non-binary people their existence, gay people telling bisexual people they are confused, non-passing trans people being shunned and made fun of or the expectation that “femme” lesbians have to be with “butch” lesbians.
The things we still find beautiful, that originated in general society, are clear skin, being thin, having a symmetrical face, feminine women and masculine men, women not having body hair and celebrities’ lookalikes.
As queer people we cannot deny that some cis-heteronormative standards still influence our judgement of beauty. A lot of people we asked said that this is something they are actively working on. Most of us seem to be aware of it and challenge our way of thinking.
Apart from this, we also simply police each other for not being or looking “queer enough”. This is a legitimate fear voiced by many queer individuals – not being colourful, extravagant, or visible enough poses a struggle for them in spaces that supposedly exist to elevate and not to judge. This puts the ones for whom it is not safe to come out and be visible, the ones who can’t afford the clothes and the items to “dress queer” and the ones who simply don’t feel comfortable presenting this way in a very difficult position and, again, under pressure to conform to these beauty standards. Just like the straights gatekeep our access to our basic rights, we sometimes gatekeep queerness in the same manner.
The straight and the queer world both put a lot of pressure on me. The straight standards are still there, but now I also ask myself if I appear “lesbian enough” and if I, as a femme lesbian, can only be with butch lesbians or if I can also date other femmes.
And of course, every queer identity comes with another sterotype to live up to – a lot of us experience pressure to look as we identify. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people musn´t look “too straight”, whilst for trans people it’s more about presenting your gender in a way that others see you as you are. Binary trans people are expected to look as close to their gender as they can, no matter their sexual orientation. It is also expected from them to be ashamed of their bodies and try to hide them in order to be “trans enough”. Same goes for non-binary people, who are usually expected to look slim and androgynous.
When talking about the toxic parts of our community regarding beauty standards, most of our interviewees actually first thought of gay men. On dating apps like Grindr, for example, people are asked to categorise themselves into different tribes, such as “twink”, “otter” or “bear”. It´s also not uncommon to come across people asking for requiring no fats, no fats, no Asians or no blacks – which takes toxic beauty standards to a next, horrible level of fathaming, sexism and racism.
The reasons these gay beauty standards are problematic is the same as the reason straight beauty standards are problematic. People are reduced to oversexualized stereotypes, their personality is mistakenly simplified to their sex preferences and their body becomes the main feature defining who they are.
Most of our non-binary interviewees said they don’t feel that many constrictions in the queer community and that they feel relatively free to express themselves how they want. However, as a non-binary person you are often still expected to look slim and androgynous.
In the queer community, we still see gender as binary even if we don’t want to admit that. I think that binary trans men are always seen as more beautiful than a nonbinary gender-nonconforming person, because we haven’t shaken the gender binary yet.
We, within our communities, shouldn’t carry on with this ugly way of judging and shaming each other. We shouldn’t police each other for not being “queer enough” or not being queer in “the right way”. We need to be aware that every person expresses themselves in their own way. We should respect everybody’s gender and sexual orientation no matter their gender expression and fashion style, and no matter how visibly queer they are.
The freedom to be beautiful
Undoubtedly, there is another, much stronger side to our community. Most people stressed that even though a certain toxicity can´t be denied, the queer community is still much more empowering and open than it is restrictive when it comes to beauty, looks and expression.
This norm-breaking doesn’t stop with glitter, heels and shiny thongs. We can learn to start owning the things we used to get bullied for, we are allowed to find pride in our uniqueness and beauty in the things that are considered ugly. Two of our queer interviewees specifically mentioned that what they find beautiful about others is what is generally considered as a “flaw” by society (things like moles, stretchmarks or crooked teeth). One of them even saying they have a very hard time relating to society´s beauty standards, because it´s all about hiding and shame.
When other people saw me as beautiful, my own perspective changed and I started to see myself as beautiful – this is the power of our community.
Our concept of finding pride in the things we get discriminated for is the ideal template to rip that toxicity apart and to let everyone thrive in their own beauty instead of holding them up to standards. Everyone meaning that we can carry this philosophy from our community to the broad society. We can own our queer beauty, firstly, by starting with ourselves and realizing, that being queer is the single one condition for looking “queer enough”, no matter what clothes you like wearing or how you like presenting yourself. And secondly, we have to reflect on how we treat the ones around us, our queer siblings, be aware of how we think of them and realize when we judge them based on discriminatory, cis-heteronormative ideas.
A lot of people want to look queer and they take pride in looking queer. Being visually queer means letting everyone know gender roles and beauty norms are bullshit, it means letting other queer people know you stand with them and making the world safer for gender nonconforming individuals.
Most of our interviewees said they want to look queer at least sometimes, but they mostly just dress how they want not actively thinking whether they look queer or not. Some said they wish to be confident enough with themselves or feel safe enough to dress more queer but feel that only at pride parade they have the safe space to experiment with their looks.
Speaking of pride parades, we can hardly overlook the comments we receive from some people. They complain about our “weirdness” and even more about our refusal to be ashamed of ourselves. They have a problem with people who dare to be sexy and beautiful in a different way. Feeling beautiful and looking queer is a revolution.
We could say that feeling beautiful equals being beautiful, since the thing that queer people find the most beautiful about others is confidence, being brave enough to be yourself. The characteristic valued the most in our community is authenticity. Beautiful are people who allow themselves to change, to like something that is not considered beautiful by the broad society. I think it’s safe to say that our community’s sense of beauty is a response to the toxic beauty standards of the broader society.
Queer beauty is turning your trauma into pride. It’s diversity, it’s freedom. It’s anything you want it to be, but mostly it is a revolution against conformity, it’s questioning the rules of masculinity and femininity. It means finding comfort in yourself.
