Culture  Fashion in transition

Is the latest vogue in model bodies a tokenization of gender-bending?

Fashion is about fantasy. Known for pushing boundaries of race, gender, and comfort, the fashion industry has never been one to shy away from the different. Given this tendency, the nude image of Lea T – one of fashion’s most recent “it” models – that appeared in French Vogue last August was not entirely unexpected. Nudity, especially for a magazine like French Vogue, is standard practice. For this particular photo, however, it is not the act of being nude, but Lea T’s physical body that is the subject of discussion. Lea T is a transsexual model, and the controversial photo in French Vogue makes it impossible to ignore this fact. With one hand barely covering her male genitalia, Lea T unabashedly places herself, and her body, on display for the world to see.

“On the one hand I think it’s a really fantastic image and I really have a lot of respect for Lea T…on the other hand, it’s French Vogue. It’s part and parcel with the beauty industry, which fetishizes images that might seem shocking,” explained Cultural Studies professor Alanna Thain to The Daily. When the August 2010 issue of French Vogue was released, the picture of Lea T created a lot of buzz in the fashion industry, and shone the spotlight on the difficulties transsexual and transgender people face every day.

“I agreed to pose in the name of all my transsexual friends,” Lea has been quoted as saying. In posing for this photo, Lea has become a sort of spokesperson for transsexual and transgender people who are comfortable with their identity, yet do not necessarily want to submit to full surgery.

While the nude photo and Lea’s subsequent success in the fashion industry is a step toward opening up more widespread discussion of gender issues in society, Thain warns against its potential tokenism. “[There is] always the problem when there is one model who is going to stand in for a certain kind of difference,” she said.

Furthermore, in every other aspect besides having a penis, Lea T has the body of a model. Tall, slim, and with a face too interesting to be merely pretty, Lea T simultaneously conforms to the fashion industry’s typical body type, and challenges it by having a penis. “[The] strength and interest of this image is a beautiful sexy woman with a penis,” Thain states. However, she did not find the image particularly shocking. “I’m not sure if it is being received as shocking in the same way it would have been 10, 15, 20 years ago.”

The fashion industry has long been known for championing unrealistic body types. “Feminist theory has spent a lot of time deconstructing the ways that your typical model doesn’t represent the typical average woman anyways,” explained Thain. “So if [Lea T] can be a way to provoke debate and to provoke questions of fantasy [and] expand our sense of what counts as beautiful and sexy and fashionable and desirable, great.” However, if Lea T’s image merely reinforces the rigid ideals that the fashion industry upholds, she may represent nothing more than another thin, beautiful model with a unique characteristic that the industry is exploiting.

The fashion industry is famous for picking up on uniqueness, and exploiting it to achieve a particular look, or push a specific fashion. Take the upsurge of gap-tooth models that occurred a few years ago. Dutch model Lara Stone, a typical model in every way except for the prominent gap between her two front teeth, took the fashion industry by storm. Suddenly, gap-tooth models were everywhere.

Today, gender-bending seems to be the latest “trend” in fashion. Lea T first appeared in Givenchy’s autumn/winter 2010-2011 show for long-time friend Riccardo Tisci and has since walked the runway for Alexandra Herchcovitch in her native Brazil. Nineteen-year-old Andrej Pejic, an Australian (via Serbia) male model who made his debut on the Gaultier menswear autumn/winter 2011-12 catwalk, has modeled both male and female clothing. While he still appears to identify as a male in the media, he walked Gaultier’s couture catwalk as “the bride,” and stars in Marc Jacobs’ latest campaign in gender-neutral clothing. Catwalks for autumn/winter 2011-2012 were full of gender-bending tricks. Vivienne Westwood put lipstick on her male models, and Gaultier had male models walk the runway in short-shorts with heavy beards. The February issue of LOVE magazine was the “androgyny issue,” featuring Lea T dressed as a woman and Kate Moss dressed as a man, kissing. But none of these examples indicate any real acceptance of transgendered issues by the industry.

Although the fashion industry appears to be pushing the boundaries of gender, it is still doing this in a way that completely conforms to our society’s typical definition of beauty and desire. Thain questions whether gender-bending in fashion is an example of creating more openness within pre-existing gender definitions, or whether the industry is actually reinforcing norms through this apparent gender-bending.

“[The gender-bending] is fluid and it’s not fluid – it plays off of a kind of dynamic tension,” Thain says. “[The fashion industry] tends to reify those two worlds [of male and female]; only a privileged few who can move back and forth between the two.”

Pejic was quoted backstage at the Gaultier show as saying he would consider a sex change if Victoria’s Secret offered him a contract. “You’d have to wouldn’t you? I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way,” Pejic said. This admission is a clear commitment to traditional gender definitions; despite modeling both female and male clothing, models that cross-dress are still expected to fulfill the typical stereotypes of the gender they are representing.

As Thain expresses, the potential strength of the nude image of Lea T or the cross-dressing of Pejic is how they highlight the norms those who are different must conform to in order to be accepted by society. “What fashion really calls into focus is the way that transsexual and transgender people are pressured to present a very normative model of sexual or gender identity in order to gain access to all these sorts of privileges.”