Posted: Wed, October 31, 2012 | By: P. Tittle
There are many ways to make our outside match our inside: clothes, make-up, tattoos, piercings, surgery (from breast augmentation to leg lengthening to genitalia modification).
Why do people dress a certain way, wear make-up, get tats, or have surgery? Although there must be, obviously, a number of reasons, I think typically they reduce to just one: how we want to present, how we want to appear to others, presumably because there’s an advantage, to us, when we present/appear that way. Male-bodied people wear a business suit in order to appear ‘legitimate’ or ‘respectable’ (think of one’s day in court) or as an ‘authority’ (think of most business contexts, including the job interview) (though it seems the use and influence of the business suit has bled far outside of business—whenever men want to present with status, they wear a suit). Leg-lengthening achieves the same purpose (since tall men generally get more respect in our society than short men). Female-bodied people ‘perform femininity’ (thanks to Twisty Faster for the phrase), wearing wear make-up and heels for the same reason, to get respect (but note the different behavior, a point I’m come back to), and/or in order not to get marginalized or criticized (which may occur in the previous instances as well—short men get ridiculed). People may wear expensive clothing in order to appear rich, because that increases their financial opportunities (if you’re rich, people give you money, whereas if you’re poor, they don’t) (go figure). Looking attractive (and so getting cosmetic surgery) provides the same sorts of advantages; for female-bodied people, there’s a subset of looking attractive, which is looking sexy, which confers its own advantages (controversially so, it must be said), and motivates, for example, breast enlargement, since large breasts are considered, by heterosexual men—this is a patriarchy, remember—to be sexually attractive. People may get tats or piercings in order to be accepted into a certain subculture or in order to be perceived as a certain kind of ‘cool’ person.
Should your outside match your inside? On the one hand, why not? To the extent that we judge by appearances, that would reduce misunderstanding (‘Oh, you’re wearing an earring, that means you’re gay, so I won’t proposition sex, because I’m straight’). It would also increase alignment with expectation (which would reduce aggressive response to that which is not expected).
On the other hand, such behavior is problematic (bad) for a number of reasons, the first of which I’m sure readers have already noticed:
1. It can be a lie. I referred at the outset to making the outside match the inside, but many male-bodied people who wear business suits aren’t legitimate or authorities, and so on. Lying is bad.
2. To the extent that others are duped by false appearances, those of us who cannot afford or do not have easy access to making the outside match the inside are at a disadvantage, advantage being a relative thing. Injustice is bad.
3. The specifics of the matching behavior are often arbitrary. What’s female about high heels—essentially, intrinsically? Nothing. It’s pure social construct. In another time and place, men have worn high heels. Men getting leg lengthening surgery and women getting breast augmentation are similarly making their body match their preferred or felt identity according to current social norms: men are taller than women, the norm says, and women (or perhaps sexy women) have big breasts, the norm says. Arbitrariness is irrational. Irrationality is bad.
4. The specifics of the matching are often socioculturally dependent. For example, at one time and place, having a tan meant you were lower class because it meant you had to work outside; at another time and place, having a tan meant you were upper class because it meant you could afford a winter vacation to some sunny beach. (Now it just means you don’t believe the ozone layer has thinned or don’t believe there’s a causal connection between increased UV getting through and skin cancer.) This means we have to pay attention to fashion and change as the need arises in order not to be misunderstood. Given that some modifications are intensive, that means ‘wasted’ time, money, and effort. Waste is bad.
(Also, given that the appropriate appearance is socioculturally determined, almost no one will be born with a matching outside, so almost everyone will have to undergo modification, which is just stupid. Stupidity is bad.)
5. It encourages judging by what’s outside. This is bad for three reasons:
i) The outside can be deceptive (see 1. above).
ii) The outside is usually arbitrary (see 3. above).
iii) The outside is socioculturally dependent (see 4. above) which means that meanings constantly change. This is a bad idea for a ‘language’. (Yesterday, an earring on a male body meant one thing; today, it means something totally different.)
iii) The outside is necessarily simplistic, which means that as a language, a method of communication, it is woefully inadequate. Isomorphism is impossible because there are simply not enough subtleties of the outside to convey the subtleties of the inside. A bald head can mean several different things; how are we to determine which is the correct meaning? And what outside do I establish in order to show that I enjoy thinking about the ethics of social issues?
It is far better to judge by behavior and explicit verbal expression of the inside (of desires, interests, attitudes, opinions). (Yes, such verbal expressions can also be deceptive, but at least words are not arbitrary, language is very rich, and its sociocultural dependence is far more stable over time and place.)
