Trans Men Tell Us What Body Positivity Means To Them

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
In the last few years, body positivity has taken off in a major way. While plus size people, and especially plus size women, still don't get the same respect as everyone else (and there's a lot of work to be done before they will), some seriously badass body activists have started sharing their lives, and their bodies, to show other plus people that fat bodies can be beautiful. Even thinner women have reclaimed their stretch marks, their belly roles, and their cellulite.
But almost all of the body love we've seen over the last few years has come from cisgender (meaning, not transgender) women. Some men have also had their moment, of course, but where are the stories from transgender men and women and gender non-conforming people?
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Just as cisgender women are held to strict expectations of what a perfect woman's body looks like, transgender people also feel pressure to live up to those ideals, and many of them are also dealing with bodies that already don't fit their true gender. That can cause major stress and other health concerns. A recent survey of 1,000 LGBTQ youth from the National Eating Disorders Association found that about 40% of transgender men and gender non-conforming people are diagnosed with eating disorders. While eating disorders aren't always a measure of body dissatisfaction, a percentage this high says something about how transgender men experience their bodies. As cisgender women get support from their peers to shed their body shame, transgender men also need that support.
"We still have work to do in our community, and in society in general, to push back against the stereotype of what a man should look like," says Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. "Right now, we have this image of what makes men attractive and we say, 'This is how you have to be to feel good about who you are.'"
We talked with Schelling and three other transmasculine people about what body positivity really looks like for them. In some ways, transgender men have the same message that we hear from cisgender body activists: Start loving your body as it is. But in other ways they have a very different experience with body positivity, and it has a lot to do with gender dysphoria (the feeling that their bodies don't match their gender). Read on for their experiences.
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Positivity looks like being able to accept the body that you're in.

On the definition of body positivity:

"For me body positivity is definitely about being able to be myself — dressed as myself and presenting as myself. Before my transition, I spent a lot of time hiding myself. I was really ashamed of how I looked and my body. Transitioning doesn't solve all your problems, but it makes things a lot easier. So now I'm able to be far more comfortable and wear clothing that I personally enjoy wearing, and it gives me a lot more confidence in my skin and in my body." — Kelley Minars

"One side of body positivity says we should accept our bodies however they are, however complicated our relationships with our bodies are and whatever they look like, it should be fine. It should be enough for us. But I think the overall feeling for me sometimes is that, though the message that's put out into the community is that all bodies are good bodies, some bodies are more valued than others. And so positivity looks like being able to accept the body that you're in, and working through dysphoria if that's something that you struggle with, and trying not to be inundated with these socially acceptable bodies if you don't have a body that's 'socially acceptable.'" — K. Richardson
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Trans people aren't immune to superficial body ideals, whether we would like to be or not.

On striving for an ideal body:

"I think that we like to say there isn't an ideal body for trans men, but unfortunately, people are people and society has told us that there's an ideal body for men. Looking at trans people in the media, those people are reflective of the societal stereotype of what's beautiful sometimes. It's very similar to what an ideal cisgender man's body would be, and we still have work to do to push back against stereotypes like this. But so does everyone else. Trans people aren't immune to superficial body ideals, whether we would like to be or not. We're human, and we've all been socialized into this culture." — Emmett Schelling

"There's an expectation to have a very masculine body type. For me, it's a struggle because I'm short and so I'm never going to have that tall guy, masculine presentation. I also have had a lot of anxiety, because you see a lot of guys who are very muscular and they have six packs, and my body type is not like that. I do feel a lot of pressure to aspire to that." — Kelley Minars

"Our society has these expectations about what a man should look like. And they're totally unrealistic. The six pack, the chiseled jaw, the Tom Brady perfect, versus saying 'Hey dad bods are cool. Hey, trans bods are cool.' And there's so much transphobia that goes into that." — Lou Weaver

"There are guys who think white cis-passing, trans-masculine people are the aesthetic that we should all strive toward because that's the dominant image out there. I think there's a lot of toxic masculinity in trans masculine communities. It’s very image heavy at times and I'll say that most of the negative experiences that I, or any of my trans friends, have had when it comes to trans masculine bodies and identities has come from binary trans men. It's just this aesthetic like, ‘I want to have top surgery and I want to be really fit and I want to work out.’" — K. Richardson
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I started critiquing myself more harshly.

