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Beauty and SexualityCategoriesVoices

A Knife that Cuts Skin and Soul

Beauty – a word that often haunts me, and ironically also a key idea in the process of my own empowerment with regard to owning up to my preferred gender, sexuality and my body-type. The popular imagination, trends and culture around ‘beauty’ baffle me. They often make me feel belittled and put me in a constant state of anxiety as I keep searching on and within myself as to whether I have any element of it or how I will ever qualify as ‘beautiful’. But all along, in my journey of accepting my queer femme identity to establishing the sense of comfort and pride in being the way I am, or say in being born the way I am, a constant re-definition and reclaiming of the agency with which I inhabit, express and accept ‘beauty’ has been an integral part.

Honestly, as far as my own experience is concerned, I feel that one can never fully triumph over the effect standards of beauty have on us. The standards and the notion of beauty are always changing – season to season, year to year, decade to decade. While trying to fit in is a challenge in itself, efforts to keep up with changing trends only add more woes. Tiring as it is, being critical of these notions and standards is often empowering. It helps the self to critically engage with the way we internalise them and project them through our own efforts of beautifying ourselves and the way we carry ourselves. It also helps us create our own opinions and sense of beauty. Having said this, I should also be honest in admitting the fact that this criticality and introspection is something I do only when I am alone in my own space and world, taking my own sweet time to reflect. While, in those minutes and hours when I am ‘prepping’ to go out for a party, a gathering, or simply out for some fresh air, I find myself again fretting over what to wear, what dresses I have and whether what I have is something that is going to appeal to others or not…

As a femme or bottom in the gay world, I am expected to be smooth, fair, petite and ‘in shape’, and to add to it, I am supposed to feel a certain onus and urge to groom myself the way I am expected to. Sometimes the latter is what is sought more. Often, I am told to ‘smoothen’ up, especially my face, in order to be desired by masculine top gay men. There have been instances when I resorted to being completely shaved. I never really liked it. Then again, a curious question pops into my mind – is it because of my internalised fear and distress over effeminisation, infused in me by those years of childhood abuse for acting, talking and walking like a girl? The comments, discrediting my looks, make me feel self-conscious, and then self-hate pours in profusely. More saddening is the fact that it is not just the top men I desire saying it, but also my femme friends as well. So, it’s not just a matter of being judged by others but also something we or I have internalised.

Add to this the fact that I am a North Easterner, and the expectations are raised all the more. Sometimes I am too scared to mention the fact that I am a north easterner on anonymous gay networking apps. Firstly, because I am afraid that the interaction might then take a course of objectifying and exoticising me, than actually exploring or unveiling the person and the personality I am. And secondly, because I am not that fair and not quite petite and I am also not as quiet and shy as to meet the expectations and assumptions about a North-eastern femme person. So, here, the sense of beauty is pretty much a question of my racial identity and my struggles. Most often I assume and imagine that if I do meet all the standards of beauty as expected then I might have more of a say with men who desire me, or have more of a say in what transpires between me and men I’m dating, or have more of a say in bed as we do it. Only to realise that it is not so, and sadly it might never be so.

On a side note, an aspect of popular beliefs and attitudes about beauty that offends me is the way they entitle men to be the ones to validate what is desirable and what is not. Although most of the customers of the beauty industry and of beauty products are women, often the imagination of what is beautiful or attractive is derived from what men desire and wish for. Let’s say attraction is a two-way affair, one serves and the other consumes, and vice versa. But often the advertisements we see of beauty products are not about women going in for self-enhancement because they want to look or feel a particular way, but are always projected as a way to attract more men or to ward off ageing and its effects that diminish the youthfulness of the skin. Here there is an assumption that men necessarily like younger and youthful skin, and that women have to try and maintain that, because ‘men are men’   and will go away the moment they find another more youthful woman. Among men, it reinforces their sense of entitlement and agency about how a woman should look and dress. It’s so unfair. The onus of beautifying lies on us, but ultimately, it’s the men who validate it.

Often, I have heard from my transwomen friends that the first question from a psychiatrist for a Gender Identity Disorder certificate, or the surgeon who will undertake the transition is “Are you doing this for your boyfriend?”. Also, there are stories of women going under the knife just to keep their men interested in them. For some, it is their husband or boyfriend or partner who suggest they do it. Another paradox is the way women and femmes are expected to push their limits and invest time and energy to doll up so that any man who sees us must fall for us and want to have us, but we have to curb ourselves to one man. If the woman wishes to have all the men, she is apparently ‘easy’ and is stripped of respectability, and also of desirability despite how beautiful she may look. Whereas, for a man, it is his ‘natural instinct’ to try and have as many beautiful women as he can, there is no shame if he so desires. Moreover, as he keeps doing so, and if he happens to have a beautiful partner that everyone desires but the access to her body is only limited to him, it seems to increase people’s respect for and admiration of him.

