It makes sense to write about the intersections I’m currently living within; that of genderqueer (yes, I still use this even though it’s quite passe nowadays), bisexual and disabled.
It makes sense yet I’ve felt I didn’t have much to say on it that wasn’t haltingly embarrassing or actually made any real sense. Trying to describe something that is a set of situations, emotions, tendencies, politics, bodily functions, sexual acts. Being thin or fat is a part of it and everyone knows it. There are those who are explicit about it and those who coat it in sugar or think they don’t care about it.
When I came out to my family via email as non-binary – attempting to short circuit what I felt could’ve been a series of deeply painful conversations – I tried my best to explain all the terms and thought processes I had. One family member in particular took issue with this; called it patronising and patronisingly reassured me that she knew trans people and I, she knew, was not one. She knew this because she had known me as a child and I hadn’t shown ‘the signs’, whatever cis people think those are (I guess acting like the opposite gender in clear and obvious ways). Another thing she said to me is that if I worked on losing some weight, went off that psychiatric medication that had made me pack on the pounds, then perhaps I would be more satisfied with my body and wouldn’t feel the need for all this trans stuff.
Apart from being quite an awful and vindictive thing to say, I do feel there was some truth in it. The idea that women’s bodies are more acceptable and feminine if they are smaller and thinner and therefore if I were to become smaller and thinner I might feel more able to fulfil a feminine role.
For my part, I think my sense of my gender has always felt fairly ambiguous. When I was young and trying to come out I leaned more heavily towards a trans masculine identity because it was the best way of asserting myself as no longer cis. I’m also a firm and controversial believer in some things being true at a certain point and then no longer true later on down the line. I was lesbian when I felt I was. There wasn’t a mistake. I was trans masculine when I felt I was and this was also not a mistake nor was I wrong about it in any way. I am still trans, non-binary, genderqueer; for what it’s worth, which doesn’t feel like an awful lot these days.
Understanding one’s gender and sexuality is part of a process of trying to assert and understand yourself. You have desires that you want to enact, you have ways of moving through the world, you have something in you that is not normative. Sometimes you want to change your body in order to be recognised in the ways that you need to be. This need is deeply painful and, sometimes, it feels unclear how to meet it.
Wanting to be thinner is a fairly normative desire for many reasons – primarily, rampant fatphobia and how this ties into desirability. It is assumed by most that everyone would rather be thinner and it probably isn’t too far from the truth. Before I developed an eating disorder I had a notion that I’d like to be thinner but had many other things to distract me that seemed more important. I thought perhaps people would find me more attractive if I were thinner, though plenty found me attractive already. I thought perhaps my ex would want me again if I were thinner. I thought maybe I’d be more successful somehow, be thought of better, be an object of admiration. These are all what I would term ‘normative’ desires around thinness.
Wanting to be thin is about wanting to fit into the norm. Wanting to change your gender…can be that for some people but it feels less obtainable, somehow. Or it always did to me: being bigger is being more masculine; being smaller is being more feminine. A simple, devastating binary.
Many trans people want to change their bodies but being able to do so has become increasingly challenging over the past few years, with the average wait time on NHS gender identity clinics being a matter of years, rather than months. There is the prospect of going private, of course, if you can afford it but the on-going costs are too much for most. So, what to do?
Changing your body can take many forms but gaining or losing weight feels like the most obvious one – the one that most people seem to have access to. The type of body you should have isn’t just defined in your gender expression but in the ways you wish to express your sexuality. Do you want to get picked up by gay men? A muscular, toned, buff figure will help. Do you want to get picked up by straight men? A slim waistline with subtle curves will help. Know your market and what they desire, change your body to reflect this.
We are sold the idea that changing our body is something that, although not necessarily easy, is possible. This is technically true yet comes with a whole host of lies and propaganda that posit the body as machine with inputs and outputs and some level of consistency. The body is unruly, earthly desires demean it – this religious propaganda seeps into our lives even as religion itself loses it’s grip on society. Attempting to control the body is not a new phenomenon. We have always been trying to do so, under various guises. A focal point of misogyny lies in its fixation on policing a woman’s body and this includes her size. For trans people the body is deeply scrutinised and weaponised – a site of violence and politics, rather than their own.
The body is valued through the lens of desire. Desire is created through various means, it does not come entirely from us and what we desire can be hard to interpret alongside a brutal campaign of racism, sexism, fatphobia, body fascism. We value our own bodies through their desirability to others, we understand our own gender through desirability, too. Being locked away, I felt I could emerge with my body a more normative object of desire.
As a queer person, why did I want this? We are not immune to heteronormativity – it haunts us still, it shapes our desires, our wants. To be a woman is to want to be desired by men, so it goes. This is what we are taught and even when we reject it, a part of it stays with us. The want simultaneously to be wanted and the fear of being wanted. Being wanted is dangerous, it invites violence. Our bodies invite violence, so they say. But they also invite validation, success, inclusion. They invite sex – something we are not allowed to want but should always be primed for.