And yet, and yet, people are stupid. People do judge by appearances. People accept outrageous sociocultural norms. It’s great that Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus because she felt, inside, a sense of personhood that said she was entitled to do so, even though her outside, her black skin, said she wasn’t. Her action challenged the outrage, exposed the outrage, and, perhaps, contributed to its change. This is why, generally, I’d prefer that people be Rosa Parks. Instead of making the modification that endorses the view that the outside matters, assert your inside! Despite your apparently contradicting outside! That would chip away at the associations we have between this particular physical body and this particular set of behaviors.
But if doing so can get you killed, or even seriously injured, or even relentlessly challenged or consistently dismissed, who am I to criticize those who change the color of their skin first, in order to be able to sit at the front of the bus (without being killed, injured, or challenged)? Should we ask individuals to risk forementioned aggressive response in order to make the point that the current sociocultural norm is fucked?
To the extent that sexual surgery is done in order to correct a mismatch that is due to a human mistake (rather than a natural—divine?—mistake), that of an erroneous gender assignment, it’s a special case. But the problem isn’t the corrective surgery, it’s the gender assignment in the first place because:
A. It presumes a dichotomy; it presumes that one is either male or female. Yes, it may seem that the X and Y chromosomes are pretty ‘either/or’, but they’re not: see http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/8450. Furthermore, are there not degrees of various chemicals coursing through our bodies and, therefore, degrees of secondary sex characteristics? (Not to mention various correspondences between X/Y chromosomes and a bunch of other stuff presumably sex-linked: there are many short men and tall women, for example, and many not-so-hairy men and hairy women.) (Oh, and stupid men and smart women.) So this assumption seems erroneous. Without this assumption of dichotomous gender, gender assignment wouldn’t even be necessary. (Let alone gender reassignment.)
B. It assumes the outside must match the inside. Otherwise, we would just leave it—we would just accept someone with both a uterus and facial hair, lots of estrogen and a penis, or what have you. See above (1. – 5.) for problems with this assumption.
C. It assumes there is an inside that accords with sex: it assumes gender essentialism, it assumes gender identity that is based on biology, it assumes a difference between male and female that manifests itself in masculine and feminine.
My first response to this assumption, to gender essentialism, was denial, but I’ve come to realize that it was the dichotomy, the extreme polarization, that I was denying. If we consider gender a continuum, with almost indistinguishable increments, then sure, I accept gender essentialism, I accept that having an X chromosome, a certain amount of estrogen, and a uterus determines to some extent what I am. But so does having only two chromosome-21s, a certain level of dopamine, and legs. Why do we make a fetish, with moralistic constructs, out of the influence of the XY chromosomes and estrogens/androgens?
But my second response is we don’t know whether there is a biologically-based gender identity. Speaking for myself, I have never felt like a woman (nor have I ever felt like a man). But when I say that, I’m referring to social constructs: my definition of ‘woman’ is sociocultural. So the question is, instead, do I feel female (or male)? And I have trouble with that question. First, there’s the difficulty of distinguishing between sociocultural influence and biological influence. I’ve been living in/with/as this body for decades, but I still don’t know to what extent my sexual desires are due to sociocultural influence and to what extent they are due to my physiology. So the best I can do is say, to paraphrase Steinem, that since this is a female body, this must be what it feels like to be female. Which is unhelpfully tautologous. (But is it a female body? Or is it mainly a female body? Or is it a minimally female body?)
But I can’t even say that. How can I know what it feels like to be female when this is the only body I’ve been in? How can I possibly determine what, of all that I feel, is due to being this female, what, of all that I feel, is due to being generally a female? —and what is due to being human, what is due to being mammalian, and what is due to (merely) being alive?
So my third response is we can’t know. What we have in the proposition of gender essentialism, gender identity, is the problem of subjectivity. To Thomas Nagel’s unanswerable question ‘What is it like to be a bat (for the bat)?’, I add ‘What is it like to be female/male?’ I recently had a nerve infection which enabled me to feel, for the first time, what I assume is my cardiac cavity. I’ve never been able before to feel any of my organ spaces. I can feel muscles, ligaments, and tendons, when they’re heavily used or injured, and I can feel my heartbeat and my lung effort, but I’m typically totally unaware of my liver, my kidneys, and so on. And it occurred to me that some people might always feel the way I did during the nerve infection. How are they to know that’s not normal? How am I to know that my ‘normal’ is, in fact, not normal? Children growing up with no experience of other families, other households, make the same mistake: they assume that what goes on in their family, their household, is normal. It’s only when one experiences ‘the other’ that one can start to make that determination.