On having expectations during transition:

"I never really felt a lack of confidence in my identity until I started being in trans exclusive spaces more and more, which is strange because I hear from other trans people that they feel more confident about themselves surrounded by the community. But for me it actually worked the opposite way, because I started critiquing myself more harshly and feeling like I wasn't hitting certain standards or benchmarks in how I viewed my transition." — Emmett Schelling
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There are a lot of things that go into why a trans man might have an eating disorder.

On trans men and eating disorders:

"Even though, being on testosterone, body fat starts to distribute in different ways, if you aren't able to have top surgery someone might try to lose weight in order to not have visible chest tissue. Because chest tissue is fatty tissue. If you're not on testosterone or prior to getting on testosterone, not eating also causes your menstrual cycle to stop. So there are a lot of things that go into why a trans man might have an eating disorder. And I have a number of friends who have experienced eating disorders, some prior to transitioning and some after transitioning or have eating disorders that continue on from pre-transition.

"Especially if you come out and then you're a member of the gay culture, because there's this 'gay skinny,' right, which is the super skinny, twink image. And so, I think in looking at eating disorders, we have to really talk about where people are prior to transition. Because if they're trying to have their body look a certain way and they're not on T yet, then by controlling food intake or causing oneself to throw up after eating, your body's not getting the food and calories that it needs, so you're not gaining weight and that sometimes comes from trying to control the chest tissue and the hips." — Lou Weaver
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Most people aren't really happy with their body in some shape or form.

On feeling societal pressure:

"I think body insecurities are more internalized for me than they are from pressure from my loved ones, or my friends, or my colleagues. It's me saying, ‘Oh, I don't look the way I should, I don't feel comfortable the way I am.' But that's a common thread through everyone. Most people aren't really happy with their body in some shape or form." — Emmett Schelling

"Unfortunately our society puts way too much expectation on what a body looks like or what is male versus female. And there's also this situation trans people go through if were getting misgendered. So then we're like, 'Why am I being misgendered? Is it because of the way that I look? Should I look more this way or that way?' So that also plays a part into it. As a trans man navigating the world, I see that in the same way there's societal expectations for cisgender women, because everybody's airbrushed, societal expectations for trans men are so ingrained in us. Once we start celebrating trans bodies for being different and being glorious the way that they are, then we're going to have a different outcome." — Lou Weaver
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The voices that get visibility are often white trans people, not trans people of color.

On who gets to talk about body positivity:

"When we talk about who gets to tell body positive stories, I see so few trans masculine people of color, particularly black trans masculine people, being able to tell that story. Or, when they do tell their story and they tell it from a racial lens, then they’re shamed. The voices that get visibility are often white trans people, not trans people of color. The only time trans people of color get notoriety is when trans women of color are being murdered." — K. Richardson
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We have such an expectation as a culture of what 'men' look like.

On living up to masculine stereotypes:

"I have noticed a kind of beard culture in trans men that seems to be, from the outside looking in (because I cannot grow a beard), almost an unhealthy way that trans men score their masculinity. I've heard trans guys say, 'I'm not going to be happy with myself until I can grow a full beard,' and I'm really glad that I don't feel that way because I would never be happy with myself." — Emmett Schelling

"When you have a cis person then there's an expectation that girls wear pink and boys wear blue and you're supposed to dress a certain way. But a lot of times, there's also expectations for trans people. People expect that trans women will be very feminine, and I've known a lot of trans guys who immediately go hard line into the man box when they transition. Whereas for me, I actually found it easier to embrace feminine things after my transition. Like, I used to hate the color pink because I thought it was super girly and dumb. And now I have several water bottles and other personal items that are this magenta color. Because now I'm not afraid of someone saying something like, ‘Oh, that's really girly.’ I just bought it because I like it." — Kelley Minars

"We have such an expectation as a culture of what 'men' look like. So when a guy is trying to not have a chest, they're binding and they don't want that to stick out. But lately, I've seen pictures on Instagram of trans men showing their chest, a chest that looks different than what we expect a male chest to look like, and being proud of it. Saying 'still a man,' which is totally valid. No matter what your body looks like, you are still a man. And so I think it's going to be a brand new movement." — Lou Weaver
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