Sophie Beren

Sophie is the Founder & CEO of The Conversationalist! Follow her on Instagram @sophieberen and join her in her journey to #UnifyTheWorld, one convo at a time!

Spanning the Spectrum - The Sophie Six

Believe it or not, this is our final week of content for Season One and my last Sophie Six for the year! This week we are exploring the topics of Gender Identity and Body Image, and we are centralizing the conversation around the recent news that the term ‘they’ has officially been introduced as a pronoun in Merriam-Webster dictionary.  ‘They’ is the pronoun used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary. Let’s dive in by defining some terms, GLAAD defines Gender Identity as your own, internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or as someone outside of that gender binary). GLAAD also makes the distinction that sexual orientation is describes a person's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person (for example: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual). They also explain that transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would be typically identify as a straight woman. And lastly, because we will discussing the queer community with regard to this topic, we want to distinguish that the acronym LGBT to describe the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The first three letters (LGB) refer to sexual orientation. The 'T' refers to issues of gender identity. A central theme of this week’s topic is the language we use to describe someone’s gender and identification, therefore having the correct terminology and definitions can be really helpful. 

1. Gender is a Spectrum 

Many people believe that our society has fully embraced that gender exists along a spectrum and not a binary of man and woman. Physicians at Yale University believe that we need to reframe the way we talk about gender to kids today so that future generations can understand gender as a spectrum. “That's because discussing gender can help kids feel more confident in themselves and supported by their parents and caregivers,” says Dr. Christy Olezeski, director of Yale's pediatric gender program, “which helps people ages three to 25 who are grappling with questions about their gender.” In fact, in 2015, Neuroscientists at the Medical University of Vienna, conducted a study composed of 23 trans men, 21 trans women, 23 cis women and 22 cis men. Researchers used a type of MRI to measure diffusion of particles across brain matter. They found that cis women had the highest diffusivity — which means that particle movement in white matter brain regions was greatest for this group, followed by trans men. Trans women had lower movement than the former, with cis men having the least. There is some early evidence, then, that science is catching up with something many of us already assume, and for good reason: Gender identity exists on a scale, rather than in two narrow groups. The 2017 September of Scientific American released a comprehensive data visualization of the gender spectrum. They found that the project transformed into an exercise in visualizing complexity and concluded that “sex cannot be depicted as a simple, one-dimensional scale.” Researcher on the project,  Amanda Montanez explains that individuals may shift along the spectrum as development brings new biological factors into play, especially in the case of transgender individuals. 

2. Language REALLY matters 

An important part of the conversation around gender identity is the language we use. Pronouns are important because they show respect to the individual and the identity they hold. University of California San Francisco's (UCSF) LGBT Resource Center defines pronouns as words that refer to either the people talking (like you or I) or someone or something that is being talked about (like she, they, and this). Gender pronouns (like he or them) specifically refer to people that you are talking about.  It matters because discussing and correctly using gender pronouns sets a tone of allyship. It can make all of the difference, for non-binary and cis individuals alike to feel seen and welcomed into new communities or new environments. Back in September 2019, pop sensation, Sam Smith came out as non-binary, stating publicly that his pronouns is now “they/them”. The star shared on Instagram:  “After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.” In an interview with Billboard magazine, Smith said they were "loving" being out and proud, they couldn't deny the harsh realities of what coming out as non-binary meant today, both in and outside of the music business. He shared, "I'm scared every day ... just being my feminine self in this world that we're in," they said. "The music industry ... can be a bit homophobic, it's a bit sexist at times." Sam Smith exemplifies that reclaiming your pronouns can be both liberating and scarry in a society that is still learning not to assume one’s pronouns or identity. UCSF LGBT Center offers that you can't always know what someone's gender pronoun is by looking at them and when someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or hurt. 