I was raised under womanhood and most of my life I have been treated as such. Not always a heterosexual woman, a gender conforming woman – I’ve been called dyke, lesbo, not shaved my legs, shaved my head. My experiences align with queer woman and other non-binary and gender non-conforming people. My body has been subjected to violence along these lines but always, it seems, through my relationship to womanhood and performing it correctly or incorrectly. My body has been shamed by men for not performing womanhood. My weight played into this, for better or worse, when I am thinner the violence is more sexualised, when I am fatter the violence is queerphobic. Perhaps I perform femininity better when thin, when there is less of me.
Yet being very thin my body felt androgynous in some ways. There are times when the body escapes sexualisation because it is so clearly lacking in health and vitality, so clearly broken. Gender plays itself out in our fat distribution, our hair, our eyes. Many cis women with anorexia lose their periods, a sort of de-gendering to match their increasingly un-gendered bodies. Maybe for trans people losing their period is also this and even a desirable outcome. A way of opting out of gender, through slowly dying. Of course, it is no real way out.
Regaining weight, I’ve reached a point of desirable thinness again. Isn’t this what I wanted all along? Don’t anorexics do it to please men? (we don’t need to have a sex drive to do that)
When you’re starving yourself, of course, you don’t have much of a sex drive. You don’t have desire and you’re beyond desirability. Again, the opt out. So what now? Now you’re in again? Now you want to fuck again and people want to fuck you? Gender is real again and it’s out to get you. The whole painful, joyful thing. Everything you’ve tried to avoid.
A comrade described the distinction between dysmorphia and dysphoria in the following way: body dysmorphia is understood as wrong thoughts about a right body, while dysphoria is thought of as right thoughts about a wrong body. Though they admit this is a crude distinction, it is, perhaps, illuminating for those who experience both. I’ve written previously about my own body dysmorphia, centering around my size but what of my dysphoria? Some of it seems centered around some similar things – my face, for example, because I think it looks round but also because, to me, that means it looks more feminine. So, am I correct about that in some ways? Either way, it doesn’t seem to be something I can change to my own satisfaction. Even losing a lot of weight didn’t seem to ‘help’ with this.
Queer people always grapple with complex feelings about our bodies, desire, weight. Yet, not only us but heterosexual people, too – I think they are even less able to articulate this because when one is inside the norm it is hard to gain perspective on it, even when it is painful. They hold these things as self-evident – that being thin is good and desirable and being fat bad and repulsive. That being a man is to desire and appeal to women and being a woman is to desire and appeal to men. Very straight-forward, really. Queer communities only alter the narrative slightly at times – men still judge one another in similar objectifying ways to the one’s they were taught in relation to women, just translated. Women still judge one another, police one another.
One could almost argue that women play some of the more significant roles in inter-personal body policing. Whilst systematically fatphobia is enacted primarily by powerful men via the medical profession (male dominated the higher you go) and via government policy (again, the purview of men) in our intimate relationships the role of the Mother and female relatives seems of some importance in our understandings and relationships with our bodies.
For many of us the first person to criticise our body was our Mother and the first person to criticise her body was her Mother. This inter-generational violence permeates through the aunties, grandmas, cousins, Mothers, step-Mothers, sisters and other female relatives. Why do they do this? Sometimes because they believe that if they do not they are leaving you vulnerable, somehow, to the rest of the world’s criticism. They must be the one to make sure that you are keeping the line, that you are performing your femininity correctly and will not be ridiculed. It is a matter of honour, perhaps. A lot of different cultures and communities are very concerned with women’s ‘honour’ because it is a way of policing them and a way of controlling them. Criticism of the body is a key and important way that this is done. I would argue this is fairly universal, if enacted in an array of culturally and context and family specific ways.
So when you are fat, when you are queer or trans or you don’t shave or you don’t have long hair or whatever it is – when you don’t conform perhaps the first person to comment may be your Mother. But she is doing it to protect you. Or else, her criticism exists within a far wider context of patriarchal body fascism which she imagines herself to have a greater understanding of than you do. It is a wisdom to pass on, a pain to continue.
There is so much to say about the pain and violence of gender, sexuality, fatphobia, body policing and how we harm one another with it, as well as experiencing it in a more systematic way. It comes at us from all sides, it permeates our lives, everything we love and need and desire. When laid out like this I feel is there any wonder that people develop eating disorders, that I developed an eating disorder? But I think eating disorders are just one of the myriad of ways that people try to cope with this stuff. An understandable but deadly conclusion to impossible demands. For liberation, we must help one another to fight it. For this, we need to understand that policing one another will always be reactionary in whatever form it takes. That we need to break down this inter-generational violent policing and realise that we are more together than we are apart.
As my new beanie hat proudly proclaims: Riots not diets.