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May 19, 2017

Welcome to the world, Caitlyn (and privilege and beauty conventions)!

Twitter/HairbyStewart
Update: Okay, so I wrote the below essay just after Caitlyn Jenner publicly revealed her new look on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine last year, and I didn't publish it because I thought my criticisms were .... uncalled for at the time. I regret not publishing it then, because barely a year later people are realising that her privilege, which is my main criticism below, is not changing anything. Now the media is complaining that she is in fact taking up too much space in the trans conversation. Her public visibility as a white, rich woman is doing nothing for those on the ground suffering very real and often violent discrimination on the ground. Of course, we could go into the arguments about women being told in general that they take up too much space, but that is a conversation for another day...

Original piece written in June 2016: Following Caitlyn Jenner's very public reveal on the cover of Vanity Fair with a photograph by Annie Lebowitz, many have lauded her bravery at taking the world with her on her journey from a man to a woman. Of course she should be lauded - her face gracing the cover of the upstanding Vanity Fair is a major step in normalising transgender sexualities and is so necessary in our world fraught with prejudice and judgement.

I do not wish to detract from Caitlyn's achievements and all her very real experiences. But what is striking about her successful coming out is the very real fact of her privilege as a national hero and former male and how that narrative has largely been left out of mainstream media coverage of her coming out.

Caitlyn's history as a successful athlete cannot be overlooked. Her athleticism is an important part of her success. She made a name for herself as the 'All American Hero' after beating a Russian during the Cold War - a masculine trope that men still aspire to. This fame has contributed to her popularity. As a male athlete, she also received all the privilege that came with it: She was one of 4,824 men to compete in the Olympic Games in 1976, where the number of women was less than half that, and with women's sports not being so popular, one can imagine the sponsorship deals for women were not as lucrative as the deal he received from Wheaties for appearing on their box. Hell, pay equality is still an issue even today.

And then she's been successful outside of her athletics career in television and also in auto-racing - a notoriously male sport.

She recently accepted the Espy Arthur Ashe Courage Award in July for coming out because of the 'adversity' and 'peril' she faced by doing so. The very fact that she received the award at all raised its own controversy, as many believed others were worthier of the title. What's more is that she is not the first athlete to come out as transgender, but she is the first to be awarded for doing so.

I can perhaps see why she was chosen because the breadth of her influence has that much more potential as a result of her popularity on reality television. She thus had a lot more to win or lose by coming out publicly and also greater influence on the public's view on transgender people, which is not to say that is a bad thing.

In her acceptance speech for the above award, she practically accepted it on behalf of those transgender people who are struggling to come to terms with their status as the world struggles to come to terms with them. But that is my point: the transition for him was, not to say easier, because making that decision and going through with it could never be easy, but he had very public support over his move in a way that many young transgender youths today do not. Plus, his prolific career gave him the financial support many youths could only dream of.

My other concern is with the very public, very beautified way in which she came out. Her cover for Vanity Fair was indeed stunning ....
...but it concerns me that she chose a medium known for edited and touched-up images exemplifying conventional feminine beauty standards. Her image on the cover is flawless in a way that live footage of her is not. I have previously expressed my ire for how leaked 'real' photos mean nothing because they are not plastered on magazine covers and are not considered official publicity releases for celebrities, and the situation is similar here. Not only can Caitlyn enter the world and very publicly be accepted as a woman, she enters it as one of the most 'conventionally' beautiful women. As a man making the transition to a woman, how should she see Caitlyn's transition - which felt as though it happened overnight - in the face of her battles with hormones, fashion, beauty treatments and loved ones? How should those feel who are completely cut off from making any such transition and are forced to live in the wrong body? Furthermore, how do those who identify as women feel when who was once a man can be so beautifully flawless while they struggle at home with their masks and creams and lotions? How should they feel after a former man wins Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year award? What else can we think but that even men can perform femininity better than women? It's like that STEM competition for girls, which was opened for entries from boys and what do you know? The boy won!?

How can anyone compete with that?