Gender and Weight

Gender and weight

I don’t know whether my gender identity has been quietly falling apart while I steadfastly ignored it, or if I’ve been steadfastly pretending to have one all along.

When I put on a dress, I feel uncomfortable.  For as long as I can remember, women’s clothes have made me like I am in drag.  I’ve tried a considerably large amount of women’s clothes of various colours, shapes and styles, in the hope that I was just wearing dresses incorrectly and the right dress would feel right.  This is tied up in the fact that I am fat, and I hate being fat.  I feel like a less worthwhile person because I am fat.  I don’t look at other fat people and judge them to not be worthwhile, I just think it about myself.  I have wanted to wear trousers for the longest time, but felt that they would draw attention to my tummy, which is my fattest part, so I have worn trousers under dresses and skirts which serve as armour, disguising my shape and giving me the more feminine silhouette I feel I should have in order to be considered an acceptable human being.

My hair as well.  I have thought about having short hair for years, and whenever I mentioned wanting to get it cut, I have encountered cries of horror, and frequently been told that fat women look awful with short hair.  My mum used to always tell me that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.  She was obsessed with my hair for other reasons as well.  Reasons of grief and racism.  It was the same colour as my aunt’s hair, and my aunt committed suicide right before my mum learned that she was pregnant with me, so I was a sort of sister replacement for her in a few ways that were creepy.  My mum also used to compliment how “Aryan” my hair made me look.  In summary, I have a pretty weird relationship with my hair, and have dyed it since I was able.

Now that I have broken through the trouser vs fat idea and started wearing men’s trousers, I have learned that they do not necessarily display the shape of my tummy in all its horror.  How I imagined I looked in trousers is a very far cry from how I actually look in them.  I guess I was extrapolating from how I look in women’s trousers, which are designed to show off your figure, and also how I feel in women’s trousers, which is Ridiculously Uncomfortable.

A lot of this is tied up in My Worth As A Person.  I have internalised a lot of crud about how I, as a person assigned female at birth, have to look attractive in order to be worthy of the space I take up on this rock hurtling through the void.  I have received positive reactions to my appearance when I wore dresses and had long hair and did all the stuff I was supposed to do.  People complimented my appearance with phrases like “You may be fat but at least you have big boobs”.  When I bind, I end up just being fat, with what looks like small boobs.   And I am happier with how I look, but I can’t shake the idea that I’ve made myself less worthwhile in the eyes of the world, because I’m just a fat lump without even the evidence of the large boobs that made my fatness palatable.

Currently, I don’t know what exactly I want to be read as.  When someone refers to me in female or feminine ways, it’s like being stabbed in the feelings.  Politically, I’m a feminist.  I experience discrimination based on the fact that people see me as a woman, and I’m happy to lump myself into the category of woman when discussing feminism and the discrimination I face.  Partly because genderqueer is a small and often overlooked category and I’m still learning what it means politically.  I’m probably read as butch rather than trans at the moment.  A couple of strangers have fumbled their sentences around to avoid using pronouns about me, which was nice of them.   But I haven’t really experienced transphobia directed at me.  It would feel privileged to claim to be trans politically because I am still largely treated with cis privilege.  I don’t have the innate cis privileges such as being able to wear women’s clothes without crying, or being addressed with the titles, names and pronouns that don’t make me feel like fight or flight is kicking in.  But I haven’t applied for a job since I started addressing this, I haven’t told my family, I have only just finished telling all my friends.

I wish I hadn’t internalised the idea that my chest somehow excused my fatness.  I wish I hadn’t internalised any of that message, that I had something to excuse, that I had to look pleasing to be a worthwhile person.

For years I had the plan dancing around in the back of my mind, keeping just out of sight: “I will lose weight and then I can transition.” I felt like if I transitioned while fat, I would be seen and treated as one of “the bad trans people” who isn’t typically attractive according to the beauty standards applied to their gender identity.   Who doesn’t look like they were assigned their current gender identity at birth.  Definitely not someone who features on those ridiculous “10 ridiculously hot people you won’t believe are trans” click bait articles.

I felt like there was no point in even consciously addressing the issue of my gender until I was an acceptable human (thin) and therefore didn’t have lumps and bumps so large I could never pass.  I want muscle, and flatness, and masculinity.  I still do.  But I realised something very important: Fuck them.  The stupid gender binary riddled, shallow, cisnormative society we live in is at fault.  I am not at fault.  And I am, importantly, ageing, and getting closer to death every day, and even closer to death every day that I don’t live my life being fully, authentically me, so I should hop to it before I am too dead to be me.  Because no one is going to give me permission.  No one is going to tell me who I am.  I have to work that shit out myself, and then be it.

Somehow.

