When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.
If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.
With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’
When friends without Jenner’s advantages have transitioned, changing their profile pictures to female-presenting photos, I’ve seen whole threads of you-look-great comments – hell, I’ve left them. Those threads don’t feel reductive or objectifying – they feel like moral support for women whose beauty is policed with singular violence, who are making their way as best they can, seeking affirmation. (In that use of selfies, they’re not alone.)
There are mathletes who are too rad for prom, who deny their lives need be a dress-up event and refuse point blank to care how they look. More power to them – but the go-fuck-yourself approach is not widely accessible. It comes with judgement, harassment and violence of its own – violence Regina George inflicts, do-it-to-Julia style, so as to escape it herself, enough of which the world’s Beckies and Jessicas – ill, fat, black, trans – face as it is. Would not telling women like them and Caitlyn Jenner they looked nice do much to help?
If tomorrow, compliments based on looks vanished from human speech – if the words ‘You look great’ went unspoken, transition photos uncommented on and laboriously crafted outfits and hairdos pointedly ignored – would it end beauty standards’ tyranny, or just strip those hardest hit of a means by which to cope? People deemed beautiful would still be seen and see themselves as such; people able to live with being unbeautiful would survive; but mathletes at the world’s spring flings, outsiders without the option of staying away, would get no piece of Lindsay Lohan’s crown. Beauty culture’s slave labour would go on, but would become thankless as well as forced, with those who failed to measure up harassed and those who succeeded invisible.
I’d rather try and resist that culture by offering support to all those invested in how they look, however they look – Lohanning, if you will – than forcing indifference on everyone. The dynamics of the latter approach are unignorable: when transgender Jenner managed to be deemed beautiful, some commentators responded exclusively by insisting she not be informed she looked nice; when Beyoncé managed the same while black, critics accused her of betraying women; when Laverne Cox managed the same as a black trans woman, her naked form (unlike Lena Dunham’s) was blamed for not ending sexism. Are compliments just off-limits to women who aren’t cisgender and white?
It doesn’t feel reductive to me to tell Caitlyn Jenner you look forward to seeing more of her. It feels reductive to call a twenty-two page profile by a Pulitzer-winning journalist a glamour shoot simply because in it – as well as speaking, one presumes, on no end of subjects – Jenner, known for her religious and political views, poses in fashion photographs. It feels reductive to assume that, on her first appearance presenting as female, ‘You look great’ could mean nothing but ‘You seem fuckable enough.’ And it feels reductive to insist that, since women ought not be judged by their appearance, trans women get no chance to feel good about theirs.