You can't turn on the news right now without hearing about Caitlyn Jenner. She's made an enormous splash with her coming out and transition. And, it seems the reception has been surprisingly positive. She's been lauded as inspiring and courageous and, of course, beautiful.
So, this is good news, right?
As young transgender people look on, more transgender individuals are being highlighted in positive ways on the news, on TV and on the covers of magazines. The conversation has also begun shifting toward the issues that transgender people face such as discrimination, trouble with employment and violence. And, Caitlyn Jenner has been inspiring and courageous. Her story says that maybe trans people can expect greater acceptance and visibility. And this is big news.
But, if this is so good, why does it make so many young transgender people feel so bad?
Many transgender youth look at Caitlyn and feel despair: How could they ever have the money, genetics or support to look that beautiful or handsome? After all, she has access to the best surgery, makeup artists and clothing that money can buy! Very few people have the resources to look like Caitlyn.
With money and genetics on her side, she can easily "pass" or look so completely feminine that no one questions her gender. This is not often the experience for transgendered youth. Those who go through life being misgendered, harassed or bullied for their gender expression may start to think that the only way to get any acceptance at all would be to look as gender normative (looking like the typical man or woman) as Caitlyn does.
And, what has left many young people feeling quite angry is that they might not even want to look that gender normative. "Great," they might think, "the whole world assumes the only way to be transgender is to go from being all one gender to the other." It leaves no room for those with a more genderqueer identity, or who wish to be more of a tomboy girl or feminine guy, or something else altogether.
Everyone seems to accept Caitlyn because she looks beautiful, very feminine and tells a transgender "story" that people start in one gender and then just "switch" to the other. Except, these standards apply to so few people.
So, what is there for transgendered youth to do as this media circus continues to invade their phones, feeds and TVs?
Remind yourself you're not alone.
There are plenty of transgender, genderqueer and genderfluid folks out there who are feeling this way too. The internet is full of them. Even as we cheer on the increasing visibility of trans people, lots of folks are having mixed feelings, and that's really ok.
Let go of wanting to be "perfect."
The media is flooded with images of "ideal" representations of masculinity and femininity, and people everywhere (cisgender and transgender) are comparing themselves to what they see on TV and in magazines -- but the truth is that these ideals are not realistic. We would all be happier if we could accept that all bodies, faces and genetics are unique; we should strive to be our authentic selves and our own perfect role models.
Be with the people who see who you really are.
Because giving up hope of being that "perfect" man or woman may leave you wondering "what now?" Being around the people who care for you, who see you as beautiful and handsome, right now, just as you are, is a great remedy for all the people who don't. In the face of harassment, or being misgendered, spending time with friends and loved ones who really see you just as you are is a way to boost your spirits and remind yourself that you really are great, just how you are today.
Remember that Caitlyn Jenner is only the first step.
Even if Caitlyn is setting an impossible standard for acceptance, she is only one early step toward acceptance for people of all gender expressions. We've come a long way over the last 10 and even five years. In your lifetime we will come even farther. You're an important part of that work.
Fall in love with yourself.
Many people struggle with body shame or hatred. This can be much worse for transgender youth who often feel at odds with their body and their true identity. Thus, the suggestion to fall in love with yourself may seem wrong or odd. But, the fact is that your body, just how it is today is what you have. You may find that even if or when you get the body you hope to have in the future, it still will not solve all your problems. Get creative about how you can treat yourself like a friend right now: Maybe that means getting a manicure or buying a tie. Dying your hair a new color -- regardless of your gender -- can be a really fun way to treat yourself. Be in your body with a walk, yoga or a sport. Get outside and feel the air on your face. Anything you can do befriend your body is great.
Remind yourself of what's unique about you and your gender.
The fact is that everyone has their own, unique and wonderful way to express their gender. We might feel angry or spiteful that Caitlyn's expression is unattainably "movie star." But, that's her expression right now. We all have pressure on us to look a certain way and it takes a lot of courage to express yourself genuinely. Truly for all we know, Caitlyn is really more of a tomboy sometimes but feels the same pressure you do: to conform to expectations of gender and attractiveness. So, take some time to think: What would you look like, and who would you be, today, if there were no pressures, no restrictions, no expectations? And make sure you know that this person you just imagined is good, very good. And be proud.
Shut down the social media. Turn off the TV. Focus on something that makes you feel happy.
As always, if you are feeling so sad, anxious or angry that you aren't sure how to cope, or you are having thoughts of harming yourself, speak to a counselor, therapist or trusted adult. The Trevor Project staffs a hotline to help young LGBTQ people who are feeling suicidal or overwhelmed: 866-488-7386.
In the end, it is good news that, after so long, we finally see some positive images of transgender people. We're in a new era of acceptance and public awareness of the fact that transgender people even exist. And, however you feel in response -- whether good, bad, indifferent or a mix -- is not only your business, but totally normal. As the media dust settles, realize that your journey -- your unique, incredible journey -- is yours alone. Being real and genuine about yourself in the world takes a lot of courage. It took courage for Caitlyn, and it takes no less courage for you. Maybe more. And for that, well, there just aren't enough magazine covers available to celebrate exactly how amazing that is.
Jayme Peta, MA, MS is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Palo Alto University and has worked with LGBTQ youth since 1997, when she first joined LYRIC's (San Francisco's Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center) LGBTQ youth talkline. She also spent time doing health education with LGBTQ youth, leading support groups, and helped with the creation of San Francisco's Trans Health Clinic at the Dimensions Clinic. She is a co-author of The Gender Quest Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, February 2016).
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