When Thin is a Trans Requirement

Sometimes, I wonder how differently things would have turned out if my brother and I had switched our childhood bedrooms. His room doesn’t have mirrors, while mine has an entire mirrored wall; I grew up with my little inescapable avatar sitting next to me, like something out of a softer, subtler Black Mirror. I was a happy but insecure kid, and the mirror would constantly catch me at unflattering angles. I would turn my head and recoil at my unflattering posture, refold my legs, wrap my blankets around myself, tilt my head back, smile. Maybe it’s inevitable that my obsessions took the form they did. Or maybe the mirror could have been helpful, if I’d known how to use it properly.

This summer will mark five years since I developed an eating disorder, a touch over two years since I came out of it, and two years since I came out as trans. As it turns out, not eating doesn’t fix your problems and it doesn’t help you work out why you feel weird about your body all the time, but it does provide an excellent distraction from thinking about either of those things. I spent so much time staring into mirrors, but very little of it actually engaging with my own body and its mix of conflicting desires. Once I finally started trying to understand what I wanted, things became clearer: trying unsuccessfully to live as the wrong gender, alongside being bullied for being queer and neurodivergent, meant that I felt existentially wrong — distorted, woundable, clumsy. I blamed my body fat for causing those feelings, because I grew up believing that was what body fat meant, and by the time I realised what the real problem was, I’d already set the association between body fat and distress.

Body fat is intimately connected to how we perform gender and how we read each other’s gender, but we rarely name fat as a tool of expression. Of course we don’t: fat is meant to be undesirable, and where fat is desirable, we don’t intuitively see it as fat. But every makeup tool, every clothing cut, has some relationship to how we create fat and obscure it, reveal and shape it; how we use fat to hold ourselves, position ourselves, police ourselves. Fat can feminize, masculinize, degender or hypergender us, and few people know this more intimately than trans people, particularly fat trans people. “I felt barred from aspects of womanhood even when I was performing cisness,” writer Jenn Thorburn told me. “You’re seen as undesirable, and yet you’re also objectified and fetishised… Women talk about their diets, diet culture, their fears of being fat, as if you aren’t sitting right there.”

As writer and PhD candidate Caleb Luna puts it: “A cis gender is a thin one. Living up to normative gender expectations requires a body without fat, or fat in the right places only.”

The link between gender and fat means that many trans people have a complicated, fraught relationship with their body fat. Trans people are significantly more likely than cis people to be diagnosed with eating disorders and to engage in disordered behaviour, such as taking diet pills, vomiting and using laxatives, according to a survey of 300,000 U.S. college students. Eating disorders are complex illnesses, but the distress brought on by dysphoria is a factor; restrictive eating may mean a trans man loses his period and shrinks his breasts, or a trans woman reduces fat deposits that are coded as masculine, while binge eating can overwhelm feelings of bodily distress.

Being gendered correctly can also hinge on having the right fat distribution, which is driving more trans people to try to fund cosmetic procedures. Robin Craig wrote for VICE last year about increased numbers of trans men seeking lipodissolve, facial fillers and cheek/chin implants to create a more masculine facial structure, particularly if they don’t yet have access to hormone replacement therapy (which triggers some fat redistribution).

Body fat can present challenges for trans people of every size, but it’s a whole different ballgame for fat trans people, who may be denied vital medical care because of their size. A recent study found that 14% of the patients at a sample clinic were turned away because of their body mass index (BMI), despite BMI being a contested measurement, evidence against BMI increasing transition surgery risk, and the inconsistency of what numbers are officially considered “too high.” Alongside this, reports regularly circulate in private Facebook groups about surgeons making fatphobic comments, or telling fat patients that they should expect sub-par surgery results.

I’m not at risk of being denied surgery for my weight, but the people I spoke to for this article are, and they all brought up the profound effect clinic weight limits have had on their lives.

“Being fat has meant that most medical care is inaccessible for me, which as a trans, disabled person is completely exhausting,” writer and youth arts leader Emrys Mordin told me.

Meanwhile, support worker Leah Plath had to start using scales again despite them being bad for her mental health: “I know exactly what my BMI is now, because it’s required for me to be considered for lower surgery.”

