Women shouldn’t have to harm ourselves to fit in

This post discusses why “fitting in better in the workplace” is not a good reason to make body modifications.

I said: “I have written about a case where a masculine lesbian openly admitted to transitioning to male to fit into her workplace, and a case where an androgynous lesbian said she was happy to be a woman and a lesbian, but got her breasts removed because she didn’t like them. In some cases, such as these, I think women are better off remaining as masculine/androgynous lesbians rather than getting body modifications.”

The article about the masculine lesbian who transitioned to fit in at work can be found here.

Skepto said: “That doesn’t seem to follow. If fitting in at one’s work place markedly improves one’s well-being and mental health, why shouldn’t it be the best possible outcome in that situation? If a body part bothers someone to the point where they want surgery (with all its risks), and they get it and they’re happier for it, why shouldn’t that be the best outcome? (That doesn’t mean the circumstances that make it impossible for someone to fit in as a gender nonconforming woman are okay or should be this way – nobody should have only these options.)”

The reason we think of people as individuals freely making choices, rather than a society where everyone is interdependent and affected by a culture, is because of neoliberalism. In neoliberalism, every choice an individual makes is considered the best possible choice for them and no one else is supposed to question it or point out the social structures around it. Although culture and structures of power continue to exist, we are encouraged not to think about classes of people and instead just validate individual choices. The entire ideology of transgenderism is based on neoliberalism. We are not supposed to question why large numbers of young women are starting to identify as men and what social factors are leading to this, we are just supposed to accept every individual’s choice as an individual choice without pointing out the pattern. Pointing out the pattern would lead to invalidating people’s choices, and in neoliberalism, invalidating people’s choices is a huge no-no.

Thank goodness Skepto pointed out immediately that the circumstances that make it impossible for GNC women to fit in are wrong! This really needs to be said, and it’s something I will continue saying forever and ever and ever.

While reading Compulsory Heterosexuality recently, I came across a paragraph that really illustrates the point about the way women are expected to fit in the workplace.

Here is Adrienne Rich:

“In her brilliant study Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Catharine A. MacKinnon delineates the intersection of compulsory heterosexuality and economics. Under capitalism, women are horizontally segregated by gender and occupy a structurally inferior position in the workplace; this is hardly news, but MacKinnon raises the question why, even if capitalism “requires some collection of individuals to occupy low-status, low-paying positions such persons must be biologically female,” and goes on to point out that “the fact that male employers often do not hire qualified women, even when they could pay them less than men suggests that more than the profit motive is implicated.” She cites a wealth of material documenting the fact that women are not only segregated in low-paying service jobs (as secretaries, domestics, nurses, typists, telephone operators, child-care workers, waitresses) but that “sexualization of the woman” is part of the job. Central and intrinsic to the economic realities of women’s lives is the requirement that women will “market sexual attractiveness to men, who tend to hold the economic power and position to enforce their predilections.” And MacKinnon exhaustively documents that “sexual harassment perpetuates the interlocked structure by which women have been kept sexually in thrall to men at the bottom of the labor market. Two forces of American society converge: men’s control over women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees’ work lives.” Thus, women in the workplace are at the mercy of sex-as-power in a vicious circle. Economically disadvantaged, women–whether waitresses or professors–endure sexual harassment to keep their jobs and learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment, whatever the job description. And, MacKinnon notes, the woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused of being “dried-up” and sexless, or lesbian. This raises a specific difference between the experiences of lesbians and homosexual men. A lesbian, closeted on her job because of heterosexist prejudice, is not simply forced into denying the truth of her outside relationships or private life; her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual but a heterosexual woman, in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of “real” women.” (Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich, 1980).

This analysis may seem a little outdated but there are still elements of this going on in the workplace—it really depends where you are. In some workplaces everything is fine, but in others there are still sexual harassment cases going where men sexually harass female employees because they are attempting to enforce their power over women and to punish women who do not conform to expectations of feminine heterosexuality. In addition, women in service jobs such as waitressing still get more tips when they perform femininity.

