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«Practices of Body Management: Transgenderism and Embodiment MARK FINN and PIPPA DELL* Department of Psychology, University of East London, Romford ...»

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Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology

J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol. 9: 463±476 (1999)

Practices of Body Management:

Transgenderism and Embodiment


Department of Psychology, University of East London, Romford Road, London E15 4LZ, UK


(Dis)ordered body management practices such as transgenderism and anorexia are largely

conceptualized within psychology as the pathological manifestation of individual distress. It is argued that the way they are talked about, treated and ultimately understood as matters of and for health, serves the regulatory (socio-cultural and political) function of targeting more visible embodiments as problematic and indicative of distressed subjectivity. A poststructuralist discourse analytic is employed as a means of exploring alternative constructions and understandings of problematic embodiment. It is proposed that transgenderism discursively and materially relocates (dis)ordered embodiment from the constituting realm of health to that of productive choice, wherein the notion of distress is questioned. As a matter of choice, gender (re)embodiment is understood as potentially positive, pleasurable and a site for non-distressed multiple subjectivities. From this, it is suggested that community, health and social psychologists re-evaluate current constructions of `problematic' body management practices, account for their wider social and political function, and attend to ways in which non-distressed management can otherwise be understood and supported. Copyright # 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key words: transgenderism; body management; embodiment; transsexuality; discourse; public health; subjectivity


In the late twentieth century, characterized by advanced consumer capitalism, the body has become the ultimate commodity to be managed (Featherstone, 1991), whether through, for example, regulation of food intake, exercise, or by submitting it to the surgeon's knife. As a result, over the last few decades a complex relationship has developed between psychology, psychiatry, medicine and those body management practices that are deemed problematic and potentially dangerous. In this paper, we * Correspondence to: Dr. Pippa Dell, Department of Psychology, University of East London, Romford Road, London E15 4LZ, UK.

CCC 1052±9284/99/060463±14$17.50 Copyright # 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

464 M. Finn and P. Dell want to explore some of the complexities of (dis)ordered1 embodiment, that is, seemingly unnatural and negative types of body management, by drawing on the experiences and conversations of a selection of individuals who self-identify as `transgender'.2 Recent theorizing on transgenderism tends to bypass what transgender individuals themselves say and think about their own lives (Kulick, 1998). These gender transgressors are often consciously engaged with re-producing their (sexed and gendered) bodies through a variety of body management practices such as clothing, hormones and surgery. However, whilst acknowledging to varying degrees an uneasy relationship with their culturally de®ned bodies, transgenderists also actively (dis)engage with those normalizing psychiatric and medical discourses (c.f. Foucault, 1979; Rose, 1989) that construct and produce the gender dysphoric body (that is, nonalignment of sex and gender) as a `pathological' one (Parlee, 1998; Whittle, 1996;

Bornstein, 1994). Their re-constructive and political activism, we would argue, o€ers critical insight into current psychological understandings and treatments of individualized distress to do with embodiment and subjectivity, as well as simultaneously exposing ways in which the ( private) body is regulated and shaped by wider ( public) health discourses.

Drawing on the work of Douglas (1966, 1982) who denotes the body as a system of `natural symbols' that reproduce the complexities of our social world, and that of Crawford (1985) who argues that the economic structure of this social world is contradictory, relying as it does on production and consumption, Bordo (1990) has distinguished between `producer-selves' and `consumer-selves'. As producers `we must be capable of sublimating, delaying and repressing desires for immediate grati®cation' in our cultivation of the work ethic, whilst as consumers `we serve the system through a boundless capacity to capitulate to desire and indulge in impulse' (Bordo, 1990, p. 96).

Despite the suggestion that `discipline and hedonism' as body maintenance routines are no longer incompatible (Featherstone, 1991, p. 171), this oppositional relationship can nevertheless be seen to impact on our bodies in that how they can be (and indeed are) construed and understood is vastly culturally and discursively bound3 (Malson, 1998). For example, as producers of commodities our bodies have the potential to become our ®nest productions, healthy and aesthetically pleasing (Bourdieu, 1984) and regulated by a `well-ordered self' (Bordo, 1990, p. 96). This particular construction of the body allows (dis)ordered embodiment, such as anorexia for example, to be understood as spiritually purifying (Bordo, 1990) and aesthetically pleasing. As an example of the notion of productivity working as a discursive framework and forming a particular understanding of such practices, Medieval understanding of selfstarvation as an ascetic religious act ( ®rmly located within a Catholic discourse), understood regulation of food intake as a productive `method of spirituality' rather than as `individual pathology' (Malson, 1998, p. 50).

This bracketing o€ of the pre®x `dis' in the word `disordered' signi®es throughout this discussion its underlying questioning of the current separation of non-distressed (ordered) body management practices and distressed (disordered) ones.

