Trans-Positive Definitions of "Man" and "Woman" (for Pos. Self-Talk)?
March 23, 2022 4:08 PM   Subscribe

What are trans-positive definitions of 'man' and 'woman'? And, there's better adjectives for this, but I can't think of them, so to take the long way 'round, I'm looking for a trans-positive definition that's based on ruling in qualities, rather than ruling out qualities, i.e., not "a woman is someone who is not" but "a woman is someone who is". (Links to thinking/answers on this are welcome too.)

I recently "hatched" as a trans woman, and every time I say, "I'm a trans woman," some nasty voice in my brain goes, "Oh, really! Go look in the mirror, O Bearded One with Male Pattern Baldness and Male Genitalia."

Yeah, I have some real assholes in my head.

In the past, pre-realization, I could just fall back on the maxim of "just treat people like the kind of person they want to be treated as, don't be an asshole." And I never was cruel or transphobic when I would consider others. But now that it's myself talking to myself about myself ... I kind of want a better, more affirmative answer about this, if only to counter my own internal self-bullies.

Any thoughts would be appreciated. And please, please believe me that this is not coming from a bigot herself.
posted by MollyRealized to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, words. What concepts don't you misrepresent. So clumsy, like trying to diagram the lacy vein patterns of a tiny rose leaf with a charred oak log as a pencil. Words are our best friends and our worst enemies. I hate them so much, but I love them so much, and they are so impossible to avoid.

I think of essential femininity in various ways, but one is this: an emphasis on the parts of life that keep us from wanting to harm each other, a lifelong work that builds knowledge and skills from noticing and implementing those parts of life, and a resulting understanding of the quantity and importance of work and focus on these. A focus on beauty and connection that keeps the masculine from despair.

I think of masculinity in various ways, but one is this: an emphasis on detecting and neutralizing threats, and on personal worthiness and competition for worthiness. A focus on providing safety that enables the feminine to thrive.
posted by amtho at 4:25 PM on March 23

There's a subreddit called Witches vs Patriarchy that I like a lot for being 1) silly 2) unrelentingly feminist and 3) pro-sisterhood/positive femininity. You may vibe with it you may not but I think it's worth a follow for a week or two to see if it makes you feel good.
posted by phunniemee at 4:27 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]

First of all: this is a very common trans experience. You are not alone. I've joked to my trans friends before that maybe the one actual universal trans experience is asking yourself at some point, "am I really trans?" and "but am I trans enough?" or "am I Doing Being Trans right?". So please don't think other trans folks haven't gone through this sort of thing, or aren't going through it as well even when it looks like they're doing things "correctly". This is normal and you have all of my sympathy, because it definitely does suck. A lot of us are battling that transphobia and trauma we've inherited from the rest of the world. It's not easy.

For myself, one thing that has helped me as reframing those mean little "but you don't look like a cis man" thoughts as "I don't look like society's expectations of maleness, but I am still a man, therefore my body is male, my [body part] is male (etc)". I remind myself that my problems aren't with my body, but with what society wants to tell me about my body (and society isn't right and I don't have to listen to those voices to be valid).

I also recommend surrounding yourself with community. I've found affirmation and solidarity on Reddit, of all places. I don't go there much but /r/mtf seems like a decent space (though maybe other trans femmes can confirm/deny). There's also /r/transpositive where people share selfies and often ask for validation or just to be called their name, which can be very affirming. Have you checked out any local trans groups at all? There are often people on the whole spectrum of their trans journey at meetups and things and it can feel so great just to be around people who will look past those physical things and will see and affirm you.

I will say that the trans community has inherited some unfortunate bad habits around body image and making "passing" a goal before, for instance, personal safety and happiness. It can be difficult for trans folks who are gender non-conforming and don't pass (yet or ever, through personal choice), so if you ever feel like you've ended up in a space that's contributing to those bad voices, do yourself a big favour and step away from it. You won't be any less of a valid trans woman if you don't go on HRT or have surgery.

