Beyond the Binary: How Shall I Describe My Body?

My body. It’s short (by the standards of people in the United States), it is fat with interesting folds and rolls, it is covered in skin which is light in colour and splotched with freckles and which occasionally turns red or darkens from Wonderbread to, perhaps, very pale rye. It’s got two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, a head with a brain inside it. Fine, downy hair on some bits. Some bits don’t work quite as expected, but that’s ok, because they’re mine.

Recently, I read a genderqueer person describing ouself as “female bodied” and after I scraped my jaw off the floor, I started deconstructing this. I sometimes describe myself as “read female” or “read as a woman” and sometimes I identify, specifically, as a genderqueer woman or femme genderqueer. But I wouldn’t describe myself as “female bodied” because my body is not “female,” it is genderqueer. I have a genderqueer body. Describing it as “female” not only erases my gender identity, it conflates gender and sex, it reinforces a binary view of gender, and specifically it reinforces a cis binary view of gender. A determinist view.

Would I describe a trans man as “female bodied”? No I most certainly would not. A trans man is male bodied, just like a trans woman is female bodied. For those of us who are outside the binary or who are not gendered at all, there are no standard words to describe our bodies. But I don’t think that this means that we should utilize the binary gender structure to describe ourselves. Indeed, it kind of defeats the point and contributes to our own erasure.

How shall I describe my body?

When I describe myself as “read as,” it puts the emphasis on the observer, and specifically on observer error. People see my body and they make assumptions about my gender on the basis of what my body looks like, the same assumptions made at my birth when my genitals were seen and that in turn was used to assign a gender identity. Many people think that my body looks like a “woman’s” body should and thus they believe that I have a female gender identity.

Observers often make mistakes. There is a driving and very human need to see people and immediately fit them into categories, because people have been trained to make observations about each other and to incorporate split second judgments. Children are taught, for example, to determine someone’s gender so that appropriate pronouns can be used as a mark of respect. Unfortunately, most parents teach about gender from a binary perspective, so “if a person has breasts, use ‘she'” is the inevitable result. Those who teach from a broader perspective, in turn, must caution their children because cis binary folks sometimes get very upset by respectful attempts to confirm gender identity, because they assume that genitals, endocrinology, and gender identity all match and always have and that certain genitals and endocrinology go with specific identities.

Gender identity is not the only thing which is erased or ignored entirely by observers, of course. Race is another big one. Again, we are taught that people who look one way fit into one category, and people who look another do not. There is not a lot of room for fluidity, let alone complexity, and the pressure is very much on to identify people through direct observation, not through interaction. If I meet someone who looks a particular way, I will decide how to categorise that person on the basis of my experience; I will decide, for example, that this person is a Black woman until this person tells me otherwise. This happens in a split second and it is not a conscious decision. I do not think “aha, I am meeting a new person, I should check for gender and racial markers for the purpose of categorisation.”

So this isn’t about  pointing fingers in terms of gendering people upon first contact, because I gender on first contact just like everyone else does even though I very much wish I didn’t. I gender primarily along a spectrum with room for male and female bodies and everything inbetween, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better. Someone I identify as nonbinary might be a man. Someone I identify as a woman might be agendered. I, an observer, I make mistakes. I, like other observers, am driven by the need to know where someone fits.

But when it comes to self identification, we have an opportunity to clear things up. We have a chance to say “you may have made assumptions about my body, but those assumptions are actually not correct.” We can talk about the identity thrust upon us at birth by observers, and we do, sometimes; my genitals and endocrinology become relevant when I go to the doctor’s, for example. But my body, itself, is not female even if I am read as female. Because I am not female.

A lovely trans woman of my acquaintance pointed out that there’s another disturbing aspect of the “female bodied” or “male bodied” descriptor. And that’s the fact that it carries a hint of “I can pass for cis.”

Which, it’s true. I can and do pass for cis on a very regular basis. This is not something I am particularly proud of and I wish that it did not happen. Every time I do, it is because an identity is thrust upon me and I do not reject it because of fear or simple fatigue. Writing about passing in January, I said:

Sometimes I use this word in the opposite sense of the way I see others using it, in fact; I “pass” as a cis woman and I “pass” as able when I am neither of those things. And when I use it that way, I usually mean “I erased myself for my own safety.” When I say “I can pass as…” I mean “in circumstances where my identity is dangerous, I can pretend to be someone I am not, even though it hurts me.”

I’m not “passing” as anything. Other people are choosing to read me, often wrongly.

(wandering stars: Incompletely articulated thoughts)

Most people don’t use “pass” in this way, in the sense of erasure. It is more commonly used to refer to a successful performance, one which satisfies those who determine who meets the standards to be considered a member of a gender group, race, religious sect, or other class. In the case of nonbinary folks who use terms like “male bodied,” I see a third and sinister sense of the word, one which says “I identify as nonbinary, but I take advantage of cis privilege when it presents itself.” Perhaps that’s not how people mean it when they say things like “I am female bodied” but it’s how some people read those statements and I myself have been guilty in the past of using problematic language to describe my own body, language which might be read in ways very much not intended.

Such language is sometimes difficult to avoid because there are no alternatives, other than circumlocutions, because there are no words for people like us.

I am a genderqueer bodied genderqueer person, is how I could describe my body. I know that doesn’t satisfy prurient interest about genitals and chromosomes and hormones, but it’s accurate.

One Reply to “Beyond the Binary: How Shall I Describe My Body?”

  1. All right, I normally wait for smarter people to comment before I weigh in, but no one has, so. This post has really stuck with me, because “female-bodied” and “biologically male” and whatever grate on me too. It has the faint traces of “But what are you really?” I’ve got to believe that our bodies can mean more than that.

Comments are closed.