Gender Performance and Cis Privilege

Gender isn’t a binary, it’s a spectrum.  However, a great deal of people seem very attached to the concept of there being two ways to perform gender:

1) the demure, pink dress wearing, barbie doll loving, home making lady with long hair, perfect make-up and a uterus full of babies,

2) the bold, blue loving, sportball fanatic, breadwinning man with short hair and balls so full of sperm he could make you pregnant with a coy smile.

A world with only these two options would be horrifying.  We all know that in reality, very few people fully conform to these stereotypes.  So why do we teach it to children?  Why do some adults tell children off for being themselves?  Some children learn to wear certain clothes, enjoy certain activities, and affect certain behaviours because any deviation from that norm results in scorn, suspicion, fear.  This learned behaviour confirms to the adults that they were right about the gender binary.  The cycle continues.  The message that these children learn about themselves is that they are wrong.  That there is an invisible line drawn across the universe that they cannot cross, and that wanting to do so means there is something wrong with them.  People grow up with an internalised fear that they may step over the invisible line and reveal to others all along that they never cared about barbies or action men.  Adults have to learn that they are allowed to be themselves.  A lot of time and effort has to be spent learning that the great pink vs blue debate doesn’t matter.  But not everyone catches up to this idea.  A man wearing a pink shirt will still be mocked by some, his sexual identity called into question as if homosexuality is some great insult.

This obviously ties in with how doctors can withhold treatment from trans folks if they don’t seem to readily fit the binary construct.

“If you want to have gender reassignment surgery, you will usually first need to live in your preferred gender identity full time for at least a year. This is known as “social gender role transition” (previously known as “real life experience” or “RLE”) and it will help in confirming whether permanent surgery is the right option.”

What does it mean to live as a woman or to live as a man?  What qualifies you?  Even in the quest to be happy with yourself and your gender presentation, you have to jump through gender binary hoops.  You still have to perform gender, just a different one.  This is fine if you are happiest as one of the two gender options above, but what if you’re a trans woman who loves monster trucks or a trans man who loves to knit?  Monster trucks and knitting are both awesome.  Who decided that they have anything to do with gender?

Trans and gender queer people are told with alarming regularity that they are incorrect about themselves, going through a phase, and confused.  How is it anyone’s business where you fall on the gender spectrum?  Why does the existence of people who don’t want to conform to the gender binary threaten those who do?  And so what if it is a phase?  What’s so bad about phases?  Why can’t we play with gender identity?  If I want to be a boy tomorrow and a girl the day after, who am I actually hurting?  If I don’t want to be either, why is that a problem for anyone?

Of Course I’m Sensitive About Sexism

Imagine someone stomped on your foot every day for your whole life, so that it was constantly bruised and bleeding, never getting time to heal before the next daily stomping. Then someone treads on your toe, and tells you that it shouldn’t hurt you, because they didn’t tread very hard, because they didn’t mean it, because your foot isn’t that injured, because they’ve never seen anyone stomping on your foot so you must have imagined it.

 

Imagine you grew up your whole life being told that your value as a human being was measured on your appearance, being a potential partner to the opposite sex, your fertility and your gender performance.  Then someone jokes that you should stop voicing your opinions, get back in the kitchen and make them a sandwich.  Woah why are you taking it personally it was only a joke.

 

Silencing people by devaluing their experience is a common tactic.  Telling them that their reactions are incorrect asserts the implication that their thoughts and feelings are neither worthwhile nor welcome.  Criticising people for the emotions they have as a response to a lifetime of conditioning is like a bully asking you why you are hitting yourself.  If you have the luxury of being emotionally distanced from the discrimination in question then you don’t get to tell people who experience it how they are allowed to feel.

 

Of course I’m sensitive about sexism: I have to live it.

Body hair policing

I remember, when I was younger, mentioning to a man I knew that I like girls.  His response was:

“As long as you’re the good kind of lesbian.  Not the kind who shaves her head but not her armpits.”

That was the first time I remember being aware of the feeling some men have, that they are entitled to control what women look like.

He felt he was allowed to dictate and make a value judgement based on what hair women have on their bodies.   Not even women who were trying to attract him as a potential suitor (which would have been scary in itself).  All women.  By existing, they were open to his criticism of their appearance.  This reeks of a culture where women are believed to exist first and foremost for male enjoyment.  He felt it was perfectly reasonable to demand that all women be visually pleasing to him.

I worried at the time that there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t see why a lesbian’s armpit hair was anything to do with him.  I worried that because I wouldn’t mind dating a woman with hairy armpits, I was liking girls incorrectly.  He, as a straight man, was my yardstick for what is normal in the arena of liking girls.  He was very outspoken on the subject of women’s bodies, and seemed to echo what felt like it was probably the status quo.

