Last year I made a decision not to use the words “mutilation” or “delusional” when talking about trans people. That’s because detransitioners have been patiently explaining why these words are harmful. On a rare occasion I might call someone’s worldview “delusional” if they are being particularly ridiculous in the things they say, but I don’t make blanket statements that to be transgender is always a “delusion.” Gender dysphoria is clearly a real condition, and there are real feelings involved that are hard to explain, and people might not always make sense when trying to explain how they feel but it’s normal for feelings not to make sense. My feelings don’t always make sense either. (I do, however, expect people to make sense when they are laying out their political position.)
There are still lots of radfems and other trans critical folks who call people delusional and name their surgeries as mutilation. Here is an angry rant by Carey Callahan about it:
I’m a little bit in between two groups sometimes. I am a radical feminist but I don’t always like the way my sisters engage online. Sometimes I try to explain to them that when you yell at people that they’re delusional and mutilating themselves, that’s overly hostile and alienating language and it’s going to do nothing but make them hate feminists. Nobody on Earth says, “Oh, this person is saying really horrible stuff to me and my community, I think I will therefore do a whole bunch of reading to understand what their political position is in case it might benefit me.” Nope. They will just yell back or block you.
I believe that the radical feminist analysis of gender is excellent and helpful for everyone. That means I want to present it in an accessible way that people feel they can listen to. The last thing I want to do is alienate people from it.
There are a couple of problems with calling people who transition “mutilated.” One problem is that it’s unnecessarily hostile. As Carey points out in her video, women get mastectomies for all sorts of reasons besides gender presentation. Sometimes it’s for health reasons, such as getting breast reductions for large breasts that are causing back problems, or complete removal due to breast cancer. There are various surgeries performed for health reasons that will leave scars. It is never appropriate to call a surgical scar a mutilation because this is just straight-up rudeness toward the person. How do you expect someone to feel when you call them mutilated? The other problem with calling people who transition “mutilated” is that this hostile language is not being directed at people who make non-gender-related body modifications. There is no group of people who make a hobby out of finding women who have had Botox injections or breast enhancements and lamenting together about these “mutilations.” I expect that people who consider body modification mutilation probably find it mutilation in every case, but they are focusing their complaints on one kind of body modification. This really does make it look like they are simply being hostile toward transitioners.
While we’re on this subject, it’s also not okay to tell people who transition that they’re “betraying all women” or that they’re “breaking your heart.” Let’s talk first about “betraying all women.”
Feminism isn’t about controlling what personal choices women can make, it’s about making material changes in the world to end male supremacy and male violence against women, in order to liberate us from oppression. If it’s possible that women are “betraying all women” by making the wrong personal choices, then lots of women are “betraying all women” all the time, particularly those of us in rich countries. First world women buy clothes and electronics that were made in sweatshops by poor women, and some of our food is imported from poor countries and was grown by people not earning much money, many of them women. So if our personal choices mean we are “betraying all women,” then all the women in rich countries typing this phrase on their smart phones are also betraying all women. And any woman who wears makeup or high heels, who does anything to please men, who works in advertising selling harmful products to women, who does modelling or dieting or shoe shopping, are all betraying all women. I think the phrase “betraying all women” should be reserved only for women deliberating working politically to take away rights from women, but not for women who are doing what they need to do to survive in the world. If a female transitioner does political work to take away women’s rights, then she’s betraying all women with her political work, but she’s not inherently betraying all women just from the act of taking hormones. Someone could theoretically take hormones and also do political work on behalf of women.
It’s also not okay to tell people that their transition is breaking your heart. That’s because it’s never okay to go up to random people and tell them their personal choices are breaking your heart. You don’t go up to people who are wearing leather and say “Your choice to wear leather is breaking my heart” or go up to someone who got a weight-loss-related stomach surgery and say “Your surgery is breaking my heart.” Those decisions probably break some people’s hearts, but that’s still not something you say to them. So why is it okay to tell people who transition that their personal decision is breaking your heart? It’s not the responsibility of complete strangers to live their lives in a way that fixes your broken heart for you.
You might be asking yourself why I’m defending people’s right to make body modifications if I’m against body modifications. It’s a hard thing to explain, but I’ll try. I think that viewing your body as something that is wrong and that needs to be fixed is the wrong approach to take toward your body. I think that having a positive view of the natural body that you were born with is a blessing that you deserve, and you should work toward self-love and acceptance rather than trying to change yourself. The approach that if something is “wrong” then you should “fix” it may not ever bring you happiness, because you can always find something else that is wrong, and you could keep “fixing” yourself forever, without ever being satisfied. I also think that since surgery is risky and does constitute an injury to the body, it should be avoided whenever possible. However, I do believe in personal autonomy to the extent that if you really want to modify yourself, you have the right to do so. I may not agree with your decision, but it’s your body, not mine. I am not advocating for shutting down plastic surgery clinics or stopping people from having surgeries. What I think we should do is create a culture that values our natural bodies and that values human safety and dignity and that doesn’t ever cause body dissatisfaction in the first place, and I think that the widespread body hatred we see in society is a sign of a social problem. I don’t think we should advertise anything that people use to “perfect” themselves like makeup, diet products, plastic surgery of any sort, or weight-loss surgery. People are just fine the way they already are, and the advertisement of these things promotes body hatred and promotes the view that we need to “fix” ourselves.
We don’t need fixing. And we shouldn’t belittle people’s bodies, whether natural or modified.