Threaten(“ing”=”ed”) Bodies In Gender Equality

All bodies are different in one way or another. All bodies are human. Yet, some people find the differences in them a target for not just scrutiny, but also hate. This does not just happen in the case of “larger” vs. “thin” bodies, but also towards those that do not fit in the context of a standardized female/male sex binary.

When speaking about gender equality and body positivity, it is crucial that we do not forget ALL those that are targeted for discrimination. Gender equality means not simply accepting, but encompassing transgender and gender non-conforming individuals into the conversation. It means uprooting limited beliefs about a cookie-cutter definition of gender and sex.

Sadly, people that do not fit into a cisgender body are far too often subject to discrimination. These bodies not only become the target of threats, but also deemed as a threat in a grossly backwards, hundreds-of-years old, mindset by those who believe their rights should be limited. Discriminators hold to a strict mindset that women are only with “female” written on their birth certificate and man are only those with “male” on theirs.

What I am talking about is discrimination and hate towards transgender and gender non-conforming: ones that certain, small-minded groups determine are a danger to a standardization of females vs. males. Why? Because for those that discriminate, there needs to be a way to give them power over others.

There is a fear of accepting differences in what was standardization about who not only has, but lives in the ideal body. In other words, bodies become a falsified symbol of threat to those who discriminate. However, the reality is that when transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are perceived as a threat, they are in fact the ones who become threatened by hate.

This is much what happens in diet culture, with the need to create a sense of separation that puts thin people above all others (a sort of body hierarchy). When it comes to discriminating against bodies that do not fit a white, straight, cisgender type, senseless hate trickles down. It stems from a backwards way of thinking that to be to in power, there needs to be certain characteristics that separate acceptable bodies from unacceptable bodies. This is where we see ugly and destructive discrimination that hurts those who experience it.

The transgender bathroom debate from last year, reared the ugly head of discrimination towards bodies that do not fit an outdated female/male sex/gender standard. The argument claims that allowing transgender women to use women’s bathrooms is nothing more than an open invitation for sexual predators to prey on vulnerable girls. Yet, studies show that transgender people are more likely to be the target of attack than are to initiate them. Thus, those that are perceived as the ones that threaten become the threatened. The unconscionable nature of discrimination is exposed for what it is.

In the debate about transgender and gender non-conforming bodies, there is an assumption on one side that deviating from the sex on one’s birth certificate goes against nature and to allow them to be who they are upturns an outdated idea of gender and sex identity and will inevitably turn the moral fabric of society to mush.  Some, like Milo Yiannopoulos, claim that transgender individuals have a mental illness and should not be enabled to be who they are.

I cringe that there should even be debate about the right or wrong of sex and gender identity. For, those that do not fit a female/male binary (really, no longer a standard spectrum) ARE as natural as someone who identifies as a woman and is named female on her birth certificate or a man who identifies as a man and is named male on his birth certificate. I am not sure what can be more natural than who someone internally is.

Discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals seems to me to be nothing more than a poor excuse to separate some bodies as a type of alien and to normalize others as good. And, if there are good and bad bodies, instead of just human bodies, then one can be deemed as a threat, while others the target. In other words, categorizing bodies as such allows someone (in their skewed judgement) to stay on top of the power schema (patriarchy in its grossest form).

The crucial aspect of this that is missed in the firing lines of discrimination is that when deeming certain bodies, a threat on a haphazard basis, they are marginalized on an unsound, unfair, and certainly arbitrary basis. In becoming marginalized, the bodies deemed a threat become threatened themselves, as they are held up to abject condemnation and discrimination; simply because they are who they are.

It seems to me that the fear that some political and religious circles have of transgender and gender non-conforming bodies is based on a false idea of “what should be” or “what was”. To those that discriminate against them, transgender bodies are nothing more than a symbol of a progressing world that threatens a narrowly constructed idea of gender identity. This would mean changing the way we think about gender and the very basis of discrimination rests in an undesirability of change.

Well, boohoo for haters. What we understand and know about gender and sexual identity is changing. Science tells us so.

When a threat is falsely perceived, it is because the person(s) claiming it are in fact, deflecting from the threat they are instigating.

Freedom for all cannot exist with extorted conditions of body hate. We all have a body we live in that is natural to who we internally are. However, when they become symbols of fear for groups with discriminatory beliefs, then bodies of marginalized people become more than an outer shell. They become a hunted bulls eye.

