By Malachi Grennell
Last week, Rev. Robin and I wrote a bit about the “bathroom bill” controversy and our personal relationships with public bathrooms. This week, Robin is taking some well-deserved time with family, so I wanted to continue in the discussion of our relationships with our bodies by broadening out a bit and talking about social messaging.
As a trans person, my relationship with my body is something I have cultivated- and that hasn’t always been an easy journey. Social expectations tell me that I have to look, act, and speak in a certain way to be perceived as male while ingrained lessons and female socialization fight against those behaviors (since they often feel contradictory), and sometimes, I feel stuck: stuck in a binary system, stuck with a mismatched conglomeration of pieces that don’t fit together. When I think about my relationship with my body, it feels a little like I’m trying to put together a puzzle, but there’s no guiding image and
someone mixed up all the pieces from a bunch of different puzzles, so I’m not always sure which pieces I need and which are extraneous (or, perhaps, belong to someone else’s image).
The reality is, though, that every single one of us has to work to cultivate some kind of relationship with our bodies, and our social experiences are a part of that relationship. We have a plethora of messages about what women “should” do (e.g. shave body hair, have a trim waistline, grow hair long, wear makeup, etc.) as well as what men “should” do (e.g. have a certain penis size, build muscle, always be rational and logical without showing too much emotion, make the first move, be attracted to women). Some of these expectations are impossible due to genetic factors, while others are personal preferences. Regardless, though, creating the “perfect man” and “perfect woman” archetype is dangerous and damaging on many levels, not the least of which perpetrates systematic oppression through racism (the ideal body is a white one, based on white standards); sexism (women’s strengths are considered the inferior of a binary dichotomy: emotion is less valuable than reason, and women are assumed emotional while men are assumed rational); classism (those who can afford surgeries, expensive makeup, laser hair removal, etc. vs those who are “stuck” with the body they have); the list goes on.
I think it’s good to cultivate a relationship with your body that is healthy and positive, and if doing things like going to the gym or shaving your legs helps with that, then awesome! The difference is whether we do things because we think we are supposed to or whether we do things because we legitimately like doing them. Furthermore, are we perpetuating systematic violence and oppression with our expression of our bodies or simply striving to be the best “us” we can be, one that is created in the image of God?
The difference is in our intention and how we allow social conditioning to impact our decisions. When we think about our ideal body, is it a reasonable expectation of goals for the bodies we have? Or is it an unrealistic desire to look like the models in the magazines? The role of social conditioning on gendered expectations is powerful and pervasive and it can be difficult to untangle. The expectations of gendered socialization extend beyond our physical relationships with our bodies, but also focus on emotional and psychological components as well. And for most of us, our expectations are not limited to simply how we believe we should and shouldn’t behave, but extend to include how others should behave and further, assign motive to those behaviors.
Recently, I had an interesting experience. A few weeks ago, a lover came to visit and stay with us for a few days. It’s a somewhat complicated relationship, but he is someone that is a bit notorious for his sexual escapades in some circles, and would probably be referred to as “player” by many people. Overall, we had a good time, but at one point, I noticed that he didn’t seem particularly interested in having sex. I started to feel irritable and resentful and couldn’t figure out what was going on, and suddenly realized- I was feeling rejected. But further than that, I started to feel undesirable in general- and realized that I was assigning motive, intention, and judgement to the situation that didn’t need to be there.
I interpreted his lack of desire to be sexual as a rejection of me in general: because this one person wasn’t interested in having sex in this one moment, it meant that I was (in general) undesirable-a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that he is such a player. If he doesn’t want me, then clearly I am not desirable. It was an interesting situation because it reminded me that, as someone who was raised as female, I was very much inundated with messages that my worth as a person directly corresponded to other people (specifically, men’s) evaluation of my sexual desirability.
The truth of the matter was, my friend was actually tired and starting to get a little sick, and felt comfortable enough to not feel a pressure to perform. But my reaction and response reminded me how much my socialization and upbringing still impacts me- even as someone who has worked through a lot of their baggage around gender and gendered assumptions. I thought I had overcome many of these ideas, but was an important reminder to me that this is constant work that needs to be revisited from time to time because those messages are still out there. Even if I don’t identify as female, I am tuned to hear those messages because they were targeted at me for so long.
Similarly, when I was working toward my undergraduate degree in traditional mathematics, I began to notice less and less women in my traditional mathematics courses- but plenty of women in the courses where math students overlapped with the teaching program. In short, many of the women in the mathematics program were training to be teachers- which is wonderful, except that, by my final semester, there was only one woman who remained in the upper-level math courses (she
and I quickly bonded and are still good friends). One of the things we talked about is the difference between men and women answering questions in class: men tend to have less fear of being wrong, whereas women tend to want to be absolutely sure and worry about “saying something stupid.” She and I often had similar fears about speaking up in class. Yet, for me, most people read and identified me as male and expected me to act according to masculine socialization, yet my brain was still operating from a place of female upbringing and socialization about “being wrong” in a math class. This discrepancy between how people expected me to act and how I was conditioned to act created some awkward social moments and made it difficult to connect to the some of the men in the math department… which was tricky because most of the students in the math department were men. It’s a form of social isolation that is subtle and difficult to identify, but it can impact our capacity to form relationships and make social bonds when we act outside of the social expectations of our perceived gender.
The goal, of course, should be to understand the social nuances of how gender presents itself and decide what fits and what doesn’t. The reality, of course, is much more complicated than that. The messages we get about how men and women “should” behave (never mind gender non-conforming folks, like myself) have lasting, and often damaging, impacts on how we relate to ourselves, our bodies, and other people…and these message can be so subtle, we don’t often notice them consciously.
We are all created in the image of God. To deem ourselves not worthy, less-than, or inferior is to claim that God is all of these things as well. We must combat the messages of how we believe men and women “should” behave. These archetypes not only create impossible standards that can be damaging for those who can’t attain them, but they are also rooted in systematic oppression- those who don’t fit a white, heterosexual, cisgendered narrative (and behave and present accordingly) become “othered” and pressured to compensate.
We are all pieces of a larger puzzle, reflecting the image of God. We’re not necessarily working off a guiding image, and sometimes it can be easier to want to be a different piece: a different shape, a different color, fitting into a different pattern. But without each of us living our authentic selves, being our authentic selves, the image is incomplete. No one piece is more important than another piece. In order to be able to see the image of God, we must first be able to truly see the beauty in the image of ourselves. Should we strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Of course. But the best “us” that we can be is to reach for and honor the image of God within ourselves, rather than constantly trying to compensate for failing to be the image of God presented in someone else.