Objectivity & Authenticity: “(Fe)male bodied” / “(Fe)male identified” (Language Politics)

July 31, 2009

Recently I’ve heard a lot of trans people using the phrases “male bodied” and “male identified”, and been kind of thrown.

Most of the problems with “(fe)male bodied” would be pretty apparent from my post about “biological”, but I think that it’s worth discussing here specifically in its contrast to “(fe)male identified,” and “(wo)man identified.”

The problem with ____-identified is that it’s not just _____; what the hell is the point of saying “woman-identified-woman” unless a)you mean a political lesbian (the original meaning of the term) or b)not all women are “woman-identified” or not all who identify as women really are?

This is, I suspect, the exact opposite of what those who use the phrase intend to be conveying–which is, to be clear that they are legitimating the person’s identity, not using “male” and “female” coercively. But its use, like “gender identity” (“we can’t discriminate against trans women because, unlike other men, they have this weird internal identity as women that’s legally protected” as opposed to ‘the right to define one’s own gender is federally protected, and one cannot discriminate on the basis of the reasons underlying that definition’) reserves the unmodified term for other use, rather than using the unmodified term and clarifying if need be (for example, for advertising a woman-only space, ‘questioning the legitimacy of any participant’s womanhood and all other acts of gender policing are unacceptable in this space.’).

“(Fe)male bodied,” on the other hand, is used supposedly as a means of talking about a person without making a judgment on hir identity. But there are two problems: who does “male bodied” refer to, and how do we know?

It’s not always clear, when someone says “male bodied,” whether or not they mean to include me. As I wrote in Biological, it makes no sense to refer to me as “male bodied,” because
1)I identify & define my body as female
2)while some characteristics of my body would be read male under a coercive, “objective” scientific lens, others (e.g. hormone levels; softness, dryness, and depth of skin; breasts; fat distribution, the smell of my sweat) are pretty clearly female.

What “(fe)male bodied” does is try to avoid the messiness of respecting our identities and categorizing us solely that way and find an “objective” way of talking about people that you can use just by looking at them or by knowing their histories. But this Cartesian mind-body dualism is bunk–my body is still my body, and defining it was male or female is still defining me as male or female, and my body is not this thing that exists wholly separate from my mind, that cannot know or feel things or from which my sense of self can be divorced. My sex and my body are my self determination, don’t try to pry in with the crowbar of coercive language.

Part two is that not only do some people use the term to classify me as “male bodied” and others use it to classify me as “female bodied”–but that there’s a reason for this ambiguity. This “objective” “neutral” “real” body that they want to jump to just isn’t there. Some people mean chromosomes, some mean presence or absence of a penis (cunts don’t count y’all), some people mean hormone levels and how your body appears socially, some people just aren’t thinking about trans and intersex people’s bodies. But the assumption of using the phrase is that people will have half a clue of who you mean, which positions all bodies as belonging to pre-acknowledged sexed categories unambiguously and objectively. Regardless of what categories persons are placed in and how transphobic that placement is, by “empowering” the listener to do the placing, the term nullifies self-definition of sex/embodiment, and undermines resistance to the binary medical model for being trans.

So while I fully support all people speaking of their bodies as male and/or female (and/or other possibilities), don’t use “(fe)male bodied” as a category of people (based on body parts) as opposed to an individual’s self definition–even if you’re trans.

My body is my identity, my identity is my body. Don’t try to separate them, I went to a lot of effort to help them learn to play nice with each other.


9 Responses to “Objectivity & Authenticity: “(Fe)male bodied” / “(Fe)male identified” (Language Politics)”

  1. Jasper Gregory said

    I totally get what you are saying and yet…
    I have struggled with this a lot in my blog posts. I still use bioboy which you did not mention, but I am pretty sure you reject.
    Let me explain. I ID as (male) genderqueer. Testosterone has marked my body for everyone to see. Those markers are the reason why I am harassed and policed when I express femininity. My body marks me as ‘other’ in Queer and Trans spaces where 95% of the people were born with vaginas. The markers make me an ‘unsuitable’ dating partner for queer girls. Testosterone markers makes MTF discrimination so much more intense than for FTMs. These markers make crossdressing for me life threatening compared to a butch or a boi.
    So in order to make this discrimination visible and to be able to talk about it and change it, I am searching for a word which indicates a testosterone-marked body.

  2. ponyprince said

    Thanks for saying this and saying this so well! When I talk about how the world tries to define people according to arbitrary details, I say female or male assigned. At times it is important for me to talk about how the world defines my body and explicitly state how that is not the same as my identity. I do not know what female or male bodied means but I feel like I can have a better understanding when someone talks about how the world defined and restricted their bodies through gender assigning at birth. I know that this can also be problematic, by outing someone who doesn’t want to be outed or assuming how someone was assigned or to give power to the process of assigning a gender. I haven’t heard of a better way for me to talk about my experience as a young kid or transition or how I operate in the world today, though.

