Gender: Female…I Guess

I’m pretty clearly a cis individual. I’m pretty straight and I wear relatively femme clothes. I have a feminine haircut (although it’s short) and rarely (if ever) present in a way that isn’t quickly and clearly recognizable as female. When asked to identify my gender on surveys and such I answer “female” without hesitation.

And yet.

And yet I feel almost no attachment to the idea of being a woman. I don’t have any strong feelings about making sure people identify me as the correct gender (although when my mom said I looked like a twelve year old boy I was a bit miffed). At one point I was posed with the hypothetical question whether it would bother me a whole lot if my breasts were removed and I was pretty much not bothered by the whole idea. I could take em or leave em. I don’t really much care what my gender is. This is not to say that I identify as agender or feel uncomfortable presenting as femme, just that I only do it because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy.

I’ve wondered for quite some time now whether I would even identify as female if it weren’t for the strict policing of the gender binary. The more I think about my gender, the more I think that it is the way it is because I’m a rule follower, I’m not strongly attached to any gender, and I’m fairly lazy about my gender presentation so I end up firmly in the “cis” category simply because it’s where society has pushed all of my impulses. Want to dress up fancy? Buy a dress. Want to look pretty? Wear make up. I’m encouraged in some things and discouraged in others, an so I end up with the amalgam that most people identify as female just by not fighting back.

And for a long time I didn’t even think about gender identity. I just went about my life and wore whatever I felt like wearing and ignored the elements of being female that I didn’t really care about (makeup? What’s that?). But despite the fact that I’ve never made any effort whatsoever to look, act, or be female, somehow I ended up squarely in the “lady” camp.

So I feel like I have to ask myself: if I lived in a society in which gender was more fluid, there was more of a spectrum, and things weren’t policed so heavily, would I even identify as female? The answer is probably not. Would I be happier and more comfortable in my skin if I didn’t feel like I had to follow certain rules and boundaries and ways of being because I’ve somehow ended up as a woman? Most likely. It isn’t like I’ve spent my life feeling deep anxiety about my gender identity, but perhaps if things were more fluid and open I would feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.

If I feel like this, someone who was raised by staunch feminists, who is surrounded by queer and non binary people, who has very little by way of gender enforcement in their life, and who generally doesn’t care a whole lot for performing roles for others, then how many other people must there be out there who are probably somewhere closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than even they might imagine? How many other people would identify in a different way if it had even been presented as an option for them? How many people wouldn’t even identify at all if we weren’t so fixated on gender as the end all be all category?

In terms of the larger questions about gender, sexuality, and oppression, this group of people is probably not at the top of the list of “people who need our help”. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that if we open the door for a wider variety of gender identifications in order to help those who truly are distressed by the current state of things, there are probably thousands of other people who will feel just a bit more comfortable, a bit more themselves. And while that shouldn’t be the focus of activism, it’s a great thing to keep in the back of our minds: there are tons of much quieter people out there whose lives will be made easier and better for all the loud, out, genderqueer or trans* people we know and are fighting for.

But it also makes me sad, because if somehow I, the most cis, straight person in the world, can have my gender identity damaged and distorted by the gender binary, then think of all the other people out there who have had small parts of them taken away. If all we see are the people who are SO hurt by the mandatory gender binary that they feel they must speak up about it and must fight back against it, then imagine all the smaller hurts and destructions.

Of course this is all speculative. I have no evidence that there are tons of other people out there who only identify as cis because they hadn’t even thought about an alternative, and who have suppressed certain parts of themselves in order to be cis. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised. And if that’s the case then it’s just another little reason to push back against gender policing of all kinds.

Bodies That Change: Weight Loss and Trans Narratives

There’s a parallel that’s been rumbling around in my mind for quite some time now that I’ve been hesitant to write about for fear of stepping into a topic that I know not nearly enough about. I’ve often noticed that whenever I read something written by a trans person, I see lots of parallels with recovery from an eating disorder and with weight loss narratives. And then last week I got a little kick in the pants from a friend who posted an article about weight loss and said they felt parallels with their experience of transitioning.

