Sunday, February 20, 2011

Self-Made Men - FTM Identity and the Body

Henry Rubin's book, Self Made Men, is an excellent overview of the perspective and experience of Transmen - based on his qualitative interviews and an excellent background history of how our understanding of the transgender/transsexual person.

These are some long excerpts from a single chapter on the body and how it can feel completely alien to one's sense of identity.

This poses some serious issues to concepts of embodied consciousness (here, embodied, literally "in the body," includes the brain) - it is assumed by many philosophers and neuroscientists in the "embodiment" camp that much of who and what we understand ourselves to be is shaped by our embodied experience. The experience of transgendered people counters this position bhy demonstrating that it is entirely possible to have a sense of self and identity that is exactly opposite of the body in which one is born.

So unless we one day find a genetic component to identity, separate from body, we have to accept one of two options: (1) transgenderism is a mental illness of some type (which I do NOT believe is true), or (2) our current models of embodiment and socially constructed gender identity are inadequate or incomplete.

There is still so much we do not understand about who we are as human beings - but a book like this goes a long way toward helping us sort out parts of the mystery.

Self Made Men: Identity, Embodiment, and Recognition Among Transsexual Men, by Henry Rubin.
Chapter 3: Betrayed by Bodies
• Ed: There's the difference—there's tons of butch dykes who could so far tell you almost the exact same story. I finally decided what it is. Its that butch dykes are comfortable enough with female parts and FTMs cannot have that. They would rather die or do something drastic or get help.
In these comments, Ed makes a distinction between himself and butch women based on the specific discomfort he experiences with his female body. Like other FTMs in this study, Ed explains that there are real and empirical differences between FTMs and lesbians—these differences are historically constant and positive. From their perspective, the experiences of comfort or discomfort with one's body, especially one's gendered parts, differentiate these identities.

Ed assumes that even very butch women are more comfortable in their bodies than he is in his. Some butches, especially those who came out before the lesbian-feminist revolution, contest this assumption. Anthropologists like Gayle Rubin and Esther Newton suggest that butches share many predilections and dilemmas with FTMs, including a preference for male names, pronouns, and clothes including undergarments; great discomfort with their bodies; and related difficulties
in their sexual lives.' These scholars theorize a continuum between FTMs and butches. In this usage, "butch" is a noun.

Against this continuum thesis, most of the FTMs in this study see themselves as distinctly different from butches. They signify this by calling lesbians "butch women." In their lexicon, "butch" is an adjective that modifies the noun "woman." Ed hesitates when telling me that he "finally decided what it is" that distinguishes him from butch women. It has taken him some time to come up with something that he feels answers the question with certainty. Ed's criterion is the one most FTMs in this study prefer: the tension he felt between his body image and his material body. His male body image came into conflict with his anatomy and with how others interacted with him It is not enough for him to pass as a man in the world or be able to do the things that men do. Ed locates the difference between himself and other females, especially butch women, in his body.

FTM difference claims are unsurprising if we consider them in light of the history of chapters one and two. By articulating a difference between themselves and lesbians, these FTMs are drawing on a discourse that has successfully obtained desired medical procedures in the past. FTMs today make these same claims though it is less difficult to convince physicians to treat them. These claims about their bodies are, therefore, not just means for dealing with physicians; they also provide meaning to their enigmatic lives. Each FTM in this study felt a need to construct a biography that legitimates his seemingly strange life choice. That choice has to make sense to him as the only rational thing to do in such circumstances.

The history of becoming treatable bodies is echoed in the words of the FTMs who speak here about their bodies during childhood and adolescence. Their comments reveal their experiences of betrayal by their bodies. They also demonstrate how their perception of difference from lesbian women establishes them as treatable subjects. FTMs frame adolescence as a persistent conflict between their male body images and their feminizing material bodies. This tension between body image and material body points to the general importance of bodies to a sense of self.

