Edit 22/04/15 – In the time since I wrote this piece I’m aware that that Adreja Pejic has “come out” and transitioned. In light of this I’ve considered whether this piece comes across as mean-spirited. My intention was to criticise the idea that the only kind of acceptable gender non-conforming body was one that conformed to idealised standards of (female) beauty, and that this was not as ground-breaking and empowering as some media sources had made it out to be. I have no issue with Pejic herself and however she chooses to express herself, more the way the media paraded her.
Here comes an unpopular opinion. I am bored of Andrej Pejic. There, I said it.
Yes, he’s pretty, I don’t deny that. I’m not bored of looking at him, he’s gorgeous and has created some stunning images. What I’m bored of is the way he’s being continually lauded as the patron saint of gender diversity as if he’s the first bloke to ever wear a dress.
You’ve probably heard of the Serbian-born male model, famous for, well, looking like a girl. And not just any girl, a beautiful girl, with the high-fashion look designers crave. Andrei shot to fame following a Marc Jacobs editorial which showed the blond, elfin model in a short dress, showing off his slender, well-oiled legs. A sensation was born and Pejic became one of the first male models to take part in female catwalk shows and fronting many campaigns for men’s and women’s wear. Controversy and world-wide fame insued after he gained a place in FHM’s ‘hottest women’ list, generating some rather ugly transphobic abuse, and when he starred in a push-up bra advert.
Pejic, who does not identify as transgender, has been quoted saying that he enjoys dressing in both masculine and feminine styles and has been mistaken for a girl since he was a child, suffering no hostility for it “I can’t really say that it was ever a bad thing. All I’ll say is … a lot of free drinks!”. Journalists and media have applauded his bravery and defiance in the face of gender-norms, his innovation and his status as an icon of gender-fluidity, someone judged on their ‘merits’ rather than their gender. So does the acceptance of Pejic into the mainstream media and fashion world mean that society is becoming more accepting of variation in gender and individuals whose identity differs from their biological sex? I’m not so sure.
To be blunt, Pejic is popular because he is beautiful. He’s not the first person in the public eye to dress in a non-gender-conformist way and there have been other transsexual models (see this list). But they haven’t all attracted the level of attention and adoration that Pejic has. When clothed and made-up, Pejic is unidenitifiable as a man. He becomes a woman, but not just any woman, a kind of super-human woman+. Imagine if a woman continued to grow, but never went through puberty. Long limbs, an elegant torso, without cellulite and the associated depositing of fat around the middle, thighs and bottom. Remaining angular, with jutting hip-bones, collar bones and thin wrists of a teenage boy. Andrej can dress as a woman, but he has biological advantages as a testosterone-producing man that enable him to achieve super-model height with a leaner, curve-less body. The model figure is something that few women are able to attain; especially as they age into their 20s and 30s, but Pejic’s body represents a standard of beauty that yet fewer can achieve.
Singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) is an example of a successful individual in the public eye who also happens to be transsexual. His unique voice, which has elements of both the masculine and feminine, is one of his signatures and his music, which often deals with themes of gender and identity, has been widely popular. He has inspired designers and worked closely with them, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing him walking the womenswear runway anytime soon. Unlike Pejic, Hegarty does not have that idealised female body.
I wonder what effect the use of a model such as Pejic to advertise womenswear will have on how women, and also men, view their bodies. Images of beauty and the ‘ideal’ body have throughout history been associated with something to strive for. The buxom, rubenesque figures of older times are of an era when being well-fed was a sign of wealth. Now, being overweight is something often associated with laziness, poor education about healthy eating and poverty. Thinness can be seen as a sign of restraint, control over the body, not indulging oneself. As with the surgically enhanced beauties of lad’s magazines that teach us that a slender body with large breasts is ‘sexy’, the prominant use of a model who appears outwardly female but lacks some of the ‘disadvantages’ of the sex (breasts that sag, stretch-marked thighs, bingo wings) may be teaching us about what is ‘beautiful’.
Fashion is a kind of art and fantasy world and I certainly don’t hold Pejic, Marc Jacobs, Vogue or any other aspect of the fashion world as solely responsible for the distorted body-image of the masses. It’s a more complicated issue than that. But something that really irks me is this ‘fashion’ for gender-bending. The New York Times called 2010 the ‘Year of the Transexual’, as if the term had only just been discovered. Lady Gaga adopted a male alter-ego and poses for fashion spreads as ‘Jo Calderone‘. The Gaga has been a big advocate for LGBT rights so I’m not one to knock her, but there’s something not quite right about this. I remember at the time reading a transsexual blogger posting, sarcastically, ‘Isn’t it great that Lady Gaga can switch between being Jo and a woman whenever she likes!’. What a pity others can’t do that, but instead are born in the wrong body, and stuck, experiencing the abuse and restrictions that sadly often come with their position. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing with gender identities, or outfits, and indeed dressing as the opposite gender is nothing new, think Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night! But when we make a show of it, use it as a gimmick (as in the Pejic bra advert; if it can make him look like he has boobs, think what it’ll do for you, ladies!) or to shock, I think it demeans the experiences of others who genuinely are gender diverse and doesn’t advance their cause. Using an image of Pejic dressed as a woman is bound to attract attention, even though it’s been done many times now. Like when designers tokenistically put on a show of only plus-size models, or older models, I don’t think this actually makes the non-typical model seem more acceptable. It makes a freak-show, drawing further attention to the differences between these individuals and the ‘normal’ models. Tolerance and acceptance is about treating people equally, and a transgender individual being offered the same opportunities as a cis-gender one. I find the growing popularity of model Lea T, more encouraging. She is ‘out’ as a trans-woman, and although the media have made something of a sensation of this, she is judged in the fashion industry like any other female model.
Pejic hasn’t been particularly vocal on the topic of his gender controversy, but then I don’t think we should really expect him to be too articulate on the matter, he’s a model, not an activist. And a model is, essentially, a photographer and designer’s prop. Not that a model can’t be creative and collaborate, but they choose to style him as they do for a particular effect. There is a demand for images of Pejic dressed as a woman, and that keeps him in work. I don’t see anything particularly defiant in that, much like Lily Cole isn’t an advocate for the rights of redheads; people book her because they want that look, and as a model it is her job to comply. I don’t think we’ll be seeing Pejic on the cover of LGBT magazines, because he isn’t really a spokesperson for their perspective. I didn’t want to ask my trans/genderqueer friends to comment as I thought it might be offensive to ask them for their token opinion, but I’d be interested to hear if people find the use of models like Prejic empowering or if it’s something of the opposite?
So should we be worried by the celebration of Andrej Pejic and the fashion industry’s move to yet more extreme standards of beauty? Or is that over-thinking the matter? Perhaps it’s just a bit of fun, a pretty boy who looks like a pretty girl. I don’t mind looking at pretty girls, but is this his one trick, to continue over and over until he grows a beer-belly or a beard? If only everyone who struggles with their gender identity could have had as carefree a childhood as Pejic’s and to be openly accepted as appearing somewhere on the continuum from male to female, with the freedom to move back and forth. Though I think this ‘trend’ has more to do with creating images of beauty and writing column inches than it does acceptance of gender diversity.
(Disclaimer: I’m a cis-woman and I don’t by any means claim to speak for transgender/transsexual/similar peoples, the above is just my opinion, sometimes informed by the opinions of friends of mine who are trans. I apologise for any inaccuracy in my terms and am happy to receive feedback and corrections. I don’t seek to offend any parties or make narrow-minded generalisations, though I’m aware that not everyone will agree with my point of view.)