So I’m just going to go for it. I think there’s a lot of rich support and community that could be built by talking across these boundaries and experiences, and speaking to similarities. I obviously am not trans, so I’m going to do my best not to make statements about the experience that I don’t know anything about, but I will try to pull from places that I’ve heard others describe it and the struggles that they’ve mentioned. I would love to hear any trans perspectives or challenges.

The thing that strikes me most about recovery, weight loss, and transitioning, is that all of these processes circulate around bodies changing (and along the way minds and identities). There is probably some sort of final goal (lose weight, gain weight, present as female/male), but there are all sorts of small changes that a body goes through that must be incorporated into a new identity, projected to the world, adapted to, accepted, and understood as “me” by the individual who inhabits that body. While the particular changes may be different, the experience of “is this me? How does this work? Where did that muscle come from?” is shared. And there are many elements to it that are confusing and difficult which could be made easier by shared conversation from a variety of perspectives.

At the core of all of these things is the process of changing body so that it fits into your sense of who your are: it is creating an identity through a body. In many ways, I think that all of these processes of changing your body are coping mechanisms for feeling that something is wrong with the way you view yourself or the way that others view you, or for feeling as if your body is standing in the way of you creating a healthy identity and life for yourself.

This process is hard. Really, really hard. It doesn’t make sense and there’s really no template for it because asking “how can I get people to take me seriously when my body  no longer takes up the same amount of space?” is not considered Real, Deep, Appropriate work in the social justice community. But this is work. This is the work of understanding that we are physical creatures, and that our physicality can change who we are. This is the work of creating our own identities in such a way that we fully accept the body that is a part of us. Sometimes that involves large, sweeping moments of self-realization and sometimes it involves little things like “I really liked the way I could pick up a heavy couch when I was fat. How do I do things that need strength when I’m skinnier?” It’s the process of learning yourself all over again, but it’s not particularly sexy and it’s not particularly interesting unless it’s your life and you can’t for the life of you figure out how to move your damn bookshelf.

Everything about your body can affect the way you interact with and view the world (or yourself). Having different muscles can affect your mood and energy level, hormone levels can affect your basic perception and sensitivity to stimuli, the sheer amount of space you take up will affect how big, intimidating, powerful, or potentially dangerous you see the rest of the world as. It may seem simple to change your body and switch from checking “female” to checking “male” on the census form, but actually understanding how your body changes your perspective is a much harder and much more subtle process that involves figuring out all those little pieces and putting them together into a new conception of “this is me and this is how I see things and this is how I do things”.

For myself, I have found the process of adapting to my changing body to be frustrating and angering. I’ve often wished that I could talk about it more openly with others, that people were there to commiserate, or that there was just some sort of guide book (will I keep gaining weight forever????). I have heard some of these frustrations echoed in other places, by Zinnia Jones, by those who have lost a great deal of weight. Many of us just want some reassurance that our bodies haven’t turned into something alien and unknown. We want to know that other people’s bodies reacted the same way or similarly. We want to know that we’re still ourselves.

But we also want to know how to relate to the world with a new body. A body that was fat and is now thin is going to take up space differently, move differently, have different strength, touch things differently…even something as simple as sleep differently (welcome to skinniness, where you can’t sleep on your side because your knee bones rub together and it hurts like a bitch). And so many of us are looking for a model of “how do I do stuff when I’m like this”. We’re trying to figure out how to tell other people about our bodies and how our bodies match our selves and what part of our bodies fits our identities. It’s difficult when you’re in recovery to explain your body. The body is often in flux, you’re not “skinny like you were supposed to be”, you don’t entirely understand your body as “right” yet. It doesn’t wholly feel like you. The process of labeling your body and then explaining yourself to others is difficult and something that anyone whose body goes through a drastic change must learn how to deal with.

Learning about how to talk to others about a new body is something we could all use help and support with. How do you respond when someone says “you look different” or “you look healthier” or “you look great!”? How do you tell others what you identify as? How do you look down at yourself or look in the mirror and think “yeah, that’s me. That’s just me”? For me, this process is hardest when I think about my body in the long term. I keep thinking that I’ll drop the weight again, that I’ll go back to the “real me”, that somehow this is just a temporary state of unreality. I have no idea if there are trans individuals who feel this way, but I have heard from some people who went through weight loss regimens that they think about whether the weight will come back, and worry that they’re in a temporary state. I imagine there might be some parallels when you haven’t reached a point of feeling comfortable in your gender identity (sort of in the “still transitioning” point of being trans). I think all of us wonder if the changes will stick, if we should commit to ourselves as we are.

