Responsibilities of Embodiment

Last week at Royal Mail, while on break and working my way through the exercises in my Springboard Workbook, I encountered the following passage…

Being a woman

Being a woman is at the core of who you are. Usually the first thing that people notice about each other is the gender that they are. Some people have changed their gender, usually after a long process. So if you have had your gender re-assigned you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman.

Daisley, Jenny and Willis, Liz; Springboard – Women’s Development Workbook; 7th ed. (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 2013); p.48.

…which certainly clears up a lot of my anxiety as to whether or not I should even be on such a course (one can at least assume from this that the course designers did not see it as a problem, in theory), although I found it an interesting point in and of itself. Perhaps even a worrying one.

Regarding that point about “the first thing that people notice”: Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gaffe about non-passing transwomen making people feel uncomfortable, although possibly taken out of context in some sources, has been making much noise of late, and as someone who struggles to pass at the best of times it rings with a nasty logic whether I like it or not. Almost certainly, as time goes by, I will try to send out increasingly unequivocal signals of my gender identity if for no other reason than to mitigate social awkwardness. Whatever feminist instinct I may be said to possess bridles at the thought of a life spent becoming more stereotypically feminine to attain social ease. It is true that one does not see that many butch transwomen. Given the alternative of spending my life being assumed to be a gender-neutral / gender-fluid / non-binary man, however, I cannot see myself doing anything other than capitulating on this point. Even my weekly electrolysis sessions, although with a bearing on my dysphoria, could also be seen as an expensive and unnecessary cosmetic concession to social expectations (It is not as if there are no born women who do not experience unusually heavy facial hair growth). One option that does not currently appeal to me is facial feminisation surgery – I have seen poor psychological outcomes of heavy facial surgery, and have no wish to inflict that on myself – but even so I am cursed with a sad sense that the means of embodiment of a transwoman could be argued from all of this as inimical to women in general: their right especially to express as they please, without reference to anyone else’s comfort or expectations.

This is germane to the second point, “you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman”, and I find in other ways that I now need to be far more analytical about my life. One disturbing thing I have noticed of late is not that I have become less assertive per se, but I have become more comfortable with being unassertive, when I strongly suspect I owe it to the world to do exactly the opposite. I used to feel acute shame when men (it was, alas, overwhelmingly men) steamrollered me in conversation, patronised me on points where I was at least no more ill-informed than they were, and generally talked down to me without actual benefit of greater knowledge (and I don’t count the Daily Mail as valid source material). This all still happens, but since my coming-out it feels inevitable, and thus less shameful.

To clarify my thoughts on this point: sexism is not shameful to women (nor to transwomen). It bloody well ought not to be inevitable, though.

Still, that is part of the reason I am on this course in the first place, and hopefully it can help me to better define my role within the context of feminism, if I even have one. One faces a curious double-bind as a transwoman: anxious about appearing too meekly self-effacing, and thus embodying the most socially regressive stereotypes, yet also anxious about appearing brash and narcissistic, too eager to make oneself the centre of the struggle. I do not, as I have hopefully already said, believe that feminism – liberal or radical – should bend over backwards to centre transwomen or trans issues in general. The issues are complex, and the place (or even existence) of trans people in any speculative gender-reformed or genderless future society is hard to guess at. Second-Wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), who it should be stressed was not inimical to trans people (seeing their condition as symptomatic of rather than causative of a patriarchal society), had this to say:

There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency […] as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

Dworkin, Andrea; Woman Hating (New York: Penguin, 1974); pp.185-6.

Possibly slightly digressive of me, but I do enjoy quoting that, as it is so much more compassionate and less vitriolic than legions of modern internet philosophers and activists on this subject… but it does raise that nagging possibility that we are creatures born out of the very structure of abuse that feminism is (and by definition must be) ranged against. Of value in diagnosing it, perhaps – as Caroline Criado-Perez suggests – but perhaps too closely and ironically identified with it for our perspectives ever to be taken without a pinch of salt, even by ourselves. It makes my skin crawl when a retail assistant addresses me as “sir” or “fella” (although I am curious to know what training manual recommended the latter as a polite form of address). Should it not equally make my skin crawl when a stranger addresses me as “darling” or “babe?” The answer would be yes… It certainly should not feel as if I have achieved something.

