Bodies Outside the Binary

A Social Psychology Perspective

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash. Image Caption: A child in a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals running from the camera. The child is holding a transgender pride flag and the concrete in the background has a reflection of a rainbow.

The following essay will use transgender as an umbrella identity term but recognizes that not all gender non-conforming individuals identify as transgender and may use other terms to describe their gender identity.

Although plenty of research has been done into gender stereotypes and their effect on the body image of adolescents, many studies have neglected a major factor in their analysis. For those who experience incongruence between their physical appearance and their gender identity, body image is a critical factor in both outwards acceptance and inner satisfaction (Algars, Santtila, & Sandnabba, 2010). Understanding these indicators can help alleviate the pressure transgender and gender non-conforming individuals feel to ‘fit’ into society, which has been linked to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression as well as heightened numbers of eating and self-harm disorders (McGuire, J. K., Doty, J. L., Catalpa, J. M., & Ola, C., 2016).

Consistent with the Tripartite Influence Model, transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals are surrounded by messages that convey gendered expectations about appearance that are invalidating towards their gender identity and expression. These messages lead transgender and GNC individuals to surveil and police their bodies to ‘fit’ these models, motivating upwards social comparisons of gendered ideals, and causing internalized body dissatisfaction. This problem can be reduced by gender confirmation treatments, increased representation, and reduced social stigma against transgender and GNC individuals.

Frederick Lecture’s Tripartite Model provides structure that is helpful for the analysis of transgender body image and the internalization of socio-cultural messaging. Under the Tripartite Model, peers, parents, and media convey messages to an individual about socio-cultural stereotypes, such as ‘men should have muscles and women should have curves.’ Transgender and GNC individuals internalize these messages and make the connection that in order to be their desired gender identity they must fit a very specific model of that gender’s body expression (McGuire, J. K., Doty, J. L., Catalpa, J. M., & Ola, C., 2016). As a result, transgender individuals may engage in upwards social comparisons to these gender ideals and feel increasing negative about their own bodies as they internalize these messages and struggle to meet unattainable standards. In order to cope with the unattainable nature of these standards, some transgender individuals may seek gender confirmation treatments to better align their body’s expression to that of their desired gender expression (Owen-Smith, A. A., Gerth, J., Sineath, R. C., Barzilay, J., Becerra-Culqui, T. A., Getahun, D., … Goodman, M., 2018).

An extension of this transgender Tripartite Model uses Objectivation Theory, which explains elements of self-objectivization, surveillance, body shaming, and cognitive load. Under this theory, transgender individuals, who are not well represented and often misunderstood, can feel that they are not seen as people and are instead ‘oddities’ who should be studied, sexualized, or shamed. This leads transgender individuals to self-regulate their appearance and mannerisms in order to appear ‘normal,’ surveilling the way their bodies and attitudes are perceived by others (McGuire, J. K., Doty, J. L., Catalpa, J. M., & Ola, C., 2016). This can also connect to upward social comparison, where transgender individuals compare themselves to cisgendered people or transgender people who are farther along in their transition, effectively shaming themselves for not ‘fitting in’ to a model that is impossible to attain instantaneously. More commonly called ‘gender dysphoria,’ transgender individuals may feel extreme stress and disassociated from their bodies as their internal vision does not match what they believe the outside world should be seeing (Parekh, R., 2016). Transgender individuals without connections to trans-inclusive resources may feel intense pressure to conform to cisgender ideals in whatever way possible, even going as far as self-harm or disordered eating behaviors to cope with their distress (Brewster, M. E., Velez, B. L., Breslow, A. S., & Geiger, E. F., 2019).

At the same time that transgender individuals are managing internalized stereotypes, they must also contend with intense social pressure from outside sources to fit into their assigned model. They may experience harassment, discrimination, or even social rejection if they are not deemed to be acceptably within the limits of what a community views as acceptable. These types of public rejections also renew the cycle of internalized self-objectification, self-regulation, and body shaming. However, the evidence is also very clear that if transgender individuals feel supported in their transition and gender expression, they are far more likely to have an increased self-esteem and satisfaction with life (Tabaac, A., Perrin, P. B., & Benotsch, E. G., 2018). Explicit acceptance of transgender individuals in both their fully realized gender expression and any transitionary period is vital to raising body satisfaction and confidence. Gender confirmation treatments are also important as they allow transgender individuals to feel confidence in their gender expression around all individuals and not just those who are accepting of their identity (Owen-Smith, A. A., Gerth, J., Sineath, R. C., Barzilay, J., Becerra-Culqui, T. A., Getahun, D., … Goodman, M., 2018). Body dissatisfaction and dysphoria is somewhat inherent to the story of many transgender individuals, but there are concrete steps that can be taken both physically and socially to alleviate these cycles of internal and external policing.

Increased access to gender confirmation treatments, increased representation, and reduced social stigma against transgender and GNC individuals can help address the issues transgender people experience with body dissatisfaction. Gender confirmation treatments can address some short-term issues with internalized body dissatisfaction in transgender individuals, but without increased representation and reduced social stigma transgender people may feel they must hide their true identities (Owen-Smith, A. A., Gerth, J., Sineath, R. C., Barzilay, J., Becerra-Culqui, T. A., Getahun, D., … Goodman, M., 2018). As body dissatisfaction is a cycle between external messaging and internalized shame, it is crucial to address both the individual’s body needs as well as reducing social pressure to conform to idealized body images. Education plays a vital role in this process, and measures should be taken to advance the wellbeing of transgender individuals who struggle with body dissatisfaction and dysphoria on a daily basis (White Hughto, J. M., Reisner, S. L., & Pachankis, J. E., 2015).


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They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Intelligence Specialist & Diversity Advocate |

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