`Transgenderism' refers to all currently identi®ed cross-gender expressions that do not ®t the diagnostic criteria of transsexuality and transvestism. As such, the term transgenderism is the currently favoured (but not universally accepted) one. Other terms include transpeople; gender-blenders; gender outlaws; crossdressers; drag kings and queens.

To say that the way in which bodies are understood is `discursively bound' is to suggest that they are made sense of and known through talk, texts and writing that produce particular understandings of the `reality' of bodies.

Copyright # 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol. 9: 463±476 (1999) Transgender body management and embodiment 465 As consumers of commodities, however, our `desiring' bodies tend to be interpreted as excessive and unrestrained, seemingly out of our control, potentially pathological, and thus an origin of psychological distress. In this discursive context, that is, by talking about bodies in this way, body management strategies like transsexuality, anorexia and elective cosmetic surgery are deemed as often extreme and dangerously self-destructive. The point being made is that various body management practices can be seen to stem from pre-existing historical, socio-cultural and political discourses that regulate ways in which particular practices are systematically understood, allowed and valued (c.f. Bourdieu, 1984). Anorexia is, of course, not being underplayed as merely discursively dangerous; the physical rami®cations can indeed be life threatening unlike a cosmetic nose job, for example.

The linkage between the seemingly disparate non-homogenous categories of transsexuality, anorexia and elective cosmetic surgery is that inherent within understandings of these examples of di€erent kinds of body management there is at work a contradictory paradox in that theory and narratives surrounding the three categories include notions and talk of both self-production and self-destruction. It is suggested that this paradox can be seen to hinge (among other things) on the economically and culturally crafted productive/consumptive distinction. While these three expressions of body management are often regarded as damaging forms of self-mutilation (e.g.

Lienert, 1998), the more positive idea of non-distressed self-production has also been referred to in analyses of anorexia (Malson, 1998), cosmetic surgery (Davies, 1995) and transsexualism (Riddell, 1996). For example, in focusing on the related but con¯icting themes of self-production and self-destruction surrounding understandings and experiences of anorexia, Malson (1998, p. 187) highlights `a multiplicity of positive as well as negative subjectivities...'. Similarly, Davies (1997, p. 24) argues for viewing cosmetic surgery as `a complex dilemma: problem and solution, symptom of oppression and an act of empowerment, all in one'.

The productive/consumptive opposition also helps to clarify the postmodern distinction made between the `transsexual' (as consumers) and the `transgenderist' (as producers) in that critics of transsexual therapy have aligned it with late capitalist consumer culture where `sexual ful®lment and gender-role comfort are portrayed as commodities, available through medicine... [ pushing] patients towards an alluring world of arti®cial vaginas and penises rather than towards self-understanding and sexual politics' (Billings and Urban, 1996, p. 112). It is against the rejection of and separation from the `consumerist' construction of transsexuality, and the consequent pathology ascribed, that the postmodern transgender identity is able to be reinterpreted as a non-distressed, non-pathologized one, as the product of sexual and gendered activism.

We emphasize that it is not our intention to perch transgenderism on higher moral ground for not always buying into medico-psychological discourses and practices, thereby privileging it as a postmodern, subversive and queer identity. Like Prosser (1998, p. 7), transsexuality is here not denounced as merely `a kind of unwitting technological product'. Indeed the distinction between transgenderism and transsexuality is not an easy one to make as some feminists and others (e.g. Lancaster,

1998) point out. Sheila Je€reys, for example, argues that the so-called new transgenderists of the nineties armed themselves with poststructuralist theory that challenged the idea of biologically ®xed gender in order to `... take the high political ground and criticize feminists for their political conservatism' (1997, p. 57). Feminists Copyright # 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol. 9: 463±476 (1999) 466 M. Finn and P. Dell like Je€reys (1997) and Leinert (1998) are highly critical of gender transgressors of whatever nature ( particularly male to female) on the grounds that such selfmutilation or pretence is a violation of female and therefore of human rights.

According to a radical feminist political agenda, the criticism is a valid one but in its reference to concepts such as `self-mutilation', `physical integrity' and `native bodies' that should not be interfered with (see Je€reys, 1997), an underlying unhealthy dysfunction at the heart of gender transgression is assumed that in turn provides feminism with its own moral high ground.

Our purpose in highlighting a distinction between transsexualism and transgenderism is so that a more positive understanding of gender transgression as a form of body management can be encouraged. While transgenderists playing with gender to whatever extent can be seen to reinforce gender hegemony as much as postoperative transsexuals are often said to be doing (e.g. Raymond, 1994), those who self-identify as transgender are here distinguished because of their particular potential in challenging the myth of individual distress which is currently believed to necessitate less normative body management practices.

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