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Physical manliness?

March 8, 2011

Anyone who knows the basics of gender is aware of the difference between gender and sex. I know it, too, to the point that I get annoyed when trans is defined as “someone whose gender differs from their sex” (as if only two sex/gender combinations were valid and the rest were incongruent!) But in this post I want to explore the places where gender and body do overlap in ways that don’t fit neatly into the binary of sex vs gender.

My personal experience of dysphoria, for the most part, hasn’t been gendered (other people’s experience differs). My hips and breasts bother me, not because I see a woman when I look at them, but because they don’t feel right on my body. The only feature which felt wrong in a gendered way, pre-testosterone, was my face: from certain angles, I could see myself as a girl, even though I could look at my entire naked body and see a boy. My goal in physically transitioning wasn’t to align my sex and gender, but rather to allow my body to reflect how I see myself in my mind. Before that, I transitioned socially to align my self-perception with the way people referred to me. I saw them as separate –though interacting– processes.

Certainly, gender –as in identity– is independent from the body: no one can tell you how to identify based on your sex (or based on anything else, for that matter), although your identity can affect how you relate to your body. But masculinity and femininity often are expressed through the body, e.g. in the form of muscles and body hair: whether or not they’re developed, whether or not it’s removed. I know that muscles don’t make the man (or the butch); the point is that people do use their bodies to signal parts of their identity, including aspects of their gender.*

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve long passed the point where I went from looking like a pre-pubescent boy to looking like an adolescent boy, and now I’m hovering on the edge of being perceived as a Man. And, given the shape of my jaw and my soon-to-be-copious facial hair, I won’t look like a delicate man, either, but a Manly Man. And that intrigues me and worries me at the same time, since I don’t feel masculine. I am comfortable presenting as male, and being read as one, even though I don’t identify as a man/male; will I be ok with being seen as manly? (Granted, the rest of my body –thin and un-muscular– does offset the effect.) And will I still recognize myself if my face expresses a gender which is slightly off, or will I flinch like I did when I could see a girl in my face?

It might not be a trans thing, though. I love this post by femme guy (who is cis) about feeling that his body isn’t acceptable as femme:

I spent a lot of time feeling that the way I look was out of step with my gender identity… I felt like the canonical femme man is a tiny slip of a boy, and trying to be a gentle, faggy, flamey boy at my size was just ludicrous and there was no way I could fully live my gender presentation in the size and shape I’m in.

If my wariness about having a “manly” body is similar to his, then I’ll have to work through my own prejudice about masculinity, femininity and how it’s displayed on bodies (heck, anyone would do well to rethink these things). But I’ll pay attention to how I feel about my facial changes in case it is a trans thing, and I stop recognizing myself (dysphoria is not about living up to stereotypes, and it can’t be dispelled by thought or analysis). If that happens, I’ll consider stopping T. But I’m ok for now.

*Wheelchair Dancer points out how disability theory deepens our understanding of gender/sexuality identities as related to the body.

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