FTMs describe adolescence as an extraordinarily difficult time of life when they risked and often lost their senses of themselves. They divide their lives into two halves: a "before" and "after" puberty. After puberty, as the process of sexual development took over their bodies, they felt simultaneously disembodied and acutely aware of their bodies. They become, in the words of one FTM, "social zeros."

In adolescence, these men used their experiences of disembodied awareness to reinforce their sense of difference from others with female bodies. This difference helped them consolidate their identities as (transsexual) men. They claim that their experiences of puberty were uniquely different, either quantitatively more painful or qualitatively different in kind, than that of most other adolescents. By positing that difference in their changing bodies, they provide a logical reason for modifying those bodies.

Although some may suggest that such difference claims are not empirically valid and that all teens experience this kind of distress, the experience and the claims of such difference are what is important here. Whether this difference can be proven empirically is less important in this context. The experience of difference is one way that these men determined the direction, and interpret the meaning, of their lives. By anchoring this difference in their bodies, as Ed does in the quote that opened this chapter, they could legitimate their transitions from female to male.

Body and Self
Jake: After I got [breasts], and in order to fight off the glances of the boys, I made myself as invisible as I could, which is why I never made friends in school. I totally became a nothing almost. It really angered me if the boys gave attention to me because I know they weren't giving it to me.

Henry: What were they giving it to?

Jake: The breasts. [laughs] Or some illusion or this new outfit. A physical outfit. This thing that glued on me. It was no longer me the way I liked it and it's not the way I wanted it.
All of the confusion, fear, and wonderment of puberty was complicated for Jake, as it was for other FTMs, by the secret knowledge that he was not a girl or a woman Jake, a gay man who has always been attracted to males, characterized his adolescence as lonely, mostly due to his lack of place within the gendered world of junior high and high school. He became a "nothing." Jake looks back on the new sexual attention he received from his pals with frustration, not pleasure, because the boys no longer recognized him as one of them. As his body developed the cultural signs of womanhood, he became increasingly aware that he identified as a boy on the verge of manhood. He was not the only female-bodied person to grow uncomfortable with the sexual attention given to breasts, but Jake found this attention difficult to receive because it meant that he was no longer able to socialize with others on his own terms. The problem, he says, was not exactly that he was treated as a sex object by his neighborhood chums. Instead, it was his sense of complete misrecognition based on physical cues that are culturally identified with womanhood.

For Jake and for most of the guys in this study, puberty marked the first significant "before" and "after" of their young lives. Before puberty, while their bodies still cooperated with their identities, they were able to convince themselves and others that they were, or at least were like, boys. As their bodies began to look significantly different from other boys, they had more and more difficulty being recognized for their true male selves. It became increasingly difficult to sustain a male identity as their bodies began to resemble the bodies of adult women. Breasts made it impossible to deny that they were female-bodied.

Before puberty, when their bodies were unencumbered with breasts, they were able to ignore, hide, or minimize the few physical signs, like genitalia, that marked them as female. Relative to adolescent bodies, the bodies of children are less identifiably sexed. Girls' and boys' bodies are more similar than the pubescent or fully developed bodies of women and men. This is especially true with regard to breasts, which are the most visibly gendered features of the mature human body. This relative lack of sex markings on the bodies of children made it possible for the FTMs to see themselves as boys.

Many of the participants say that before puberty they simply knew that they were boys. Others remember only a persistent sense of difference that had no name. While the former group was clearly beyond the borders of normal female-bodied subjectivity, this latter group remained just on the border of the socially prescribed roles for girls in Western culture. As youths, many of them inhabited the ambivalent position of tomboys? Texas Tomboy appropriated that moniker when he got older, but it had always been a part of who he was.
I liked being referred to as a tomboy growing up. But I always played with the boys and rode BMX and built ramps and I was the only girl in my neighborhood that liked to play like that. I remember wishing I could wear boy's underwear. I would be really persistent. I don't know what my arguments at seven years old were, but I got my way.
Texas is still persistent. He is a video artist, a part-time hustler, and a short guy who "always exceeded people's expectations ... with strength and intelligence." Texas's attitude represents one FTM's response to being called a tomboy. For him and those who responded similarly to the term, "tomboy" was an adequate label for who they were and what they liked to do in their childhood. For a short time, it gave them a place in the social order. They were different from most girls, but their sense of that difference could be explained in the deviant identity of the tomboy.