Writer Jenn Thorburn faces being gatekept from getting top surgery, explaining that “it would be really, really difficult for me to get it because my weight would be seen as a risk factor.” Moreover, they face obstacles to a necessary hysterectomy: “I have stage 4 endometriosis and my periods are both very painful and give me severe dysphoria, but despite having had multiple surgeries at this point, doctors won’t let me get a hysterectomy because I ‘might want kids’ and because of my weight.”

These experiences are rarely given airtime, partly because the few trans people in the public eye are almost universally thin, and partly because fatness and transness together bring a double burden of stigma: they’re both seen as a form of excess & violation of public norms, and they’re both met with community policing and shaming. For a long time, I believed that some imagined hostile observer — the skinny cis white woman — had far superior knowledge of bodily existence than I did, and I was scared of the mirror because I’d learned to see myself through that perspective. But having a narrow, punitive view of what people should be doesn’t make you right.

“The gender binary is dependent not just on gender-appropriate thinness, but on whiteness, ablebodiedness, and even middle class norms,” as Caleb puts it: fatphobia and transphobia are intricately tied up with white supremacy and classism, all in pursuit of a eugenic ideal of the ‘correct way to live.’ It is not an exaggeration to use the term eugenics, either — in some countries, you have to be sterilized before you can access medical transition.)

Still, I don’t know if I would have had the conviction to truly commit to trans-positivity and fat-positivity in the face of massive stigma without finding the right communities, and the people who had language for what I was feeling. Community is absolutely pivotal for groups like trans people and fat people. Seeing people live and thrive with bodies and experiences outside narrow norms, and identify even tiny things you’re feeling as communal, legible, meaningful feelings, helps you feel like a person rather than a problem.

I only started to find these communities online as an adult, but Emrys’ mother is queer, and growing up around other queer and trans people gave them easy access to good role models. “The nonbinary butches around me were always fat and proud,” Emrys said. “I think I’d have a much more difficult relationship with my body and transness if I didn’t have the organic representation I had growing up.”

Leah, meanwhile, found that becoming a fat trans woman meant she could emulate her loved ones, including her grandmother: “She was a larger woman, and she had this kindness and softness and gravity to her…I really value my softness now; it’s an important counterpoint to how I used to be, where I didn’t receive any physical contact for a long time due to how much I hated my body.”

How we negotiate our relationship to our own bodies is deeply complex and personal, and it’s not helped by the myth that gaining weight means losing control of people’s perceptions of you, losing your grip on your own gender. It can instead mean that you access new ways of embodying gender. Leah enjoys the softness her fatness gives her as an expression of her femininity, while Emrys and Jenn, who are both nonbinary, said that the difference fatness gives them and its rejection of norms can create its own form of gender euphoria. “I love that people look at me and think ‘what the fuck,’” Emrys told me. “Being strikingly different and bold just makes me really happy.”

Fatness can be extroverted, sexy, welcoming, imposing, alien — all of which are powerful gendered forces. But when we are given the same skinny archetypes of womanhood, manhood and nonbinariness, we’re taught again and again that fatness is failed thinness, that fat forms of gender expression are inferior imitations of thin ones and aren’t valuable in themselves. I have to constantly tell myself that I’m allowed to feel sexy and exciting and androgynous and peaceful in the body I have, and I don’t need to be suspicious of my partner for being with me. It’s really scary to assert stigmatised types of desire and self-love, which means plenty of people who desire trans people and fat people allow shame to turn their desire fetishistic, violent and cold. But that shame is weaponized to make it look like authentic desire for transness and fatness is rare. It isn’t, and it never has been.

So many people have spent years believing we can’t take ownership of our bodies, and that’s a recipe to make us miserable and cruel to people larger than us. Thinner people also suffer under this system, but we’re taught to break solidarity with fat people through fear of gaining fat, which helps perpetuate the medical and social fatphobia that stops fat people being able to peacefully exist in public. I’m tired of chasing skinny ideals of gender that I’ve never been able to access in the first place and that hurt anyone larger than me. And I may not be sure how to be transmasculine or nonbinary with the body I have, but for the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I don’t want to “fix” what I see — I want to live up to it.