  3. shiva said

    I’m here basically to second Jasper’s comment, being basically in the same position as him. How do i describe myself, as someone who doesn’t identify as “male” or “a man”, but who incontrovertibly has exactly the same kind of body as a cis man, and is aware of and wants to own the privilege coming from having such a body?

    Or how do i describe the category of people i am sexually attracted to, when “women” wouldn’t be accurate because many of them don’t identify as women? I mean, i suppose i could just say “people who have, and like having, breasts and vulvae”… but that’s a) a pretty clumsy phrase and b) feels probably even more dehumanising than “female-bodied people” would. (Actually, i’m not sure that there is *any* way to describe an exclusive category of people one is sexually attracted to without seeming to dehumanise them, and maybe it’s actually not worth talking about – i don’t know, but the fact is, unpleasant as even i find it, that many people, including myself, are not pansexual, and i think in many radical circles that’s an uncomfortable truth that people don’t want to talk about. Anyway, that’s probably a bit of a derail…)

    So, what alternatives do you suggest?

    • Cedar said


      I didn’t quote you in the full entry because it was going to be more of a call-out than a here’s-what-I’m-trying-to-say, but you should read it. I have ambivalence criticizing anyone’s articulation of hir desire, in no small part because I suspect you took some risk in commenting, but what you said was pretty busted.

      So, seriously, you’re only attracted to trans women who are post op, and attracted to trans men who take T but otherwise don’t want medical intervention? Come on. Really? If you think you’ve never been attracted to a non-op trans woman, or never have been, I suspect internalized trans misogyny more than “natural” attraction. You probably have been and don’t even know it.

      Saying “woman wouldn’t work because they don’t identify as women” subtly positions them as women by implying that it’s not a matter of them *not being* women, but just not identifying as such. Read the post.

      Your privilege doesn’t come from your body. It comes from how you are socially positioned and perceived. That’s what privilege is, something that comes from society, not your body. See Say What You Mean.

  4. shiva said

    Oh, i’d also like to question Jasper’s sentence “The markers make me an ‘unsuitable’ dating partner for queer girls.” – apart from the rather uncomfortably infantilising connotations of “girls”, i know plenty of queer women who have relationships with men (or, for want of a better phrase, “male-bodied people”). “Queer” emphatically doesn’t mean “exclusively attracted to people of one’s own sex/gender”. I think the word you may be looking for is “lesbians”…

  5. Jasper Gregory said

    You raise two points:
    1) ‘infantilising connotations of “girls”’.
    I use girls and boys a lot. As do most queers I know in San Francisco. I consider girl very acceptable within third-wave feminism.
    2) I don’t mean lesbian. To be specific, I mean hip young San-Francisco queer-identified girls within the queer/trans scene.
    I contend in many blogs and videos that in spite of Utopian Queer language, the SF scene is still basically lesbian separatist with a tolerance of FTMs, a marginalized existence for MTFs and distrust for Genderqueer males and outright hostility to straight males. See my this fantastic spoken work piece form Michelle Tea And my video response. http://jasperswardrobe.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/ftm-mtf-exclusion-in-dykespace-radically-genderqueer-5/

  6. Wow, the comments on this entry…
    (angry face)

  7. nome said

    I don’t know how (un)helpful my two cents will be but I’ll throw them in.

    Whenever I use (fe)male-bodied for trans/genderqueer folk, I use whatever term they ID w/. Therefore, transmen are male-bodied regardless of medical history and the same for transwomen.

    For myself, I tentatively say female-bodied genderqueer because I am not male-bodied (in society’s eyes or my own) and still feel some amount of relation to that label. That doesn’t mean I don’t re-label my body as need be or some days don’t want to sexualize my body at all. But I still feel better knowing I am not the only female-body in a room, for example. I think such labels are all very tentative and we cannot go around labeling others within the community. Some people are more comfortable with such-n-such label and I respect that. I would not want others telling me how to identify/label myself. Therefore I try to be respect of others.

    It is hard though, when I perceive something as being a rather transphobic way to define things. I guess in that case I try to talk with them about it respectfully. Like when a transwoman (who generally passes as a ciswoman) told me we shouldn’t do PGP as part of check-ins, I confronted her on it in the most respectful way I could.

    I would also say that privileges are complicated. Yes, someone may have privileges for having a male body. But they may also be targeted for trans- and genderphobia. You can’t just slap people with privileges. Everyone has their own intersections of privileges and it can differ depending on the situation. Sometimes I have male privileges, and yet I am not male-bodied. Sometimes I have to deal with the same stuff as ciswomen. Sometimes I have to deal with ridiculous amounts of genderphobia. I can never specifically say how much privilege I have because it is contingent on a variety of issues.

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