We experience different bodies as we age, and it’s extremely intriguing to note the effect that that has on our interests, desires, and abilities. I have lived in different bodies—different by age and different by illness. So I know what, of all that I feel, is due to age or due to illness. But that’s all. And not helpful in determining whether there is a gender identity that is based on body. Let alone, if so, the nature and extent of that gender identity.
Which is why it’s so very important to listen to transsexuals who have undergone physical modifications such that they have lived in a female body and a male body. If anyone can tell us whether there is, and what is the nature and extent of, an essentialist (biological/physiological) gender identity, they can. At least, they can if they remember correctly and thoroughly what it used to be like to be them.
And if they are acutely aware of what it feels like to be them. To use a stereotype, many men don’t even know the difference between anger and hurt.
Furthermore, all of the other variables would have to have been kept constant, in order to isolate sex as the reason, the cause, for the ‘new’ ‘different’ identity. And that’s unlikely to be the case for anyone. (So, actually, I don’t really know what, of all that I feel, is due to age, since I am also not as physically fit as I once was.)
Lastly, there’s also the observer effect: rather like Schroedinger’s Cat, people’s expectations, not the least of which the subject’s expectations, may have a contaminating effect on the changes and/or, at the very least, on the perception of the changes.
D. And it (gender assignment) assumes gender matters. Greatly. That is to say, even if we grant gender essentialism, the fat person who looks at all her excess and feels it’s wrong, the marathon runner who feels thick and slow in her mesomorph body, the grey-haired wrinkled person who looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize herself anymore—they all feel that their body’s wrong, they all feel dysphoric. Why do we make such a big deal of sexual/gender dysphoria?
Many chemicals change the way our body looks and functions, change our cognitive function, change our personality. Heroin, prozac… Why are androgens and estrogens in a special and separate category of body modification?
Which is to ask why is gender identity in a special and separate category? To the question ‘What is it like to be female?’, I respond ‘Why do we care so bloody much?’
If you’re Piscorius and you feel born to run (or if you’re nobody and you just want to walk), you need legs. If you feel male, if you feel born to put your penis in a vagina, you need a penis. Why the moral discomfort, and even outrage, at the latter but not the former?
I’m not at all convinced that the external or internal parts of my physical body that are on the sex continuum are the most definitive, or even definitive enough to support a ‘gender identity’.
So is it because the X/Y chromosome has such visible effects? But the gene that determines skin color also has visible effects. And…we used to believe in a racial identity based on skin color: black-skinned people were thought to be primitive, inferior, certainly less intelligent than white-skinned people. The gene for hair color also has a visible effect. And, at least for women, there is an identity believed to be linked to hair color: blondes are dumb, redheads are fiery. But the gene for eye color also has a visible effect and we’ve never believed in an identity that is determined by the color of our eyes.
Even so, even if does come down to—back to—appearance, if not for culture, for the polarized views about what clothing, make-up, hairstyles, and accessories (my gawd, even eyeglass frames come in male and female—what the hell for?), we probably wouldn’t know half the time whether someone was male or female.
Imagine, if you will. Consider this thought experiment. As we know, people with high serotonin levels are generally happy, and people with low serotonin levels are generally sad. And as we know, some people’s mouths naturally go up at the ends, which makes them look perpetually happy, and some people’s mouths naturally go down at the ends, which makes them look perpetually sad, or even angry. Imagine that we color-code people at birth, and for their entire lives, according to their serotonin levels: yellow for ‘It’s happy!’ and green for ‘It’s sad!’. Now imagine a mistake: a surgeon performs ‘corrective’ downturning surgery on an infant with an ambiguous mouth line—and the infant turns out to have high levels of serotonin. So even though that person is happy most of the time, people will behave toward it as if it’s sad or angry, perhaps with constant urging to ‘Cheer up!’ or perhaps with retaliatory aggression.
In perfect world, the color coding would stop. In a perfect world, the corrective surgery wouldn’t even be needed. In a perfect world, the original wouldn’t even be considered a mistake. (Which is why a transhumanist world won’t be a perfect world unless we change our attitudes, opinions, values, behaviors along with our bodies.) And in a perfect world, wearing high heels, getting a tattoo, getting a mouth line modification, and getting a penis would be equally unremarkable. Or equally unnecessary.
P. Tittle blogs at Bite-Sized Subversions
We thank her immensely for this and her other great essays
She also has a book for sale, displayed on Transhumanity.net’s home page.