In my last post, I talked about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unfortunate statements about transgender people, in which she suggested we have a responsibility to look “authentic” and to “play a role”—in a word, to be cisnormative—in order to put cisgender people at ease. She was rightly condemned for these remarks by many opinion leaders across the Internet, because nobody has a responsibility to put others at ease by the way they look. People look the way they look, as I wrote in that post; nobody has the right to prescribe another’s appearance, and no one’s gender identity is beholden to what someone else thinks it should be.
That said, it’s also true, speaking very, very generally, that transgender people strive to look cisnormative, and furthermore, that most of us don’t look as cisnormative as we would like to. That’s simply a fact of life for most people with gender dysphoria. The reasons we feel this way probably would (and probably have) filled books on sociology and psychology, but simply put, transgender people were born and raised in a predominately cisgender society, so we’re freighted with the same biases and assumptions toward the gender binary as cisgender people. We flipped the script, but we still play by it. Maybe we shouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t make it not the case.
Which raises a fair question: what is cisnormativity? That is, when we see a new person and mentally assign them a gender, what are we seeing (or failing to see) that informs that assignment? Most cisgender people never think much about this—why would they? I know I didn’t, until 2005, when I embarked ardently on my transition. Pretty much every gender nonconforming person has given this a lot of thought. Today and tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at the matter. It’s kind of a doozy.
In the 1970s, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe. It surveyed parts of the outer solar system (mainly Jupiter and its moons), then charged on out of the solar system into interstellar space. It carries an illustrated metal plaque containing information about our planet, in case the spacecraft is ever found by extraterrestrials (friendly extraterrestrials, we hope, although if they turn out to be enslaving monsters, don’t blame me; I voted for Kodos).
The plaque includes a line drawing of a nude man and woman standing side by side. The man holds his right hand up in a wave, as if to say, “Hello from Earth! If you’ve been receiving our TV signals, please don’t get any ideas from that ‘To Serve Man‘ episode of The Twilight Zone!”
These drawings are meant to be archetypes of adult humans. As such, they present a handy example of what we mean when we talk about cisnormativity. So let’s use them for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re outdoors on a wide, flat plain. You see the man and woman from the plaque far in the distance. They’re silhouetted against the horizon, walking toward you. As soon as they become more distinct than hazy blobs far away, you begin to notice how their bodies differ. The closer they get to you, the more gender-distinguishing features you’ll spot.
First, you’ll see that the woman is slightly shorter than the man, and she has longer hair. The man is broad-shouldered compared to his waist; his torso is roughly an inverted trapezoid. The woman’s torso has more of an hourglass shape. Her waist is much smaller than her hips and shoulders.
From just these cues you’d probably already have a guess that one figure was a man and the other a woman. But you wouldn’t be positive; every characteristic you’ve seen so far can vary widely from person to person. As the couple draws closer to you, finer distinctions begin to emerge.
The way they walk is different. The woman has a lower center of gravity than the man, and since she’s also shorter overall, her legs are also shorter, which gives her a shorter stride, which makes her walk look different.
Another factor: while this archetypal pair is naked and therefore barefoot, as I’ve said, most people wear shoes, and women wear high heels more often than men. This also visibly affects a person’s walk; you can usually tell if someone’s wearing high heels, even if you can’t see their feet.
So as this couple continues toward you, their movements give you information about their gender identities. After a while they’re much closer than the horizon, and you get a better look at their bodies and how they differ.
The man, due to the muscle-building effect of testosterone, has greater muscle development than the woman. Women can also exercise, lift weights and get toned, of course, but generally they don’t get the bulked-up muscles testosterone makes available to men.
Men also have more body hair than women. The Pioneer 10 archetypes are hairless, for some reason, but this is true generally. There’s usually hair on a man’s chest, and maybe on his belly as well. It may be sparse, but it may also be quite thick (as anyone who’s seen Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King can attest). There’s also hair on his arms and legs, usually sparser than that on his chest. The thickest hair below his neck is at his armpits and pubes.
Women have body hair too, but not as much. There’s usually none or very little on her torso, and it’s wispy and sparse on her arms. There would be wispy hair on her legs, too, but in the West women usually shave their legs. The same goes for women’s armpits. Only the pubes will have thick hair, and the recent vogue for Brazilian waxes means that may not be true either.
Speaking of the pubes, the couple is probably close enough now for you to see their secondary sexual characteristics. The woman has a vagina, although that’s not so apparent for Pioneer 10 woman, and on her chest are two nippled breasts. The man has nipples, but no breasts, and between his legs, like the constellation Orion, he clearly has a dong.
Okay, they’re only a few yards from you now. They’re so close you can see the man has an Adam’s apple, but the woman doesn’t. Finally, you have a good look at their faces.
I could devote an entire post talking about the faces. And I will! Stay tuned.
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