Please feel free to PM me if you want to chat at all. I can't speak to the trans femme experience but you are my sister and I value and treasure you.
posted by fight or flight at 4:30 PM on March 23 [16 favorites]

In her book Whipping Girl Julia Serano coined the term "subconscious sex" and reading about that might be helpful here.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:54 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

needs more cowbell's comment reminded me of this passage from Jamison Green's book Becoming a Visible Man, which is about his experiences as a trans man, but also meditates on transness and identity in general in a way you might find useful:
People who have bodies that match their gender identity take their bodies for granted in their process of identity formation. Transgender people don’t have that luxury. We must approach identity from another angle. We come to understand and accept (to one degree or another) our masculinity or femininity and its relation to our femaleness or maleness, but it’s the body that gives us problems—it’s the body we have to deal with (whether or not we dress it up or alter it hormonally and/or surgically) in order to express our deepest sense of self. The rest of the world has this reversed: while taking their bodies for granted, they assume their problem (if they have one) is masculinity or femininity, and this reflects on their self-concept as men or women. A gender-normative man, for example, one whose gender identity and sex are aligned the way observers expect, who is somehow targeted as “unmasculine”—as a wimp, a coward, a faggot, etc.—can respond by either ignoring the “insult” or by taking some action that would be judged masculine or manly in order to prove the instigator wrong. One of the worst insults a man can receive is to be called a woman, implying that he is a failure as a man. This distinction defines maleness only by its degree of difference from the female, a twisted logic that has developed into sexism. When confronted with someone whose body can’t be taken for granted—someone who could be called transgender because they are breaking gender boundaries in some way—those who rely only on bodies for data about individuals don’t know what to do with what appears to be an overabundance of masculinity or femininity, an imbalance between what they perceive and what they think they ought to be perceiving. When someone’s gender messages conflict with their visible body so that the messages of body and gender become confused or obscured, the result in the observer is sometimes indifference or mere curiosity, but in some people this confusion can evoke loathing or anger that can lead to violence.


The point is not that people need to be gender-conforming to meet others’ expectations, but that people need to have confidence in themselves, to know who they are, and to appreciate others—and their otherness. We should each be entitled to have our own relationship with our body in the way that serves us best, whether or not our body and psyche “match,” whether or not we want them to “match,” and, if we want or need that congruity, whether or not we have the ability to make them “match.” For some transgender people, sex/gender incongruity is exactly right, whether that incongruity is innate or cultivated. For some trans people, incongruity as perceived by others occurs when they transition, though they may feel themselves much more congruous within. That is, some people appear normatively gendered with respect to their bodies, and their transness is not apparent to others until they begin a physical transition that makes them appear unusual, as if their sex and gender are not aligned, which is the opposite of my experience. Just as I learned that strangers had an easier time with me once I was sex/gender aligned, trans people who leave congruent appearances for incongruent ones have to learn how to manage the discomfort of others, and that discomfort should not be accepted. Regardless of their appearance, trans people who are seeking their own balanced relationship with their bodies are no less real, no less human, no less entitled to basic respect or dignity, and no more responsible for the state of gender dynamics or wars between sexes than are those for whom congruity has always been the norm.
Sorry to post a big block of text, but maybe thinking through these examples of other trans journeys and perspectives will help. I definitely suggest seeking out more writing by trans women and sitting with what you learn, not to be told how to be a trans woman, but to realise that there are many different paths, all acceptable.
posted by fight or flight at 5:03 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]

I have a friend who came out as trans during COVID and she is older than you and has described a lot of the exact same negative thought patterns (down to the "male pattern baldness" aspect specifically). I feel like it can sometimes be difficult to do the thing you are looking for primarily because anything that relies on binary divisions can wind up hurting as much as it helps. But it might help to be doing two things, maybe three

- spending time interacting with other trans people who are maybe at a different place in their journey from you. This is my friend and she might have some perspectives in that article that would help you.
- being in very supportive female spaces that are all about being supportive of trans folks. Sometimes just helping someone else out or seeing other people help other people out can be useful for helping quell the negative chatter
- agree with flight or flight, there are a large number of books out there talking about people's transitions that make good reading because many of these authors spend a lot of time going over similar questions and seeing how different people resolve those contradictory feelings can be helpful for someone having confusing feelings of their own.
posted by jessamyn at 5:21 PM on March 23 [5 favorites]

Congratulations on your hatching! I'm so happy for you.

I agree with fight or flight here. You are a woman, so you are, in ways big and small, defining womanhood by being yourself. That's the essential answer, and it comes down to confidence, which can be hard to draw on at this stage, and of course, there are a lot of ways that you can describe women or woman-ness that are contradictory (women are people who have long hair when women can have short hair too, or women are people who groom well versus... you get it), and your trolls will try to take advantage of that; you don't fit one item so the whole bill doesn't apply to you. Zero sum game, one thing about you is male and you've lost this round, you're a man forever, geddafuckouttahere NEXT.

Since that's a losing game I've played a lot, I would like to recommend a sort of inversion of it. Notice yourself doing something, and describe it using "a woman" as the subject of the sentence. So you're at breakfast, you can pause for just a moment and say, "A woman is someone who enjoys breakfast." It's not that enjoying breakfast is like an exclusively feminine thing, but in that moment, you, a feminine person, are embodying it, and that matters! Tell the story that includes you as you are, and it'll begin to feel more and more real. "A newly-hatched woman is someone who posts an askme about femininity."