A lot of questions sprung to mind.  Why did he get to tell me how to wear my hair?  What’s wrong with hairy armpits?  What did any of this have to do with liking women?  He liked women and had hairy armpits, what was different about me that meant I could not also enjoy this combination?  And what was meant by “as long as”?  As long I continued to appear feminine, I would be… inoffensive?  Allowed to continue existing?  Tolerated despite liking women?  I felt as if, by being confused about why a woman’s body hair should conform to his standard, I was missing the point.  And I guess I sort of was.  I didn’t really understand at the time how the media has shaped public perceptions of what is an acceptable woman’s body, in what circumstances it is acceptable for queer women to be visible, what body hair women can have, and who gets to pass judgement on it.  I would wager that he didn’t understand it either, he just accepted it into his worldview unquestioningly.

The beauty industry profits from telling everyone how to look and convincing us that anything else is wrong. Women didn’t shave their armpits until the hair removal industry told them to in 1915. Look at Playboy in the 1970s all the way through to the early 1990s, and you’ll see that pubic hair wasn’t always considered a bad thing.  However, for some reason it is now a topic of debate whether women should get to decide for themselves how to maintain their body hair and head hair.

Armpit hair advert          ashes12          Embarrassing armpits

      3 hair adverts      vintage-sexism-soleilNair get bare get sexy

Women must have long, luscious hair on their heads and nowhere else. Anything else is unfeminine, wrong, disgusting, or even a sign of mental health problems. Please, ignore the fact that hair naturally occurs all over women’s bodies. Hairy women are newsworthy.  Armpit hair is a statement.  By choosing not to spend their time and money removing the hair that naturally occurs on their bodies, they are the bad kind of woman.

The patriarchy controlling women’s bodies is old.  What the beauty industry is doing is making women police themselves and each other.  Many young women first learn shame over their naturally developing body hair from other women.  We have internalised the shame taught to us by those who seek to profit from it.  I remember being a young teenager, told by other girls that female body hair is disgusting.   They would laugh about girls who had visible body hair, up to and including dark hair on their forearms.  They spread rumours about how hairy other girls were.  They whispered in fear about how some women have hairy nipples.  They criticised my eyebrows for months before I eventually let one pluck them at a sleepover.  Discussion of hair removal was commonplace.  It was treated as exciting, or as a hated necessity, but always a necessity.  Body hair on women was unanimously considered disgusting.  The girls policed each other before we even knew any boys.  They had absorbed and internalised this shame from somewhere.

Escaped pubes     Naked barbies     hairy simpsons     Pubes gif

Images of normal women who have natural body hair are so rare that you could be forgiven for believing that women are naturally hairless, leading to huge issues when young women start to grow body hair themselves and have no frame of reference to reassure them that they are normal.  If a woman has body hair it is played as a joke, or she is meant to be considered unattractive.  Considering how many images there are in today’s media of women’s bodies, it is ridiculous that women with body hair are so under represented.  Even in historical or fantasy settings, women will be depicted as hairless.  Morrigan, a character from Dragon Age: Origins, is a young woman who was raised in the woods and does not seem to understand how clothes work, yet her armpits are completely hairless.  Perhaps you could argue that Merrill in Dragon Age: II, a character also raised in the wilderness, is an elf and thus doesn’t grow body hair, which seems like a fairly odd choice to make about a race in your fantasy setting that would also speak volumes in its own way.   When we see men in survival situations, fighting off hoardes of zombies or camping on deserted islands, growing big, fluffy beards, we never see the scene where the women find a razor and swear a pact with each other to hide it from the men, so that the secret of their hairy bodies is never discovered.  When do women fighting battles have time for body hair removal?

Morrigan     Merrill     Guinevere

How are we going to move forward?  How are we going to reach a point where women have full autonomy and reproductive rights when the world can’t even get over women having freedom of choice over their own body hair?  How will we eradicate transphobia if we are still so prescriptive over how femininity has to look?  How are women going to be treated as equals if their appearance is constantly policed?  When will people shut up and listen to what women actually have to say, rather than interrupting them to tell them off about their body hair?

There are some online spaces where women with body hair aren’t vilified.  There are even some spaces where they aren’t overtly objectified either. This is a start. But really, what we need is an entire planet where women are free to look however they want.

 

 

Please be aware; I have tried to avoid accidentally implying that women who remove their body hair are bad people or traitors to feminism or anything.  Everyone should just do what makes them happy with their own body without fear of being judged for it.  The above song, however, does stray from its pro-body-hair message and have a brief anti-hair-removal moment or two, which I don’t agree with.  We shouldn’t be trying to lift one group up by pushing their opposite down.  There should be enough room to lift everyone up.