As a big proponent of body acceptance – a movement that encourages self-love, body respect, and the destigmatizing of fat and other marginalized bodies – I am a big believer in making our movement as inclusive as possible.
However, it is undeniable that body positivism has left transgender people largely invisible. I know this because I am a transgender person myself.
When I am invited to body positive spaces or events, for example, I am often one of the only “out” trans people in attendance. On panels, I am often the only transgender person invited to speak. When news outlets are writing about body positivity, I am usually the token trans person that is contacted – all because an article I wrote on the subject was in the Huffington Post.
This isn’t because I’m the only trans person endeavoring towards self-love and body affirmation. Quite the contrary – many trans people are doing body positivity in their own way. For many of us, our gender transitions have been all about embracing who we are and manifesting that self with our bodies.
That’s pretty rad (and body positive!) if you ask me.
In this way, I don’t think it’s trans people that need body positivity, so much as it’s body positivity that needs us. And that’s exactly why it’s time to start including us.
“But body positivity is for everyone!” you might say. And I get it! I think so, too. The question is: Is our language actually reflecting that?
I think the absence of visible transgender people in this movement is due, in part, to the language this movement uses to affirm people. More specifically, the way our “body positive mantras” seek to only validate cisgender people, effectively turning trans people away.
So here are four of many body positive phrases that actually exclude trans people – and what we might consider saying instead.
1. ‘Your Body Is Already Perfect’
This is a really powerful affirmation – in theory.
The whole idea of “perfection” is kind of weird in and of itself, but I do get the sentiment. What could be more affirming than telling us that we’re already perfect, despite a lifetime of being told that we are flawed and that our bodies are “works in progress” instead of gorgeous and amazing and—well—perfect?
But this phrase doesn’t reflect the realities of transgender people. For some of us, we see our bodies as completely misaligned with who we actually are – and this is anything but “perfect.”
And to tell us that these bodies are already perfect? It erases our struggles.
What to say instead: “Don’t let society tell you that your body makes you less than.”
I like this because we’re putting the emphasis on combatting society’s bullshit messaging, rather than telling people how they should and shouldn’t feel about their bodies.
2. ‘All Bodies Are Good Bodies’
Honestly, I don’t actually think of my body as a “good body.” Not right now, anyway.
I can’t really feel that way because this is a body that has caused me so much distress and dysphoria (the anguish or discomfort one experiences when their body or perceived gender does not align with their identity).
When you say that all bodies are good bodies, I understand what you’re trying to convey. You want to say that we are all inherently valuable, and that this includes the bodies that house us. No body is worth any less than another body, despite what society tells us.
It’s true that society likes to place value on some bodies more than other bodies. But to respond to this by telling a trans person that their body is “good” makes this a little bit complicated.
Many of us feel betrayed by our bodies. Many of us feel alien in our bodies. Many of us may even hate our bodies.
Not because we have poor self-esteem, but because the dysphoria that we experience in these bodies can be traumatic. And the last thing trans people want to be told while we struggle is that our bodies are still somehow “good.”
What to say instead: “All bodies have value. All bodies deserve care.” Or really, anything that emphasizes self-care.
When people say that all bodies are good bodies, what they’re really trying to say is that despite what society has taught us, our bodies are equally valuable and worthy of care.
In modifying the phrase, we emphasize taking care of ourselves – something we should all do – instead of telling people how to self-describe the body that they have.
3. ‘Don’t Change Your Body – Change Your Perspective’
This is one of the most popular body positive mantras I’ve encountered – and it’s the most erasing by far.
For some trans people, we have no choice but to change our bodies. And that’s not an issue with perspective, but rather, is psychologically necessary for trans people to be well.
While combatting fatphobia, for instance, can involve embracing one’s body “as is” rather than trying to conform to an impossible beauty ideal, we also need to hold space for transgender people for whom body modifications are necessary.
“Life-saving” for someone with anorexia can be changing their perspective instead of changing their body. But “life-saving” for a trans person could be changing their body rather than trying to change their perspective.
And for trans folks who are recovering from eating disorders (like me!), sometimes it’s about both changing your perspective and changing your body.
The key here is finding a path to wholeness and happiness that deprioritizes harmful societal messaging and, instead, centers your own psychological needs.
What to say instead: “Riots not diets.” Or, you know, something that says, “Fuck society’s bullshit. You do you.”
Because this isn’t about whether or not someone should change their body. It’s about deprogramming all the diet culture and oppressive bullshit so that we can do what we need to be happy – on our own terms.
4. ‘There’s Nothing Wrong with Your Body – There’s Something Wrong with Society’
Actually, for some trans people, this isn’t the whole truth.
Sometimes we may choose to describe our experience as being “born into the wrong body.” Sometimes we may describe certain aspects of our bodies as “wrong.”
“Wrong” is a word that some of us may use to articulate the sense of alienation and even disgust that we feel – not because society told us our bodies are wrong, but because we are experiencing dysphoria.
When I, as a trans person, am told that there’s nothing wrong with my body, I interpret it one of two ways: either you’re erasing my experiences as transgender, or you’ve made the assumption that I am cisgender.
I believe the body positive movement needs to shift away from blanket statements like these that assume that everyone has the same experiences of their bodies – namely, that they hate their bodies because of society and need a good helping of self-love.
Because while that may be true of many cisgender people, this is not true of all transgender people – and it is the root of our exclusion in this movement.
This oversimplification denies trans people the right to narrate and articulate their own experiences of their bodies.
What to say instead: “My body, my rules” is one of my favorite body positive expressions.
It’s about giving people their autonomy back – taking it away from diet culture and sexist body ideals – instead of telling people how they should feel about their bodies. It identifies the same problem (society) without invalidating trans people’s experiences.
Plus, let’s be real, it fits much better on a t-shirt.
Not long after I was published in Jes Baker’s body positive manifesto, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, I received a letter from someone who had read the book.
“I am in tears,” the reader wrote. “I never thought I’d see the day when a non-binary trans guy was published in a body positive book. I never thought I’d see an essay where my experiences were represented. This movement is overwhelmingly cis, and I was beginning to wonder if I had any place in it.
“I was starting to feel like I couldn’t reconcile being transgender and being body positive. Like, I don’t know, maybe they weren’t compatible.”
While this letter made me feel proud of the work that I had done, more than anything, it made me feel angry.
This is what happens when we use language that continually pushes transgender people out of the movement: Trans people begin to believe that this movement has no place for them.
Because the reality is – and has always been – that cisgender people do not speak for everyone. But when their experiences are treated as the norm, trans people are pushed again to the margins.
If this is a movement that self-describes as being inclusive, it needs to work a lot harder to decenter the experiences of cisgender people and, instead, amplify the voices of transgender people.
It starts with what we say – and it’s my hope that it ends with everyone, not just cis people, feeling affirmed.
Sam Dylan Finch is a Staff Writer and Editorial Associate for Everyday Feminism. He is a transgender writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area, exploring the intersections of mental illness and queerness. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his beautifully queer blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.