I will also cheerfully second everyone in this thread who recommends finding community of trans folks to hang with. Finding the solidarity, support, and general experience understandingness you need is a tremendous relief and comfort. Look for that solidarity and support in others and don't hesitate to offer it to others, too. Yes, even if you're newly hatched!! A community is made up of a lot of people engaged in giving and taking, and a good one will be happy to have you, even if what you feel you have to offer seems small, relative to other contributions. You'll get there, you will! Just show up when you're ready. <3
posted by snerson at 6:50 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]

Non-binary trans person here.

Be careful not to fall into the horseshoe version of gender essentialism.

There are no definitive traits or attributes that make you a woman other than declaring yourself one. Any way you try to finish the sentence of “a woman is _____” (in a way that is generally sensical) will still be a fallacy because a man might also have that trait or attribute.

Transness is a matter of self determination. You identify as a woman. That’s enough. I identify as not-a-woman. That’s also enough. There’s nothing I need to stop doing now that I’m trans. There’s nothing I need *to* do now that I’m trans. Not behaviorally, not medically, not sartorially.

I know you’re looking for better narratives for self-talk. I don’t have scripts, but I do want to encourage you to seek out things that can or might give you gender euphoria. Pursue those, do them regularly, and let yourself *feel good without judgment*. It’s like holding your breath under water. You won’t be able to shut up your demons forever on your first try. But keep giving yourself small moments of euphoria, and it will help you see your brain-bullies as annoying and tiresome rather than the voices of truth. They may never fully stop, but its almost as good if you can roll your eyes and tell them to shut up.
posted by itesser at 6:52 PM on March 23 [13 favorites]

There are no definitive traits or attributes that make you a woman other than declaring yourself one. Any way you try to finish the sentence of “a woman is _____” (in a way that is generally sensical) will still be a fallacy because a man might also have that trait or attribute.

This is a great point, and made me reflect on why I think this way and why or why not it might be applicable to the op. To me, gender is nonsensical but real; I can't point at it or describe what it looks like or manipulate it in space, I just know that I am (gender), so I am (gender). So I like to lean into that inherent nonsensicality. It's real but it's weird, whee! Life is made up of odd contradictions, here's another one.

But maybe that approach isn't right for you. I would like to retroactively offer a grain of salt, to go with my advice.

To go with that, I'd like to add that there are people who don't consider masculinity and femininity to be opposites. A lot of people do consider them opposites! But there are definitely queer people who identify with both at once, or are genderfluid (different genders at different times), or who identify as women in masculine ways (I've recently read "Butch is a Noun" by S. Bear Bergman). There aren't really rules, people just are; they resolve and describe their gender in ways that make sense to them. This isn't to say that you can't understand male and female as opposites and therefore opposing, but there's a lot of overlap to explore, if you choose to explore it - and just explore, even, not necessarily take the further step of incorporating into your identity.
posted by snerson at 7:24 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

not "a woman is someone who is not" but "a woman is someone who is"

Maybe turn it around and begin thinking in terms of "I am a woman who..." and then begin fleshing that out. It might steer you around the potential pitfall of trying to pin down the defining characteristics of womanhood in general, which is pointless since for every "feminine" characteristic you can think of, there are women who do not fit that criteria. Women have beards. Women have male pattern baldness. Women have male genitalia.

So it would not be inaccurate to describe any of your characteristics as feminine. Some of the traits may seem desirable to you, some you might think undesirable, some may be aspirational:

I am a woman who has a beard and male pattern baldness.
I am a woman who cries at romantic movies.
I am a woman who prides herself on her strength and independence.
I am a woman who enjoys playing with makeup, wigs and pretty clothes.
I am a woman who doesn't really enjoy cooking.
I am a woman who would like to learn to dance.
Etc, etc.

Keep a running list, and every time you think of something else, write it down. You'll be creating an evolving portrait of your female identity.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:54 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

A woman is anyone who thinks she is a woman, or who believes she should be a woman, or who wants to be a woman.

You are a poet if creating poetry is important to you. Doesn't matter if you share your poetry with anyone, or everybody or nobody, if you haven't written a poem in years, or if you haven't written one yet. Doesn't matter if the poetry you write is dog awful or if the least bad description that can be made for your poetry is that it is incomprehensible. Doesn't matter if you once wrote a really good poem and now all the stuff is crap. You don't have to be a good poet to be a poet, or a prolific one, or an acknowledged one. You are a poet if your desires make you a poet.