Bodies are only a threat so long as people make them a threat. And, this threat is no more substantial than any reason for discrimination. Condemning the presence of specific groups of people is about body hate that bleeds heavy with devastating social, political, and cultural effects for those that are beleaguered.

If people keeping clinging to the rule of “what was” or “this is just how it is”, there can be no real human progress. Sure, society might keep making technological and scientific advances, but what good are they if we cannot fall back into a place of simple human connection and love?

I repeat, all bodies are human. All bodies are just bodies that say nothing about who people are underneath the superficial shell of themselves. To fear certain bodies and make them a threat, when they are in fact the ones who are threatened, is to deny the worthiness of their life. To fear certain bodies because they fit into a more appropriate gender and sex spectrum than a binary, means to invalidate their personhood.

There is much work to be done. There is much time to put into changing outdated and discriminatory conceptions of which bodies are “natural” or “unnatural”. Categorizing bodies into a strict schema that does not fit the true spectrum of gender and sex identity only serves hate-fulfilling agendas that treat marginalized groups as a different species, mentally ill, incorrect, and non-valid. I am not naïve and I know that this is not an overnight matter and for some that truly believe in the inferiority of others, there is no changing their minds.

However, in the meantime, we can change our conversation about how we talk about bodies. We need to understand what the fears are (as terrifying, biased, illogical, and hateful as they are) of certain bodies that are routinely threatened if we must know how to change the conversation about them.

We need to look at the human side of all of us. We all live in a body. Categorizing standard body types, whether that be by size, shape, weight, or gender, undercuts and dissociates those that do not fit into them.

Next time you find yourself in conversation about or reflecting on the concept of body acceptance and love, I encourage you to think about ALL the ways bodies are perceived and affected on a mass level. Think about how we can contemplate and reflect the true meaning of body acceptance and how it NEEDS to be encompassed into the realm of social justice.

To embrace the true meaning of body-love, we need to dig deeper than the surface. We need to look farther than aesthetics and look at what exactly is feared and what are the dangerous assumptions about bodies and identities.









So, What About the Men?

Image Source

Imagine a man  in a movie. What do you see? What do you think of? Muscles so big they cause veins to break through the skin? A deep voice? Shredded abs that cause female counterparts to swoon in old-timey fashion? Do you think of the 1950’s style breadwinner with the pretty wife at home taking care of four kids? Or a man so mentally tough that he could slit a person’s throat without batting an eye? Maybe you think of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which, even though Robin and his crew are saving people, they must set out to prove their manliness because they wear tights. I am not knocking this movie. It has been a favorite of mine for years and makes an excellent comedic point about the frivolousness of masculinity in modern culture. It begs the question: why should men have to prove their manliness?

Whatever your picture of a man is well and good, but it’s not real! Why? There is no one right picture of a man! There is no one pure definition of the meaning of a man.

A goal of my writing is to use my troubled experience as a woman who could not find self-acceptance for any part of myself to help others who are struggling with the same. Yet, to keep a conversation about self-acceptance and disrupting expected gender roles to just women is ignoring the fact that placing restrictions on the meaning, look, appearance, and behavior patterns  of a gender affects men as well. Whenever cultural expectations and restrictions are put in place, there is an element of unrest that afflicts anyone who does not feel true to themselves in conforming to an ideal not their own.  I am aware and sympathetic to the struggle that men have with their bodies, the cultural concept of male sexiness, and the overall parade of expected masculinity. Social construction of gender identity affects all individuals, especially those that do not conscientiously conform to them, because it has the potential to create a sense of separation and isolation.  I wish to live in a world in which human beings can be just that and not have to find themselves going through the rigors of fitting into very fixed and expected roles that do not encompass who they are as a person. This includes their appearance, emotional natures, natural physicality, sexual orientation, opinions, values, gender identity, etc. You get the picture.

Yet, why do we still see politicians, the media, our families, or our friends continually lay out the cards about what a “real” man is, does, and looks like?

Men are constantly given messages about what it “means to be a man”.