When you come in contact with the queer community you need to redefine what beautiful is, and you need to redefine it regarding to yourself also.
Contact with the community has an influence on the majority of individuals’ perception of beauty, because it is destroying the stereotypes of traditional beauty and challenges your definition of beauty itself. Queer community helps you break apart from idealizing beauty and seeing it as something utterly unattainable. It shows you how you are beautiful as yourself in a way you can’t be if you were hiding behind someone else’s image. It takes time after coming in the community to shift your perspective, but it is constantly shifting, nonetheless.
With the power of pride, meaning appreciation and respect of authenticity, we can create a more anarchist appreciation of beauty! We, as individuals and as communities, can eradicate boxes and conservatism.
Our queer beauty lies within our creation of freedom. And simply by being queer, we already exceed on the limits and prohibitions we´ve been conditioned to live with – so never let anyone tell you that you´re not queer “enough”!
The art of feeling beautiful
According to our survey, queer people have a much harder time accepting the compliments about their looks than straight cis people.
Most people feel beautiful when they take time for themselves and put themselves and their wellbeing first. It is easier for most of our interviewees to feel beautiful than to feel sexy. People also feel beautiful when they get a compliment on their personality, abilities, skills, not just when others tell them they look good.
Your general mood influences how beautiful you feel. If you are in a good mood you are a lot more likely to feel beautiful, and it also works the other way around.
When asked what they do to feel more beautiful, our interviewees gave the following examples:
- Tell your friends or family members they are beautiful
- Spend time by yourself naked
- Take some “me time”
- Take a break from social media from time to time
- Travel or explore new places in your hometown
- Spend time in nature
- Listen to music
- Sometimes it’s best to distract yourself and let it pass
- Turn to your friends and loved ones and tell them how you feel
- Wear anti-dysphoria clothes
- Experiment with your looks, fashion and make-up
- Take a shower, do skin care
- Paint your nails
- Clean your apartment
- Cook yourself a healthy meal
- Spend time with your pets, they always find you beautiful
With getting older your standards of beauty for yourself get completely different. In your 20s you think you need to be fit and look well, but later you judge your body in regard to being healthy and functioning. It’s different. I still think about whether I look good, but in a completely different sense. You know how you have some things about yourself you don’t like? It’s much easier to accept them, accept they will not change and be ok with that.
Calling somebody beautiful
Whilst some people are in disbelief when somebody tells them they are beautiful, it also makes some people uncomfortable, either because they don’t want the attention focused on their looks, or because it reminds them of pushy men flirting with them or calling them beautiful because they want some sexual favour from them.
It is definitely not normalised to tell people they are beautiful, even in our community. Calling somebody beautiful doesn’t necessarily mean you find them attractive, it can be a platonic appreciation of somebody’s aesthetics, looks, style or general vibe they give. And even though some people feel uncomfortable with being called beautiful, the majority still feels good, because it makes them feel appreciated, happy and that leads to them feeling more beautiful and be more confident.
Pretty privilege is a thing. Generally, if people find someone good-looking, they are more likely to interpret their actions in a positive manner. Pretty people are generally more likeable, because we are used to connecting people’s appearance to their character – just like in marketing, a pretty packaging makes us expect valuable contents.
Pretty privilege is closely connected to fatphobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, classism and racism. Most of the people we interviewed, who were discriminated against or bullied because of their beauty said it was based on one of these things.
I do sometimes feel that people would take me more seriously if I was more conventionally attractive. But it’s hard to say if these are my externalised problems or if it’s the society. Actually, it doesn’t even matter. Because even if the society doesn’t treat you worse when you’re less beautiful, it’s enough that you feel shitty about yourself. This is also a form of discrimination. They teach you to discriminate yourself.
I’m sexy and I know it
People who are AMAB (=assigned male at birth) feel pressure to look sexually attractive rather than beautiful, it was also clear that pornography has a much bigger influence on their sense of beauty that it does on AFAB (=assigned female at birth) people. On the other hand, trans men and trans masculine individuals have a hard time feeling sexy in a masculine way.
I´m still figuring out what I feel sexy in. Sexy is very often connected to feminine features, so if I want to feel sexy, I´ll try to match my feminine side, but that will usually just give me dysphoria. As a woman, you´re taught how to be sexy, there are rules. They don’t exist for men, there is no guide, except that you have to be tall and muscular.
In our society, the pressure to look beautiful actually often is the pressure to look fuckable. Usually the people we on our screens having sex are conventionally attractive and thus the assumption arises that you can only have sex if you look conventionally beautiful.
Learning that people like you and me are sexual was weird. Almost like you think sex should be reserved for attractive, well-groomed people.
Is beauty a performance? Here, we don’t seem to be on the same page. Some of us think everything is a performance, whilst others feel that beauty is every person’s true essence
that can’t be faked.
Performing beauty doesn’t necessarily mean faking it, it can mean elevating something that is already a part of you. You don’t have to feel confident to act confident. Straight community is more involved into the performance of beauty, whilst queer beauty is seen more as a break from the performance.
Owning your queer beauty
Let’s not allow the privileged to dictate our beauty! We, as queer individuals, have the power to not only change the stigma we live under, but to change societal beauty standards as a whole. But for that to happen we need to start with ourselves and own our queer beauty.
Owning your queer beauty as an individual means accepting who you are and becoming comfortable with yourself. It is about continuous self-discovery, rooted in allowing yourself to experiment. Owning your queer beauty means having the courage to discover who you are, fully and freely; it means allowing yourself go through the process of finding your own way of expression and climbing out of the boxes the society put you in.
Written and researched by Lan Aidan Remec and Lee Mülders