Culture, Gender, and Acceptable Bodies

As a transgender anthropology graduate student with a research focus analyzing transgender health disparities and inequality, I think a lot about how culture effect the way bodies are perceived and how that affects an individual’s health.

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From a young age, the symbolic ideas of masculinity and femininity are indirectly and directly taught to us, shaping how we act and understand the difference between what it means to be a man or a woman. These ideas are also continually reshaped and reconstructed throughout our lives. It illustrates to us what the typical bodily constructions of masculinity and femininity are. It also shapes how we understand ourselves, and where we fit in relation to this binary classification. Men should have bodies that are more angular and muscular with a male reproductive system (penis, prostate, and testicles) while behaving more aggressively. Women should have bodies that are smoother and curvier with female reproductive system (breasts, vagina, uterus, and ovaries) while behaving more passively. Each symbolizes what is considered to be natural and normal for a male or female body to appear and behave, but these ideas do not include the enormous variability in how each of us construct our own gender identity.

Medical anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, introduce three perspectives in there 1987 article “The Mindful Body” which the body can be viewed: (1) individual body, (2) social body, and (3) the body politic. The individual body represents the “lived experience” of a person, and this encompasses the unique situations that lead us to construct our own distinct identities including our gender. The social body is all the cultural symbolism that surrounds all bodies, and for gender are predominantly the cultural symbols of masculinity and femininity. The body politic is all the cultural ideals that are used to control or restrict, manage, and regulate what makes a body and bodies acceptable or unacceptable. Transgender bodies are often viewed as unacceptable, unnatural, or abnormal because they go against cultural symbolic ideals of what it means to have an acceptable, natural, and normal body. Specifically, transgender individuals defy the cultural understanding of what it means to be masculine or feminine, which is heavily focused on biological sexual characteristics. For parts that make up such a small percentage of our bodies, they have tremendous cultural weight, deeply impacting people’s understanding of what makes someone a man or a woman, never stopping to consider that gender exists outside of these boundaries.

As a transgender anthropology graduate student with a research focus analyzing transgender health disparities and inequality, I think a lot about how culture effect the way bodies are perceived and how that affects an individual’s health. Certain bodies will always be categorized as more culturally acceptable than others, and that influences a person’s health. For example, slim fit bodies are preferred over obese or overweight bodies, but believe it or not, just being overweight or obese does not mean you are unhealthy. This actually has more to do with how our culture defines what makes a body acceptable, and less to do with what makes a body healthy.

I also think about how culture affects my own perception of my body and the body of others, and I often wonder just how much control culture has over that. For me, I see that I am a composite of both masculine and feminine physical and behavioral traits. I am male, but was born with female sexual characteristics. I was, luckily, born into a household where gender-roles where not forced upon me, allowing me to make my own choices and have greater freedom to define my own existence. In fact, I do not remember being uncomfortable with my body until puberty; only when my body began to change did I become aware that my own body image was in opposition to my physical body. How I felt about my breasts made me never question whether they were truly a part of me, and starting testosterone was an easy decision. However, when it comes to my female genitalia, I pause because in my mind it is a debate. I question whether if surgery is really what I want or if it is culture pressuring me into thinking that is what I want because as a male, a penis should be what I want, right?

The individual body is what matters when it comes to telling your truth. The social body and body politic are not universe truths, but do influence the construction and the perceptions of bodies. Masculinity and femininity are not in direct opposition of one another, and can exist together. The problem is the focus in culture that dictated that a person has to be masculine or feminine, but everyone has elements of both characteristics. Though, just having these elements does not mean that the cultural connotation behind them get to define me.

What I am getting at is, how I define my own masculinity, femininity, or what it means to me to have an acceptable body should not be governed by culture, but should be defined by me and me alone. Just like my gender, no one else gets to decide whether my body is acceptable or not, and just because I do not want a penis, am overweight, and am not particularly muscular does not mean I am not masculine as hell. Identifying as male does not mean I have to leave parts of myself behind that does not fit into how culture suggests I should act and appear. Instead of changing them, I can redefine their meaning to encompass them into my own uniquely constructed identity.


Oliver Smith 
Master’s Student
Department of Anthropology
University of Alaska Anchorage

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience of your body and the parts that do and don’t fit. A lot of times I feel really insecure because I’m fine with my female-type private parts 95% of the time, so for me bottom surgery isn’t something I particularly want. Sometimes I get the impression that it’s not okay to only want to partially transition, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

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