Body Aesthetics

As a society, people for the most part have little knowledge or understanding of art. You drag them to a museum—perhaps kicking and screaming—and sit them down in front of a Monet or a Picasso or a da Vinci and their responses will tend to be fairly neutral. They like it. They dislike it. Meh, whatever.

And yet these same people will often have strident, impassioned opinions about what is beautiful—particularly when it comes to the female body. Attributes might include flawless skin, taunt thighs, a flat stomach, a narrow waist and so on. I very much doubt that there’s a woman alive in the Western world today who couldn’t recite off an entire litany of qualities of what is supposed to make up beauty in the female form.

So why would something like this fall so far outside many people’s definition of beauty?

beauty1

Or these?

beauty2

I know, there will be some of you who are thinking right now, “what are you talking about? Of course those women are beautiful!” There will be others though who are thinking, “Whoa, way too heavy. Too many freckles. Too weird.” It is in that discrepancy that lies the real truth of what we consider beautiful and how we handle it.

Beauty as Commercial

Not long ago I was waiting for the elevator at the office when one of my co-workers commented that it looked like I hadn’t had a chance to get out in the sun yet. I said that I’d actually just returned from vacation, but she proceeded to compare her tanned forearms to my pale shoulders and note that she wanted to get to a tanning salon at some point as well to really get the look she wanted.

So to recap, my pasty white shoulders were not an acceptable colour—despite the fact that I had managed to escape the office recently to hang out in the sun—and I should really go out and do something to correct that as she was doing.

I find the whole tanned vs. not tanned argument kind of amusing. In the West, the assumption is that bronzed skin looks healthier and more attractive. It also tends to indicate that you are well-off enough to not have to sit in a sunless cubicle all day. In Thailand, (my mother’s country), the opposite is true. People with tanned skin are the poor who must toil in the fields all day, so paler skin is highly sought after. When my grandmother would return to Thailand from her visits to Canada, people would always comment on how great she looked since her skin had lightened while staying in our non-tropical climate.

tannedchickenThus the notion of spending money to correct the fact that I am not the optimum colour in this corner of the world is kind of silly to me. Sure if I get tanned during the course of walking the dog or painting out on the patio that’s one thing, but to spray chemicals on my body or sit in some kind of roasting box… no, that to me is inventing a need purely to sell you something.

And it wouldn’t be the first time marketers have done this. Check out the latest in marketer-invented problem for women—a Dove underarm deodorant that claims using it will give women more attractive armpits in five days. I encourage you to watch Stephen Colbert’s suitably witty response to the ongoing unattractive armpit crisis that has apparently been going on for years and we didn’t even know it.

I think the key is whether or not a person is buying some beauty-enhancing product because they want to or because they feel they have to. It’s a big difference—particularly on your wallet—because down that road of “have to” lies artificially created insecurity, doubt and misery. It is the difference between dying your hair because you want to see it a different colour versus dying it because you feel like you have to cover those wisps of gray.

Which brings me to…

Beauty as Absolute

Because of my disability I am in the rather peculiar position of being both 95lbs and overweight. Technically because of my diminutive stature, no medical professional I’ve ever come across has been able tell me what my weight should be, but the general consensus is that I’m not at it. I’ve been told I should probably drop about 20lbs or what would be the equivalent of 60lbs on a normal-sized person.

And I’ve tried. I went to dietitians. I did Jenny Craig and South Beach. I counted calories. I measured my offensive waist and thighs and ensured that all my unsightly bulges were hidden from view. For longest time I would wear a t-shirt over my swimsuit when I was in the pool because I had it in my head that I didn’t want to make others uncomfortable by forcing them to look at my grotesque, oddly shaped body.

Like so many women in our culture, I was not satisfied with how I looked. I could not see beauty in my body and, particularly given my “weight issues”, I had a hard time believing anyone else would.

Somehow though, perhaps because I have always been fascinated by the power and influence of media, I managed to slowly worm my way out of the standard and established conceptions of weight and beauty. I began reading books like Martha Beck’s The Four Day Win, which teaches that the first thing you need to do to create a healthier body is to simply stop hating the one you have. I also began following websites like Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness who believes in educating women to be healthy at whatever size they happen to be. She did a great TEDtalk earlier this year entitled Why It’s Okay to Be Fat where she details the science—yes, science—that shows how heavy you are isn’t always an indicator as to how healthy you are.

beauty3It was through this expanded understanding of the issues around weight that I first heard the term “body shaming” and realized that it was happening around me all the time. It didn’t usually happen directly to my face—people can be cruel, but for the most part they are polite. The most powerful shame had its roots in those moments when the people around me would comment on others outside their hearing. They’d say things like:

  • How can she wear those leggings? Doesn’t she realize she’s bulging out all over the place?
  • Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit. Gross!
  • And then she had to take up two seats on the bus. Seriously, lay off the donuts, woman!
  • Man, I really hope she’s just pregnant.