There are many, many, many kinds of women. Hairy ones. Short ones. Tall ones. Old ones. Young ones. Coarse ones. Graceless ones. Ugly ones. Pretty ones. Straight ones. Gay ones. Ace ones. Disabled ones. Nasty ones. Strong ones. Weak ones. Weird ones. Average ones...

And one thing all women have in common is that someone, somewhere thinks they are not a true woman because they don't pass a particular personal means test. Someone will tell you: You are not a woman if you shave. You are a not a woman if you don't shave. You are not a woman if you never had a kid. You are not a woman if you don't want a kid. You are not a woman if you don't want to pair off with a high status man. You are not a woman if you have had a kid and the signs of it show on your body. You are not a woman if you don't want to let this particular guy fuck you. You are not a woman if you don't wear stockings. You are not a woman if...

You are a woman if that is part of your identity. It doesn't have to be the whole part or a large part. Plenty of women define themselves by other things before they define themselves as women. Some women are scientists more than they are women, or members of a certain nation, or members of a certain family, or artists or any number of other things before they are women. If you ask them to answer "Who are you?" in five words or less beginning with the words "I am..." the word woman is likely not to be mentioned. But that doesn't make them any less women. You don't have to feel strongly and overwhelmingly and inarguably that you are a woman to be a woman. A vague sometimes sense that you are a woman is enough. Plenty of women are confused about being women and have doubts about if they are women. That doesn't mean they aren't women.

With so many mutually contradictory definitions applied to women dictating what they are or are not, you can't go by any external stuff and you can't go by what anyone else says. There are people out there who do not believe that Dolly Parton is a woman, or that Kim Kardashian is a woman, or that Hilary Clinton is a woman. You are in good company. Every other woman in the world has also been told that they are not a real woman and that they are wanting because their body looks wrong. Millions of cis women also look in the mirror and clutch - "I guess I am not a woman. I don't look right." Having doubts about how much or if you are a woman doesn't make you less a woman than if you don't have those doubts. It just means that your identity as a woman is important to you and that you are working on your identity and your self image.

You are a woman with male pattern baldness, a beard and male genitalia. That hair loss really sucks. Most women hate it when their hair starts to thin and they get bald spots. You are part of a dismayed and grumpy sisterhood. Look at your male pattern baldness and remember the massed ranks of your sisters around you looking in their mirrors and wincing. Oh god, my hair. You have many, many feminine traits - you are a woman so ALL your traits are feminine. I bet my cis sister has a bigger adam's apple than you do. You have a fantastic body. You have a woman's body with some traits considered more typically masculine. There are a bunch of cis female athletes who also have many traits considered more typically masculine, probably not your traits but other traits, and they are women despite the traits they have, that taken out of context would make people guess they are men. They are women and have been women every since they became old enough to self-identify as women, the same way you have been a woman ever since you began to self-identify as a woman.

A woman is anyone who thinks she is a woman, or who believes she should be a woman, or who wants to be a woman.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:57 PM on March 23 [7 favorites]

Posting this with hesitation since I am not trans, so discard if it doesn't seem helpful.
I'm female but not comfortable with the label of "woman".
What helps me is to lean into the power and mystery of ambiguity. Since womanhood, manhood, femininity and masculinity are such fluid concepts, it isn't possible for me to define them in a few words and test which definition best fits me.
So I find freedom in that complexity. I get to be what I am, defined not by my body but by my *self*. That self is ambiguous, ever changing, but also undeniably *me*.
posted by Zumbador at 9:14 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

I’m a cis woman but not terribly gender-conforming in a lot of ways, and a long time ago while deeply considering gender I decided that I’m a woman, therefore everything I do is womanly, and the definition of feminine must expand to include everything that I am. You, too.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:44 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

My model of positive and healthy femininity always seems to go back to Girl Scouting. One of the ten Girl Scout Laws is "be a sister to every Girl Scout" and I always loved that imagery - that all over the world were girls who would see me in my uniform and know me as a sister. And as an adult, I've expanded that beyond my fellow Scouts and try to see all women that way. No matter where they're from or what they do or what they look like or how they disappoint me, I'm a sister to them and strive to act like it.

In general, the Girl Scout Law has a lot of good stuff in it (this is the current version, which isn't quite the same as the one from when I was a kid, but pretty close):
I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong,
and responsible for what I say and do,
and to respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place,
and be a sister to every Girl Scout.