So, what are appropriate ways to ask someone their pronouns? It can be as straightforward as including your pronouns in your email signature, or stating them along with your name when you first meet someone, ie. Hi I’m Sophie, my pronouns are she/her/hers. Even with acquaintances and friends, checking in and confirming their pronouns in a gentle and supportive way is greatly appreciated. Names and pronouns can change over time, it is preferable to regularly incorporate these questions into meetings and introductions. Yes, asking about a person's pronouns may initially feel awkward, but it is preferable to making hurtful assumptions and using the wrong pronoun. UCSF’s LGBT Center offers the following questions:

"What pronouns do you use?"

"How would you like me to refer to you?"

"How would you like to be addressed?"

"Can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?"

3. Not everyone is on board with progress 

Another perspective to consider is that many people are still warming up to the idea of non-binary and using pronouns. Because the concept of gender as a spectrum is relatively new with respect to the timeline of humankind, there are existing judgments and misinformation around gender identity and gender expression. These prejudices can make it very challenging for individuals to come out to their friends, families and communities. 

In this conversation, we cannot ignore the hate and injustice transgender individuals suffer in our nation today.  This year there was 18 transgender killings in the United States , most of them transgender women of color — have been killed in a wave of violence that the American Medical Association has declared an “epidemic.” The killings, which have been reported across the country, have raised alarm bells for LGBTQ+ communities everywhere. The NYTimes offers that our current  climate of fear reflects a widening cultural acceptance of transgender groups, which today have far more representation in popular culture. Now, there are transgender or gender-nonconforming characters on television and in movies, such as Orange is the New Black’s character played by transgender actress and activist, Laverne Cox or Billionaire’s Asia Kate Dillon, who is opening gender queer.  Yet that cultural progress has not spread to everyday life, across all states lines or cities, particularly for those who are the most vulnerable. Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit that works to ensure the civil rights and equality for all members of the LGBTQ+ community, found that transgender individuals experience increased police brutality. In fact, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found in 2013 that transgender people were 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence than the general population. So although, societally we have made many strides of progress, there is still progress to be made and many believe it starts with accepting ALL members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

4. Step aside Barbie and Ken, we got a new doll in town

Many people are encouraged by the way the concept of gender identity as multidimensional is going mainstream thanks to recent pop culture introductions. As mentioned above, pop star Sam Smith brought huge media buzz in September 2019 when coming out as ‘non-binary’ and publicly changing their pronouns. And soon after Mattel Doll companies, the purveyors of Barbie and Ken dolls, released the first gender neutral doll of its kind. Mattel's Barbie dolls represented an idealized female image, a body that was not proportional with long legs, a tiny waist and a barely present nose. But now, Mattel is introducing dolls that let kids dictate the gender expression of the toy themselves. The doll is fully gender neutral and can be accessorized to be a boy, a girl, neither or both. The company released six dolls with different skin tones, hair and clothes, calling the doll line Creatable World. Mattel said that it aims to reflect and celebrate "the positive impact of inclusivity." Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel fashion doll design shares, “this line allows all kids to express themselves freely, which is why it resonates so strongly with them.” She concludes "we're hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play." A lot of research went into the creation of this new line; Mattel spoke to over 250 families with children who identify across the gender spectrum. The release of the toy set has had a mixed response, some critics believe that this act is a great step in the direction whilst others feel like it is commercializing gender expression. Slate writer, Alex Myers, believes that the dolls miss the mark on a basic level and fall far short of actually embodying or even representing a nonbinary identity. “Gender-neutral,” the term Mattel uses in its marketing of the doll, is not, in fact, a term that many people use to describe themselves. Perhaps, Mattel should have used “gender-fluid,” or genderqueer, or nonbinary, or nonconforming - which are the more accepted and common terms used. Myers also suggests that Mattel played it safe to make it a ploy to create a new market, “a third avenue of sales, appealing to parents who want to be attuned to their children’s gender expressions and to companies that, in the Trump era, have found it commercially advantageous to be socially progressive.” He offers that Mattel has made a toy that is socially palatable because it is gender-ambiguous, body-erased, rather than gendered piece of plastic. Where do you stand on this debate? Could Mattel have done a better job or is it already positive that they have released this type of doll in the first place?

