Out On The Couch
By Megan Tucker, PsyD
I am a fat, queer, able-bodied, neurotypical, white, and cisgender femme person (note: cisgender = my gender is congruent with the gender I was socially assigned). I’m well aware of societal expectations for the way my body should look, to express my gender consistent with white womanhood, and to engage in romantic and sexual relationships in a certain way. I also know that the bar for being seen, respected, and accepted for who I am would be sky high if I was a fat, autistic, disabled, polyamorous, transgender feminine person of color.
Most of the research conducted with people who are fat and/or trans has been with white, able-bodied humans, so any negative impact I discuss related to fat trans folks is likely even more detrimental for people of color and for those with chronic illness and/or disabilities. I write this as a person with privilege who aims to learn more, and educate others about systems of oppression and power, while also advocating for human rights and dignity. I am personally familiar with experiences of fatphobia and sexism, and I have a specialty in counseling trans and gender nonbinary (TGNB) people.
Weight Stigma, Fatphobia, & Microaggressions:
When you see a slim person jogging down the road, do you think, “good for them!?” When a slim person walks along the beach in a bikini, do you think, “ugh, they shouldn’t be wearing that!?” When you notice that a slim friend has gained weight, do you say, “oh wow, you’ve gained weight? What are you doing?” I’m guessing most of us don’t, so why would it be OK for us to judge or comment on fat bodies? The short answer: it’s not OK. Basically never. Just like it’s never OK for us to comment on trans and gender non-conforming bodies.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA, 2018) defines weight stigma as discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight (also referred to as sizeism). Weight stigma is known to increase body dissatisfaction, which is a leading risk factor for disordered eating. NEDA clearly states, “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.” Many people who struggle with body image and disordered eating got messages along the way that shamed their bodies and/or food choices, suggesting they weren’t good enough just the way they were.
Fatphobia, the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies, is an extension of sizeism. Many of us have learned not only that thin is the ideal, but that being fat is to be avoided like the plague. We are constantly exposed to messages that thin = good and fat = bad (e.g., TV and movies, comments from our parents, health & wellness marketing, conversations with our friends, and health insurance companies offering wellness discounts). Brené Brown’s research found that a) appearance and body image and b) being stereotyped and labeled are two of the 12 most common triggers for shame (Brown, 2007). This hatred and fear of fatness becomes internalized and spreads like wildfire in the ways we talk about ourselves, evaluate ourselves compared to others, and judge others’ bodies and food choices. Three questions you might ask yourself to examine your weight bias are: 1) Do I engage in negative body talk? 2) How do I feel about bodies of different sizes? and 3) How do I feel about the concept of weight gain for myself? (Chastain, 2018).
We can’t talk about stigma and fatphobia without also talking about microaggressions, which Sue (2010) defined as “commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative insults to a target person or group.” The very nature of microaggressions is that they are often unintentional and unacknowledged slights, leaving the recipient to process those thousands of tiny moments that invalidate that person’s very existence.
For example, when someone says to a friend who has lost weight, “wow, you look great,” it is thinly veiled as a compliment that covers up the deeper diet culture judgment, “your body is more desirable now that it is thinner.” When someone watching you eat X food says, “I don’t eat X – it’s bad for you,” what it really suggests is, “be careful eating that food – you wouldn’t want to become fat and/or unhealthy. In fact, the conflation of weight with health and “concern for health” is one of the more common ways that people (especially health providers) justify weight-related microaggressions. Sadly, what often gets in the way of health for fat folks is the very structural oppression they face by those who believe people are unhealthy because they are fat (Lee & Pausé, 2016).
At the Intersection of Fat & Trans
When we talk about the above concepts in relation to fatness, they also hold true for other identities that experience oppression, e.g., race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. TGNB folks experience transphobia, cissexism, cis-heteronormative expectations, and pressures to fit into (white) binary understandings of gender, i.e., what it supposedly means to be a man or a woman. Because TGNB people are often valued based on how well their bodies “fit in” to these expectations, it follows that they would also be held to standards of body size, shape, and weight. Adding weight stigma to the other pressures that a TGNB person experiences along with their own struggles with their body is like a shaken soda bottle of oppression waiting to explode.
