Empty Mirrors: The Importance of Queering Body Positivity

My body and I have an uneasy truce. Over the years, we’ve had many disagreements. Sometimes, these disagreements are over something as banal as I want to go for a run, but my body wants to stay in bed for an extra hour. Or maybe I want to lift a very heavy object and look tough, but my body thinks that’s silly and refuses to comply. Other times, it’s more serious. I want my body to be taller, but it’s done growing. Or I want my chest to be flatter, my abs toned, my arm muscles defined, my hips small and square. My body is defiant in its curves and softness and sometimes, I think it’s being feminine just to spite me. Indeed, there are even times when I downright despise my body, and I’m sure it feels the same way about me.

The truce comes from the acknowledgement that this is the body I have. Barring the existence of reincarnation (please, let me come back as a pampered housecat), it’s the only one I’ll ever have, and my mind is the only mind it will ever have, so we both better learn how to get along. The truce also comes from the fact that we are both outlaws in a world which tells us every day that we should not exist.

Now, I am not talking about the world of blatant, undeniable homophobia. That world of Westboro Baptists and Pat Robertsons and Anita Bryants and DOMAs is rapidly losing its strength. I’m talking about the world where people who look like me simply are not a part of the picture, both literally and figuratively. I’m talking about the world where only queer people who fit a certain aesthetic, a certain body type, are visible. I’m talking about our collective queer body diversity image problem.

In my search for this diversity, I’ve long ago given up on mainstream media. Yes, there have been some significant strides toward visibility made in recent years, what with all the queerfolk popping up in shows like Glee, Pretty Little Liars, and Degrassi. And that’s super! I’m sincerely stoked to see more characters on TV that lonely babydykes in Middle America can look to for hope. But wouldn’t it be extra super if any of these characters didn’t look like your garden variety heteronormative “hot” girls? Wouldn’t it be utterly fantastic if there was just one queer female in the picture box that didn’t have to first pass the rigid Male Gaze Approval Process?

That process, by the way, is: 1.) Do straight guys want to bang your female character? 2.) If yes, congrats! Your female character is allowed to exist. If not, then sorry – maybe if your female character is real lucky, she can be a throwaway punch line. (And man, have I ever seen my share of fat masculine female characters utilized as walking flannel-clad jokes. OVER. IT.)

I suppose since I don’t expect too much from mainstream media, I am rarely disappointed by it. The disappointment – which sometimes feels uncomfortably close to betrayal – comes from queer media. You may have noticed that, in recent years, there’s been a surge of new blogs, tumblrs and fashion sites dedicated to celebrating masculine-of-center, often female-bodied queerfolk. I can even think of at least five clothing companies off the top of my head that are targeted toward this very audience. I think all of this is absolutely amazing, especially when I remember that none of these resources were available when I was first coming into my butch identity. Let’s just say I sure could have used the fashion tips back then.

However, my joy at seeing so many more images of butch and MOC people has become increasingly bittersweet. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the vast majority of models used in these photo shoots share certain physical characteristics: Thin. Flat-chested. Small-hipped. Straight-haired. Able-bodied. White. It’s almost as if the queer beauty aesthetic is indiscernible from the straight beauty aesthetic. But how could that be? Or, more to the point – how could we have let that happen?

Please note that I am not saying that these are not bodies that should be celebrated, because that is certainly not the case. But they should be celebrated in equal quantities with fat bodies, brown bodies, bodies with disabilities, and bodies with large chests, wide hips, and big, unapologetic asses. Because when one body type is depicted with a much greater frequency than others, then that body type – intentionally or unintentionally – becomes the norm, the standard, the ideal. In turn, anyone who doesn’t fit that ideal becomes an Other. Most of us have felt like an Other before out there in the wide, heteronormative world. We don’t want to feel that sting again among our own tribe.