Having said all that, there is one solace I dare take to from all this, which is that the authors of the Springboard workbook included that passage referring to transwomen in the first place. Critics could argue they only did that to appease liberal lawmakers, but they could easily have skipped over the issue (The law merely requires that they do not discriminate against applicants). Since the authors thus apparently felt it appropriate to include people like me on their women’s assertiveness / development course I will take that as a sign of encouragement, though also as a warning. Whatever I amount to – be it a badly-constructed woman or a badly-programmed man – I made a conscious decision to embody the social category of woman, and heaven forbid I should do so irresponsibly.

16 thoughts on “Responsibilities of Embodiment

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  1. I’m firmly of a mind that anyone who is changing their sex, when it comes to women’s issues should keep their mouths firmly shut and their ears wide open. Period! Then, in say a decade, and… only after SRS, when they’ve actually lived the reality of a women’s life day in, day out… And… they’re tempted to speak about women’s issues? They should keep their mouths firmly shut, and their ears wide open.
    It’s only when they fully understand to the bone, the moral and social constraints put upon all women, and they themselves have to struggle daily with those constraints just to open their mouths in public. Then and only then do they have a right to speak about women’s issues!
    Anything else, and they’re speaking from male privilege…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome. 🙂 Diana over at Gender Apostates sent me a link to a whole load of free Andrea Dworkin pdfs. Much of her work seems to be out of print (which in this context especially is a shame, as I would love it if her views had wider currency).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I responded to this post yesterday but I’m not sure what happened and here I am a day later still in thought. I don’t see people from the outside in and often it has scared me because I don’t “remember” or “notice” things I maybe should. I’m not sure why that is important or exactly how it relates to what you wrote except to say when you are with the people who really matter and love you that they do not notice whatever happens to be covering us on the outside. We are all light and souls on the inside. You are not your hair, your skin color or your voice. You are you and you are being your authentic self and your loving and kind and caring by nature. You don’t need to be an advocate at all times and sometimes you will respond strongly to issues and other times you will sit back. Be compassionate with yourself. Listen to some Tara Brach podcasts and breathe. Listen to India.Arie’s song I am Light and believe that you are beauty filled. I’m just feeling a lot this week and want you to know I care and I still think about you with your pink purse whether you ever carry it or not–it was yet another person, the one who gave it to you, that sees your light.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I do, though not for some time sadly. Cal and I don’t get out as often we ought to. We’ll be going out for Christmas with his parents, though, so it will have another trip downtown imminently (Just a shame his grandmother won’t be coming, as she was the gift-giver in question).

      Thank you for your lovely and very heartwarming comment. 🙂 So much of these issues are strictly materialistic, and I do see why they have to be to make them coherent and effective. Notions of inner being and soul seem irrelevant or even anathema in many radical circles, and I try to avoid arguing from them (though the “woman/man trapped in the body of a man/woman” image still feels terribly apt for describing the subjective experience of dysphoria, even if it says little or nothing about scientific reality).

      Of course, though, you are right, and those close to me are being supportive and not lecturing me on the rights and wrongs of the situation. That about being an advocate reminded me of Jaclyn Friedman’s article ( that said…

      “Trans people are not magical gender warriors. We may politicize their bodies, but they are not obligated to play along. As with all of us, some may decide to become activists, but most won’t, and either way, none of them will exclusively do the most politically expedient thing every time they’re faced with a choice. Because they’re human.”

