Today, I’ll teach you a word universal to the trans experience to some degree; dysphoria!
Miss Dysphoria usually comes packaged with her quirky cousin, dysmorphia. Do you feel uncomfortable in your body, so much that you want to change it? Are you burdened with the concept of even existing physically if you’re slightly out a conceptualized shape? And why not, with all the hyper sexualized, photoshopped, starving bodies we see… well, everywhere. I’ll introduce you to the body positivity movement next: this movement seeks to normalize ‘normal’ bodies, and eliminate all the veneers and buffers and 14 year old eurasian models. And I’ll tell you something about it: I cannot stand body positivity ‘movements’.
There are rarely times I encounter this movement in earnest, and oftentimes, it is almost entirely trans exclusionary, and the people propelling it, while enthusiastic, often are… exploitative of the bodies they choose to present. Just because you think people should be their ‘natural selves’ does little to combat their actual feelings of how they perceive themselves, and the dissonance from that. This positivity culture is fake, and poisonous to many because it ignores the needs of people who are ‘othered’, and frames them as being so.
When I was in college, a woman approached me and asked to document me. I was interested in modeling at the time because like any vain millennial with social media, I thought I was REALLY cute. The concept of the photo and it’s artistry was not revealed to me until later, in post editing, where I was presented with a series of unflattering unedited photos. I won’t be too technical here, but the camera typically adds 10 lbs and can distort features based on lens length, angle, lighting… The image presented is not always true. But for people with dysmorphia, this image, if unflattering, becomes your new standard for how you actually look.
So here I was, in this art piece, presented as literally undesirable as it’s entire framework. The piece was to compare societies ideal concepts (a white, thin cis model) to me, a brown, chubby trans girl trying my hardest to be beautiful for the camera; something difficult when the features that nauseated me and made me sick to my stomach were on full display. When the images were fully on display, I couldn’t help but think about the large graphic cascade of me being ‘not ideal’. Undesirable. My body could not be painted as anything other than masculine and unattractive. This feeling nauseates me. I cannot help but feel this when looking at my natural body, and recently, I was told it’s “all in your head”…
That’s why it’s a MENTAL illness. I won’t characterize all trans people as being mentally ill or sick, or even dysphoric, but there’s something to be said about an experience where several thousands of dollars of plastic surgery is ‘required’ to be happy with yourself. This is perhaps why trans people are the worst to feature in these movements, because the natural body is our prognosis, and that requires consideration when using us for anything; unless someone is gifted with perfect genetics or is on a -300 calorie diet, they’re not going to look 100 percent in HD. So, what do you do when you document people who are betrayed by their bodies? Do you display them, harshly in HD as ‘reality’ to suit your woke narrative of defying beauty standards (therein telling them they are not a beauty standard) or do you just photoshop some ribs and rolls and foreheads?
I often find myself discovering how little people are actually willing to do when it comes to inclusivity. It’s accommodation, it’s consideration, it’s disclosure. I was booked for a small local vintage clothing retailer, and midway into the shoot, as I joked about needing retouching in certain places, it was revealed to me that the photography would be unedited — any photographer who does not edit out of principle lacks skill in their craft, and I mean that: photographers know images require retouching. To avoid this is laziness. No one looks at a raw photo and thinks ‘wow, the beauty!’, much less a person who isn’t a 15-year-old Ukrainian who has been on a liquid diet since they were 10. The average person is not a model. The average person needs retouching, because the average person is not typically subjected to a 500mm lens and stark white studio lighting that may obscure their entire face shape into an egg.
In a display of masochism, I pushed through instead of walking out on the spot because I am incredibly passive and anxious in most things and internalize rather than speaking up — don’t do this. Speak up, reclaim control. Never assume a cis person knows how to document trans folks. After trying on a series of garments that didn’t suit my body shape or made me uncomfortable, I was hit with the realization that at some point, these pics would hit the product page, and when they did… I was not prepared for the realization of how awful my body was presented. It was not presented with care, or any interest in displaying my beauty. In fact, it felt malicious; like this portrayal of trans bodies was impossible to adhere to any form of beauty, and must be displayed as rough and flabby and unflattering: and that’s where the issue is. After discussing my dysphoria and need with the store owner, she still refused to edit the photos even after I offered, instead displaying the same image I felt humiliated about on her story and remarking the drop was cancelled — the same image I griped about because it was so… gross. I cannot help but feel that it was malicious, which really counters the idea of working with marginalized folks and displayed ill intent.
So many people want to gain ‘woke’ points by including trans people in their projects, but never actually listen to us, they don’t consider us or want to do anything to make us feel better or combat our dysphoria — and they think they deserve a medal for being inclusive or displaying reality. Some of us don’t want to LIVE in reality. I know many trans people who have had similar experiences being documented in a less than flattering way, all for the sake of appeasing someone who wants to be inclusive, but only wants to do the minimum to do so. Inclusivity encompasses so much more than just having a trans person in a space, especially if that space is to exotify for performance. You do not deserve praise for the minimum. Performing allyship is not the same as actual, functional allyship.