Dysphoria, the Trans Movement and Choice: An Argument

By Lilifer Penfold

Disclaimer: I think it is important to clarify before I start this spiel that I’m not anti-trans. I don’t have ill will against anyone, regardless of how they choose to live their life and, as someone who has identified and been identified as trans, I think it’s important that I clarify that this is not a critique against what people choose to do; it’s against an ideology, one which I think is harmful due to its missing the point.

I also want to clarify that this may not be a critique against all trans movements, just as an attack against a certain religion will not take account of all the multitude of sects that are contained within it. I feel here, there may be movements which share my sentiment, although I feel they may be miscategorising themselves, for I’m reading ‘trans movement’ as one that promotes trans-genderism: the freedom to choose one’s gender, within a binary system, regardless of sex.

To read more about me, please read my biography here.

My main argument against the trans movement is that it achieves little more than the ideology it attempts to overcome, that it provides only an ounce more freedom; a choice of gender, but in doing so it fails to break away from the social pressures that have caused people to feel dysphoric. It provides two boxes where there was previously one, when what it should be aiming for is none.

To begin with, I have a few minor points that I will lay out as food for thought, but that will also form part of my later arguments.

The first of these is related to the language of the trans movement. Although the movement holds up the importance of distinguishing between sex and gender, there are certain terms that don’t do this. Take ‘male to female’ as an example, many advocates of the trans movement would, I hope, hold that sex and gender are distinct aspects of a person that just because one is male they need not be a man, but the language here suggests that when one transitions it is between sex, a biological anatomical kind, not gender, a social kind.

The second is the confusion around the meaning of dysphoria, for it is too often read as meaning that one has the wrong body. If this were the case then what is being discussed is again sex, not gender, and it suggests essentialism about sex: that there are male and female brains that are distinct. However, when looking at how most people (those who haven’t knowingly experienced dysphoria) think about their gender, they may only do so when it comes to the products they buy, the activities they do and the people they choose to spend time with, and even then this may be done minimally. Otherwise gender is not something that occupies most people’s minds they don’t walk down the street and wonder what the other people see and whether it matches up with how they identify, but for the dysphorics among you this is a regular occurrence. There is this desire to be seen a certain way, and that failing to be seen in that way is a failure to be the person you feel yourself to be. The dysphoria is caused not because one isn’t the sex or gender they are meant to be if it were this, then a dysphoric would never feel at ease with their body but because one feels that they are not seen as they would like to be; they experience societal pressures to be a way they do not want to be, and this is why amongst other trans people or confidants, a dysphoric may feel released from these pressures, forgetting them momentarily.

With this out the way I now move on to the problems I think the trans movement faces.
The trans movement can often be conceived as pro-freedom-of-choice (pro-foc) by this I mean that the freedom to choose between either being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is promoted. The extent of this can be seen in Brighton where councils have at least considered (how far this has gone I am uncertain) letting primary school children pick their preferred gender, or in any environment where a young child is asked to choose what they would prefer. This ‘pro-foc’ mentality I feel is misguided, as it fails to realise its similarities to the ideology it attempts to oppose. There may be progress in giving freedom to choose between two boxes, but in doing so it still maintains that those ‘boxes’ exist and that people are either one or the other, and that the person has to behave, look and generally be a certain way. Asking a child if they would prefer to be a boy or a girl is like asking them if they prefer blue or pink and saying that because of this choice they now have to conform to a whole range of conditions.

Pro-foc is, I believe, at most, mildly better than that which it tries to oppose as it gives one extra choice, but I feel that it still misses the point the point being that what is needed to begin to create a society without dysphoria is the complete removal of a need for gender identification. By using these categories in this way people are being placed in boxes which will either be so loose to be meaningless, “I identify as a woman because I say so,” or too tight, “you are a woman so you must do x, y and z.” It is only through assuming that one’s gender choice dictates something about oneself that any reason can be given for letting people choose, for otherwise it serves no purpose.

The second problem arises when it comes to treatments. There are a vast number of treatments available to a dysphoric, most of which are either hormonal or cosmetic, and these are sought to allow one to obtain the body they feel that they should have. This, however, seems to blur the lines between sex and gender, for if it is necessary for one to have the biological features of the sex one’s chosen gender is thought to have, then this doesn’t conform with the sex/gender distinction, it suggests an essentialism. If these treatments are necessary then one is dysphoric about their sex not their gender. Furthermore, if it is truly about gender then it suggests that one must have certain physical features to be of that gender, and it ignores the broad variation of physical features that exist within each sex alone: there are hairy females and hairless men, flat chested females and boobed men, females with deep voices and males with high voices, and so on. The idea that one needs to have treatment to be the gender they want ignores these variations it suggests that certain things are needed to be a gender and if this is so then there are many whose assigned birth gender would not correspond due to a lack of these features.