The lesbian who became a trans man to fit into the legal profession didn’t make that choice in a vacuum. Expectations around female dress and presentation in the legal profession do not allow for women to be ‘butch,’ or at least, she felt they didn’t. The decision she made exists in a context of heteronormativity and sexism and women having to conform to this culture in order to advance their careers.

Please note that, even if there is such a thing as a “true transsexual,*” this woman is not one. As evidenced by what she said in the articles I quoted here, she has not had gender dysphoria since birth, she is just trying to fit in to the standards set by her profession. This is not a case of someone having no choice but to transition. (*I’m not entirely convinced there is such a thing as a true transsexual, either, because it makes zero sense for a female to be intrinsically male.)

I want to emphasize that my objection to lesbians transitioning to improve their career prospects doesn’t come from a misguided “hatred” of people who identify as transgender or people who have dysphoria. It comes from the belief that women shouldn’t have to modify themselves or harm themselves to fit into a sexist culture.

Consider for a moment an actress who gets paid more money after she gets a breast enhancement surgery. She is also modifying her body in order to “fit” into an expectation of her at work, and to enhance her career options. Her surgery carries the risk of complications both during surgery and for years afterwards, because of the implants.

Some of the risks of breast implants include:

  • Additional surgeries, with or without removal of the device
  • Capsular contracture, scar tissue that forms around the implant and squeezes the implant
  • Breast pain
  • Changes in nipple and breast sensation
  • Rupture with deflation of saline-filled implants
  • Rupture with or without symptoms (silent rupture) of silicone gel-filled implants

This is wrong because she is being subject to sexism—the belief that women should look a certain way and giving advantages to women who fit themselves into artificial standards of femininity. It’s wrong that she should feel compelled to get a surgery that is likely to have long-term negative effects (the implants could rupture, for gawd’s sake!) and that she is socially rewarded for compromising her health this way.

Any woman who has to make drastic changes to her body that carry the risk of harm in order to fit in at work is suffering oppression. All women suffer when sexism and misogyny exist. When you focus on her individual choice and whether it made her happy or not you miss the point entirely. Everyone should be outraged about the sexism and the misogyny inherent in compelling women to modify their bodies by financial coercion. If actresses didn’t get paid more for having larger breasts, and if lesbians didn’t experience discrimination and harassment on the job (or being passed over for jobs entirely) for not looking the way our society expects women to look, then neither of these groups would modify themselves.

Yes, female-to-male surgical procedures and hormone use has risks, too. The FDA does not approve the use of testosterone in women and the long-term safety of testosterone use among women is not known. According to this guide,

  • Testosterone can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
  • Testosterone can increase red blood cells and hemoglobin. While the increase is usually only to an average “male” range (which does not pose health risks), a high increase can cause potentially life-threatening problems such as stroke and heart attack.
  • Testosterone can cause or worsen headaches and migraines
  • Testosterone can negatively affect mental health. There are often positive emotional changes from reduced gender dysphoria. However, in some FTMs testosterone can cause increased irritability, frustration, and anger. There are reports of testosterone destabilizing FTMs with bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and schizophrenia.

Double mastectomy can leave pain or numbness in the remaining tissue, and carries the usual risks that are present in any surgery. Phalloplasty is a fucking nightmare that shouldn’t even exist.

I would also like to emphasize that I am not attempting to control or “police” individual people’s choices. I’m not going to start showing up at plastic surgery clinics and stopping people from getting breast augmentations, nor am I going to start showing up at gender clinics and stopping people’s transitions. This isn’t about policing people’s behaviors, this is about analyzing a social situation. This is about considering women as a class, the social systems and culture that affect women, and the reasons why large numbers of women feel compelled to harm themselves. Anyone who focuses on individual choices without looking at the social context is totally missing the point. Looking at people’s choices as if they exist in a vacuum is denying the sexism and homophobia that is obviously present. Women can feel free to harm themselves if they want, because we can all do whatever we want with our bodies, but the feminist movement is going to continue to analyze the reasons why this is happening so that we can make changes in the culture so that women don’t feel compelled to harm themselves anymore.