And a big part of that is learning how to internalize this new shape as “me”. While I have never transitioned, I would imagine that it takes a bit of time after hormones/surgery/whatever to get used to the changes (hey I have boobs that didn’t used to be there! That’s odd). For me, it was more along the lines of getting used to being present when I wasn’t entirely happy with how I looked. I wish that I could speak to some of those trans people about how they learned to see their bodies as them, how they learned to view those new manly muscles as “me”, how they started to see boobies as part of their bodies.

One piece of identifying with a new body or a changing body is accepting that there are both pros and cons to any change. For me, I am highly aware of the cons of my changing body (uuugh I’m fat and my thighs rub together) but I often forget about some of the positives (I don’t feel dizzy all the time, I am more physically capable, I’m not nearly as fragile and don’t expect others to walk all over me because of my petite and sickly frame). I think because of the very positive framing of transitioning in the mind of the person who transitions, speaking to people who have transitioned could be an amazing way to remind me of the benefits I’ve gotten from my new body. On the flip side, I think the perspective of someone who is more hesitant to change their body could be useful for someone who is TOTALLY GUN HO about their new body and might need a moment to slow down and learn the ways that their body can’t quite keep up to past expectations.

There are elements to being larger, to being male, to being more muscular that are AWESOME. You take up space. You feel powerful. You feel capable. You even feel like your body protects you from smaller things like hard surfaces or the boniness of your own ankles. But there are elements to being smaller, to being female, to being dainty, that also rock. The world fits you. You get to wear awesome fucking dresses. You’re often allowed to express more emotion and enthusiasm without ridiculous policing. It’s a great practice to recognize the good things about being you right now and being the you that was (sidenote: I am not saying that “female” equals smaller, more dainty and “male” equals bigger and stronger).

Part of this is being honest about the nitty gritty changes, which I believe is a place where all of those whose bodies go through extreme changes can support each other. Your hair fell out, or you get diarrhea constantly, or you get bizarre heart pains, or your mood is all over the place, or your tits are really tender. For people whose bodies haven’t changed these are uncomfortable and overly personal things that shouldn’t be shared. But when your whole world is in flux, it can be extremely comforting to be able to tell someone. I think that’s true no matter the cause of the changes. Recognizing out loud that these are things that are happening can be a big step towards actually accepting yourself. And I don’t think that it matters exactly the experience of the person being open, whenever someone is willing to be vulnerable about these things it makes it easier for others.

At the end of the day, trans narratives, weight loss narratives, and eating disorder narratives are all focused around a body that changes, usually in an attempt to make that body fit with an internal conception of “who I am”. Nobody likes to talk about how the body actually changes, but rather they like to focus on external categories like “fat” “thin” “male” “female”. But in all of these narratives, bodies change slowly, with little adjustments in how we walk and talk, in how much space we take up, in our strength, in how alert and awake we feel, in our moods, in our flipping bowel movements. And for most of these narratives there are pros and cons. Hopefully each person makes a choice that makes them feel more comfortable and more confident in their own body, but change always comes with some cost. I wish that we could talk about what it means to see your body change, to adjust in small and large ways, to move into a new category and identity, to say good bye to some things you might have liked.

I think some dialogue across these spaces could be good for both: we have different concerns about the ways that our bodies change, but I believe we can provide insight to each other. Having an outside perspective that isn’t so wrapped up in the same concerns (ah! gaining weight! ugliness!) might help us see some of the benefits of how bodies change, help us deal with the difficulties, and give us support around the weird little things that happen. And if we can speak across some of these boundaries and labels, we might learn to accept others’ identities a little bit better when we see the parallels to our own.