5. Schools, it's time to step up! 

Another perspective to consider is what role our educational systems play in teaching gender identity as a spectrum. As our country is impatient to see educational reform, the conversation around whether social issues should be taught or discussed in schools has come up a lot. Some states are already teaching a comprehensive understanding of gender. In fact, in 2015 Fairfax County Public Schools released a report recommending changes to their family life curriculum for grades 7 through 12.  “Students will be provided definitions for sexual orientation terms heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality; and the gender identity term transgender,” the district’s recommendations state. “Emphasis will be placed on recognizing that everyone is experiencing changes and the role of respectful, inclusive language in promoting an environment free of bias and discrimination.”The curriculum sparked huge controversies amongst conservative families in the community, whilst other families applauded the school’s efforts. California schools are pioneering sex education to be based around acceptance rather than abstinence. In 2016, California state passed a law requiring that schools offer LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed with lessons on gender identity and expression as well as materials on HIV prevention and healthy relationships. In 2018, the state released draft guidelines aimed at helping schools put the law into practice, and since then, parents have been pushing back and some have even taken their kids out of public schools because of the new sex ed. A recent approach to teaching gender as a spectrum, uses ‘The Gender Unicorn’ and ‘The Genderbread Person’ (as seen below) to help distinguish between identity, attraction, gender expression and sex.  This approach helps start the conversation about gender expression not having to be the same as one’s sex and so forth. Sam Killermann, the creator of ‘The Genderbread Person’ developed the concept with the intention of breaking down complicated concepts into easily digestible pieces of information. So, do you think schools should start to introduce gender as a spectrum in their curriculums, with the unicorn or gingerbread concepts? What do you think is the best approach? 

6. Bodies are just bodies, right?

Another perspective to consider is the prevalence of gender dysphoria among non-binary and transgender individuals. It’s important to distinguish between body dysphoria and body dysmorphia, because the two terms often are conflated and lead to greater misinformation around the transgender experience. Gender dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there's a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. It's sometimes known as gender incongruence. Biological sex is assigned at birth, depending on the appearance of the genitals. Body dysmorphia is defined as a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. Individuals with this disorder often feel so embarrassed, ashamed and anxious that they may avoid many social situations and interactions

But let it be known that being transgender IS NOT A MENTAL ILLNESS. Louder, for those in the back, transgender folks do not all suffer from gender dysphoria and individuals who struggle with gender dysphoria are not all transgender in turn. There are cases of individuals whose transition helps treat their gender dysphoria but it is not the case for every individual that experiences this. An Op-Ed in the NYTimes explains that being trans should be a personal or social identity, not a psychiatric one

Additionally, the American Psychiatry Association (APA) included in their definition that Gender dysphoria is not the same as gender nonconformity, which refers to behaviors not matching the gender norms or stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth. Examples of gender nonconformity include girls behaving and dressing in ways more socially expected of boys or occasional cross-dressing in adult men. 

Research found the LGBT community is at higher risk from suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia.  One research review  found that gay men are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience a desire to be thin, and this can sometimes manifest in higher levels of eating disorder symptoms. Additional studies focused on gay and bisexual men have found a connection between higher levels of body dissatisfaction, an increased likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms and increased sexual anxiety. What this research points to is that gender identity and expression are often linked to body image struggles. 

In conclusion, there has been clear strides of progress for the LGBTQ community but still there is a way to go. I encourage you to practice stating your pronouns, asking others how they identify and supporting the LGBTQ community by staying informed and advocating for equality! 

Want to continue the conversation about body image & gender identity? Check out our content throughout the week and submit your points of view about the topic here.  Let's keep the conversations going!

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