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The Trans* Movement, Body Positivity, and Dysphoria

Note: This post uses terminology that I no longer embrace. I have left it unedited for the sake of historical accuracy. Please see here for more information.

[TW: Discussion of body shaming of trans* people]

The trans* movement needs body positivity. Let me say that again: The trans* movement needs body positivity. Note that I’m not saying that we lack body positivity. I’ve been incredibly moved by the efforts by many trans* individuals to encourage self-love and acceptance, even in the face of supreme discomfort with one’s gender and even one’s body. Lots of trans* people today seem to know that wanting to change one’s body or gender does not necessarily entail hating one’s body or oneself. This is something to celebrate.


However, when I say that the Trans* movement NEEDS body positivity, I’m saying that we need to rigorously preserve body positivity where it already exists, aggressively bring body positivity into shaming spaces, and above all to resist hegemonic narratives that insist that we should think of ourselves in these terms: “I was born in the wrong body and consequentially hate the body with which I was born. There is something wrong with me and my gender. I am not like everyone else and therefore there is something wrong with me. My body does not match my gender and so I feel ugly. The only way for me to feel good about myself is by getting rid of everything about who I am now and in the past and become a new person. I hate the person I used to be. I hate the person I am now because my body is wrong, my gender is wrong, and so I lack value and worth. I am a freak; I am broken and need to be fixed.” [PLEASE note: this is not to say that anyone should be condemned, shamed, or chastised for feeling this way about themselves. Some trans* people do indeed feel this way and although I don’t think that’s okay there is nothing wrong with them for feeling this way. What is wrong is that we live in a society that forces us to feel this way, that tells us that we should feel this way because of our identities, that puts the blame of our discomfort with normative and coercive gender on OUR difference instead of those systems of power that legitimate such oppression. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS POST AND THEN GO OUT AND TELL TRANS* PEOPLE THAT THEIR FEELINGS ARE INVALID. I myself have felt this way, and this post is largely in response to my own feelings of shame and my efforts to overcome it. I also don’t speak for all trans* people so if you want to talk to a trans* person about body image you should respectfully and tastefully ask them what they think first]

Feelings are feelings and no one should be told that they should feel differently if they don’t want to. But what I’ve written above is more than feelings: it’s a narrative, a narrative the we are told is determinative of our trans* experience. When we’re told our bodies are ugly we feel ugly. When we’re told that self-hatred is the motivations for our transitioning, we start to hate ourselves. That is not to say that our choices aren’t ours or that agency isn’t preserved. Agency and coercive power have a complex relationship; this post is an attempt to disentangle our agency and pride as trans* individuals from the power structures that attempt to limit our agency and determine our lives, choices, and feelings. This post is an attempt at trans* self-determination.

I want to reclaim the word “dysphoria”. Dysphoria shouldn’t be a label applied to trans* people by normalizing medical authorities. Dysphoria shouldn’t point to the trans* individual as having a disorder, as being different, as having something wrong with them. Dysphoria should not be a label to mark trans* difference, but an experience of those in resistance to hegemonic and patriarchal gender norms that points back to the norms themselves. Dysphoria identifies our experience of identifying the points of our lives in which the system of gender does not map perfectly onto our lives. Dysphoria identifies the flaws in the system, not the flaws with ourselves.

Dictionary.com lists two definitions of dysphoria:

-a state of dissatisfaction, anxiety, restlessness, or fidgeting.
-a feeling of being ill at ease

This is remarkably similar to the trans-formative power that the philosopher Jacques Derrida associates with aporia, or a critical point of doubt. Derrida elaborates upon this idea in Spectres of Marx, in which he uses Hamlet’s comment that “The time is out of joint” as a rhetorical refrain. “The time is out of joint”: Not Hamlet, but the time in which Hamlet lives. Something is wrong with the world. Hamlet feels compelled to put things right. He doesn’t know how he will; nonetheless his feeling of unease, of doubt, of discomfort with the world is the experience that propels him into the action of the play. The experience of Aporia is described by Derrida as a traversal, a movement that implies destination; however, aporia is by definition incalculable: we don’t have any code or logic to appeal to with which to determine our course of action. Aporia is both movement and non-movement (restlessness).

This is much like the experience of dysphoria. We are put into a situation in which things don’t feel right to us. We are uncomfortable, some of us from the time of our childhood. Adults tell us to be in ways that feel wrong to us. The time is out of joint: we feel that something is wrong and want to move to a place in which we are comfortable. Yet we have no code, no set of rules or regulations to appeal to that would legitimate our feelings or give us an idea of a place to be that would feel right. Dysphoria places us outside rules and calculation, outside of norms. We have to find our own ways, our own path that isn’t set out before us. But by pursuing that path, we trans-gress the paths that we were told to follow our whole lives. Our experience of dysphoria ought to place in question not ourselves or our experience, not our bodies or our genders, but those norms which insist that WE are wrong, that there is something wrong with US and that we need to be fixed. Dysphoria tells us that there is something broken about the world—the time is out of joint—and that we ought to move somewhere beyond those powers that come to bear on us.

Dysphoria needs to be coupled with body positivity so that our feelings of discomfort cannot disempower us, so that our position outside of the system does not become a site of vulnerability. We need to love ourselves and our differences. We need to celebrate our transgressions and condemn the system that attempts to define us. We refuse definition and refuse coercion. And above all we celebrate our bodies and our ability to change, manipulate, explore, cultivate, and celebrate our embodied experience as trans* individuals. Our dysphoria is not a site of weakness: it is our greatest trans-formative strength. We can change our bodies and our genders without hating them, but we can’t change the system without hating it. We are beautiful and there is no stopping us—we will not be silenced or shamed, overwritten or ignored. Our difference is not OUR difference but an exposure of the system’s lie, a lie that has been repeated and continues to be repeated at every level of social power. Our dysphoria turns us into prophets and soothsayers, and we say like Susan Stryker, “the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.”

You are unique and you are whole and you are beautiful; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Filed under trans trans bodies theory body positive body positivity body image trans issues susan stryker

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