      …which I also found very reassuring. I guess there is much about our modern lives that would cause us guilt and conflict if we chose to dwell on it, but life being so complicated that is scarcely avoidable without becoming a hermit…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am thinking about your final statement: “I made a conscious decision to embody the social category of woman, and heaven forbid I should do so irresponsibly.” Part of me first wanted to say, oh, that’s so thoughtful and responsible (which is what I always think about you, anyway). But then I started thinking, why should you have to be more responsible about what you convey through your gender embodiment than anyone else? What about the women who have breast enhancements and wear clothing that calls attention to this feature? What about butch women? What about a history professor I knew who were short pink dresses and heels and had long hair with big curls? Should these individuals think about what their way of “doing gender” says to the world and how it may shape how people think about women? Do we all need to choose our clothing and hair style thinking about these things? Is deciding to pluck our eyebrows or shave our legs a political statement? If it is not necessarily a political statement for women (but may be an aesthetic statement or a matter of convenience or a way to earn more money), why should it have only political meaning for trans women? It just seems kind of unfair for society to not only treat trans people badly but then on top of it make bigger demands of them than of cisgender people.

    That said, I remember a trans woman I met about 20 years ago. She dressed very “provocatively” (tight sweaters to highlight her breasts, tight skirt, heels, big hair and tons of make-up in a setting where most women dressed practically and simply. At the time, I was very irritated by her because I felt she was playing a caricature of femininity. Now I think that was just me too wedded thinking as I write this.o particular enactments of gender. I also think it was needlessly judgmental of me.

    I’m just t It’s something I need to think about more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do worry a lot about whether it will be possible for me to do anything that does not have an political meaning coded in it any more… I dare not dismiss the oft repeated accusation that transwomen retain their access to male privilege, or at least at the stage I am at it would be no great effort for me to present as cis male and thus reclaim it. “A person cannot just join the oppressed by fiat” was how one very affronted feminist group described the situation, though I am satisfied in myself that I am not trans because I fetishise oppression. I can look back on the protagonists of every story I have written and feel confident they are strong, intelligent, and frequently rebellious women (though I shall have to reserve final judgement on that for when I actually have a readership…).

      Mind you, a lot of the critics, as Jerbear (the wonderful queer activist who often posts here) has pointed out, do indeed see acts and appearances construed as feminine to be politically dodgy in and of themselves, whoever enacts them. Though transwomen come in for more stick because they arguably had more choice (and more than likely had less social pressure) in whether or not to act / appear that way. I think you are right, though. On reflection, worrying too much about this could prove circular and never-ending, as one could spin a negative interpretation on almost any aesthetic decision, even if I decided to spend the rest of my life in stark white overalls with a shaved head…


      1. Exactly! No matter what you do, someone somewhere will find something to criticize. If you don’t transition, you are afraid or untrue to yourself or making it harder for other trans people. If you do transition and pass, you are entering the closed sacred circle of the oppressed. If you transition but don’t pass, you are just playing… or whatever. This is true for everyone though. Getting married, having children, not having children, voting, choosing not to vote, buying shampoo–these can all be constructed as political by someone and criticized by someone. In the end, what you have to do is center your decisions inside yourself, listening to your instinct. What makes you feel authentic and fulfilled? When you are your truest self, many people will recognize that and respond lovingly. And the ones who don’t, well, they are on their own life journey, and that’s not really your problem. I firmly believe this and act on it more than I used to, though I still have plenty of room for growth.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. After reading your post and reading the comments, I fear my reply will seem simplistic…but here goes. I think we all have the responsibility to be good people. To be kind and compassionate. To stand up against injustice and to fight for equality for all people. I think as a human being we have a responsibility to listen and learn and to just be a good person. How someone identifies makes no difference. The responsibility is the same.
    I genuinely hope this doesn’t come off as a dismissal to your thoughts because I have not walked in your shoes. I just feel that you shouldn’t carry any more pressure/responsibility than anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not a dismissal at all. I throw these thoughts out there in the hope that people will tell me what they honestly think, and when what they honestly think turns out to be reassuring it is a double blessing. 🙂 xxx


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