I’m a Label Lover and I’m Proud

I like to label things. I find that having a word for something, a way to describe it, helps me understand it better. There are many people out there who find this tendency foolish. Just the other day I saw a Facebook comment who derided the labels “asexual” and “questioning” as pointless and a waste of time, bullshit as he said, because they weren’t oppressed in the same way as LGBT individuals. Others don’t like labels because they see them as limiting and don’t want to be boxed in by a word or a phrase.

I understand both of these impulses. I have been known to laugh in derision when I hear labels like “otherkin”, and I have certainly felt constrained by certain labels placed on me (as I’m sure nearly everyone has). But what many of these people fail to understand is the power in labeling yourself, as well as the way that identities build communities. They also forget that self-understanding is incredibly important to self-acceptance, and that having a word to describe yourself can facilitate understanding and acceptance.

I posted recently about a TED talk that described how certain labels can change from an illness to an identity. These include things like homosexuality, autism, and deafness. In describing the change, the speaker focuses on how these communities created a culture under the umbrella of their label, and how that label has come to signify something good to them. These communities are built because people are brought together through a common label. The labels we are given by society point to a certain constellation of traits. We can choose to focus on the negative aspects of those traits, or we can build something positive and different out of them. When we create a culture, a different way of being, out of our labels, we have created identity.

As someone who struggles to find an identity, labels are very helpful. When I can pinpoint a label for myself, I can add it to my conception of my identity. I’m a learner, I’m gray ace, I have depression and anorexia, I’m a writer…each of these helps me to pin myself down and feel more certain of who I am and where I’m coming from. They can create a grounding of self. Additionally, they can help someone see their identity in a positive light. Especially when a label illustrates that there are others out there who are the same or similar to you, it can provide a sense of safety.

Labels can also help to normalize something that feels or appears deviant and unwanted. They can put you in touch with others who have had similar experiences and may be able to provide insight. They give a shorthand to explain yourself to others. And in many ways they can be liberating because they can provide a framework for understanding. Oftentimes a label will focus someone’s attention in a new way on different elements of their self. My therapist recently gave me a new label to try out: explorer. Looking at how this maps onto my personality makes me feel free to explore new things, free to move away from things that scare me, free to see myself positively. While many labels may not appear to be liberating in that way (something like depression for example), they can still provide a path forward.

An important part of this liberation is the fact that a label does not have to keep you from gaining other labels, or even from changing. Many people look at labels as either/or propositions: you are either straight or you are gay. Labels are to me a both/and proposition. I am both gray ace and heteroromantic. I am both depressed and exploring. I was allosexual and now I’m questioning. Giving a name to one facet of your personality does not negate all the others, nor does the label necessitate that you fit exactly every element of the definition. Some people think that if you identify in one way and you behave out of the “bounds” of that label, you’re lying or wrong or betraying the group. If a woman who identifies as lesbian has sex with a man once, that does not negate who she is or how she has felt attraction in the past. A label is a way to name behavior, not force it in particular directions.

More than anything I find that a label gives me a sense of safety, a way to protect myself from endless explanations or defenses of who I am and how I am. A label allows someone to stake out a territory: this is mine. This is my space. This is my self. For some, this is less important than others, but for those who feel pushed around by the world it can be incredibly important. It gives you access to others who will help defend you and show solidarity.


An example of all of this would be my experience with the term asexual. An identity like asexual might seem utterly superfluous to some. However when I discovered the term, many of the traits that I had suddenly made sense to me. I saw that others had experienced similar things, people confirming to me that I wasn’t broken or wrong. I saw that people had jokes and bonds over shared experiences that had come out of discovering this label. I saw all the ways that individuals had chosen to express the same shared trait: some people were in relationships, others married, others poly, others kinky, others single and solely interested in friendships.  It opened up new possibilities of what I could do in my life, of what I might want in my life, and of how I could be happy.

Labels can help many people feel better about themselves and their experiences. They can help build community and identity. Some people don’t have these experiences of labels, but it seems unnecessarily cruel to deride others for having those feelings or for wanting labels to help them gain these experiences. For those who find labels helpful, it would be great if everyone else could just back off and choose not to label themselves.

Before and After Stories: Time and Social Justice

What do narratives about trans* people, fat people, neurodiverse people, immigrants, and chronically ill people have in common? Yes they are all narratives about oppressed groups of people, but what sets these sorts of narratives apart from the narratives we hear about people of color or women? These stories almost always neatly fall into the narrative of before and after stories, with the before identity being the oppressed identity.