The tomboy identity comes with an implicit normative expectations that the child will grow out of it. Tomboys who do not grow out of their tomboy preferences are stigmatized. Many female-bodied individuals do grow out of their tomboy stages and become unproblematically identified as feminine women. In addition, women athletes are more acceptable today, so even very athletic females are tolerated. Other tomboys grow up to identify as gay women or lesbians. Some FTMs called themselves tomboys until it became apparent that they were expected to grow out of it.

Other men in this study immediately grasped the normative assumptions behind the minimal tolerance granted to tomboys, knew that their experiences were more than a phase, and felt patronized by the tomboy label. They understood that a tomboy is a girl who is like a boy, whereas they knew themselves to be boys. Jack and Wolfie both express their dissatisfaction with the tomboy label. They each feel that the tomboy label undermined their sense of difference from girls and trivialized their sense of themselves.
Jack: I wasn't a tomboy. I was a boy. I would rather just be called a girl than to be called a tomboy. Because that's totally dismissing. That's acknowledging what I'm doing, but saying it's a phase and I'm going to grow out of it.

Wolfie: I was very conscious of patronizing attitudes towards children and that was one part of it. A tomboy is like a "boyette."
These men were more isolated almost from the beginning of their lives. Their way of being in the world was completely unrecognizable to others. They resisted the tomboy label because they did not want to be mistaken for girls, but by refusing this label, they completely cut themselves off from the social order.

The non-tomboy FTMs classify FTM tomboys as "secondary transsexuals," whereas they see themselves as "primary transsexuals." For this group, the early recognition that they were not girls of any sort is an unequivocal sign of transsexual identification. (Likewise, the FTMs who never had lesbian careers think of themselves as "primary" and those with lesbian careers as "secondary" transsexuals.) The nontomboys express an absolute discomfort with their female bodies. The tomboys struggle longer to become certain that they are men. Another small group in this study was not tomboy-identified and was more comfortable doing activities that the culture associates with girls, such as doll play and house play. Looking back, these men identify with other "sissy boys" and feel sure that many of their childhood and adolescent boyfriends and pals turned out to be gay men like themselves.

Under the cover of heterosexual normativity, their behavior as "sissy boys" looked like normal femininity to others. This "normal" female behavior did not mean, however, that they were girls, at least not in their own minds. They report that they felt like they were boys growing up, but they were not interested in culturally hegemonic activities of "normal" boys.

Before puberty, the guys had disregarded or actively ignored what few markings indicated the sex of their bodies and identified themselves in one of three ways: (1) they were boys (with bodies that approximated the bodies of other boys) who liked to do typically boy activities, (2) they were tomboys who felt a distinct, yet not quite definable, difference from others with female bodies, or (3) they were boys who, because of their preference for activities associated with girls, evoked little suspicion from others although they knew themselves to be different from girls. The first group was more stigmatized than the other two and suffered deeper social consequences for their refusal to conform to the identities their bodies were assigning them. The second group had a temporary place in the cultural landscape of childhood, but it was a place that eventually evaporated as they matured. Finally, a twist of cultural logic gave the men in the third group a hiding place that aroused few suspicions, but made their path after puberty particularly misunderstood by others—if "she" liked doing "girly" activities and preferred men as sexual partners, why change "her" sex?

