Glosswitch wrote an excellent post called The Right Way for Women to Disappear that compares and contrasts anorexia and gender dysphoria. Both of them involve a rejection of the female body and a desire to change it to appear less feminine. Glosswitch herself has a history of anorexia and she has a feminist analysis of her condition.
“I am not at home in the body I have. I’ve never got over the desire to tell people, the first time I meet them, that this isn’t the real me. The real me is thin, breastless, narrow-hipped. This version of me is a poor compromise, a pathetic accommodation. I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.”
“I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist.”
“This is one of the reasons why I am a feminist. I do not identify as a woman but it remains the social class into which, by virtue of having a female body, I have been shoved. I do not think I am the problem. I do not think my body is the problem. Still, as this body still confines me – as it is me – it remains a site of personal struggle.”
She describes the differences between the way society treats anorexic women and gender dysphoric women. Women with anorexia are characterized as sick and needing help, and they are force-fed (which is in itself traumatic) until they are a normal weight again. However, women with gender dysphoria are treated like they have an authentic identity and that the surgical and medical changes they make to their bodies are not a sign of self-harm, but self-affirmation. Why is it so different? Some girls starve themselves to keep their bodies from going through puberty, and some girls take Lupron. Neither strategy is physically healthy, yet we only name one of them as an illness, and we name the other one as an identity.
Theoretically speaking, if anything an individual does is self-affirming and a positive part of their identity that cannot be questioned, then why not celebrate and affirm women’s choice to starve themselves as we celebrate their choice to surgically remove body parts and take cross-sex hormones? As long as she’s eating just enough to stay alive, but not enough to grow any body fat or menstruate, that’s okay, right? Should we call her brave and strong and living her authentic self because she has achieved the skeletal thinness she believes herself to be? If she identifies as a skeleton, shouldn’t we affirm that identity?
Enter Jack Monroe, a woman who has used both strategies to try not to be female, and won’t apply a feminist analysis to her situation. Her latest article in the Guardian is called I’m a little bit female and a little bit male. Finally, I fit in my skin. Already in the title she is being factually incorrect. There is no part of her that is male. A male is a mammal who produces sperm which can fertilize ova. Monroe, who is a mother, clearly has female biology. Anyway, moving right along…
“Thousands upon thousands of women have breast enhancement surgery every year to alter the “natural” configuration of their chests to match how they would prefer it to look. One of my cousins underwent a breast enlargement a few years ago, and her family and friends were supportive, accepting her explanation that the procedure would increase her self-confidence. Yet when I announced that I wanted a chest reduction, I was met with horror and stony silence from certain members of my family. “You can’t.” Well, yes, I can. And when you’ve given 10 years of consideration to something, I think you can conclude you’ve thought about it pretty carefully.”
Yes, lots of women have surgery on their breasts, to make them either bigger or smaller. Monroe appears to see the connection here, but unfortunately she does not state that both breast enhancement and breast removal are coming from the self-hate that women feel because they live in a culture that gives them a very narrow idea of what they should look like and that treats them badly on the basis that they are female. The woman who gets a breast enhancement wants the superficial rewards that come from having a body that men approve of. The woman who wants her breasts removed is trying to escape from having a body that men approve of. Either way, if men just treated women like human beings, we wouldn’t be feeling this discomfort. Monroe cannot consider that analysis, because if she did she would have to let go of her belief system. She’d have to reach peak trans.
“I was heavily criticised by some users on Mumsnet for my “proposed removal of a pair of healthy breasts”, as though breasts are a trophy, and I am a fool to part with mine. Perhaps so, but this body dysphoria runs deep, and I would be a fool to tolerate it when I don’t have to.”
I don’t read Mumsnet on a regular basis, but I know they lean toward the gender critical feminist side over there, so I highly doubt they believe that breasts are a trophy. I don’t believe that breasts are a trophy. Breasts are part of our bodies. They are mammary glands which we have because we are female mammals and we produce milk to feed our young. Since Monroe is a mother, she has mostly likely experienced lactation. She has had an opportunity to appreciate her breasts as givers of nourishment to a baby, which is actually the way we should all see our breasts. They’re not toys for men to play with, they’re not prizes for men to win or trophies for them to show off to their friends. Men represent breasts this way in all of their media and culture, because they believe that women are objects that they own, but breasts are mammary glands that produce milk for our young. We women have the ability to know this and assert this about ourselves.
Monroe then talks about her anorexia and how she delayed puberty by being thin. When puberty finally came, she hated it.
“But with my new-found love of food came puberty. I gained enough weight that I began to menstruate. My breasts began to develop. And I hated it. I had been boyish and braless for 15 years and that’s who I was. I pretended my name was Adam as a young girl. I prayed to God at night that I would turn into a boy when I started to develop. Something was wrong, deep down, but I didn’t know what it was or how to fix it.”
Exactly the same experience as Glosswitch. Except Monroe interprets this now as a gender identity. She is non-binary, which effectively means that although she doesn’t believe she is male, she doesn’t believe she is female either. The evidence doesn’t sway her. The fact that she used her female biology to gestate a child, something only a female can do, doesn’t prove to her that she is female. She’s found a better strategy than she had before of being not-female. When she was anorexic she was forced to start eating again, but now that she’s trans, she gets her body dissatisfaction affirmed and supported by everyone around her. She gets to claim this as a personal identity instead of acknowledging the pain of being female in a patriarchy.
Sometimes groups of anorexic women get together to encourage each other in the act of starving themselves. There used to be websites for “pro-ana” groups. I don’t know if there still are or not. Now there are groups of women on the internet encouraging each other to modify their bodies to escape being seen as a member of the female sex class. It’s like the pro-ana groups from before—they are still encouraging the self-harm behaviours instead of encouraging actual healing.
Instead of creating a culture in which girls and women feel extremely uncomfortable in their female bodies and then encouraging them to transition, how about we make the world safe for women, so that we can all be happy in our own skin? That would be a really happy outcome, and that’s what I’m working towards.