"Do You Think You're Beautiful?": Navigating A Bearded, Black, Disabled, Fat Womanhood

Photo by AE | Words by Whitney P. Lopez

***It is important and necessary for me to point out several things before you read this essay. The first thing is my privilege: I can sometimes physically pass as a cisgender woman or a cisgender man, I am relatively lighter skinned than other Black people, and I am on the smaller side of plus-sized. The second thing is that even though the actions of those who seek to harm me are transmisogynist, I, as a person who was assigned female, cannot experience transmisogyny as trans women and trans femmes who were assigned male. It is absolutely necessary that my experiences and the experiences of other hairy nonbinary people who were assigned female not be used to promote transmisogyny and the invalidation of the lived experiences of trans women and trans femmes who were assigned male at birth .***

As though it were an inside joke between myself and the universe, people send me photos and interviews of Harnaam Kaur all the time. I think they assume I will appreciate it; in their minds, they have acknowledged and validated my hairy existence by sending me a link to some click-bait article or photoset. I don’t appreciate it, and in fact, I think it’s insulting. Not because I don’t like Harnaam or how she chooses to present herself, but because all women and femmes of color with facial hair do not have shared life experiences. I am not Harnaam and Harnaam is not me. My experiences and Harnaam’s experiences overlap at the beard and the gender we were assigned at birth, and that’s it.

As a nonbinary, gender non-conforming person, my womanhood is directly linked to what doctors view as my elevated testosterone and the thick body hair that others suggest I “correct.” In this characteristic that many find repulsive, I find my femininity, in the way I choose to define and embrace it. This womanhood, for me, has little to do with my assigned gender, and everything to do with the self-determination and performative nature of identity.

There are levels to the performativity of gender, gendered beauty, and desirability in my daily life. Society expects me to be lowly, apologetic, and in a constant state of contained fear because how dare I decide to come out of the house looking this way without feeling lowly, apologetic, and afraid?  As a person viewed as having compounded undesirable traits according to society’s standards of thin, white, hairless, able-bodied beauty, I should be in a constant cycle of public self-flagellation for the space my body consumes and actively work to “fix” the parts of me deemed as socially unacceptable in order to be worthy of having my humanity acknowledged. If I adhere to this, people will see me as human, but only long enough to pity me or use me as a tool of inspiration (i.e., “If this monstrosity can ____, then clearly anyone can ____”).

The reward for confidence when you are Black, plus-sized, hairy, and undesirable is often abuse, whether verbal, physical, or mental. It is a constant threat of violence to you and your body. It is a constant threat of not having a job, and thereby, losing housing and food security. It is unending sexual harassment and assault because I should “know better” than to confuse people with my body or I should be “grateful” someone touched me. I’m not grateful for this. I’ll be grateful when people treat me like a human being by my definition of my humanity.

Being physically disabled adds another layer to how society forces me to pick sides when it comes to my gender presentation.On days when the left side of my body is dragging and palsied, I am just visible enough for people to choose to ignore me or to inflict harm. Whether or not someone decides to hold a door open for me or a driver decides to slow down to let me safely cross the street, all depend on how desirable or pitiable I am observed to be. It also puts me in greater danger when perpetrators recognize that I cannot fight back if they were to attack me. To live in my truth and to honor the “beauty” I claim for myself, these are risks with which I am forced to live.

The internal battle for self-love when everyone you love is against you can be strong enough to make you want to die. Redefining beauty for myself allowed me a modicum of mental health not based in shoving my body into the norms placed on me and the reach for norms expected of me as a Black/Latinx person in the U.S. Prior to accepting the way I currently look, my mind was constantly filled with questions on how my friends and family would treat me, and worse, how I would treat myself in response to their hatefulness. Wondering if I were better off dead, than to face what I knew was coming. It wasn’t long before I would have answers to these questions.

My homophobic and transphobic family and friends would out themselves on social media, sometimes in an extremely public display of hatred.  Artists, musicians, and writers who once wanted to work with me, no longer had a desire to associate their work with mine. Invitations I had received for exhibitions, performances, speaking engagements, and interviews dissolved. While this was deeply upsetting initially, it has shown me that I was working with bigots and that the people who are remaining are worth my time.

Out of this quest for a beauty I could call my own came innumerable offenses, and out of the mental and emotional anguish resulting from the offenses came scores of poetry, monologues, personal essays, art pieces, photo shoots, and even a very intimate short film. With a dwindling list of close friends, art and writing offered me the solace that no one else could. Every time someone questioned me or caused me to question myself, my art or writing blossomed into an answer. These answers have helped me to be better versions of myself and to understand that this self has lots more growing, healing, and learning to do.

Part of this learning is knowing that my experiences and my identity are not everyone’s, nor are they for everyone. Hairy femmes and women, regardless of assigned gender, will continue to be hairy femmes and women whether you like it or not, with or without your support. We will continue to thrive and walk in our truths without apology. Yes, we are all beautiful, and no, we are not all Harnaam.

Whitney P. Lopez is a gender non-conforming, disabled multimedia artist, performer, and activist of African American and Boricua descent who sometimes writes when they aren't staring off into space.

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