If I hadn’t had a good orthodontist, I would have such a crooked smile.
Should I have had counselling instead of a set of braces? Should I not have undergone the “mutilation” of healthy tooth tissue pulled out to make room in my overcrowded mouth? Does good dentistry create a standard of beauty, produce a market for a medical procedure designed to perfect us? Why, sure it does – as does birth mark removal, surgery for facial disfigurement, and all manner of processes that have, over the years, made human beings more standardised, more conventionally attractive, but have also eased the suffering and social isolation of the individual people who have had those treatments.
I used to be a bit snooty about people going for cosmetic surgery. I was actually quite puritanical about looks, shying away even from hair dye. I believed in being “natural” despite literally lying through my teeth.
But I encountered stories over the years that lessened my haughtiness – the women who reduce their breast size to save their aching backs, the survivors who increase their breast size so as not to feel like little girls, the dieters who find themselves in skin ten times too big for them. It turns out many people’s reasons for altering their bodies are far from trivial. The surgery vastly improves individual’s psychological wellbeing, and yet we judge those suffering individuals often quite harshly for contributing to an artificial beauty standard (just like my teeth do).
Much as I feel genuine concern about the unrealistic standards of beauty women to a larger extent, and all of us to some extent are held to, I believe passionately in people’s rights to do anything they want with their own bodies. It’s called bodily autonomy, and much as we may not want corporations to advertise or promote unattainable ideals of beauty, we pretty much have to allow people the dignity of knowing what is right for them in this imperfect world, and that means always directing our criticism in general terms at the industry tactics and standards rather than at individuals.
The trans community should be no exception to this – what we choose to do to our bodies should be our own private choice, and if there are significant psychological health benefits to the procedure, they should be available through the NHS and medical insurance, just as in some cases breast augmentation, tummy tucks and other cosmetic surgery for cis people are. Because, in the world as it is now, someone who does not fit standards of appearance that are cis-normative is quite likely to be socially marginalised, subject to violence and harassment, and excluded from employment, especially if they are a trans woman. These issues are not trivial, and have far more to do with safety and emotional wellbeing than they have to do with “frivolous” desires about looks.
At the same time, it’s very important to understand that it is not surgery that makes us who we are, and holding trans people, particularly women, to expectations of how someone should look, or how their body should be configured, is deeply problematic. We need to end the kind of world where trans women need to gain acceptance and safety through cosmetic means, so that their body choices are made freely and without fear and oppression, as are the choices of all women.
But it is not for trans women to risk themselves to challenge this status quo – it is for society to widen its standard of what is acceptable, for the cis gaze and male gaze to be challenged and dismantled by the people who hold that gaze.