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Eli Cugini is a freelance writer and bookseller based in Oxford, UK, who specializes in writing about trans culture & contemporary fiction. You can find their other work at Xtra Magazine, Eurogamer and elsewhere, or follow them on Twitter at @uncanny_eli.

Eli has written 2 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing and researching this, Eli, and thanks for giving it a space, Autostraddle! I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with my body fat this year, and this was a very enriching perspective. “We’re taught to break solidarity with fat people through fear of gaining fat” is an brilliant phrasing of something I’ve been trying to name for a while – thanks for finding the words!!

  2. It’s been a while, but back in 2011 Whitman-Walker, an explicitly LGBT+ clinic in Washington DC, denied giving me a prescription for hormones unless I dropped from 180 to 150 pounds, as someone who was 5’10. Come back in three months and try again. So I was miserable in every conceivable way for three more months, I lost the weight because the alternatives were unthinkable, but I’m still angry about it.

    Ten years later I’m closer to 200 and very happy about it.

    • wow, that’s horrifying. I’m about 190 lb at 5’6″, which thankfully hasn’t seemed to impact medical professionals’ willingness to engage with the rest of medical situation. I’m really sorry this happened to you, and yeah, just want to affirm that that was super messed up of the clinic, and I would still be angry too.

  3. thank you for this! it took me SO long to connect the dots between my own dysphoria and ED history, and then it seemed so obvious when i did, and gave me so much more compassion for my younger self.

  4. Eli, thanks for sharing this! I’ve been trying to look more critically at fatness and thinness and how it interacts with my racial and gender identities after a friend called me in on some things. I really appreciate you teaching and sharing with those of us who don’t have the same lived experiences.

  5. I really appreciate this piece. I’m sure it’s an overall positive that there are famous nb people out there doing their thing, but when they all look like elves and I look like Santa Claus it’s hard not to question my self. It’s amazing how quickly these things can set in too: ten years ago I’m not sure I’d heard the term non-binary, but in just part of that time what non-binary “looks like” in my head has become as solidified as “man” or “woman”. Like everything else in our modern world it feels like being yourself is only for the beautiful and rich.

  6. This is a great article and I’m so happy for everyone who’s found contentment with their fatness. I’m fat too, and I know that unless I lose weight, strangers will never take my masculinity seriously. It’s such a painful tug-of-war between being genuinely happy with how I look, and then going in public and having people call me “ma’am” all day. Society’s rules are the problem, but in order to be gendered correctly I have to play by those rules, and that’s a bummer.

  7. Occasionally I try to speak to others I trust about my struggles with eating disorders and the stunningly criminal stuff my parents put me through to keep me skinny and how much it affected my life. More often than not, that trust evaporates as someone I thought I could talk to lectures me about how “I’m just ungrateful to be skinny” and “I’d kill for your body” or “you shouldn’t complain about that”. It gets worse when it comes to other trans women, like people hold this attitude that my body is their ideal, my frame is what they desire, that they’d do anything to have this. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t believe in the values people assign to my body, and I’m hurt in a lot of ways that put me in this position. It makes me feel like a hypocrite to advocate for body positivity, for fat positivity, for the TRUTH that fat doesn’t equal being unhealthy when the first response anyone has is “well you have room to talk, with your perfect body!” It’s not. It’s not perfect. My body is just, mine. I have problems with it. The way I was taught to treat it hurts me frequently. I struggle with it. And the projection on it, that it’s the ideal, that I’m the “normal everyone desires”, that I can’t support or speak to everyone’s bodies being different because I’m the one everybody wants to be…

    “Doesn’t look like you need the exercise!”
    “Oh, you don’t need to eat more, honey.”
    “God, I wish I had your body!”

    I don’t know. It’s hard to wrap my head around, and harder still to express. Nobody really understands. I just sound like I’m complaining about how good I have it when someone doesn’t think about it too hard. So I just stay quiet, and I have to wave the subject aside whenever someone brings it up to me. Let others speak to it, who have more room to talk.

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