Maya Monès at Gogo Graham
When you’re a transgender woman, people are constantly staring and judging. It seems we can never shake the eyes no matter the intention behind them, which instills a necessity in us to present as cisgender-passing as we can—as much as we can. This also establishes the very real fear that if we don’t conform to societal cis-standards, we will not be accepted; we will not succeed; we will not be allowed to survive.
When you’re a trans woman of color, survival takes obligatory precedence as we face danger merely due to our existence. We’re encouraged to religiously practice not only appearing cisgender, but to also chase white beauty, yet we’re murdered for who we aren’t. Nothing is handed to us, yet everything is expected from us. When will we be enough?
This question sparked a hunger in me to collect some receipts. During New York Fashion Week, I created a performance art piece through social experimentation where I explored the importance of a black trans woman’s hair. Each strand of our hair carries an immeasurable amount of weight pertaining to hundreds of years of oppression, racism, classism, unattainable beauty standards and so much more. Throughout the course of NYFW, I booked 11 total presentations and for each one, my hair was different from the last.
Maya Monès at Chromat, Kim Shui & Gypsy Sport
Hair has been such a vital part of coming into my womanhood, as it holds the power to make you feel like a completely different person. With this experiment, I’ve found comfort in escaping through my hair and getting lost in the tresses. Allowing myself to escape in such a way has been like therapy for my constant internal struggle that no doctor could ever prescribe. It is important for cisgender people to understand, and remain sensitive to, the fact that there is so much more behind what you see when it comes to the way a black trans woman chooses to present.
While I would agree in saying that natural hair and blackness in general have been slightly more appreciated within the industry as of late, I think the line between appreciation and tokenization has been blurred. Folks were quick to comment on what a beautiful person I was when I wore hair that fit white ideals, however when I wore an afro, braids, or another form of my natural hair, the comments shifted to express how beautiful “it” was, not necessarily in relation to me. Did my natural hair take away from my beauty for some? Was my natural hair not enough? This was a subtle yet significant linguistic difference proving whiteness and white aesthetics are viewed as the default.
Maya Monès at Hasbeens & Willbees, Músed & ISLYNYC
By so frequently playing with my versatility throughout this 11-show piece, I wanted to comment on all the hard work black trans/gender non-conforming models put forth that goes unnoticed, as well as the pain we endure. Many white cis/trans/gnc models thrive on mediocrity due to the white supremacist system that ensures their success, like they’re allowed on the elevator, while we’re forced to take the stairs. It’s just as frustrating to me, if not more, to see one black woman on a runway among a sea of white bodies. It’s hard to feel proud to see her there when it is clear she wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for folks of color speaking up were she to be absent. This type of casting is simply not a “get out of jail free card.”
I anticipated you wouldn’t question or notice why my hair looked different every couple of hours during fashion week, or even why I chose to participate in 11 presentations—double the amount of an average model. This proves just how much is expected of black trans/gnc folks, when we are in fact the most oppressed. I view my modeling as an art form, which most people don’t like to agree with, likely because they want models to be mannequins—they want me to be silent.