When I first came out as transgender, I had a simple question.
How was I to go outside?
People say that beauty is only skin deep, but when the world cannot see your beauty...there’s nothing superficial about it.
Whatever the cause, when one’s appearance is deemed abnormal or unacceptable, perhaps even deviant or ugly, being in this world can mean being ridiculed, shunned, ignored, and even attacked.
So, how to go outside?
There are many ways to answer this question, and if you’ve found your way, and it works for you, you have my cheers and love and support.
For me, I thought I should at least know how to properly use makeup. I wasn’t unfamiliar with makeup. I had spent a lot of time as a goth. I knew some amazing cosplayers. And those Japanese visual rock musicians were gorgeous.
But I wasn't thinking about going to a club; I was thinking about going to the supermarket. I didn't want a spotlight; I wanted to buy more bread and eggs and salad greens and maybe some ground turkey, should it be on sale.
In retrospect, my goals were both extremely low and extremely high. I didn't want to turn heads. I just wanted to be me—
Except beautiful enough to go outside.
And that led me to the late, great Kevyn Aucoin.
On the surface, this makes no sense. The makeup legend had spent his career with A-list clients such as Cher, Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Tina Turner…not exactly everyday folk.
https://rykaworld.bulletin.com/2880155965617863/And yet, as I sat with his books, Face Forward and Making Faces (in the aisle of a dearly departed Borders Bookstore) I became enchanted—not only with his work, but by his thoughts and philosophy. I had never read someone so thoroughly analyzing beauty—yet so adamantly generous and inclusive.
Yes, he was the makeup artist to the stars. Yes, the amazing techniques were still there, and the brilliant artistry was still there… But instead of working toward a single unified beauty, Aucoin reveled in what made us different.
For Aucoin, beauty was not something to be defined or achieved—it was something to be expressed and explored.
What beauty was not, was narrow and reductive. We may have our own definitions of beautiful, but it becomes damaging when we force those definitions upon others. Aucoin wrote of a photo shoot in which he used makeup to make a model’s complexion darker—and how that triggered so many opposing opinions, even of those who had darker skin.
And suddenly, I felt my own beauty being demystified. Sure, this didn’t make the world a less dangerous place, and sure, I would need to find looks that would not endanger me. But this was a problem with the world, not of me.
I would never doubt my own beauty again.
I was thinking about this recently, while hearing a talk by the physicist Sabine Hossenfelder on the frustrating lack of progress in physics over the last 40 years. I enjoyed it so much that I bought her book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.
In her book, Hossenfelder suggests that the stagnation in physics might be traced to its stubborn attachment to “beautiful” math. Hossenfelder cites string theory and supersymmetry as theories that have not a shred of observational evidence, yet are insisted upon by physicists because of their mathematical simplicity and symmetry.
In other words, their concept of beauty.
Hossenfelder maintains that when an experiment comes up empty, someone reasons that either the evidence is elusive, or that the experiment was intrinsically unable to deliver the expected result. And so they build a larger, more expensive supercollider, a more sensitive detector—directing money, brainpower and other resources toward proving a concept whose only justification is that someone declares it beautiful.
From Aristotle to Copernicus to Kepler, to Dirac and even Einstein, Hossenfelder states that our most brilliant minds can be stymied by their own rigid definitions of beauty.
Invariably it reduces to more symmetry, more simplicity, and the egocentric desire to know the mind of God…
Physicists are not the only scientists who’ve been caught playing Pygmalion. Chemists became too enamored of “noble” gases and complete electron shells. Paleontologists, convinced that man had evolved due to some evolutionary manifest destiny, fruitlessly searched for a “missing link” and found the Piltdown man. Physicians, convinced that life is beautiful and should be preserved at all costs, have neglected palliative care that focuses on not the duration, but the quality of life.
All of these are shortcomings of aesthetics, not science.
Symmetry, simplicity, and the egocentric desire to know the mind of God…
When placed next to the thoughtful words of Kevyn Aucoin, these definitions of beauty seem shallow, even clichéd.
Yes, Aucoin was no physicist—but this isn’t about physics. This is about beauty.
And yes, scientists are usually pretty smart, but in the face of beauty, smart people can be as stubbornly superficial as the rest of us.
And so, just as with those fashionistas who could not imagine dark skin being beautiful—how much of our Universe’s beauty is being explained away right now?
Rather than seeking a singular perfect form or destination, Aucion asserted that “the goal should be to expand our definition of what we consider ‘acceptable,’ ‘normal,’ and ‘beautiful.’”And there we are. Planets don’t orbit in perfect circles nested within Platonic solids. Noble gases aren’t always so noble. Humans emerged from a genetic moshpit of Denisovans and Neanderthals and a few unidentified gatecrashers. Some diseases require maintenance regimens, others palliative care. Fundamental forces remain fundamental. And no one has seen a proton decay.
But none of this means that does not mean that our Universe is any less beautiful. And, each time a “beautiful” theory has been superseded, what followed expanded our definition of “acceptable,” “normal,” and “beautiful.”
In other words, exactly what Kevyn Aucoin described.
If scientists are enamored of beauty, seek beauty, strive for beauty, would they not benefit from the words of one whose legacy was built upon beauty?
In Making Faces, Aucoin wrote, “the future will belong to those with open minds and open hearts, who can appreciate beauty in all its forms.”
I cannot see how defining or achieving a single vision of beauty, no matter how mathematically seductive, will help people live their everyday lives.
But I do know that a culture dedicated to appreciating beauty in all its forms would make it a lot easier for transgender people to get groceries.
And, imagine how much beauty our Universe would offer, what breakthroughs we could discover...if all of us felt welcome to go outside.
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Cover Photo: Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto/Collection: NurPhoto/Getty Images "Manuela, a member of Las Gardenias, a transgender football team, is carried by a person inside a room at Deportivo Maracaná in Tepito, Mexico City."
**Tighef, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
*** Johannes Kepler's Platonic solid model of the solar system from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596). Public domain.
****Photo by me.