We rarely think about time in relation to social justice. Generally we view oppressed individuals as having characteristics or traits that don’t disappear with time. We may think about how these traits fit into categories, systems, treatment, prejudices, and the like, but we rarely think about how they change with time, or how the concepts of change and time are used as oppressive tools by majorities that wish these minorities to disappear. Oftentimes these stories are told as a journey with a movement from bad to good.  The acceptability of these minorities is often tied to time, and where they are in relation to a journey or a movement in time.

Recently I read an article on that explored weight loss stories and how fat individuals have subverted the before and after weight loss narrative to empower themselves. In particular, “fat” is nearly always painted as the “before” and “thin” is the desirable “after” status. I was struck with this discussion, because this same narrative is often used in eating disordered stories wherein sick is before and recovered is after. This type of narrative is applied to many kinds of individuals, and could be an interesting lens with which to understand certain tools of oppression and new ways to empower oppressed people. Let’s start by looking at what is common across many of these narratives and how they are used to create binaries and enforce the view of society that certain halves of the binaries are acceptable.

One important thing that social justice advocates often talk about is that oppressed identities are often viewed as something that should change, generally in movement towards the “normal” or acceptable identity. When we speak of the identities I mentioned above, that identity is rarely viewed as the true identity of the individual, but rather it’s seen as a layer that needs to be shed to reach the “real” person underneath. You can see this for fat people in movies like Shallow Hal, or for people who are neurodiverse when you see narratives about the disease “possessing” someone, or that “functioning” is supposed to be the end goal. Oftentimes we don’t hear people tell stories of being this identity in the present tense: you don’t hear “I am anorexic and this is what it’s like” or “I am fat and this is what it’s like”. You hear “I was a teenage anorexic” or “my weight loss story” or even “here is my journey of transition from male to female, but now I am firmly female and no longer challenge the gender binary nuh uh”.

This use of the past tense does a great deal to undermine the experiences of these individuals, because it distances them from their experiences, and paints now as reality and the past as distant unreality. We are told that these experiences don’t persist through time: that it’s “just a phase”, or not enough of who we are to continue to be a part of who we are. Particularly when an individual does change, that process and the experience of change through time are often erased by creating a simple before and after picture that does not illuminate the complex and personal procedure of change. We get a sentence as simple as “I recovered” that erases the growth, the change, and the incorporation of the past into a new identity.

These are not always the stories that individuals with oppressed identities want to tell, but they’re the frameworks that society provides for us and appear to be the narratives that society wants to hear. They require us to give up ownership of parts of our lives, to distance ourselves from what we used to be and to look down on it as miserable or wrong. This means that the ability to claim full ownership of your entire life and to see positive and negative elements across time is a great privilege.

The other element of these narratives is that you’re considered fair game for judgment, pity, and condescension when you’re on the “before” end of the spectrum, and most people assume that you’re trying to reach the “after” end of the spectrum. They view you as unfinished until you change, then they see you as complete or acceptable. If you don’t want to change, you are often labelled lazy, wrong, stubborn or broken. It’s considered tragic if you never change. These views of individuals as simply on their way to something better completely erases the day in day out experiences of time, of change as a choice, or of narratives that don’t fit this pattern. The time that you were “before” is often considered lost, and you don’t get to claim it as your own. Relapse, or change back, is completely erased. These kinds of narratives, and the dominant societal interest in the before and after narrative take away many of our choices and remind us over and over again that we are so unacceptable that we are not even real until we have changed. Our experiences are changed from “lives” into “journeys” without our consent, and we are absolutely not allowed to be in between the two poles. These identities are only acceptable if they’re in the past.

So what do we do about these narratives? Are there ways  to rewrite our oppressed identities as things that persist through time, or to subvert some of the narratives? I think there are, but they require us to be extremely vigilant about when we talk about our lives and how we talk about our lives. It’s important for us to tell true stories about our lives at all points in time. When we have an eating disorder, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are fat, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are transitioning, we need to tell that story as the here and now. But we also need to remind ourselves over and over, and remind each other, that every iteration of us is the real us. You are always you and your experiences are always valid. There is no time when you are becoming yourself. You already are. When someone else tries to paint you as changing, in flux, or incomplete, fight back against that. Remind them that YOU ARE YOU right here and right now.