Though you've got to keep in mind that the Girl Scouts are often reasonably choosy about whom they acknowledge as "authority" :)

IDK, I guess Scouting popped into my head because TERFs and self-hating transfolx alike often seem to make "socialization" this big thing - like, how can you ever Truly Be a Woman if you didn't bathe in those femme waters from birth? Well, these are the femme waters. It's no big secret; I'm pourin em on you right now. This is how I was socialized as a woman. I sat in a room with the nine other seven-year-old Brownies in my troop and we learned this law out by heart and recited it together. And to a surprising extent I still live by it today. Stuck with me better than the Ten Commandments and more relevant to the sorts of decisions I need to make day-to-day.
posted by potrzebie at 9:49 PM on March 23 [6 favorites]

Molly, I don't know if I can help, but on the internet, you seem like a woman to me, and I was on the internet in the early 80s, when it was mostly bulletin boards, and 99% cis-male. That's all I've got. I'm not trans, nor close to the trans community, but as an autistic woman, I have often felt that society only recognises me as a woman because of my unwanted gigantic tits.

It sucks (in my opinion), if your identity is being tampered with, deliberately or not. In some ways, I think that's part of being female - the world tells you whether your feelings are appropriate, and I'm still working through that in my 50s. Molly, if it counts, if it matters at all, this strange weird lonely Australian woman thinks you're a woman too, and maybe you could say to yourself "Joy (who hates her name) from Australia believes/thinks/verb that I am a woman. " I doubt it will help, because if you told me that you believed I was beautiful, I'd argue the point. You are who you are. You know who you are. You feel who you are. You don't need me to agree with you.
posted by b33j at 6:17 AM on March 24 [5 favorites]

I don't know why it makes sense to divide the world into men and women. In fact, frankly, I'm pretty sure it doesn't make sense. But as long as we keep doing it, I know which group I want to be in.

Because gender makes no sense and probably isn't real, I don't worry too much about whether I'm "really" a woman (though I think it's totally normal that you're worrying about it; I did the same thing when I first transitioned). Now, that feels like worrying if I'm "really" a Democrat or "really" a science fiction fan. These are categories that people made up, and that gives them a bunch of wiggle room. Maybe there isn't an infinite amount of wiggle room: if someone has never read or watched any science fiction at all, and never wants to, then they probably shouldn't call themself a science fiction fan. But if someone told me "Science fiction fandom saved my life," I would absolutely call them a real fan, even if they hadn't watched all the shows you're supposed to watch.

Well, joining the Woman fandom (or party or caucus or club or whatever you want to call it) made my life feel like I was really living it for the first time ever, and I'm just going to go ahead and claim the label.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:35 AM on March 24 [10 favorites]

I don’t particularly have any useful thoughts on “A woman is …” but I do think that in our society, a woman “gets” to (is allowed to): be emotional, be vulnerable, be nurturing, cry, be visibly loving, be dramatic, be gentle, ask for help, wear colors, wear more actual types of clothing, be more expressive, be soft, alter our looks (makeup, hair). We restrict women in a lot of ways with our gender role expectations (we don’t expect girls to be technically or mechanically minded) but we also allow women to express things that men get criticized for expressing. It’s awesome that we are living in a time where we get to see these expectations and restrictions changing.

Congratulations :)
posted by gt2 at 7:13 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]

I have been thinking a lot about this-- both in consideration of my own gender, and as a reaction against the transphobia taking hold in British society (where I live).

I would say that gender is a matter of one's nature, and of the soul. I would say that womanhood in particular is something we all probably feel differently in each of our own souls. Even a cisgender person will feel a different relationship to their gender in different situations: on one's own; with one's parent/s; in a crowded street; in the same street after 11pm; at a party; with a person one finds attractive.

There is the womanhood that one feels, and then there is the womanhood that society constructs. Those constructions can weigh heavily. Often the model of "womanhood" that society pushes at me (thin; young; femme) feels as though it's nothing to do with me.

I find myself looking around for people who wear their gender in a way that feels familiar to me. Finding characters from science fiction and comics; finding phrases in songs and novels and poems. You've probably already found some of these mirror-shards that reflect fragments of your true self back at you. I hope we both find more.

(I'm reminded of this Twitter thread by trans journalist Charlotte Clymer about a song that she found significant pre-transition).

A couple of months ago, I happened to be drinking in the bar of Freemasons' Hall in London. One of the things I learnt when talking to some of the Masons was that that particular men-only lodge accepts trans men. For them, manhood is a matter of the soul. Whatever one may think of the Masons in general and of single-gender institutions, I thought that was kind of a lovely thing.

This is sort of a scattershot collection of facts. I hope some of them will be at least a little bit helpful. I wish you luck, happiness and love.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:54 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]

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