Here are several ways that a TGNB person might experience the cumulative and harmful effects of sizeism and fatphobia in the context of their transness:
- A trans masculine person eats as little as possible to shrink his body and appear more androgynous by reducing the width of his hips & the size of his chest
- A nonbinary person hesitates to go to the gynecologist for worsening pelvic pain, because when they initially brought it up, the doctor said the pain was weight-related.
- A transfeminine person fears going out on a date, because she can’t blend enough with her large belly.
- An agender person has to search endlessly for affordable clothing that both fits their large body and also feels congruent with their gender.
- A genderqueer person wants to fly without drawing attention to themself, but they face ridicule when going through the security body scanners and then are looked at with disgust while walking down the airplane aisle due to their body size.
- A trans woman’s doctor does not refer her to get treatment for her Anorexia, because he reasons that restriction might help her to lose weight.
- A trans adolescent is extremely uncomfortable in their body due to the compounded effects of going through puberty as a fat person.
- A pregnant trans man gets mistaken for being fat and doesn’t get the emergency medical care he needs (note: an article was recently published about this exact situation at usatoday.com).
- A trans person arrives for their consultation appointment for gender affirming surgery, but the armchairs in the waiting room are too small for them to fit, the exam room table cannot hold their weight, and they soon find out that the surgeon has a maximum BMI requirement.
- A trans college student gets the courage to go to the gym and build muscle for his upcoming top surgery, but then is fat shamed by other students at the fitness center.
It is so crucial to be mindful of the ways in which weight stigma and fatphobia intersect with the policing of trans and nonbinary bodies. Don’t trans folks already have enough to worry about with their internal struggles to find peace and affirmation with their bodies? Why do we pile on societal constructions of what they should and shouldn’t look like, that they should and shouldn’t eat, and pressures to modify their bodies to be more feminine (i.e., thin and curvy in the “right” places) or masculine (i.e., thin and muscular)? Why do we expect TBNB people to not only modify their bodies to societal standards, but to do it without developing an eating disorder or increasing hatred toward themselves? We need to do better in making space for TGNB folks of ALL sizes, shapes, expressions, and food preferences. Everybody and every body is worthy of respect and human dignity.
The Greater Impact
The impact of sizeism and fatphobia are pervasive and insidious. For example, adolescents who are teased for their weight are 2-3x more likely to consider and attempt suicide (Eisenburg et al. 2003). TGNB folks, especially transfeminine people and people of color, are significantly impacted by the pressure to fit into gender appearance ideals (i.e., white, light skinned, thin, & young with straight hair; Patton, 2006) that reflect the binary norms of femininity or masculinity.
Here are some ways that TGNB people are impacted by these pressures compared to cisgender people:
- Increased body dissatisfaction and frequent body checking
- Risk of dissociation from or hatred of certain parts of their bodies
- Increase in disordered eating or weight and shape control behaviors, including binge eating, fasting, vomiting, and laxative use
- Weight loss to suppress secondary sex characteristics and/or
- For transfeminine people, to achieve the thin ideal
- For transmasculine people, to slow or stop the menstrual cycle
- For TGNB people with a high BMI, even greater rates of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating
- For transfeminine people, increased experiences of sexual objectification
- Greater risk of mental health struggles due to the stigma of being trans and/or fat
- e.g., desire for weight change increases reported history of suicide attempts and self-injury
- Risk of negative social consequences, stigma, and safety concerns when physical features are not in line with societal expectations for their gender
(Algers et al., 2010, Algars et al., 2012; Diemer et al., 2015, Gordon et al., 2016, Hepp & Milos, 2002; Jones et al., 2016; McGuire et al., 2016, Peterson et al., 2017; Sevelius, 2013; Vocks et al., 2009; & Witcomb et al., 2015)
It’s not surprising that trans folks are afraid to seek medical care from providers who often invalidate them while also imposing guidelines and hoops for them to jump through in order to seek some semblance of gender affirmation/congruence. When you’re fat, that fear increases. And don’t get me started on providers who recommend weight loss as a treatment for anything, regardless of gender. Would you pay to participate in a treatment program that had a 95-98% failure rate and led to most people going back to pre-treatment symptoms within 3-5 years? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you have ever joined a weight loss program or gone on a fancy diet to lose weight, that’s exactly what you’ve done.