It’s difficult to explain that my hunger to see more images of people who look like me isn’t born from some latent narcissism, but from a sort of desperation to confirm my own existence. There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich (who knew a thing or two about queer visibility) that expresses this sentiment beautifully:

”When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you … when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul – and not just individual strength, but collective understanding – to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

Human beings do need to see themselves reflected in the world around them. Besides making us feel a whole lot less lonely, this reflection also tells us, “You’re ok. You are fine just the way you are, because look at all the other people out there who are like you.” Hell, we queers should be the pioneers of a body acceptance revolution, because we all know what it feels like to live outside the box. There can be a thousand different butch style blogs out there, but if the parameters they’ve set for queer female masculinity don’t leave any room for female body parts of various sizes, then half (or maybe more) of the readership is shut out. In other words, you’re doing inclusivity wrong. How do we teach all masculine queer women/FAB people to love their bodies, if we only show masculine queer bodies without visible breasts or hips? The message is: You better find a way to hide those parts if you want to be taken seriously.

On a slight tangent, it’s also important to note the class difference in butch style back in the day vs. the “dapper dandy” look that is popular now. Old-school butch style was very working class – loose jeans, work boots, flannel shirts, plain white T-shirts. Today’s butch style is much more “upper-class white dude on a yacht” – skinny jeans, prep shorts, slim fit dress shirts, bow ties, boat shoes. When exactly did we decide that we wanted to look exactly like the people with the most power in this world? And what does that say about our shifting priorities?

Speaking of the old days, my small personal Queer History library tells me that there was a time when large, sturdy butch bodies were appreciated – even idolized. Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Why does visibility always end up being a zero sum game? Our femme sisters are miles ahead of us butches when it comes to finding balance here. When I look at femme-themed tumblrs, for example, I see a whole world of body sizes, shapes, and colors. In fact, femmes are very much leaders in the fat acceptance movement and have been for years. Why don’t I see my fellow butches following suit?

I’d love to see more size acceptance work done in masculine queer communities, because when the celebration of curves only occurs in feminine communities, it reinforces the notion that curves equal feminine. That is exceedingly isolating for curvy butches and masculine queers like me. In other words, if queer media has decided that masculine means an absence of curves, then does my curvy body fail at masculinity? Who gets to judge? On a very personal level, it’s taken me a long time to realize that I didn’t buy a binder because I wanted one, but because I thought I was SUPPOSED to want one. Why did I think that? All of these questions can be rolled up into one even more difficult question: Do I hate my female body because it doesn’t fit me, or because it doesn’t fit what I’ve been told is the norm?

Because I cannot have a queer community-related thought without sharing said thought with my entire queer community, I recently had a conversation with fellow blogger and tweeter eL about navigating the word as a plus-sized butch. In eL’s own words:

“As an adult, I have always been between size 14 and 20 in women’s pant sizes.  This leaves strong limitations for buying men’s clothes. I am more of an hourglass shape, leaning a bit toward pear. Because of this, my hips are too large for many clothing items geared towards men. I often struggle to find men’s shirts that fit me, due to having a short torso and large hips. My broad chest has never been an issue and I am actually somewhat on the smaller cup size up top, proportionally.

That being said, I have never seen myself or anyone who looks quite like me/my body represented in queer media. Around 10 years ago, I identified as a queer femme and still, at that time, didn’t quite feel like I fit in. I was a short haired femme, which, at the time, I didn’t see represented. Also, I wasn’t a heavily made up femme. I was definitely never the femmiest femme that femmed, though I did enjoy a good skirt from time to time.

As a queer butch, I struggle to find clothing that makes me feel as comfortable on the outside as I know I am on the inside (in my own body). I tend to end up buying women’s jeans, due to the large difference between my waist size and my hip size. I can usually fit into men’s shirts, provided that they are not too long for my torso. I don’t often wear button-up shirts, due to the fact that if I can get them to fit my hips, they end up being way too big in the chest. Or, if it fits in the chest, it hugs my hips tightly.

