Content note for mentions of disordered eating, transphobic media, transphobic violence, and body image.
As a researcher working with trans people with disordered eating, I’m appalled (though not surprised) to read this week’s hot take from The Sun. I won’t re-post or link to it, but the article titled ‘Is changing gender the new anorexia?’ is full of dangerous misconceptions. These are harmful to trans people, to everyone living with disordered eating regardless of their gender, and to the group made completely invisible by the piece: trans people with disordered eating.
At this point in 2018, it’s no surprise to see a tabloid article on trans lives using selective sources, treating opinion as evidence, ignoring rigorous research, misdefining key terms, and stirring hatred.
The LGBTQ community is used to the ‘social contagion’ point – we’ve seen it used endlessly about trans lives in recent years, as well as about homosexuality through the 1980s. Spoiler alert: the premise of contagion is always thinly veiled homo/queer/transphobia. No one calls the huge rise in popularity of gender reveal parties a ‘social contagion’, precisely because the parties align with and reinforce cisnormative expectations of sex and gender.
Gender, sex, and sexuality involve a complex layering of bio-psycho-social forces, all of which are constantly in flux. By their very nature, gender and sex are grounded in the social world.These elements shift over time and in relation to one other, making the very idea of a social contagion in gender meaningless. Beneath ostensibly well-meaning concerns about a contagion in trans identities, there is a violent imperative to follow the dominant system of gender and sexuality, i.e. the cisheteropatriarchy.
This week, The Sun reported that a Transgender Trend founder thinks transitioning has replaced eating disorders as ‘the latest coping mechanism’ to trend among teenaged girls who have poor body image.
It is rarely worth the energy to engage with specific points made in transphobic tabloid articles. Their errors and misconceptions are not an accidental result of bad fact checking. Their arguments are not based on reason but transphobia, and so we can’t debate our way out of them. For that reason, I won’t engage with the bulk of points made in the article, such as the references to Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, which has already been proven baseless and unscientific.
This particular piece from The Sun, however, plays into wider narratives that I have heard too often when discussing my area of work. The article reinforces ideas around appearance that are both deeply damaging and entrenched. Clearly, we are in need of some eating disorders 101, so this is where I will start.
On eating disorders
Eating disorders are not a trend. This notion is deeply offensive to people whose everyday lives are structured by the logics of disordered eating. We aren’t talking about fad diets here, or the latest Instagram craze to sweep across classrooms. Eating disorders are much, much more than a ‘diet gone wrong’.
Framing eating disorders as a trend paints them as frivolous actions that people willingly choose, taking part in a trend to gain attention and validation. This is precisely what The Sun article suggests. On one level, it is unsurprising to see a disorder associated with young women portrayed in this way, given the historic devaluing of teenaged girls’ lives. The fact that eating disorders extend far beyond young, white, middle-class, cis women seemingly hasn’t reached popular understanding.
Eating disorders are not only – or necessarily – about what you look like. Nor do they start and end with a desire to be slim. Sometimes appearance concerns are at the centre of eating disorders; sometimes those concerns emerge through the course of the disorder. For some people, appearance is completely irrelevant. Disordered eating can also be about surviving trauma, finding ways to stay alive when life feels unbearable, navigating messy relationships, and holding heavy life histories. Feminist anthropologists have written powerful accounts of these dynamics, and many more.
On trans lives
Similarly, being trans is not a simple question of appearance. The Sun is not alone in suggesting that transition is a trendy path for young people struggling with body image. Much of the British media is dominated by the idea that being trans is about what you look like. Trans lives are painted as a mission to ‘pass’, where the experience of a trans women is imagined as a desire to look and dress like a cis woman. Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl offers a lucid analysis of the media obsession with trans people’s appearances, a dynamic which unfolds in sensationalized ‘before and after’ transition pictures, as well as the insistence on showing trans women applying makeup.
According to the press, gender has to be seen to be believed. This pressure holds a particular danger for transfeminine people, who can be forced to tread conflicting demands around passing and deception that too easily result in violence.
The kind of representation seen in The Sun article isn’t accidental. It serves a specific purpose, which is to make trans lives seem superficial – they become literally skin-deep. Lifelong processes around gender for cis and trans people are erased, distilled into a single question of what you look like.
The real-world impact
The relationship between gender dysphoria, body discomfort, and disordered eating is incredibly complex. What is clear, however, is that being trans is not an ‘easy way out’ or alternative to eating disorders, or no trans people would have eating disorders. This is simply untrue: there are many, many trans people living with disordered eating in their everyday lives. These living people in all their complexities are made invisible when transition and eating disorders are presented as interchangeable trends.
There is already such a lack of care provision around eating disorders, as well as trans healthcare – let alone at the intersection of the two. Popular understandings of both arenas are often convoluted and pejorative. Playing into the idea that being trans or having an eating disorder is a trend is not only offensive. It is also dangerous, compounding barriers to support and causing real harm among trans people, and everyone living with eating disorders (which, for the record, includes trans people).