As an example, I want to discuss a character not from politics or pop culture, but instead one from literature that I find to be very telling of the masculinity conundrum. Let’s look at the character Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus was a WWI veteran, who was characterized, within a Victorian Era British cultural context, of having feminine traits. He loved poetry, Shakespeare, and was sensitive,  emotional, and  vulnerable in the face of human destruction, as this was the expected norm. In war, Septimus learned how to neglect his emotions and separate his sensitivity from the trauma he witnessed on the battlefield. He saw the worst of terrors; as I imagine happens in war. Upon his return home to Britain at the end of the Great War, he suffered what psychologists would now call PTSD, but was at that time referred to as shell shock. However, as a man born, bred, and raised in a masculine-dominated culture of Twentieth-Century England, one that ostracized anyone who displayed intense emotional reactions against war, Septimus become isolated and even threatened to be locked up in an asylum for his display of emotional symptoms of shell shock. This was done simply because he showed a proclivity to feel and think on his own terms, as well as reject any sense of pride in fighting in a devastating war . In other words, Septimus rejected societal pressure to act as the part of stoic masculinity and was ostracized because his physical presence (he had regular emotional outbursts) became a threat to manly ideals that were thought essential to manifest nationalistic goals. Sound familiar?

So, how does this work of fiction related to present day idealization of masculinity? I believe men are still taught to relinquish all outward displays of “feminine” traits of compassion, intuition, feeling, and nurture. In other words, men are taught that there is a male/female gender binary that manifests itself through outward appearance and  behavioral displays. And, I believe that men suffer just as much as women do in a society fixated on exact roles. The following examples are all experiences that I have witnessed in my everyday life and I am guessing many of my readers have as well. If a man cries too much, he is termed as de-masculinized by his peers. If a woman makes  too many demands on others, she is termed a bitch and considered too masculine. If one shows too much of any trait that has been conditioned and socially constructed as opposite of their sex, they are  negatively exposed in a gendered and arbitrary way. They are ostracized as “different'”, “weak”, or “non-traditional”. Why on a cultural level must we fixate on supposed to, rather than what is human? It is learned and fixed that if a man like Septimus Smith, though he be a fictitious character, relinquished an expected front of stoicism, he is criticized as a “pussy” or a “wimp”. And if a woman takes charge of her success and climbs the corporate ladder, she is a frightening display of masculinity that should not belong to her.

Appearances are deceiving.

I used to strive to portray what I thought was more masculine-like emotional tendencies. I acted tough (or tried to at least). While I wanted to fit into a thin female ideal, I also wanted to be the one that wouldn’t cry; the one who people could count on to save them; the hero who pursued great feats of strength, mentally and physically. Yet, this went against every internal message I received from myself. I was not ostracized for it or deemed different though. This is because I had the “look” of the fragile woman and could easily fit in. Yet, my externality did not match my internality. My sensitivity-towards-myself meter was broken and I was mixed up in a power play between wanting to act tough like a man, all the while trying to display the female body ideal. And guess what? I suffered.  You can look the part, but it doesn’t do a damn thing for your serenity when your inside clashes with outside expectations.  Yes, appearances are deceiving. And this is why I believe pigeon-holing gender characteristics is dangerous. I use this as an example of how men and women are equally affected by gender expectations.  I believe all people have internal characteristics of the masculine and feminine archetype or if you will, the yin and the yang. It is a healthy human balance. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth discussion about the masculine/feminine archetypes.)

Assumptions hurt everyone.

Assumptions about what gender should look like hurts everyone. For, it tells us to defy the very aspects of our most human nature. Human nature can never be confined to breasts, muscles, or false stoicism. It is internal. It is more humanly real than any amount of body-building, money-making, pussy grabbing, or redeeming a lady’s honor when she can do it for herself. I believe that to be conditioned to live in a way that goes against our intuition and internalized sense of self is hurtful to how a person perceives themselves. To infuse specific characteristics and qualities of manhood and parallel those to what a woman is conditioned to be creates an atmosphere of confusion, falsity, and misunderstanding. And, when gender qualities are pinned to a person from the outside, any differences they might feel on the inside can quickly turn into a feeling of differentiation.  This does nothing but separate people from their own human condition.

It is the human condition to feel, think, and be sensitive, just as much as it is to fight for survival, use logic, and be action-oriented. If we want to rid ourselves of the pain of not living up to the musts, resulting in a feeling of separation, we need to look past constructed roles and more at what is human. We must look at HOW we can live in harmony and balance between the outside world and ourselves. These are questions not confined to gender specifications, as there is no one correct look, feel, physicality, or even biology that strictly defines the meaning of male or female.

We need to stop categorizing gender in our daily conversations and look at the human aspect of ourselves that supersedes any notion of man or woman. Gender is on a continuum; one set for a person to determine who they are, rather than what they are.