Overall the trans movement seems very confused with itself. It seems to want a gender/sex distinction, but in its attempts to do so it suggests that there are certain essential sexed features that are necessary for gender, and its pro-foc mentality serves only to place individuals in ill-fitting boxes.

Why Do People Feel the Need to Transition? And What Should We Do?

I think there is a strong analogy between why people feel a need to transition and why people feel a need to wear makeup. People who wear makeup can be broken-down into two, non-mutually exclusive groups: those who feel they have to and those who want to. Those who feel they have to, do so because they feel pressured by society to look a certain way, they feel that a failure to do so undermines who they are and their role within society. I hold that the same is true for most dysphorics who feel a need to transition. They are doing so not because they want to but because they feel a need to they feel that if they do not look like the sex of their preferred gender then they fail to be who they want to be and how they can be within society. None of this is surprising either when considering how persecuted trans people have been, if the only option for fitting in and survival is to appear fully as the sex of one’s preferred gender, then it is only natural that one would feel a need to be so.

I hope, with time, that this feeling of needing to transition will subside; that those who transition do so because they want to, much as one gets any other body modification, whether it be cat, lizard or standard human cosmetic. I say this because I think the trans movement, in trying to do good, has made people think that transitioning is the only answer to their unhappiness. From my personal experience I believe that this is not the case transitioning may help some, but not all, feel more comfortable within themselves, but it’s not a real solution as for many it may make things worse. What I think will help those who experience dysphoria is the breaking-down of gender roles, removing the pressures to conform, something which will aid dysphorics and non-dysphorics alike. The solution then is not to give people the bodies they think they need, but to breed a society in which one does not feel pressured due to their physical form; that to wear a dress and makeup and be all girly does not require soft skin, ample breasts and a certain hormone level.

Thank you for reading to the end.

Educating India: An Interview with a Maitreyite

By Natalie Lever

As part of a short placement with the British Council in India last year, Natalie spent three days experiencing life at Maitreyi College in Delhi.

Maitreyi (meaning ‘friendly one’) was a Hindu philosopher who lived during the later Vedic period in ancient India. Considered a symbol of Indian intellectual women, she is the namesake of an all-girls college in Delhi, the starting point of my story.

A green oasis in the heart of a busy city, Maitreyi College (a part of the University of Delhi) states that ‘education is the best asset of a nation.’ Single-sex colleges are rare in the UK and I have always wondered to what extent they have an impact on academic success and overall how useful they are in terms of being an accurate representation of ‘real life’. Is it right to separate academia by gender? Walking into the college for the first time, I was sceptical of the environment, filled with questions for the young women who studied there.

(Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever)
Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever

Entering through the main doors, I am flooded with warm greetings and gestures, a thumb-print of rich red paint is placed in the centre of my forehead (a simple mark which represents a blessing), and I walk in to stand in front of a lit candle, placed on a floor which was painted with swirling, coloured dust — a careful work of art which I still remember vividly. The girls are cheerful and smiling and I eventually meet a group who I now call my friends. One of them, named Falguni, shared her views on college life as we walk beneath the canopies of the outdoor hallways; it’s a warm day in Delhi and I could never imagine studying in this heat.

“The thing that I majorly love about my college location is the surrounding! There’s so much greenery all around and the best part is that our college is surrounded by Embassies! So anywhere we go, we always get to interact with so many new people from different countries,” she explains after I ask about the setting of the tree-filled campus.

“For many years I had been hanging around with boys at school, so coming to an all-girls college was a big change for me, but I’m happy that I got to experience this, it’s a fun environment and you can be yourself, wear whatever you want, without being conscious of a male presence.”

(Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever)
Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever

I wondered why the presence of the opposite sex was an issue — this was something that would not bother me or any other girls I knew at university at home. However, I am told by students that they are sometimes the victims of ‘Eve teasing’ (a euphemism used throughout South Asia for public sexual harassment) on various levels. I am naturally concerned by this and as I discover more of the open campus, I feel calm and begin to understand why it would be peaceful to study here. The conversation moves on to India itself.

“Since India is such a diverse country, we have all sorts of different religions, customs and occasions and our college represents all of them! We come together and celebrate all different festivals together as a family, whether it’s Diwali, Holi or Christmas,” she explains.