Though many TGNB people experience disconnect and dissatisfaction with their bodies, some reconnect with themselves and improve body satisfaction by altering their body, for example, through gender affirming surgery and hormones, body art/tattoos, and/or exercise. Gender affirming treatment, increased body satisfaction, and perceived social support from family, school, and friends help to reduce the risk of disordered eating (McGuire et al., 2016; Testa et al., 2017; Watson et al., 2017). Some find ways to reject the cultural ideals by creating their own unique gender expression, and those who have a more integrated gender identity are more likely to report social awareness, social acceptance, and body satisfaction (McGuire et al., 2017).
So What Can I Do?
Munro (2017) explains, “we live in a world that resists the notion of fatness as a facet of body diversity; as such, fat bodies are rarely represented in a positive light. Fatness is labeled as a disease and the treatment is eradication.” Social change movements for fat acceptance and body liberation are working to challenge and change this cultural mindset, but the journey is long and difficult – like transness, many are afraid of those who are different, those who do not fit the social norms, and those whose bodies challenge our internalized beliefs and fears.
Here are some ways I believe we can work to support our fat TGNB friends and fellow humans:
- Don’t comment on someone’s body parts, body size, food choices, or changes in weight. Ever. Check in when you’re thinking of complimenting someone – is there any chance that the compliment is a veiled microaggression?
- Practice empathy and compassion for others. Many TGNB and fat folks may struggle to love and accept their bodies, which can be a source of significant pain. “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” (Brown, 2007).
- While you’re at it, why not practice self-compassion and be mindful of the way you talk to yourself? “The act of giving yourself some grace is the practice of loving the you that does not like your body.” (Taylor, 2018, p. 114)
- Don’t assume that a TGNB person wants their body to be in line with binary constructions of femininity & masculinity. People have every right to exist in their bodies in whatever way works (or doesn’t work) for them.
- Dig into fat positive movements and literature (note: while there are some body positive (bopo) spaces that address fatphobia, not all bopo spaces are as fat accepting as they should be). Recommendations include:
- Ragen Chastain, https://danceswithfat.org/ blog
- Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology book
- Rachel Wiley, Nothing is Okay book
- Christy Harrison, Food Psych podcast
- Alison Rachel, Recipes for Self-Love book & instagram
- Some awesome humans on social media: bodyposipanda; mynameisjessamyn; jazzmynejay; alokvmenon; ihartericka; po.rodil; ashleighthelion, and tessholliday.
- Be critical of the way that mass media portrays TGNB people, fat people, and TGNB fat people. Then, “dump the junk” (Taylor, 2018).
- Read up on intersections of transness with various identities, including size, health, race, ability, spirituality, sexuality, etc. so that your TGNB friends don’t need to teach you about their experiences.
- Check the privilege you carry in the world, whether you are cis, white, straight, able-bodied, healthy, wealthy, Christian, slim, etc. or any of the various intersections of these.
- Seek out medical and mental health providers who are fat positive and work from a Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size (HAES) perspective (Bacon, 2008; Chastain, 2012).
A Final Note
To those who are trans and fat, I see you. You are worthy, even when society doesn’t always communicate that to you. Everyone deserves to have love and compassion for the vessel that gets them through this world, even when you don’t like all parts of that vessel. You deserve to dress and express in ways that make you feel good about yourself and in clothes that fit your body, no matter what size you are. You deserve to access gender affirming care from providers who view fatness as a descriptor rather than an epidemic. You deserve to be gentle to yourself on good days, on bad days, and on in between days. There are people out there who will love and accept you at all sizes, in all gender presentations, and for all of the beautiful intersections that make up your identity. You are worthy.
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By Briana Shewan, MFT
In order to prioritize femme voices, all quotes in this article are from femmes.
Positionality makes a big difference in femme identity: Please note I am a cisgender, white, thin, millenial femme from an upper-middle class background formally trained as a psychotherapist.
Have you ever wondered if you’re femme? Have you been circling around femme identity for a while without knowing if it fits? Are you unsure if you get to call yourself femme? Maybe you’ve heard “femme” more and more and you’re curious about it?
Femme is a beautiful, complex identity. What it looks like, means, and encompasses is different for each of us. I’m sure for many femmes there’s a sense of resistance at my attempt to categorize the identity here. I don’t mean to imply that being femme fits into one specific box! In fact, quite the opposite is true. Femme is all about stepping outside of traditional femininity. Spoiler! I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rather, this article is intended to broadly clarify femme identity by exploring its common themes. As the term “femme” becomes more widely known than ever before, it’s helpful to distinguish what it isn’t, and what it is (I’m a therapist; I’m choosing not to end on a negative note). Whether you share it as a resource for starting more nuanced conversation in your community or you wait until no one’s around to see you secretly explore the magic of femme essence, this article is for anyone who isn’t sure how they relate to it. May you be a baby femme in the making!