Once their bodies developed female features, all of them were forced to realize that they were unlike the boys they had considered their natural cohorts. The bodies they inhabited disfigured their essential male selves.' They were faced with a choice of maintaining their male identities at great risk of social stigma or "going underground" and playing the role dictated by their female bodies. After puberty, the social difficulties they had experienced increased exponentially as their bodies changed from relatively ungendered and asexual into female bodies. Three things—menarche, breast development, and hair growth—made them physically uncomfortable and socially alienated.
For most - if not all - of these men, the onset on menses (menarche) was one of the most disturbing and traumatic experiences of their young lives. Their once simple and mostly androgynous bodies (of which they experienced very limited awareness) suddenly betrayed them and revealed its dissonance with who they experienced as their self.

Often for the first time, they knew without doubt (and this generally coincides with the emergence of breasts) that they had the wrong body - that they were boys in a girl's body and it felt horribly wrong.

Most female-bodied people can point to the onset of menses as a physical threshold that marks one as a grown woman. The capacity to fulfill the childbearing role remains the physical and hegemonic criterion for adult womanhood. For FTMs like Ed, this benchmark of adult female status was greeted with gritted teeth.
I remember the next day going to school and telling someone and this girl was like, "Isn't it great?" and I'm worried about it and I felt very ashamed that I was not happy at all.
Ed wants to distinguish himself from the typical transsexual portrayed on television talk shows, describing himself as "any other long-haired, some facial hair, black T-shirt guy." In the story that he tells of his first menstruation, he emphasizes the difference between his female friend's response and his own. This difference is one piece of evidence that Ed assembles to legitimate his male identity.

Shadow was born in South Dakota, which is the home of the Santee Sioux and the Lakota Sioux Native American tribes. He was given his name in a ritual by a Native American man, an older friend, because it captured the sense that he was a part of both the light and the dark. As he grew up and assumed this name, he began to frame his shadowy existence as a conflict between his body image and his material body.
My belief about my process growing up is that what I was going through during puberty was estrogen poisoning. I will swear by that now that I've started the testosterone. The way I functioned in life was taken from a point of anger. In my early twenties the violent rages were frequent. I'd say like once a month. Imagine that. [laughs]
This is an emphatic statement of the difference between a young girl who is approaching maturity with ordinary discomfort and a transsexual man as he endures his menstrual cycle.

Like several of the guys in this study, Shadow ties his body alienation to his angry and violent youth. For him, the body became his "first clue" in his search for a way to make sense of his dilemma Most of the other men understand this kind of anger as a social reaction to a difficult situation, but Shadow believes that estrogen poisoning caused his violent outbursts. Shadow's story of estrogen poisoning counters to the hegemonic cultural belief that testosterone is the likeliest cause of male rage. He does not claim that estrogens, in and of themselves, are poisonous. Rather, he explains his rage as an incompatibility between his body image and his female endocrinology. Shadow recalls visiting doctors and becoming frustrated with their inability to fix the problem.
Going to different doctors and [hearing], "Sorry dear, you're a healthy, young female. Just growing up. This'll pass. It's just what women have to go through." Bullshit! I don't care what you say, this is not normal. Then my other female friends are going through this. I knew there was something different going on.
Like the others, Shadow also used the experiences of the girls around him to sharpen his own self-understanding. These guys went through the normal body changes that are part of female adolescence.(4) However, they insist that their responses went far beyond ordinary teenage angst from the rapid and uncontrollable physical changes Texas describes it as "a tragedy." James recalls becoming embarrassed of the body he had previously loved because "it could do great things." Francis remembers a loss of self-confidence, crying a lot, and becoming acutely self-conscious. Dani calls it "a shocking experience ... mind-boggling." For many of the FTMs in this study, the experience of starting to menstruate brought on intense shame and embarrassment. Several of them, like Julian, say that their shame resulted in an extended silence that isolated them.
It felt like something so private and so humiliating and so shameful and I already was very private and secretive. Not for a second did it occur to me to go tell the gym teacher, certainly not my mother, certainly not a peer ... I don't even know if I could've said the word at that time. I don't know if I could've even said "period."
Not telling anyone about their first periods and not using sex-specific language to refer to themselves were last-ditch attempts to maintain their bodies as they were "before." By choosing to conceal the start of menses, these female-bodied people willfully refused to situate themselves linguistically as women. Partly as a reaction of disgust and shame, partly as a strategy of resignifying the material body, these men took care not to acknowledge their material bodies.