Dance is a huge part of college life and my visit overlapped with ‘Miss Maitreyi’, the annual festival which takes place in a huge marquee in the forecourt, celebrating the achievements of the college. This festival revolves around dance of all kinds, including the Garba (a traditional Gujarat dance performed with sticks), and it is clear that the students have chosen it as a central form of expression. Falguni believes that “Dance is a representation of joy and happiness in all castes. We dance to express our inner joy. Dance and music are the two forms that connect to all Indians no matter what language they speak, or what caste they belong to.” It is clear that this attitude towards dance is shared; during the day I am taught a routine to be performed at the festival along with the students!

(Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever)
Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever

Between exploring the grounds and attending dance rehearsals, I notice the many encouraging, empowering, and often political posters created by students that line the walls concerning gender equality and gender violence. I took note of a particular one which read that ‘Empowering women is important not only for the betterment of women, but also will lead to a change in society.’ Our conversation turns to the future.

“I feel free and confident as a young Indian woman in the 21st century,” Falguni tells me. “We have come a long way from where we were. Today, no girl in India would have to think twice before stepping out and doing what she wanted to do; we are free to choose the career that we want, free to dress as we want, free to travel as much as we want. But just like the universal paradox, we are free to choose, but not free of the consequences.”

“A lot of challenges still remain for women to be on a par with men. We are still doubted on our capability of achieving high ranks. It is difficult for people to accept the fact that a woman can run a business as good as a man and it is still hard to believe that a lady can become the CEO of a company, but we are proving ourselves and a day will come when no one will be surprised to see a lady as a leader or as a boss. It will be completely normal.”

We carry on dancing to prepare for the festival. I consider what she says and I think more about my day spent at the college — being welcomed, being involved, and being a part of their celebration. These girls do not have anything to ‘prove’ to anyone, but if anyone should be a representation of young people in India, I want it to be them.

Falguni has now graduated; she wants to continue her education by completing a master’s degree and a language course. She then hopes to prepare for the exams to work in government services and undoubtedly, to carry on exploring India. She has recommended we all visit the Himalayas in the North and Kerala in the South.

Wear Your Ambition To Work, Not Your Makeup

By Kitty

Thirty minutes of Facebook stalking and I feel sick. Girls younger than me from school, with a full face of makeup, looking older than I am, sexier than I am. 100 likes, “stunner” comments and love-eyed emojis. It makes me sad to see young, well-educated girls grow into doll-like women posing suggestively on Facebook, seemingly living their lives poised for the next opportunity to take a hot selfie.

My personal suspicion is that most women who say they wear makeup for themselves are lying. If they are anything like me, they will forget they are wearing it when at work and could just as easily not be wearing it. Let’s be real, we don’t work in a shop full of mirrors. I think we do it to make ourselves a little more sexually attractive to others, in a way that is a lot more subtle and socially accepted than wearing short skirts or revealing tops. The question is, why would a woman want to do that at work?

The answer is, of course, pressure to fulfil the gender role and even as a feminist who recognises it, I’m not completely immune. I wear makeup once a week or so at work, for presentations to directors or after-work parties. Years ago I conducted a psychology experiment to test the much-researched ‘halo effect’ of cognitive bias, specifically whether attractiveness is linked to perceptions of positive attributes which on the surface seems contrary to logic. I enhanced the model’s attractiveness using makeup, and the study corroborated the results of the existing literature. Attractive people will be perceived as more intelligent and as possessing more socially desirable personality traits than unattractive people. Perhaps because of this I think that wearing makeup at work could contribute to my success in my career. I therefore flit between the two states, mostly not wearing makeup so as to make my own private stand against the patriarchal standards of beauty that make many women genuinely feel like they can’t be seen without their “face on”.

Another writer on Gender and the City once argued that we need to stop condemning women who get plastic surgery, and instead try to change the patriarchal structures of society that tell us we are evaluated on our looks first, intellect second. Saying I condemn women including myself at times who succumb to it by wearing makeup to work every day is too extreme. However, we need to resist becoming perpetrators of gender stereotypes. I believe that by consistently choosing to sexualise yourself in the workplace, however slightly through makeup, you could be inadvertently perpetuating the objectification of women. On balance, receiving compliments for being a competent professional does a lot more for feminism than receiving compliments for your looks. Which of the two do you currently receive more of? And if you wear makeup everyday, are you prepared to change your morning routine?

So I’ve got a little challenge for you.

Take the 15 minutes or so a day you usually spend putting your face on, and spend it on something else: breakfast, more sleep, exercise, reading, work. In that, you could even become a role model for other women for something other than looking pretty.

I promise you — the world will not fall down.