What Femme Isn’t…
A Straight Identity
Not all queer-identified femmes agree on this, but many, including myself, strongly feel that femme is a queer identity. Therefore, to be straight and call yourself femme is appropriative. . This is because to do so erases the history of femmes in queer liberation movements and its political identity as it relates to heteronormativity, and perpetuates femme invisibility for those who are queer identified (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). In reference to femme invisibility, Alaina Monts states “…I do think that a lot of it has to do less so with any sort of purposeful femme erasure in queer communities (although that is extremely prevalent), and much more to do with the fact that it’s an identity being co-opted by folks who aren’t queer… Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us” (Monts, as cited in Chung, 2016).
“It’s possible that femme’s resonance may be partly due to our current political climate, and the resistance it represents to the toxicity of masculinity” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). It’s important to note that, despite its wider current-day political relevancy, femme isn’t a trend. It’s history dates back to the 1930s within queer of color ball culture (Buchanan, 2018). To identify as femme while straight dismisses its historical, political, and cultural significance.
Synonymous with Femininity
Although femme and femininity are closely related, they aren’t interchangeable. Femininity refers to the socially constructed idea of what is feminine and isn’t necessarily queer, whereas femme is, in a sense, the queering of femininity – not just identifying as queer, as I’ve already discussed, but the embodiment and embracing of queerness in the full meaning of the word. This key differentiation is why it’s so important for femme to stand on its own (Tonic, 2016).
As Cassie Donish clarifies, “The term ‘femme’ does not simply mean ‘feminine’; it is used in queer circles to designate queer femininity, in a way that’s often self-aware and subversive. It’s both a celebration and a refiguring of femininity” (Donish, 2017).
“I see femme as the rebellious teenage daughter of femininity,” distinguishes Chung. “Femme is the process of taking the feminine words that were placed in my body, words like ‘soft, weak, quiet’ and transforming them into: ‘wild, loud, confident’… When I broke up with femininity and embraced femme, I felt strong and confident and powerful…” (Chung, 2016).
Every Feminine-Presenting Queer Woman
Self-identified femmes and feminine-presenting queer women are all feminized people and, as such, experience being devalued in our patriarchal society (Buchanan, 2018). That being said, not every feminine-presenting queer woman identifies as femme. Madeleine said, “Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors” (Urquhart, 2015).
The term femme can be used loosely without understanding how someone self-identifies. There is value in both someone claiming femme identity, and not claiming it. You can’t assume that a queer woman is femme because they are assumed feminine-presenting.
…And What Femme Is!
Yes it is!
“…Among the LGBTQ+ community, femme is a descriptor that can feel as inherent to someone’s identity as lesbian, bisexual, or genderqueer,” writes Kasandra Brabaw (Brabaw, 2018). Femmes may have any gender identity; some consider femme their gender identity, whileother femmes may have a different gender identity (such as transwoman, nonbinary, cis-woman, genderfluid, agender, etc.) and consider femme their gender expression (“femininity” aligns with gender expression in that it encompassess behaviors, mannerisms, appearance, etc. within a certain cultural context).
Additionally, there are femmebois, tomboy femmes, femme daddys, femme dykes, etc. who use language to describe their femme identity even more accurately. Other femmes reject these categorizations altogether. “Ultimately, ‘femme’ is about breaking binaries. It’s about subverting cultural expectations. It’s about being more than one thing. It’s about queerness,” sums up Tonic.
An Intentional Relationship to Your Femininity
Many femmes consider their identity to be an intentional expression of their femininity as opposed to one that adheres to typical constraints of feminine performance. Rather, femmes creatively and uniquely celebrate the parts of themselves that would otherwise be suppressed, denied, or defined for them. “As long as normative gender roles exist there will be an urgent need for people, femmes included, to push at their boundaries,” writes Heather Berg, Gender Studies professor at USC (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
Femme’s relationship with femininity is one of reclamation and transcendence. It’s about agency. “The whole point of [being femme], for me,” states Cassie, “is to break people away from their assumptions. I don’t like the strict rules of traditional femininity, but I don’t want that to mean that I can’t be feminine at all” (Urquhart, 2015).
