I have always rejected the idea that the body or physical appearance can ever be the cause of someone’s emotional problems. I scoff at diet commercials promising some miraculous transformation: someone can go from miserable to elated because her waist is a few inches smaller – all without having to lift a finger (there are links between physical activity and happiness). Or hair transplants that will change a man from frumpy and lonely to connected and content just because he has more hair on his head. While those are extreme examples, we hear this idea all the time: He’s feeling hopeless because he’s disabled. She lacks confidence because she’s fat. All of these statements assume that the physical presentation itself is the root of the person’s emotional state. Assumptions like these neglect to account for the social influence of others, and they also ignore the relationship between the unhappy person and their own beliefs and thoughts.
It isn’t that “ugliness” itself caused her depression; instead, perhaps women who don’t look a certain way are treated differently by others (including different forms of media), or largely ignored, leading them to feel invisible. Whether she is personally being insulted about her appearance, or she witnesses others who resemble her, being mocked, degraded, or ignored, she might interpret a message that she is not worthy of kindness or decency – because of her looks. That idea can become internalized and can easily make her feel sad, depressed, etc.
The difficult work she must do is to deconstruct these external experiences, examine the internalized beliefs, and to change her relationship with both. This is not an easy fix, and it requires deep, often painful reflection both inward to herself, and outward, to society. It requires confronting, head-on, deeply ingrained ideas about where human value comes from, how to engage with (or disengage from) suffering, and which values she will consciously chose. It also means she would have to grapple with the limits of her own reality. Yes, there are advantages to being a beautiful woman in most cultures. However, that does not necessarily indicate her life must lack meaning, purpose, or connection.
Rather than pointing at the body, the hair, the face, the skin, the flesh, it is the internal work that we must do individually and collectively to live better, more fulfilling lives. The trans narrative circumvents this work, instead advocating an outside-in approach. A young person is suffering – perhaps they feel deeply rejected by others because they don’t perform masculinity or femininity the way society prescribes. Maybe they are deeply repulsed by the behaviors and norms expected of them and can’t bare the idea of acting those out because it feels unnatural. These are legitimate reasons to experience negative emotions, and even suffering. However, these are also indicators that something is wrong … in society. Children can’t simply be without being taunted, manipulated, and bullied into submission towards a narrow, and frankly, pathological role of “masculine” or “feminine”. That is an inhumane way to raise children and no way for them to develop resilient, flexible, and grounded personalities.
Let’s think about it objectively: What does hair length have to do with anything? What difference does it make if a boy prefers having girl playmates? Why should society even bat an eye if a little girl prefers to wear cargo pants and baggy t-shirts?
There was a time in history when it was considered preposterous to even fathom a woman in pants. It was argued that the very “nature” of a woman was incompatible with her stepping into a pair of trousers:
“At the beginning of the 20th century… [Men] wrote editorials fretting that cross dressing by women would cause social and moral chaos, ranting that the differences between the sexes ‘would be obliterated”.
We look back now and chuckle at the sheer absurdity of this panic. But how different is our current gender identity theory? Even the DSM criteria for gender dysphoria relies on stereotypes, norms, and behaviors that are constantly in temporal flux, are culturally relative, and vary from one person to another! How have we accepted the idea that certain “feelings”, play preferences, and trauma responses (more on this later) are innately hinged to breasts or a penis. Rather than considering how absurd socialization and personality prescriptions are, we’ve opted instead, to pathologize something concrete, static, and genetic: the body.
As was feared in the ridiculous quote above, today we are, quite literally, trying to obliterate the difference between the sexes – and not in the good way! We are doing this, not with pants and skirts, but with hormones, surgery, and the insane notion that you can change your biological sex. XX chromosomes are XX chromosomes whether the woman has her breasts removed or not. She will have those XX chromosomes whether she loathes her body, loves her body, or something in between.
The truth is, gender expectations do hurt. They hurt all of us. All people exist on a spectrum, though it’s not a “gender spectrum”. It’s a gender tolerance spectrum: how much (and by which methods) is this young person tolerating the rigid and harmful gender expectations forced upon them because of their biological sex?
Young girls know very well that around puberty, the appearance of breasts means they will be sexualized, harassed, and teased, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Some girls “cope” by ignoring it, some try to control their experiences by dressing a certain way, and some avoid people altogether. Others buy into the dangerous and manipulative mainstream idea that sexualization is somehow empowering. Who doesn’t want to feel “empowered”? And so they relish in the attention and validation (some gender-confused boys may also have bought into this fantasy). But other girls begin to loathe their femaleness at it’s core. And can we really blame them? We live in a culture which sexually traumatizes girls, at ages younger and younger.
Gender hurts boys too. Many are bullied and humiliated for being kind, timid, or just awkward. However, most boys “cope” by adopting the aggressor role to varying degrees, and they then go on to continue enforcing the harmful social prescriptions, harassing girls, and so on. Where does that leave boys who don’t take on those aggressive traits? What about boys who don’t want to join in the “fun”? In which ways will they try to escape gender?
In thinking about language, words matter now, more than ever. The terms man and woman are simply labels we invented to identify the biological reality of two sexes: male and female, XY and XX. This is the truth of the body and it has been the biological reality for the history of human life on earth. But biological reality shouldn’t hinder anyone’s right to live life in all of it’s fullness. Biological reality shouldn’t dictate anything about a child’s freedom, safety, or opportunity. And it certainly shouldn’t be framed as incompatible with a personality, play behavior, a haircut, romantic attraction, or t-shirt style. Instead, let’s work together to give every child the freedom to be curious, explore their interests, and develop their identity naturally, so that NO child views her or his body as an obstacle to happiness.