11 thoughts on “Women shouldn’t have to harm ourselves to fit in

  1. So many good points here, p-sage. The mechanism that is at work in making women think they need to pay exorbitant amounts of money for surgery that will enable them to “fit in” is the same mechanism that causes children to endlessly try to obtain the love of an abusive parent. They’re both trying to fill a hole that will never be filled–trying to fill a hole WHERE THERE WAS NONE TO BEGIN WITH! The idea of being not good enough is a fallacy constructed by individuals to keep some people down so others can be on top. It’s constructed by people who don’t feel good enough and need to perpetuate that feeling in others in order to survive. It’s a sick, grasping, pathetic, violent mechanism that needs to be exposed to the light of day.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post. To undergo major physical modification for the sake of a job makes me think of this: All jobs end. Are these desires to transition still going to be present if the job stops? I would like to think that someone would think of that prospect beforehand.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s so sad to hear of women doing these things to themselves just to try to fit in! We ultimately have to be real to ourselves, no matter what others may think of us. I, for example, would never accept a job where someone wanted me to remove my nostril piercing and multiple ear piercings, since they’re just part of who I am, something I couldn’t imagine not having. I also wouldn’t go along with someone’s demand to wear makeup and high heels for a job. For the same reason, a GNC woman, lesbian or not, shouldn’t feel pressured into flattening or removing her breasts, nor should a woman in the acting business feel compelled to undergo breast implants.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great piece! I agree whole-heartedly. “She has the right to harm herself, this is a free country” : peak neoliberal discourse. The fact of the matter is … there are no REAL choices. Under sexism, you either conform or you suffer for not conforming. Sexism is coercion; and the idea of ‘individual choice’ attempts to transform victims into victors while rendering the structure invisible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Gay men pushed into heterosexual relationships are another example of a “choice” that isn’t really free. Doesn’t happen so often these days, but many of my middle aged friends have been pushed into this in the past. It almost always ends up very badly. To avoid suffering, these men end up putting themselves in a situation where they still end up suffering horribly.


  5. I never read a lot of the feminist classics back in the day so whenever I come across quotes or passages I’m always amazed at how relevant things that were written in the 70s and 80s still are.

    This is a really great post because it breaks down the dynamics of what is actually going on with transition in light of employment, a neglected topic IMO.

    It also reminded me of how difficult it was trying to (navigate all my intersectionality AND) find a job in my late teens and throughout my 20s. I didn’t understand why it was so hard. I would apply for gig after gig and never get hired except at extra crappy jobs for minimum wage. Even after college that landscape didn’t change much. By contrast, there were plenty of entry-level jobs with advancement opportunities and reasonable wage available for males. If this has actually changed for young women, I’m glad to hear it. Though it does sound like it’s not changing too much, too quickly if a butch woman can look at transition and mutilation and see a viable option for career advancement.

    Fashion expectations at work are an oppression I feel most keenly. The compromise I’ve arrived at is dressing basic-business which is a challenge when you can’t do femmy. Of course if it was up to me it would be jeans and t-shirts all the time. The things men have easy are just so, so many but the one that pushes my buttons the most is the tyranny of dress; the fact that I can’t find flat, sensible and comfortable shoes in my size, or underwear that’s just a solid blue, black or grey (no pastel stripes or polka dots please). Socks are another hassle. I could go on and on.

    I really don’t understand why the transcult doesn’t tackle these issues. After all, walking into a department store is a nightmare for them. Wouldn’t it just be easier if all shoes came in all sizes and women’s clothing weren’t always sexualized?


    • I see your point, but you can push the “oppression” thing too far. My employer (a law firm) is pretty relaxed about their everyday dress code, but you can’t wear jeans and a t-shirt to court or when meeting a client. But I don’t think they would have any problem with a woman having a more masculine but still professional look.


  6. My comment is more about non-binary females getting mastectomies, but I’ve been thinking lately how the very idea that removing breasts makes a woman more androgynous is rooted in misogyny. It is the idea that male bodies are the default and female bodies are marked as other. All humans have secondary sex characteristics, but masculine characteristics are seen as more neutral than female characteristics.


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