Femme’s expression of femininity can be both fierce and hard as well as tender and soft and everything in between. It often challenges larger notions that equate femininity to vulnerability and vulnerability to weakness. “Our culture hates femininity, calls it weak. Our culture is inept at nurture and care, terrified of vulnerability and softness—all things that are squarely in the femme’s handbag. To indulge in femme culture is actually to be brave, and to have strength,” states Maurice Tracy (Donish, 2017).
Its Own Identity
Today femme is proudly an identity that is not defined in relation to anything else. “I didn’t self-identify as femme until I met other queer folks who helped me see that femme is its own identity,” states Artemisia FemmeCock. “Femme is intentional; it’s a way of simultaneously challenging and celebrating femininity. It recognizes that I identify with aspects of femininity but don’t identify with the heteronormative system that trivializes and demonizes them” (Donish, 2017).
Femininity is often defined in relation to masculinity and positioned as its opposite, whereas femmes don’t see themselves within this binary. Femme pushes back on misogynistic ideas that feminized people are defined through a patriarchal lens or male gaze. Femme is glorious all on its own.
Unique to Each Person
“From the invisibility queer femmes can feel in some lesbian circles to the sharp vulnerability inherent in being a trans woman, no two femme-identified individuals share the same experience of what it means to be femme,” says Joss Barton (Donish, 2017).
For many femmes, their identity encompasses more than their sexuality and gender. It is the entirety of their queerness existing in a capitalist, white supremacist society. Femme identity is often strongly linked to class due to its significant historical context as a working class lesbian identity in the 1950s and ‘60s. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said:
Ableism lifts up a white, able-bodied, traditionally feminine, middle-class body as the ‘right’ way to be femme. Because of ableism in the movements I’m part of, it took me years to find a disability justice community where I didn’t have to closet my disability in order to still be femme. My cane, sexy non-stiletto boots and bed life are femme now because of the labor of disability justice comrades. Many of them, like Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, are deeply femme (Pérez, 2014).
As Macarena Gomez-Barris, chair of the Social Sciences and Cultural Studies department at Pratt Institute explains, “In some communities, femme identity also symbolizes a rejection of whiteness, a term used to represent decolonized womanhood” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
In fact, black femme scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. “Intersectionality is a tool for the experiences of black women which are “greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 140).
Of course, there’s also femme relationships, sex, and aesthetics. One femme may be a kinky monogamous top who only dates other femmes; another may be pansexual and polyamorous. One femme may feel strongly about shaving, while another may feel strongly against it. One femme may refuse to leave the house without makeup and hair in perfect order, another may be ambivalent about glitter (gasp!).
As Laura Lune P. says, “I’d like for the myth that femme only looks one way to be smashed. Femme doesn’t only mean red lips, sky high heels and perfectly manicured nails (although it can most certainly mean that). Femme means whatever you want it to mean for yourself and however you want it to look like if that gender feels like home to you” (Pérez, 2014).
Barrett-Ibarria, S. (2017, December 20). Who Gets to Identify as ‘Femme’? from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xw4dyq/who-gets-to-identify-as-femme
Brabaw, K. (2018, June 20). A Brief History Of The Word “Femme”. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/femme-lesbian-lgbtq-history
Buchanan, B. (2018, March 19). Women and Femmes Unite! – Blu Buchanan – Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@BlaQSociologist/women-and-femmes-unite-30ec59e6a658
Chung, C. (2016, July 18). What We Mean When We Say “Femme”: A Roundtable. Retrieved from https://www.autostraddle.com/what-we-mean-when-we-say-femme-a-roundtable-341842/
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Donish, C. (2017, December 04). Five Queer People on What ‘Femme’ Means to Them. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3x8m7/five-queer-people-on-what-femme-means-to-them
Pérez, M. (2014, December 3). Femmes of Color Sound Off. Retrieved from https://www.colorlines.com/articles/femmes-color-sound
Tonic, G. (2016, August 24). The Difference Between Femme & Being Feminine. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/166081-what-does-femme-mean-the-difference-between-being-femme-being-feminine
Urquhart, E. (2015, March 12). Not Your Great-Aunt’s Girly Lesbian. What Does Femme Mean Today? Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/03/femme-lesbians-shouldnt-be-defined-by-their-butches.html