In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.
Tattoos and piercings were part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.
The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this phenomenon. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.
The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation, but instead exist as a polarity, of A or B. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.
In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality: you are not occupying it, making it yours.
Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.
Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes entirely contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. You might choose to affirm the body in which you exist, just as you equally might not.
That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.
At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.
This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.
What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.
Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The person you really are is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, it is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.
Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.
The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.
The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.
Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.
(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’
(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006
(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999