What began in 1969 as an effort to normalise the existence of fat bodies has snowballed into one of the most prevalent social media movements in recent history. The capitalistic and patriarchal ways of the world have altered the way people feel about their body- from fitting into an “ideal” body type to flaunting impossible body aesthetics, our collective insecurities echo deep. The body positivity movement, which aims to embrace the beauty of the body, as it is, combats these unrealistic norms. This social movement has encouraged people across the globe to voice out their body confidence in an effort to change their body perceptions, but it is still a work in progress when it comes to a particular group of persons who might need it the most, i.e., queer folx.
When Rebecca Mudaliyar was younger, their view of their body was deeply drowned in the binary construct. “I thought being bisexual was associated with masculine energy. But as I grew up, I realized it had more to do with my personality.” For the 21-year old media student, being non-binary means they see people as people and not through their gender. Non-binary people tend to reject the restrictive boundaries of the gender binary, whether it be with respect to clothing or cultural stereotypes. For each person, the journey to rejecting this binary and embracing their body perception remains wholly personal. The way Rebecca’s body image gets a confidence boost might seem simple. “Dressing up as you want: that is the one thing that always gets my body confidence up. I love to experiment with my hair. If my hairstyles look good, I get an automatic confidence boost. Seeing myself in the mirror and taking beautiful pictures works, and I even love talking to myself and my body.”
Ace, a 21-year-old law student, has experienced their fair share of the gender construct. Identifying as an agender individual, they have felt this aspect of their queerness get questioned when anything they did fell remotely into the binary boxes. “I identify as agender but I am female-presenting. You are automatically put into a box when you fit into this binary presentation. When you come to the complete realization that you’re agender, you completely stop gender coding everything, and only at that point can you completely be fine with your body. You start to become who you want to be, and not assign yourself to one gender.” When they were in primary school, Ace was exposed to transphobic slurs, which made them question their assigned gender. “Those conflicting opinions with no one to guide me had me repress everything I wanted to explore about my gender. Open these conversations really early. Give kids a safe space to figure things out. We cannot wait for a generation to die out and blame the bigotry on them. Unless we start teaching what is right and stop this casual bigotry that every kid sees, we cannot hope for much change.”
For many queer people, happiness might come from the smallest places. Body positivity for queer folks is something that is intersectional: their bodies and queerness often interact with each other. It might be difficult to isolate one aspect from the other.
Trans joy, also called trans euphoria, is often experienced as an uphill battle along a long road. Thea, a National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) student who identifies as a trans-non-binary femme, has found that her euphoria comes in small packages. “When you start hormone transition, you initially lose fat. I was scared that I was getting skinny. But now, I have breasts- this might seem small, but I cannot control myself! I’m like a little 14-year child, touching my body excitedly. I am truly grateful that I get to experience this trans joy, to feel this part of me. I used to be uncomfortable wearing pants, so I used to wear baggy clothes to cover that part of me. And I was uncomfortable with the prospect of being shirtless as a child as well. Trans joy gets overwhelmingly high for me. Nowadays, the little things – growing my hair out, wearing flowers on my hair and taking pictures make my trans joy explode.” Thea, who started her transition two years ago, is currently undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that tends to reduce gender dysphoria (dissatisfaction or unease in transgender persons due to the clash of their assigned gender and gender identity as well as expression). Since Thea initiated HRT, she has felt more at peace with her body. But the sun does not always shine. “I don’t love all of it, but I can live life. I model sometimes: before HRT or when the dosage was really low, I somehow got through it. But when I recently did a shoot, I did not feel like I belonged there. I did not feel great standing next to these women who were tall and slender, despite having self-confidence.”
Role of media in portraying queer bodies
‘Pose,’ an American drama series about the New York drag ball culture which focuses on African-American LGBTQ people, remains one of Thea’s favourite shows. Its cast features several transgender performers and launched several trans-actors such as MJ Rodriguez. Thea then found herself asking, why is it that when it comes to the Indian entertainment scene, the trans identity is either dismissed as a joke, or the roles are essayed by cisgender men? “By casting a man in a trans femme role, you are insinuating that trans women are nothing but a man in a wig. That damages us so much. No one except trans people must take these roles up. Otherwise, the charade and sympathy directed towards the trans community are merely performative.”
For decades, trans bodies have been scrutinized and branded as straying from the norm or objectified in hurtful ways. In India, safe gender-affirming surgeries, a life-saving resource that allows trans people to cope with gender dysphoria, remains highly inaccessible and unaffordable. Many private insurance players see this as a form of cosmetic surgery, which means that it is often not covered under health insurance. A typical gender-affirming surgery can cost upward of ₹ 2 lakhs, and the debate about whether this surgery is vital or cosmetic at large in the medical community, despite several trans-voices speaking out about the importance about improving its access.
Utkarsha Jagga, a trauma-informed, queer affirmative therapist, has dealt with the effects of such hurdles first-hand. Mandated therapy is a prerequisite for transition, which is once again undermined by the lack of access that low-income groups have to free and trans-affirming counseling. “Sensitivity training for mental health professionals with respect to queer patients is negligible. To become a certified queer-affirmative therapist, mental health professionals can undertake courses or modules, or undergo training and supervision. Awareness about this process is non-existent.” With her queer clients, Utkarsha has adopted a slow process toward body positivity. “We [first] work on moving to body neutrality, [and] then approach positivity. It is also important to deconstruct the binary rules that our society is built upon. Embracing smaller parts of the body they like is the best way to do this. Trans men, for example, might want to wear binders or keep a handkerchief or bracelet. Working on actions that give them euphoria is pertinent.”
“It is a gradual change,” Utkarsha said. “Queer people can work on an individual level in therapy. It will take time, but hopefully, one day, body positivity as a movement will not be restricted to a certain group of people.”