An Essay by Katelyn Burns
CW: suicide discussion
I looked skeptically at him, a quiet hope causing a lump in my throat. I tried not to get excited at what he would say, though I knew what it was that he would say before he had even said it. He gave me an appraising look, a half smirk slowly spreading into a smile. His southern drawl that I so often poked fun of started a sentence that I would never forget. “Kevin would be the ugliest woman on the planet.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, working hard to keep down my sob while the blood drained from my face. It was a crushing remark, one that I would never forget. You see, I’m a transgender woman, having quietly spent my life in the relative safety of the closet. When I was eight years old, I remember crying myself to sleep and praying to wake up the next day having been born a girl. Twenty years later, I attempted to appear unaffected by my friend’s words by playing with my tie and returning to my work. Internally, it was another nail in the coffin of the idea of living my truth.
Forrest had been my coworker at the bank for two years, and I considered him a good friend at the time. His comment hurt because, deep down, I knew he was right. I’m 6'2” tall and at the time weighed in at 315 pounds. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my fat gut and fat face with total disgust. Not only was I the wrong gender, but I was fat and ugly even for my assigned gender.
Forrest’s words were an analog for my internal dialogue: “you’re too fat, you’re too tall, you’re too bald to be a woman. To be pretty” Always those two words appeared together in my thoughts, woman and pretty. To be a woman in our society carries a demand from society to be pretty. Non-pretty people are dismissed, excluded or marginalized. Over and over again those words reverberated through my mind. Among late transitioning trans women that I’ve met we all share a similar narrative. We were always “too” something. Too fat, too bald, too ugly, too masculine. This self hatred comes purely from society’s expectations for womens’ bodies and appearances. It hurts pre-transition trans women by sowing doubt and seeding delay. The longer a transgender woman waits to begin feminizing hormones, the more time testosterone has to make irreversible changes to her appearance.
I’ve always loved food. Actually, I’ve always loved fatty foods. My family used to joke that I could run solely on pizza and hot dogs. I internalized my gender dysphoria and comforted myself with my favorite fatty foods. Who’s ever heard of a 6'2” 320 pound woman, right? My reasoning was if I couldn’t be the gender that I knew myself to be then at least I could eat anything I wanted. The more I ate and the larger I became, the further away my womanhood drifted from me, because, to me, women can’t be fat. My own internalized fatphobia told me that fat women don’t matter. That anything was better than being a fat woman.
In the meantime, I would obsess over all things gender related, transgender news, my own gender identity, how successful my own transition could possibly be. Forrest declaring that I would be the “ugliest woman on the planet” made sense to me as a balding, fat, pathetic closeted trans woman, so when the question of whether or not I could successfully transition to living my truth as a woman came up, well, who wants to be the “ugliest woman on the planet”?
I was dealing with a serious eating disorder, while also living in the wrong body, on top of being convinced that change was not possible. In order to stop the impulsive eating, I needed to try to tackle my gender dysphoria. In order to tackle my dysphoria, I needed to overcome my fatphobia. This all came to a head one day when I met with a health coach at my work. She recorded my weight and went through a lengthy health based questionnaire and eventually came up with a risk factor on my health. The results said that I basically already had one foot in the grave. I was scared out of my mind. Either I had to deal with my gender identity or I would have died, suicide by eating.
According to most accepted studies on the subject, 41% of all transgender people will attempt suicide in their lifetimes. Most of these attempts occur before transitioning and it is partly because of the “too” factor. Trans women are too bald, fat, tall or ugly to fit society’s feminine ideal, at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. It could also be because transitioning into society’s preferred appearance is “too” expensive. We can’t all be Caitlyn Jenner dropping millions on facial feminization surgery in Beverly Hills.
When meeting other pre-transition trans women in online spaces, I kept coming across a common theme. I’d be browsing a trans message board, or even a Reddit forum and I would see the very same words from my internal dialogue popping up in many posts. “Too fat,” “too bald,” “too something” to be a pretty woman. Always pretty or cute or beautiful. At that point, someone who had gone through their transition already would ask, “Would you rather be who you are now or an ugly woman?” I would see this question over and over again and each time, in my head I would answer “not a man.” From then on I spent a lot of time studying the women around me. Most of them had some masculine features and they all had unique body shapes and sizes. I came to realize that I envied all of them, not just the pretty ones. I would trade bodies with any woman that I came across. This led me to see just how much pressure society places on the appearances of women. Society demands that women look a certain way or else they are excluded.
When society at large shames fat female bodies, all women are negatively affected by it, trans women included. Skinny women are scared to get fat, fat women are depressed by being constantly told that they are not worthy. That fat women are not worthy of love, of affection, or of respect. Not only was I stuck in the wrong gendered body for myself, I was also stuck in a body shape that has been deemed unacceptable by society at large. I don’t blame Forrest for his remark at all, he’d had three plus decades to absorb society’s message about fat female bodies.
For transgender women, society’s policing of female bodies is especially problematic. The intersection of fat and transphobia is a very dangerous one. If trans women are deemed too manly to be women, it spawns the hateful “man in a dress” trope from society. The ability to pass as a member of the gender she or he is transitioning to is one of the most basic considerations that any pre-transition trans person makes. Passing privilege is safety for a trans person. Safety from harassment and safety in using the correct restroom. Getting clocked as transgender oftentimes leads to abuse or violent confrontation. Visibly trans bodies are considered unworthy of dignity or respect and are marginalized from society in many of the same ways that fat bodies are. Fat people are constantly told that being fat is based on their own irresponsible decisions. Society says to just eat right and exercise and then they’ll consider your feelings or respect your bodies. Society demands transgender bodies look like cis bodies and then they’ll consider you a “real woman” or a “real man.”
Fat women and trans women deserve the same bodily autonomy and respect that is given to any thin cis woman. After all, women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The corner of fat and transphobia is a very dangerous intersection indeed.