You hear those things and you can’t help but look at yourself and start thinking… is that what they say about me when I’m not in the room? If I continue to carry this weight, will people judge me to be some kind of lower form of life that doesn’t need to be respected or loved?

And, when you start thinking that way, suddenly every eye around you becomes hostile and critical. You don’t match what is right, so you must be wrong. Physically, fundamentally wrong… because in shame the assumption becomes that there is only room for one kind of beauty and if you don’t fit that mold, then you must be ugly and offensive to the eyes.

There is simply no middle ground. No alternative.

But really, body shaming is just another form of bullying. It is a way of creating an “other” that people can feel superior to and who doesn’t love being on the winning side of a power dynamic.

What’s more unbelievable to me is that I’ve done it. I’ve said and believed those awful things about people. I’ve perpetuated the same cycle of shame that made me feel bad about myself. It happened simply because body shaming in our society is so accepted and so prevalent that good, kind, well-meaning people do it every day without even realizing it. It is only through conscious effort now that I catch and stop myself… that I am able to change the lens through which I view the people around me.

Beauty as Taste

It’s amazing what context can do to our perceptions. Imagine for a moment looking at the painting done by a four year old in daycare. It’s a riot of colour. There are vibrant purples and greens mixing on the page and off in one corner there’s a bright neon orange splotch that has dribbled slightly at the edges. In the context of the daycare it is clearly a child’s creative work and something that only a parent would ever think of as remarkable.

If however I were take that painting, put it in a heavy frame behind security glass and mount it in a museum then it’s possible for it to become something else entirely. Without the knowledge that it was created by a child, the patrons who stream through the museum gaze upon it completely differently—as a significant piece of art. Even though the subject matter hasn’t changed a bit, the context of the museum makes it possible.

Mass media is the contextual framework of our society. All it has to do is hold up one person as acceptable and beautiful and another as hideous and ugly and it starts to become doctrine. We deem it to be true when really it’s just opinion.

I remember the first time a guy told me he thought I was attractive and I immediately jumped to the notion that there had to be something wrong with him. I knew I was so far outside what I had been taught was beautiful that this guy had to be some kind of deviant to think of me in those terms. He wasn’t, but it is a pretty good example of how much these strict concepts of beauty can warp a person—and how insanely unhealthy that is.

Getting back to that original question… which is more beautiful—a Monet, a Picasso or a da Vinci? Which has more true beauty?

monet, picasso, da vinci

There is, of course, no right answer because it is a matter of taste. It is matter of what constitutes beauty in art to you.

So why have we made it so different with people? Why is there only one allowable kind of taste? When did that become truth?

The thing that really helped change my perceptions was when I began following the Facebook page Voluptuous Vixens—many of the photos in this blog post are pulled from their page. For the first time images began coming down my Facebook news feed of heavier women who weren’t some diet plan’s “before” picture. They weren’t standing as the butt end of fat jokes or the targets of public ridicule. They were standing as women—strong, confident and beautiful women—and, like the art museum, it created a whole new context for these images.

beauty4I’ll be honest, it took some getting used to. After decades of conditioning, the first thoughts that flitted through my mind were how I couldn’t believe that these women were standing there and letting it all hanging out. I mean dear God, did they have no shame?

Well no… and that was kind of the point. They had no shame and they sure looked a lot happier with themselves than I felt.

Faced with this new idea of what beauty could be, I began to unconsciously expand my own tastes. I began looking at the people around me, people who I might have judged harshly in the past, and I began seeing other things. I saw strong, vibrant professionals and compassionate mothers with armfuls of boisterous children. I saw people whose lives radiated joy, pain, struggle and triumph. I saw people who came in a range of shapes and sizes but who were ultimately just like me.

me_in_tanktopSo this is me in all my voluptuous curves. I took this picture the other day because I really liked this tank top and thought it was a great find. I also took it because there was a time when I never would’ve considered showing off my rounded arms. Society had told me that they needed to be slimmer or else I should cover them up under layers of clothing that would’ve left me sweaty and uncomfortable on a hot summer day.

There’s nothing wrong with them though. They aren’t so grotesque that I risk striking anyone blind with them. They are simply arms and they are mine and I’m done feeling like I need to be ashamed of them or any other part of my body.

And if you don’t happen to agree with that opinion… well honestly, I really just don’t care.


This article was originally published in Athena’s blog, A Creative Life, on July 20, 2013. We feel its message is as relevant and important today as it was then.