Their unwillingness to use language that refers to female bodies and female processes demonstrates the extent of their discomfort. One important strategy they deploy for preserving their sense of self is the use of euphemistic and indeterminate language to specify body parts that are abhorrent to them. They almost always use articles, rather than possessive pronouns, to refer to their female body parts. These body parts have become independent agents acting in defiance of the disembodied self. Such threats are linguistically neutralized and effaced via grammar.
There are many more stories in the book about how "The initial arrival of that "dreaded visitor" made other guys aware, sometimes for the first time in their lives, that they were not the boys they thought they were" (p. 102). The experience was sometimes overwhelming:
If menstruation stands out as the mark of womanhood, then it comes as no surprise that these men regarded it with suspicion, hostility, anxiety, and frustration. Some stubbornly refused to allow the material body to define them. For many others, this foreign body convinced them to try to live for a time as women. Those who attempted to do so claim that they were unable to perform femininity adequately and suffered through long periods of depression. Some report an inability to recall whole segments of their lives, suggesting that they withdrew from the world in order to preserve their identities. Several say that they chose to isolate themselves from others as a way of asserting themselves and preventing others from treating them in ways that offended their sense of self.
The arrival of breasts, being a visible marker of their alien bodies, posed its own set of difficulties, shame, and fear - some refer to their "treacherous bodies."
James: I was embarrassed by my breasts. I tried to cover them up a lot. My posture was bad as a result. It was just difficult sometimes to acknowledge my body.
A writer and an executive, James tells me that he transitioned so that he could finally grow up. James's anguish came from the difficulty he had seeing himself in a body with breasts. Some FTMs on the brink of transition prioritize their breasts as the most important aspect of their appearance that they would change The chest is the body part most likely to block them from living full lives. It inhibits them from living full-time as men and causes the most discomfort when they look in the mirror Some start binding breasts from their first appearance and others take up the practice as they age and become more distraught. The men bind the breasts down using everything from control-top nylons with the legs cut out to ace bandages, even duct tape and specially made jerseys. A few choose not to bind because it is too ungainly or too hard to breathe. Another strategy for minimizing the conflict between the body image and the material body is to wear two or more shirts, even on the hottest of days.

By some accounts, breast size could be a relevant factor in determining who can live with their female parts and who cannot. Others said that site made little difference to them. The simple fact of the existence of the breasts was unbearable to most of the men in this study. During adolescence, Texas recalls, he had such a strong antipathy to the mere idea of the breasts that he believes he influenced his development.
My mom told me because she had really huge breasts in high school that I would, too. I really feel like I willed them away. I really didn't want that. I don't know, it was really hard. I really didn't like going through puberty at all. [close to tears]
Others, like Francis, who never developed or who developed later, report wanting breasts and being envious of the larger girls around them. Their typical explanation for this contradictory desire was a wish to be "normal." Having breasts would confirm their femaleness and magically eliminate those "abnormal" thoughts about being a guy. These guys seem to feel that their wishes backfired, and at least one man suggests that all that wishing got stored up in his body, eventually producing large breasts. These wishful refusals provided the strength to sustain a transsexual man's sense of his essential self while his body was betraying him As with menstruation, the FTMs felt that their responses to the development of breasts were anomalous compared to the experiences of the young women who were assumed to be their cohorts.