I do feel that the ‘butch ideal’ presented in media and in blogs is that of a thinner, androgynous butch, who can easily fit into men’s clothing. While my face and haircut may be more on the androgynous side, my hips and curves are most definitely not.”

Obviously, I’m not the only one with a lot to say about body diversity in queer media, or rather, the lack thereof. I’d love to hear some thoughts from all of you out there in the digital ethers. Do you think we have a body diversity problem on our hands (and on our sites)? If so, what can we do about it, besides write overly-long blog rants? I bet you have some ideas.

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5 thoughts on “Empty Mirrors: The Importance of Queering Body Positivity

  1. I have always been uncomfortable with my body shape, and have always wanted it “masculinized.” Even though I am a believer in “do the best you can with what you’ve got” I will never be a poster boy for how butches want to look- I am just a sorry example of how we actually look. I don’t think anyone would buy anything after seeing me wearing it and some brands might offer to pay me to wear the competition. But, I have to remind myself that I will not see images like me in any commercial space- or advertisement – middle aged butches are plain uncool. I have had to learn to please myself, which is hard. Oh yeah, and I now get all my dress shirts custom made so they fit perfect in the sleeve, shoulder, and chest, er bust, whatever.

  2. yes, Yes, and YES! I am so on the same page with you. I, too, have curves (more now than a few years ago) and have long struggled to find what is referred to as “men’s” clothes that fit. What is even worse is that when I look at the size options in the clothing companies for MOC folks I’m still absent. Even the clothes that is supposedly “made” for people like me, don’t fit me. It is incredibly frustrating and depressing…

  3. I think you touch on a great subject here. We need represntation in the media of the femmes and the butches, of the lipstick lesbians, of the MOC. We’re diverse… it’s time the media recognized it.

  4. This sentence you wrote really touched me: ‘Most of us have felt like an Other before out there in the wide, heteronormative world. We don’t want to feel that sting again among our own tribe.’ It touched me because I recognize so well what you are describing. I see too that our tribe is changing or already changed and with that also the bodynorms have changed. Be thin, non-curvy, shaved and talk about dieting the whole time. Like straight women do. I feel that only in the radical feminist lesbian community there is still the celebration of diversity and when I have been in that community for a while (only when I go abroad) and return to my own place, with mostly homonormative lesbians, I get really very sad to see there discrimination against lesbians who don’t fit their norms. They love lesbian movies or tv-shows without even noticing that there are most of the time only two sort of lesbians in there; feminine ones and androgynous/tomboys. As long as our tribe is depicted in this narrowminded way in the media, more and more lesbians will question their body. On the one hand, it’s great there is more media with ‘us’ in it, but on the other hand, if this is the only way straight people want to see us, because they don’t want to see a big butch in bed with a femme or lesbians with hairy legs, I’d rather have no media about ‘us’ at all. I wish we would celebrate our diversity and stop trying to fit in, we are all beautiful!

  5. Ugh! I have definitely felt so frustrated trying to find clothes that both flatter and look butch on my body! I’m short and I hate swimming in mens clothes or wearing boys t-shirts with juvenile guitars all over them. I’m a queer womyn, and I’m dedicated to making sure that our voices and experiences of people in our community are represented in research. I would be so appreciative if you could spread the word about a study I’m running on the way LBQ womyn (trans inclusive) think and act after specific social situations.
    How can you help? Participate and post this anonymous survey!
    You can complete a brief, anonymous 20-minute survey by going to http://www.lbqresearch.wordpress.com If you would prefer, I could also provide you with a hard copy of the survey and a self-addressed envelop. If you or anyone you know is interested in participating, or if you have any questions pertaining to this study, please contact me, S. Rischa Gottlieb at rischag@gmail.com
    Make sure your experiences are heard, be a part of LBQ research!
    This study had been approved by the St. John’s University IRB. Thank you for your time.
    Cheers & With Pride,
    Rischa

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