Making history: Moving Trans History Forward conference 2016

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Last week I left for Victoria to attend Canada’s largest transgender conference, hosted by the world’s first and only chair in transgender studies, Aaron Devor. The event took place on campus at the University of Victoria — now home to the world’s largest transgender archives. I felt like I was part of making history just by attending. I was there with five co-researchers from our Photovoice project on safety, wellness, belonging and place.

We arrived just in time to attend the tail end of the opening ceremony at the Legacy Art Gallery downtown. Armed with a drink ticket and a plate of finger food, I had the opportunity to meet Aaron Devor himself, an almost surreal experience. He didn’t remember me but almost 13 years ago, I’d met him when I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at UVIC. At the time he was in the early days of his own transition, as was I. He was the dean of Graduate Studies, and I was unsure of where I wanted to go with my life. It was his article ‘How Many Sexes?’ that had finally given me the courage to own my own transgender identity.

A lot of time had passed and it was emotional and slightly unnerving to now revisit the halls I’d once roamed as a woman. UVIC’s health clinic is where I’d received my first hormone shot. UVIC was also the place where I’d suffered some of my deepest depressive episodes. I had not anticipated the strong emotions returning to campus would awaken in me. And to be here again, surrounded by so many talented transgender historians and allies, was profoundly moving.

The conference days were long and packed with presentations and events. On Day 2, we presented a few of the photos from our participatory research project; our panel was well received. The days were filled with exciting conversations with friends and new acquaintances. Presentations were on topics as diverse as the common media tropes of trans masculinity, to art as a means of activism, to the political pressures at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archive and the challenges of acquiring and cataloguing trans-related content.

A particular highlight for me was a virtual keynote presentation by Martine Rothblatt, a futurist, entrepreneur and scientist. Looking to the future after days of discussing how we’d gotten to where we are, seemed fitting. The future she described sounded more like science fiction than fact, but her talk was thought-provoking and challenging in all the best ways.

On the last day we had an opportunity to hear from some transgender pioneers, our elders, who fought difficult battles to make room for the rest of us to rise up and claim our spot in the sun. Their stories were tinged with a recognition of the cost of their path. More than one spoke of times of burnout and poverty, and for the need for community. I was particularly moved when a member of the audience addressed the panel: the mother of a trans-identified child, she shakily declared herself an ally and called on the trans community to “use us [allies]” in the fight for equal rights.

There were art performances, films, poetry readings, and a tour of the archive itself, at the UVIC library basement–a chance to see some of the earliest publications ever on the topic.

I left the conference feeling both renewed and wrung out. Hearing our stories, and from those who came before us, was an act of acknowledging the very difficult path that it still is to live a transgender life. It was a recognition of the work that still lies ahead of us to create a record of our very human existences. But to shake hands with and talk with so many smart and talented artists, activists and academics also inspired me with hope. With every story we spoke, and captured, we were cementing our place in human history.

The next MTHF conference is slated for 2018. I hope I will have the chance to attend.

Public Transit Unlocked My World

skytrain station at sunrise

Take a moment to imagine your teenage years: Imagine if every time you wanted to leave the house you needed your parents’ help to do so. If you wanted to go to a movie or hang out with friends at the mall, you needed your parents to drive you. If you ever wanted to march out of the house in a typical teenage hormone-infused, temperamental huff, you weren’t going anywhere without somebody’s help.

This is the life I led as a person with a disability.

My life changed when I graduated from high school and started my first semester of university.

As Translink only had a few routes with wheelchair accessible buses on them at that point, Simon Fraser University acknowledged the need for disabled students to be able to live on campus. I moved into SFU residences and it was my first delicious taste of true independence. Not only was I living on my own, but I could at last go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted—and it was truly addictive.

I went to pick up my groceries at Lougheed Mall. I went to movies at Metrotown with my new university friends. I rode the bus to downtown Vancouver to attend classes at the SFU Harbour Centre campus and, sometimes, just for the experience of heading into the city all on my own. Every so often I’d miss the accessible bus and I’d have to wait for the next one to come along, which in some cases could be a couple hours later. This didn’t deter me in the slightest. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

As of 2010, Greater Vancouver’s public transit system is entirely wheelchair accessible and my continued independence today is heavily tied to our transit system. Ever since my university days, I have lived within a stone’s throw of a transit hub. Every volunteer opportunity, internship, part-time contract and full-time job I’ve ever had I’ve commuted to via transit. Every social gathering, every doctor’s appointment, every time I need to go to the hardware store to buy that particular light bulb I can’t seem to find anywhere else, I get there by transit.

One of the reasons I love the neighbourhood I live in now is because it’s such a large transit hub; there are people in wheelchairs everywhere. We have become part of the visual landscape and almost unremarkable in our presence.

Access to public transit isn’t just about empowerment and independence for people with disabilities, it is also about how that access creates a shift in society.