This perceived difference contributed to their isolation. Jack recalls the feeling of not being accepted for who he was.
They loved to have someone to pick on and I happened to be that person. Thank God for my mother. Every once in awhile I'd go, "I just don't want to go to school today." "Okay." It was so horrible. You act like a boy, you isolate yourself from the whole world. Boys don't accept you and girls don't accept you. They'd often walk by in theirgroups and yell stuff. A lot of things were, "You're so ugly" and being picked last at gym. Or nobody would call me. That's just the worst feeling in the whole world.
By falling in line, these guys could reduce the stigma that they faced, though at a huge cost to their subjective sense of self. Wolfie, like many in this study, expresses the feeling that he was faced with a choice between staying committed to his body image and subjectivity but being alone, or capitulating to social pressures and the materialist compulsion to become the woman that his body dictated he should be.
Either you have a chance at a relationship with somebody and go along with whatever the prevailing dress and behavioral ideal is or you don't. Sort of a choice between being uncomfortable in yourself or having other people make you feel uncomfortable.
Either way, they feel that adolescence brought on these choices because of the changes in their material bodies that failed to represent their subjectivity adequately.

Several men tell stories that narrate their resistance to their treacherous bodies or the social conventions associated with those bodies. John recalls:
My mom went into the section, I kept wandering off. She kept dragging me back there. The saleslady comes up and she's like, "Raise your arms up." I said "no" three times; finally I did 'cause I decided I'd let mom buy it and I'd never wear it. I actually wore it to school the day of the test and watched all the other girls take their shirts off and took a good look [laughs] and then refused. I never got the scoliosis test. I got in trouble. That's the only time that thing ever touched my body. Ever.
John refuses even now to concede that he went into a lingerie department. He will say "the section," but a heterosexual man in his social location would not say he had been in a store looking at women's underwear with his mother. He refused the saleswoman's attempts to put the garment on his body three times. Conceding to take it home was a passive move that allowed him to defer wearing it. The single time that he wore a bra became an adolescent locker-room escapade, a covert kind of panty-raid that allowed John to exercise his heterosexual, masculine desires for the girls in his cohort. Instead of a story of joy at this event, or even a certain modest embarrassment that a non-transsexual child might express, John's tells of maintaining his male gender identity despite outside attempts to discipline his body. In fact, the heterosexual masculinity of this story helps him to consolidate his gender identity.
Here is one final passage from what was one of the most illuminating chapters in the book. So much or our sense of identity is embodied - when the body does not match our perception of who we are, the psychological dissonance can be frustrating, uncomfortable, and cause terrible suffering.
These experiences confirm the idea that we have a body image, an embodied sense of our selves that may not coincide with the material body itself. "Agnosia" is the term used by phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty to designate the condition of a reverse "phantom limb." Agnosia is "the nonrecognition of a body part that should occupy a position within the body image" (Grosz 1994, 89). FTMs become disembodied selves who refuse to recognize their breasts. Transsexual men perpetually monitor their breasts because their flesh does not coincide with their body image Agnosia, in this sense, is an assertion of a self rather than a delusional condition.

After having had their chests reconstructed, many of the guys report that they could not remember what their bodies looked or felt like before the procedure. They say that this effect occurs within weeks of the surgery. This observation shows that their bodies now conform to their body image and their sense of self.' No longer agnosic, FTMs in this study feel as if they are now "tuned into one station." The alignment of body image and material body restores, to some degree, the carefree embodiment that characterized their youth.

A few of the guys noted that their disembodied awareness shifted after chest reconstruction to other, less obviously gendered body parts like hips and buttocks, as they began to be able to inhabit the upper halves of their bodies. Some report an increased desire for penis reconstruction after their chest surgeries, or increased frustration with the limitations of phalloplasty and other surgeries for penis reconstruction. These desires and frustrations indicate that the physical body remains, to some degree, out of sync with the body image and that a disembodied awareness may continue to structure their lives.
I highly recommend this book.

1 comment:

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