by: Professor Xx
Dear Professor Xx,
A nagging question surfaced when I was reading your last column. I’m a cis girl who’s had intimate relationships with trans guys, but I never wanted to ask them about this because it felt like too much of a challenge to their identity. Since you write this column, though, I’ll pose this question for the first time.
You said, “My physical sense of self has always been tied to being strong, narrow, and flat chested,” and acknowledged that you only have control over two of the three. I’ve always wondered what makes this body dissatisfaction more acceptable to embrace than other body dissatisfaction. Most of the queers and radical people I know (myself included) reject the idea that fatness is ugly or inferior to thinness, for instance, and are suspicious of the goal of losing weight.
My physical sense of self has also been tied to being narrow and strong–what I used to think of as “boyish”–and I’ve had a lot of trouble accepting my curves and their feminine associations; in my mind’s eye I’m Peter Pan. A few years ago I started reading about fat and body acceptance and came to believe that the only way out of self-loathing was accepting my body unconditionally, and giving up the project to improve or alter its appearance. I guess I’m just not sure where trans people’s medical transitions fit into this. I’m pretty sure most of the trans people I know would never get a nose job or bariatric surgery. How do you tell when body dysphoria means you should change your body, and when it means you should work on your mind? Given that most of us have physical ideals that we don’t match, what makes trans folks’ body dysphoria unique (at least among a certain crowd) in meriting actual intervention? I completely support everyone’s right to self-determination, but I still wonder about this on a philosophical level.
This is an interesting and complicated question, so I’ll do my best to address the different aspects of it.
First off, I think part of the issue here is that the idea of “dissatisfaction” with your body is not really an accurate way of looking at the decision to physically transition. I understand the desire to conflate the two, but while fat shaming is obviously an inherently negative, fucked up thing to do, there is no negative or positive to physically transitioning from a body positivity standpoint. I think, in some circles, it has been described that way, as if by physically changing your body you are capitulating more to society’s sex/gender norms and therefore reinforcing damaging binaries. I’m sure this isn’t what you’re implying, but the idea that taking hormones makes you “less queer” is not only ridiculous, it’s actually hugely transphobic. I think my scarred and punctured body shows just how little I care for the gender binary – I took what society & the doctor who delivered me told me I should be, and said fuck it, I’m doing this my way. I think that actually makes me remarkably similar to fat positive messages that say that society don’t know shit about what’s best for my body – only I do.
The decision of whether it is your body or your mind that you need to change, when it comes to trans people, is a very sensitive one. There are still doctors and therapists out there that think that what we really need is reparative therapy. However, each trans person, just like each cis person, ultimately comes to terms with the body they’ve been given in their own way.
Maybe I’m being overly simplistic here, but I don’t think the goal is ultimately to put a label on whether physical alterations are a positive or negative thing. Instead, I think it should be about creating communities where all bodies are valued and respected, no matter how we came to be in them, or what we need to do to them to make them habitable. We didn’t choose the fucked-up beauty ideals our society puts out there every day, and consequently I don’t think that anything can be gained by criticizing the way that others react to those ideals. We can combat destructive behaviors we see in those around us in loving, supportive ways, and we can certainly fight back when we see those ideals being used to oppress others. But I think, for most of us, we’re just trying to survive the best we can.
Ultimately, then, what I’m saying is that you can’t compare the need to physically transition to a physical ideal that you aren’t living up to. I think body positivity is an amazing, empowering thing, and I envy and admire you for having found yours. I know that struggle intimately, and haven’t found mine yet. However, I feel that I am now on a more even playing field with cis people in trying to get there. The hair on my legs and belly, the tenor of my voice, the flatness of my chest, even my receding hairline are all things that confirm to me that my body matches my internal sense of sex/gender. None of those things makes me more attractive; at least, not any more attractive than almost every other man on the planet. They simply make me feel right. That is how I distinguish, in my mind, between the physical changes that trans people decide to make, and other forms of physical alteration.
Professor Xx is a female to male (FTM) advice columnist for In Our Words, who pens the column “T and Conversation.” When he’s not training the next generation of mutants to save the world, he’s fielding your questions at email@example.com. Feel free to ask him anything you like, as long as it isn’t abusive or too invasive, and he’ll get back to you.