Stop using the past tense. Talk about now. And beyond that, ask for services and recognition in the here and now, not for the you that you will be. Ask for adequate medical services for yourself WHEN YOU ARE FAT. Ask for respect of your voice and your opinions, support of your struggles and confusions, and good relationships WHILE YOU ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS. Finally, find ways to rework the narratives. Use a frame that doesn’t have a clean ending. Make your oppressed identity the end rather than the beginning. Parody the narratives that exist a la Judith butler. Claim your identity right here and right now in any way you can.

Our identities are not a step on the path to acceptability. They are who we are. And ya know what? They’re pretty fucking awesome in the here and now. I have an eating disorder. That’s me. Get over it.

Real Woman: The Bane of My Existence

How much do I hate the phrase “real women”? Ugh. UGH. Real women have curves? Ohrly? So I am not a real woman? Am I a man then? No? SO WHAT AM I? FUCK YOUR GENDER ESSENTIALISM, IT MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE, BECAUSE YOU DENY ANYTHING EXISTS OTHER THAN MALE AND FEMALE. Ok. Sorry. Had to get that particular piece of anger out of the way before I started for real, because there is some self-defeating logic in the gender essentialism of “real woman”.

Warning: if the first paragraph didn’t give it away, this post was written in a haze of post-Nyquil delirium. Is it coherent? No one knows.

So. The concept of a real woman. First of all, I don’t like it when we create false dichotomies. We have enough dichotomies that just naturally crop up in the world and it’s hard enough to keep our lives integrated and whole, so the idea that we need to introduce categories like real and fake just rubs me the wrong way. Very rarely is anything actually fake. More often than not, it’s not trying to be whatever you want it to be. This is particularly true when you’re talking about a construct that you’ve made up out of thin air (I might be willing to concede for example that there’s such a thing as fake meat because we all know what meat is and we all know that veggie alternatives are trying and failing to be meat).


So first and foremost the concept of a real woman is horrifically offensive because it tries to assert that someone else can tell you who and what you are, and that if your experiences don’t match their rules, you are not who or what you think you are and you can’t be part of the woman party. That’s bullshit. No one can tell you what your experience should be. If you identify as a woman then you are a real woman. You don’t need to pass any tests. You don’t need to follow any rules. You just need to exist. If someone else could come up to me and tell me that I’m not a real woman, they erase me and they erase my experiences. No one else knows me better than myself. No one can tell me who or what I am better than I can (unless we’re talking like a very specialized field and an expert…like an awesome baseball player could probably tell you better than I could how good I am at baseball. Answer: very bad). But woman is a very loosely defined concept.


No one agrees on what a woman is. Some people say it’s a vagina having person. Well that’s stupid because trans people and I don’t want to be reduced to my anatomy. Some people say it’s everyone who conforms to a certain set of standards, but those standards are usually arbitrary and different people have conflicting sets of standards. Uh oh. So there really is no objective measure of womanhood. None. Nada. Zippo. So how can anyone else tell me if I’m living up to the grand standard of womanhood? They cannot. If nobody can agree on what a woman is, then why is anyone more of an authority on womanhood than anyone else? Answer: they’re not. Because woman is an identity. We get to build it by being woman rather than trying to live up to some mythic archetype of woman.


If there is no objective, naturally occurring standard of womanhood, then the only reason certain people get to define it in certain ways is because they have power, either social or financial or political. That’s not a very good reason for some people to get the ability to deny your existence and your experiences. And defining certain things as “real” womanhood is extremely damaging to feminism and the idea that we should listen to women and their experiences. It denies us the ability to have choices, to be able to express ourselves in different ways, to have people accept us on our own terms or to hear what we have done and seen. It is gender essentialism at its worst, because not only does it tell you what you should be, it tells you that you are false or fake if you don’t do that: it tries to strip you of reality and existence if you don’t follow what it says. All in all, real women are people who say they are women.