I feel that to expect us to doll ourselves up to make ourselves desirable and then have to put on a chastity belt could potentially induce a split personality in us. Whereas for a man to desire to have a beautiful wife and to expect his wife to loyally restrict herself to him only reinforces his sense of integrity and entitlement over women’s bodies. Also, we can ask, how many of the men who groom themselves and go to the gym for a perfect body, do this because they want to impress their partner or because they want to fit the idea of the man their partner desires? I think most of them do it for their own personal sense of beauty and wellbeing in terms of having the body type of the aesthetic of a man they want to be. Or worse, only to enhance their Casanova status or to walk around with shoulders even broader than before.

The first things that strike me when it comes to dating among homosexual men are body type, height, weight, skin type, race, ethnicity and class. Nowadays, ‘being fit’ or ‘gym-toned’ or ‘disease free’ or ‘HIV negative’ is trending and can also be added as new standards of attractiveness and desirability. Or for that matter, the type of job and English grammar skills are also key elements in determining whether the other person should desire you or not. When in fact, I think, it should be about a holistic sense of a person – personality, world-view, kinks, compatibility and chemistry, along with appearance. Most of the boys that I have dated so far didn’t actually fit my fantasies of good looks and desirability. But after knowing them and after being surprised by different facets of theirs that appealed to me and made me even more fond of them and adore them more, I was able to add to what I think or feel is desirable. Beauty, then, as I believe is not just about what is perceived as desirable, but also about creativity and new formations. Expecting the same old is boring. The better way is to take the old and create something new. This brings beauty, as a concept, to life.

Talking of the queer community, we have always stood up against exclusion and isolation vis a vis heteronormativity and the heterosexual world. The crux of our identity lies in the way we question and don’t always conform to social norms. It opens us up and helps us accept diversity and differences and to forge inclusivity as the way the ‘social’ should be constructed. That is what we have always been fighting for. It paves us a way to allow ourselves to constantly evolve and change. Expressing preferences is okay, but raising standards is wrong. Queer people as fashion icons is all about the way we have broken down traditional notions of beauty, gender and sexuality. It’s about diversity, fluidity and creativity and not about vehemently reinforcing and raising lofty standards based on the popular notion of beauty. Subversion is when the queer world breaks the heteronormative stereotype of desirability and desiring, and is not about adopting, adapting and re-enforcing it in our own way. Sometimes I feel that gays are more of a fashion police than heterosexuals. Most often I get very self-conscious in assorted gay spaces and parties and these become unsafe spaces as the standards of beauty are so classist and lofty and people are so judgemental about what you wear and which brands you use. Or, their public statements of “no femmes”, “no chubs” on their profile – it is very disheartening. It seems to encourage more and more stereotyping. So dehumanizing if you don’t fit in the scheme – like you don’t deserve love and attention. One can have one’s preferences but a statement that boldly states one’s aversion to a group of people who are already shunned and stigmatised reinforces the stigma.

I feel disheartened when friends tell me that I don’t look femme enough and suggest that I shave my body hair or recommend beauty treatments and products. It feels as if I am not heard and that I don’t have a good sense of beauty and aesthetics or that I don’t know myself or know how to groom myself. It makes me feel claustrophobic in the attire and the sense of self that I happily put on a while ago. Most often people just ignore you, they won’t look at you, and they make you feel invisible. Often when people don’t get your style, you are pushed to change your style to fit in. I think it affects our sense of self and integrity and lands us in more and more confusion and self-hate. And the ever-changing standards of beauty add more layers and compound the trauma.

Beauty, for me, is what pleases me and sometimes what shocks me. It is what captures my imagination and expectations and also what surprises me as well. It is about how I feel about  myself, what and how I want to project myself as, how I view the world, and so on and so forth… It keeps adding on… And as I mentioned earlier, it should be about creativity and new formations too, apart from what is perceived as desirable so far. We need to be critical of where our sense of beauty and desire is coming from – what is the need and what are our expectations? We need to be critical of the language we use in terms of how we express our desire and preference, and also in our jokes and humour as well. And for one’s own self, it is hard but very important to stand up and live up to one’s own idea of beauty. We need to encourage more forms of self-expression. If I am unfamiliar with what I see, then I should try and know more about the inspiration of it rather than start judging based on my sense of aesthetics and beauty. When we accept other’s difference and sense of themselves, it also helps us love ourselves more. Each one of us is struggling with a sense of insecurity about our body and self. Accepting others and their sense of self could help us with that. We should let beauty be defined in as many ways possible. Let’s open up the possibilities for others and ourselves. What is the harm if concepts of beauty and beautiful are overflowing? It will only ‘enhance’ the beauty of the world and offer more beauties to savour. And last but not the least – the issue of performance in bed. Often standards of beauty come into our bed in the forms of anxieties and often kill our passion. If instead of these anxieties and expectations, we expand our sense of beauty and allow ourselves to get into the experience, then, I think, that our beds will rock as they have never done before.

इस लेख को हिंदी में पढ़ने के लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें

Cover Image: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Article written by:

Pavel is from Imphal, Manipur and currently works at Nazariya – A Queer Feminist Resource Group in New Delhi. A vagabond by heart and queer feminist by practice, Pavel has worked on issues of engaging men and boys for gender justice and creating safe and shared space for women and girls and is a co-founder of The Chinky Homo Project. Storytelling is ze’s passion.

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