‘You can be feminine and strong’

Isaura M. League

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BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 08: Mj Rodriguez attends TIME Women Of The Year at Spago L'extérieur on March 08, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for TIME)

MJ Rodriguez attended the Time Women of the Year event on March 08 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for TIME)

“I was holding a lot in my hair,” MJ Rodriguez shared with her Instagram fans last month, alongside a photo of herself with a freshly shaved head, “and this was just a moment to let it all go.”

Celebrating her recent Emmy win for Pose as well as the wrapping of the series, she continued, “I overcame the ideas of what people thought I should be and how I should move through this world. Now I can continue to walk to the beat of my own drum. And you should too.”

That’s a tall order for most humans. But it can be uniquely challenging for transgender women, like Rodriguez, who often feel bound by standards of beauty and femininity — hair, makeup, shoes, clothes — in ways that can land differently than for cisgender women. That’s because breaking such molds when you’re trans can run the risk of you not being seen for who you are.

“One has to ask themselves: What is the definition of femininity? In many ways, it’s a social construct,” Kara Corcoran, a U.S. Army battalion executive officer and extreme athlete who shares videos of herself doing high-altitude marathons, weight lifting and mountain biking, tells Yahoo Life. But it doesn’t mean it’s one that’s easy to reject, or that squaring bulging muscles with feeling feminine is a simple task. “I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish I had a smaller waist, a bigger chest, I wish I was slimmer in this area or that,” she says. “I would say I’m just like every other girl that way.”

Brie Scolaro, co-director of the New York City-based and LGBTQ-focused Aspire Psychotherapy, tells Yahoo Life that all “female-identifying” or “assigned female at birth” individuals, no matter what their gender identity, “are influenced by the brutal expectations set forth by societal beauty standards.” The social construct of gender, Scolaro adds, “is often seen as a male-female binary, and gender norms tell us a woman looks like this, while a male looks like that,” making it tricky for many people to sort out their own unique gender identity.

Those who are trans, Scolaro notes, “may first latch onto these typical beauty standards and gender norms as a way to look traditionally ‘female’ and cover their maleness, as passing is differently challenging for trans women than it is for trans men. The more someone in transition ‘appears’ female, by the traditional sense, the more likely they are to be read as female and the more likely they are to safely pass.” It’s why many trans women believe, sometimes against their own better judgment, that “this is how they need to express in order to be female.”

Rebelling while trans

Rodriguez (who was not available to speak with Yahoo Life for this story) isn’t the only trans celeb to play with gender expression post-transition. Her Pose co-star Indya Moore, in fact, has sported a super-short cut for a while now — modeling, to gorgeous effect, with a shiny bald head at one point — and she’s long spoken out about natural beauty and breaking molds, including around normalizing body hair on “feminine-of-center people.”

“I try to push to widen what feminine-of-center people feel like we’re allowed to do,” she told W several years ago. “A lot of how we carry ourselves in society falls along the line of allowance, and what we feel we have permission to do, and that, in and of itself, is problematic.” She mentioned an Instagram commenter calling a photo showing her underarm hair “disgusting,” noting, “The way we’re expected to shave our bodies almost reminds me of skin bleaching, or the way trans women are expected to want to have surgery or need to have surgery — even though I chose to go for a gender-confirming surgery.”

Recently, when an Instagram commenter called Moore “handsome,” she thanked them, adding, “Trans women can be handsome too.”

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, author Meredith Talusan expressed her thoughts around the issues in 2020, explaining, “I was obsessed with femininity for years after I transitioned in 2001. I reveled in using cosmetics and flattering outfits to look both more convincing and attractive as a woman, forms of expression my old gender denied me. But apart from how much time it took to dress up this way, I also grew weary of the awful feeling that my beauty was always on the verge of collapse, that a mere rub of the eyes or bunching of the cloth would ruin the effect.”

So she cut back on makeup until she wore none at all, and exchanged “fussy dresses and high heels” for more comfortable clothes, and chopped her hair. “When I began transitioning, I perceived the reality of womanhood only from outside and felt the need to embody an idealized femininity to feel like a woman among women,” she wrote. “But over time, I’ve come to realize that every woman — whether transgender or cisgender — evolves a unique perception of herself, one that need not conform to any specific model of what a woman should be.”

