Positivity Means Fixing What’s Wrong: How Body Positivity Fails Trans People

There are a lot of good things to be said about the body positivity movement. Encouraging people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and abilities to feel beautiful and valuable despite not fitting into their society’s narrow mold is a transparently good idea. People deserve to not feel insecure or ashamed of their bodies, especially when the source of that insecurity isn’t much bigger than marketing. There is a darker side to constantly proclaiming that people should accept themselves “just as they are,” however. Some people’s problems with how their bodies are shaped aren’t a matter of trying to live up to an unreachable beauty standard, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Transgender people face continuous, intense opposition to everything we are and everything we do in much of the world. One of the forms that this aggression takes is proclaiming that trans people shouldn’t want to reshape our bodies to fit with their genders, and should accept our deviant shapes “just as they are,” all couched in the language of body positivity. To undertake aesthetic, medical, or surgical interventions to change appearance is, in this view, to succumb to social pressures that we should instead be resisting. By their logic, a trans man should strive to be content with growing breasts he never wanted, and a trans woman should embrace the androgenic baldness that awaits her if she doesn’t take hormone replacement therapy, because to do otherwise would be insufficiently “positive.”

This is a bad framing, and it harms people. Trans people do not take hormones, get surgery, or purge our body hair out of vanity or frivolousness (and the smooth line between “body positivity” and austere femme-shaming is worth its own essay). Trans people often face these parts of ourselves with extreme distress, called “dysphoria,” and bodily disorientation, called “dysmorphia.” To exist in a body so far from what it itself wants and needs to be is psychologically painful, a kind of congenital phantom limb disease. The imbalance in brain chemistry from having the wrong hormones in the blood dooms many trans people to hazy depression and anxiety until it is corrected. All of that is tied to organs that got the wrong cues in utero and developed into something entirely other than what the body thought they would, and which keep draining and deforming them for as long as they remain. It makes no more sense to demand a trans person “accept” the body that causes them this pain than to demand that someone with a broken leg “accept” the fracture. These are not elective interventions meant to fulfill a standard of beauty, but medical interventions that treat a medical condition.

Alyssa in a black elbow-sleeve top and red floral skirt, positioned to show off her new tattoo choker.
I didn’t get here by being “okay” with what I seemed before.

Sometimes, body positivity means not accepting things as they are. There is no virtue in suffering, and no status or improvement conveyed by choosing to suffer. When body-positivity advocates act like we should be choosing bodily martyrdom, they have gone astray, and that includes trans or non-binary people who demand or receive greater intra-community status on the basis of their refusal to take up certain interventions. Sometimes, acceptance isn’t a synonym for “contentment,” but for abandonment, and we deserve to not abandon ourselves.

Sometimes, the only way to be positive about a body that showed up for duty with some serious problems is to put on one’s gloves and boots, get a wrench, and get to work. And that’s okay, and good, and right. Body positivity should not be about trapping people with the parts of themselves that cause them pain, but about taking the pain out of the parts of people that society’s beauty standards won’t accept. It should be about learning to ignore the signals from outside so that we can better hear the demands from within. It should be about building the best, most harmonious relationship with our bodies that we can, whether that means raising a middle finger to people who tell one to lose weight, or taking a laser to the chin hairs I never wanted.

It’s a deep shame that the body-positivity movement, which could otherwise help trans people come to terms with the parts of themselves hormones and surgery can’t fix, has become co-opted and weaponized by people who want the trans community to disappear.

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Positivity Means Fixing What’s Wrong: How Body Positivity Fails Trans People
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