There is one space that we cannot escape, that is always with us, constantly mediated by our perceptions of self and how others perceive us. This space is our own body.
The body can be an uncomfortable space to inhabit. How we present ourselves affects a lot about what impressions others might have of us. It can be scary to think about how different our own sense of self can be from other people’s ideas of us, and how that discontinuity can be damaging for forming self-identity.
As a trans woman, my relationship with my body and the way people perceive it is complicated in a specific way which most people do not experience. However, it isn’t just trans people who feel their bodies are alienated from them by the gender binary.
The ideals of masculinity and femininity that society has feverishly cultivated are very out of touch with the far more diverse experiences we have of our bodies. I think society is in a place now where these contradictions have been exposed for how ridiculous they are, and yet, still in many ways have not been resolved.
Now that decades of queer and feminist activism and theory have opened many people up to question these norms, it feels like we’ve all been left in a strange gender hangover. This awareness has made many people realize that idealized, photoshopped magazine covers have little resemblance to actual bodies and the complexity that comes along with them.
Being aware of this disconnect is very good, but it also can leave us feeling estranged from ourselves. Bringing a problem to the surface means it can be dealt with, but tension exists in the space between awareness of a problem and actually solving it.
I know I’ll never embody an idealized femininity. I can rarely be bothered to shave my legs. Sometimes I don’t shower for a few days, and I smell kinda weird. I am unglamorous. I like to wear dresses and “women’s clothes,” but sometimes I just want to wear a T-shirt and jeans, and even though I know I won’t pass as female, I feel just as femme as always.
I wonder: If gender standards are just set around clothing, appearance and demeanour, then what even is gender anyway?
Society puts some very strange expectations on people about how they are to express their gender identities. As some of the dissonance between ideals and actual life are revealed, it becomes clearer that bodies are strange and often uncomfortable things to live in.
We’re gross. We see ourselves in certain ways, and other people see us differently. People make assumptions about us based on trivial aspects of our bodies, such as our presumed gender or skin colour. It can all be so complicated just to feel like a whole and coherent person.
I hope this discomfort is a sign that we are learning something. I hope that the uncertainty we feel around our assumptions can help us to see each other as a little more human.
For the time being, we can’t escape the bodies we exist in, so we might as well learn to live in them in a way that works for us. There will always be a dissonance between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Maybe opening up to difference and complexity won’t make everyone like each other, but maybe it can edge us a little closer to something like compassion.
Jase Falk is a trans woman, student and writer from Winnipeg.