In BC right now there is an outcry over the Government’s decision to increase disability benefits, but then effectively claw-back that increase for transit users by cancelling their annual bus pass program. A great deal has already been written about this decision with the media tossing around words like “mean-spirited” and “heartless”.

I would add that the decision is utterly backward.

It was somewhere in the early 1990s when I saw my first wheelchair accessible city bus. I was around fifteen at the time. I’d never seen the inside of a bus before. It was at a convention for people with disabilities in downtown Vancouver and there was all sorts of cutting-edge assistive technology on display. The BC Transit folk—they hadn’t changed their name to Translink yet—put me on the motorized lift that raised me up so that I could get inside the bus. There were seats in the front part of the bus that lifted up and a place where the wheelchair could be tied down by the driver.

They told me that in fifteen years the entire Greater Vancouver transit system would be wheelchair accessible. I shook my head in amazement. I could not comprehend such a thing.

What today’s government is really doing is punishing those who are striving for greater independence and opportunities by choosing to live in cities that have better public transit options. Given how far many people with disabilities have slipped below the poverty line and how rapidly cost of living is rising in places like Vancouver, the choice is now between food, rent and being able to get out into the world at all.

Once these changes take effect this fall, I suspect that there are going to be a lot more people choosing an increasingly shut-in existence in order to keep a roof over their head.

And society as a whole will suffer for it.

Want to take action?

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Photovoice 2016

Capturing the stories – the lived experiences – of trans* and gender non-conforming people is a powerful educational tool, for future generations and for family and community members who may never have had the opportunity to meet one of us up close and personal. Stories have the power to change how we think about things. I remember, for instance, the first time I met a trans person in the flesh. I was at university and they had just begun hormones to transition from female to male. Meeting them blew my mind. And they showed me how certain public spaces, places like bathrooms, change rooms and gyms, were danger zones when you didn’t fit neatly into the man/woman binary.

Before that encounter, my knowledge of trans* people was limited to movies like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘The Crying Game’. There was a lot of crying going on. But to meet someone in person, to be able to ask questions, to feel what they feel, see what they see, get some understanding of the way they think about their own selves, that was priceless. It gave me a vocabulary to start investigating truths about myself, to question why I was the way I was, and think about where I wanted to go with my life. It gave me permission to acknowledge the deep discomfort I’d felt for years with my own body, my own identity and my own lack of fitting in.

That was over a decade ago. Since then I’ve gone through my own transition, and become the man I never thought I’d be able to be. At first I kept my transition quiet, telling only my closest friends and family members, and those who absolutely, positively needed to know. But with time, I’ve come to see the value in being visible in my transness. For the sake of young people who need to be able to see that being trans is not a death sentence, and that opportunity still awaits. For the sake of families, who want the best for their children and want to know that others have walked this path and lived rich, healthy, loving lives.

In the summer of 2015, as I was browsing through my email, I spotted a request for participants in a Photovoice research project on Safety, Belonging, Wellbeing and Place with Trans* and Gender Nonconforming people. Thinking that it might be an interesting way to meet other trans folks, I sent in my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early on, we identified framing questions we would use to guide us as we went out into the world and took pictures documenting our lives. These questions were: 1)  What makes a place feel safe and that I belong? 2) What does wellbeing look like to me? 3) What needs to change to create more safety, belonging and wellbeing for trans*, Two-spirit and gender nonconforming people in our community?

It’s a year since the Photovoice project officially launched, and a group of 5 of us are planning to attend the upcoming Moving Trans History Forward conference in Victoria, BC, to tell our stories based on the photographs we took. It’s both exciting and anxiety-provoking to have reached this point. To publicly declare, to a room full of academics, activists, and community members, that this is who I am. This is the journey I’ve been on. This is what safety means to me, to us.

The entire Photovoice experience has been eye-opening and humbling. It has helped me to accept the struggle my journey has been, and has connected me with a range of people I would not have met otherwise, our one connection being our disruption of the gender binary. Throughout I have also become more conscious of the privilege I enjoy, as a “passable” white transman, employed, housed, able-bodied, and living in a developed country with relatively inclusive laws. Even with all these advantages my journey hasn’t been easy and I try not to take things for granted. I understand, probably better than most, that nothing is certain, and things can change at a whim, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better.

With my photos I tried to capture the range of emotions that being trans* in this world awakens in me. From the pain and anxiety to the humour that gets you through the day, to a necessary confidence…the confidence of facing a world that isn’t entirely convinced that you have any business existing in the first place.

Where this project goes next will depend on the success of our fundraising efforts. Some of our members will be presenting our stories and images at various public events where we will also be selling T-shirts. Eventually, we hope to do our own art exhibit – hopefully sometime in the coming year. I will keep you posted as the adventure continues.