Similarly, trans model Lauren Sundstrom wrote for The Kit last year about the experience of cutting her hair short. “For a lot of trans women, the first thing we do is grow our hair, because it’s such a powerful signifier of gender in our society … It was incredibly affirming for me.”

And it helped her pass, but still, she said, “I’d always wanted to have that sort of pixie, sprightly, youthful, cool haircut … I thought, ‘Everybody is very aware of my transness now.’ I no longer feel the need to quote-unquote ‘pass’ as much for cisgender as obsessively as I did in the past.”

On Instagram Sundstrom elaborated, writing, “I’m not the first trans woman with short hair and I won’t be the last. Just wanted to put some thoughts and feelings down as I navigate a new form of gender expression and *potentially* see an increase in misgendering from the public.”

Others speaking out about the at-time oppressive c
onstructs that come with transitioning include U.K.-based activist Eva Echo, who tells Yahoo Life that when she started her medical transition, she realized “it’s essentially trying to fit in with a cisgender society,” as she felt it was “still society kind of conditioning you to go from one binary box into another.”

In the beginning, she says, “I was quite sucked into that notion, I was free and could be myself and I had this picture of what feminine was, feminized face, long hair, makeup, I became quite jaded by that because yes it kept me safe, because passing allows trans people to go unnoticed as they go about daily life.”

That realization led Echo to start the Pass It On campaign, with Unite UK, with an aim to break down the barriers of internalized beauty and beauty ideals and provide a safe space for trans and nonbinary people to be themselves. “There’s a lot of internalized transphobia,” says Echo, 41, who came out and transitioned “late in life” and who recalls noticing these various levels of acceptance everywhere, including at a party where she saw “trans women actively scanning the room and actively judging… it’s almost like a hierarchy started to form, the women who looked cisgender, they were like … in Mean Girls, the popular ones,” she recalls. “I saw that and thought, that’s not right, and the more that stuck and grew internally, the more I felt I had to do something.”

Echo uses her social media platform to give other trans women a voice and to lean on what she’s learned through her own transition. “I have eased off on a lot of things. When I used to go out, it was a short skirt, lots of makeup, wearing things you would typically associate with women — that’s how I defined my femininity and being a woman,” she says.

Corcoran struggled with that at the start of her transition, too, but says she finally embraced the idea that “you can be feminine and strong. You can go to gym, lift weights and throw on a cute dress that night and four-inch heels and enjoy life and still be the strongest person in a room. You don’t have to fit a certain mold.”

She adds, “What makes a woman is not all of the social norms or characteristics that we normally associate. What makes a woman is who they are as a human being.” Corcoran, who sometimes posts images of herself pre-transition, says it’s all part of using her platform to be her full self and to help others feel less alone.

“I’m not afraid of people knowing, because I have accepted that yes, I am a woman, but I am also a transgender woman, and if people want to be a part of my life, I want people to know. It shows other transgender people you don’t have to fit a certain mold of what you [see] in a magazine. You can still do all the hobbies, all the things you did as a man and still be feminine all the same. I played football in high school, I lifted weights as a guy, I did all these activities and, really, my transition opened me up to more activities — trail running, biking.” Through posting herself doing that and more, she says, she hopes to “show the world and other transgender women that you don’t have to abandon all the things that you used to do as a man in order to be feminine.”

Similarly, says Echo, “as I’ve learned about my own journey with gender, I’m not as bothered — I now do minimal makeup — and it’s almost like I’ve seen the bigger picture: If I’m doing it for myself, fine… but if I’m doing it for other people, then I’d rather not.”

Scolaro, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, says they see this sort of evolution quite often in their psychotherapy practice, noting that, in time, some “may realize that their true identity lay outside of typical standards of beauty, and they may no longer want to ascribe to these gender norms. And for some, the stage of a final metamorphosis, a final transition, is freeing themselves of the shackles of gender norms and standards of beauty that have played such a dominant role in their life. The moment where one can finally be free and express their true self, in their gender, in a way that is authentic to their soul, according to their own standards of what beauty is.”

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