Beyond the Binary: Body Image

There’s a common and persistent myth that nonbinary people don’t struggle with body image. If we are outside the binary, surely we do not experience the pressures people on the binary do to look and behave a certain way. I rarely see issues of nonbinary body image being explored, let alone discussions of how body image pressures may play a role in our gender dysphoria. The attitude is that there is no body image ideal or model for us to turn to, and thus that we escape this particular oppression.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most representations of people labeled as not male and not female are very similar, and tend to share some basic characteristics. They are thin or slender. They have flat chests and narrow hips. They tend to have more angular features. When people are asked to picture someone ‘androgynous’ or to visualize a person of ‘indeterminate’ gender, this is usually the mental image that arises. Note, please, that many of these traits are traditionally associated with masculinity. Nonbinary people can occupy a range of gender identities and bodies, including bodies like this, but people often assume that all of us share this appearance and this specific body type, that people who do not look this way are somehow faking or pretending.

Someone like me, with fat, broad hips, breasts, and soft features, is read as female, because I do not fit the image of a nonbinary person. I do not have a nonbinary ‘body type.’ It is difficult to get people to recognise, let alone respect, my gender, because they assume I’m ‘really’ a girl. Or they talk about how I can ‘pass’ so effortlessly; when they say ‘passing,’ they are talking about allowing people to deliberately misread me, about remaining silent in the face of being erased. Like this is a privilege I should be thankful for, the ability to be thoughtlessly erased, including by other trans people who think I don’t look the right way. What they suggest is that I casually switch between genders to suit my needs, or that my body provides a way to ‘go back’ to being a woman once I’m ‘done’ with this whole genderqueer thing.

I experience gender dysphoria. I experience, often, active hatred of my body. I look at it in the mirror and I sneer at it and want to tear it apart; I spend much of my time, actually, avoiding mirrors, glancing only to make sure that no tags are sticking out and my tie is on straight. I do not recognise the person in the mirror, the face that stares back at me. It looks wrong because it doesn’t feel like my body, and because people tell me over and over again that this body is wrong.

Binary people, particularly women, talk about self mutilation in pursuit of a very specific body type, of harming their bodies in an attempt to norm them. I experience that. Binary people talk about things like disordered eating with the goal of forcing their bodies to confirm with a desired shape and size. I experience that; I was most happy in my body in my early years of college, not eating. I was lean and hard and I was usually read as male. I talk about not wanting the things that went with that, but at the same time, I crave that body and that’s the body I look for when I squint into the mirror; I imagine it emerging from this shell and I think about how wonderful it would be.

This is about more than body image issues. It’s also about a very specific rejection and hatred of characteristics deemed feminine, of femme identities. Breasts are associated with femininity, ergo they are bad, and do not belong on people who are not women; at the same time, if you are a ‘real’ woman, you must have breasts. ‘Feminine’ body types are viewed askance and actively agitated against. When I look at things like collections of images of nonbinary people, I see primarily lean, angular bodies. I do not see rounds and curves, breasts, big hips. I do not see people with children on their hips, let alone breastfeeding parents.

In people of nonbinary gender, the default, the ‘good’ gender presentation is one with characteristics people associate with masculinity. Way to perpetuate bustedness, world. Way to remind people that femininity is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Femme nonbinary people are rejected because they look wrong, and then people act surprised when we talk about the role of body image in our gender dysphoria; would I, I wonder sometimes, would I be so eager for reconstructive surgery on my chest if large breasts were acceptable in nonbinary people? Would I still dream of that thin body I forced into being by sheer force of will until I couldn’t keep it up anymore? Would I be happy in my fatness, in my feminine characteristics, if bodies like mine were equally represented in imagery of nonbinary people? If I wasn’t carelessly read as a woman or as a person in a betweenstate, nonbinary when it suits people and female when it doesn’t?

Feminism discusses body image and normative trends about bodies a lot. Sometimes it even tosses a few scraps to trans women when discussions about body image take place. But feminism is silent on nonbinary people; there isn’t a huge body of work talking about nonbinary body image and, specifically, how antifemininity ties in with the relationships we have with our bodies. And how fighting antifemininity in feminism might, just possibly, make the world safer for us.