Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano:

Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

Laura Brightwell examines the trend in organic and fresh foods and argues that we are unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating.

Our eating habits have changed hugely in the past 10 years. Women on a diet no longer content ourselves with eating a salad and skipping meals. We have also started paying microscopic attention to the food that we do eat. Understanding more about the way chemicals in mass-produced and processed foods impact our health, we, as a culture, are turning to organic and fresh choices. Outside of supermarkets, our city streets are sprouting whole foods shops, raw and fresh restaurants and even our fast food chains are selling foods marketed at a health-conscious audience. But how much of a difference do these foods make? Are businesses that offer “healthier” choices just cashing in on our nutty obsessions?

Orthorexia nervosa may be a familiar term to some of you. For others, it’s totally new. But, the reality is, we are all familiar with the eating behaviours this term describes. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating. From the mass-marketing of organic produce to the popularity of “fresh” restaurants, orthorexia and related eating behaviours are an accepted part of our daily food culture.

Orthorexia calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.

The first time I read the term orthorexia (admittedly, in my favourite book on healthy eating for women), was an AHA! moment. It gives the name to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one. Orthorexia is, of course, not just eating well. According to the AEDA, “Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and […] self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).”

Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort
Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort

For me and, I suspect, for many women, this description of a dysfunctional relationship with food sounds all too familiar. Although I recognize that orthorexia, along with other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is a serious illness, like these other eating disorders, aspects of orthorexia can be seen in many people’s diet and eating habits.

For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

This new term calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.People who exhibit orthorexic behaviours are often publicly praised for eating healthily. A person with anorexia who eats little may be lauded for their ‘restraint’ and dedication to their health. In a culture that values thinness over health, women are praised for unhealthy eating behaviours. For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

Other aspects of orthorexic behaviour include a feeling of superiority to others as your self-esteem becomes wrapped up in your eating habits. We often use moral terminology when we talk about to the food we choose. We say that we have been “good” when we follow a diet and “bad” when we don’t. Needless to say, thinking of all eating as “bad” and not eating as “good,” is inherently unhealthy. If we are unable to eat a cookie without experiencing a desire to purge or punish ourselves, how much of our attention to food is about our health at all?

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are benefits to eating whole foods over processed, but the whole foods/organic/fresh trend of recent years seems, for many people, less about eating well than losing weight. The obsessiveness behind our eating highlights the problem with our new healthy habits. It is worth asking ourselves why we choose the foods we eat. Do we choose healthy food to feel good and nourish our bodies, or do we aim to do both these things while secretly hoping that we will lose weight?

Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC
Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC

For me, the understanding of orthorexia as an illness sheds light on our emotional relationships with food. When I eat a carrot, I feel good about myself. I feel in control of my environment, my body and my life. When I eat several cookies, I start to feel that my body is my enemy and my life is out of control. The desire to eat healthy food is, unfortunately, less about being healthy, but more about controlling my body, my desires and my weight.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost.

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin. I would also argue that it is predominantly female. As Christi-an from Kula yoga in Toronto says, the litmus test of norms comes in what kind of bodies are welcome in certain spaces. It is very easy to see who does, and who doesn’t belong in a space. When I walk into a yoga class, or vegetarian restaurant I anxiously look around to find someone as fat as me.  Unless I am represented in a space, I am unlikely to feel comfortable in it.

Although it might be tempting to dismiss my discomfort as neurosis, this exclusion of non-normative bodies has been well documented. The absence of fat-positive yoga studios for example, has led Kula yoga studio in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood to create a fat-positive space, as well as brown girl and queer yoga classes. I would, of course, argue that this exclusion stretches to the majority of health and well-being services.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost. If I, a young, white, middle-class, feminine, able-bodied, albeit fat and queer, woman feel uncomfortable in spaces that sell health, how would a queer person of colour feel, or someone who Is differently abled? And all this is not to mention the fact that such services are often expensive, thereby excluding those with low incomes.

If I’m not allowed access to a certain lifestyle because I don’t feel or look thin enough, then how much is this lifestyle about my health? Organic, fresh culture seems disproportionately focused on the way we look and far less on improving our mental and physical health. To take it even further, as this article argues, could our eating habits even be a way of proving our social status?

But, where does all this leave orthorexia? What’s so wrong, after all, with a preference for fresh, organic food over processed junk food? Although a fastidious attention to produce and freshness could be perceived as a healthy habit, as with all eating disorders and worrisome habits, the problem lies in the thought process behind, and the excessiveness of the behaviour. If we, as women, or as a culture, can’t ever enjoy a burger or a donut without feeling compelled to purge or punish ourselves by excessive dieting or exercise, then there is something tragically wrong in our relationship to food. This is undeniably unhealthy.

I’d like your input to help me work this moral foody conundrum out. Do we live in an orthorexic culture? I’m especially interested in how our gender dictates our relationship to food. Women often have a hugely complicated relationship with nutrition and our bodies. Is healthy eating, for you women readers, just a way to stay thin?

I’ve got an award!

wordpress-family-award2

Despite my erratic blogging and difficulty finding the time and self-belief to write, of late. a lovely reader has given me the honour of nominating me for a WordPress Family Award. As I understand it, this award celebrates the WordPress community and is a way of showing appreciation for each other’s work and words. Thank you so much Jenness Johnston for nominating me! I am so lucky.

Although I have always been a bit of a blogger-in-denial (that is, I love blogging but tend to throw my words out there while trying not to think where they will fall – something to do with writer’s block) and therefore have so much more blog reading to do, as part of my acceptance of this award I will nominate 10 inspirational bloggers who deserve to have their work read and appreciated:

1) Lipstick and Teeth. My close friend and political ally. The person who used lipstick in the title of her blog before I did and I was, like, ‘damn’! A person whose posts, although not frequent, are of such great quality that they always impress and inspire me. I highly recommend subscribing to her feed. Katherine, it’s you.

2) Another Visual Diary. A truly inspirational, never-relenting artist who keeps blogging and producing zines and charging around Leipzig and London on her long board. A fierce feminist and a beautiful person who has made me feel supported in my writing and inspired me to continue. Do check her photo diary out.

3) The Flannel Files is my favourite blog title yet. This butch lesbian approaches writing and life in a way that I really identify with.

4) Pankhearst is an independent writer’s collective with a dark sense of humour. I find it hard to summarise what it’s about and – you know what? – I don’t care. Each post speaks to interests I didn’t even know I had.

5) This one-woman SexEd blog is inspiring both because I admire its creator and because it has some truly fascinating and helpful information about sex on it. I love geeking out about these things!

6) A blog that addresses questions of being trans and/or queer, I like CN Lester most when they posts controversial material that sparks discussion between the gays. Like all these blogs, CN deserves this award for consistent, high quality, content.

7) OMG those feminists are funny! Your Monthly Periodical is a collective magazine-style blog that writes witty commentary on pretty much everything.

8) One of the first blogs I started following, I held Discipline and Anarchy up as a model of flawless writing and thought-provoking content. It doesn’t shy away from the controversial and I try to emulate that in Diary.

9) Sheesh! So much talent, such a big internet. Stop! Talking is another angry feminist blog that I just L.U.R.V.E.

10) Never afraid to shine a critical eye on the queer community, A Radical TransFeminist has some great info. I dare you to read it.