Body Impolitic

Jennie Kermode is a journalist and activist based in Glasgow, Scotland. She’s also the chair of Trans Media Watch, a UK media literacy and activism group that addresses media coverage of trans* and intersex people.

Content notes: body shaming, anti-trans and anti-intersex medical discrimination, transmisogyny.


The concept of modesty has been used worldwide to police the lives of women and teach them to be ashamed of their bodies. It also has an effect on trans and intersex people, no matter how they identify. When bodily difference is perceived as a political act, it can make asserting a marginalised identity all the more difficult.

The first time I encountered it was in 1988, when I was fourteen years old. The small oddities I’d displayed in childhood were getting worse with puberty, and it was clear something was askew with my hormones, making me very ill. I was sent to a gynaecologist for an initial assessment. In retrospect, I should have said no when he asked to have medical students present. At the time, I thought I was being helpful and assumed I would be respected.

I didn’t expect the smirk when I parted my medical gown, and the look in a female student’s eyes that told me I’d broken some rule I’d never been taught – I hadn’t shown sufficient hesitation and distress in displaying the body parts I was there to have examined. Moments later, they were all crowded round me, being shown the ways in which I was anatomically different. The mood changed from ridicule to salacious curiosity. No one looked at my face. I began to understand how the medical exhibits of Victorian times must have felt, stripped and paraded before academic audiences.

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, André Brouillet

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, André Brouillet

In photographs of those exhibits, the eyes are always covered. Ostensibly this is to protect identity but, since their names were frequently circulated, it does little to achieve that. Instead, it enables them to be scrutinised with no fear that they might seem to look back.

Despite the lingering distress that first encounter caused me, I can’t have learned my lesson well enough. Twenty years later, in a different country, a different doctor became hysterical, shrieking at me about modesty and calling me disgusting. She was there to examine my genitals but, not realising, I hadn’t allowed her to place a sheet over me first. I guess that was what she used to mentally separate my forbidden flesh from my personhood. A colleague joined her and they lectured me about how I should try to preserve some dignity. I was so shocked I didn’t know how to respond, but I’m glad to say I had sufficient dignity to hide my distress. Later, I made a formal complaint. I dared not protest directly because – here’s the thing – they might then have refused to treat me.

Many of the services trans and intersex people need to live normal lives have not, historically, been guaranteed by health providers. That’s changing in Scotland now, with the arrival of a new NHS protocol that helps to put patients first and respect the diversity of our experiences, but of course the old prejudices will still remain among medical staff – and elsewhere. If, like many intersex people, you need ongoing medical help throughout your life, there’s no getting away from it. If you’re trans and seeking to alter your body, it manifests slightly differently, because then you’re seen as having made a choice to bring your genitals to other people’s attention. Trans women’s developing relationship with their changing bodies must take place in a world of stifled discourse where it seems everyone is free to talk about their genitals except them. Trans men are seen as directly challenging the rules that constrain female-assigned people when they express discomfort and the need for change. It can be hard enough to talk about organs that don’t feel right without other people treating the topic as revolting.

What happens when trans and intersex people raise their voices? Then it really is TMI, and we’re written off as obsessives, as sexual fetishists. It’s all too easy to blunder and say the wrong thing when the rules are so confusing, but for most of us, sexual activity is the least of our concerns – we just want healthy, functioning bodies that we can properly relate to. One might hope that medical personnel would understand bodies just as machines that need to be altered or repaired from time to time, but social taboos seem to be as rife within the medical establishment as anywhere else. Because of our medical needs, we are denied the option of ‘modesty’, yet we are still punished for failing to achieve it.

In writing this, I’m conscious that I’m crossing that line now – that I am being ‘immodest’. I feel I have no option if I am to address this problem. Perhaps I could make it less personal, but I want people to understand the personal impact it has. If I could, I’d go back and remove the masks from those Victorian photos so their subjects could look the modern viewer in the eye.

For intersex people, the concept of ‘modesty’ has contributed to social invisibility, which in turn leads to poor education and understanding among the professionals whose help we need. For decades, such a culture of shame surrounded our bodies that our childhood medical records were routinely destroyed. As awareness gradually grows, our medical circumstances are becoming the focus of jokes in the press and broadcast media. There’s a parallel here with the nudge-nudge references to mammograms and menstruation that were common comedic currency in the 1970s. Some women have, thankfully, been able to reclaim some of that discourse of the body, but intersex people have a long way to go.

In crossing over to a visibly female social role, trans women have to learn the unspoken rules of ‘modesty’ for the first time. Many make “mistakes” to begin with, which are often interpreted in light of public stereotypes of trans women as hypersexualised. This illustrates just how wide the gulf is between socially acceptable behaviour for women and for men. Genderqueer people and crossdressers have to navigate that gulf all the time, often being unsure about the sex others assume them to be. Mistakes can even lead to violence. An imperfect feminine presentation is often seen as sexually provocative, self expression misread as a cry for attention—asking for it because of the way one is dressed. We need to challenge this – women and intersex and trans people of all varieties together – and begin by speaking about bodies in a way that is not sexual but is personal. The Victorian exhibits need to tell the audience what the view looks like from the stage.

13 Comments

  1. Great post!

    (And oh god, yes, the modesty rules for women come down _hard_ on trans women.)

  2. I am so sorry you’ve had to deal with that crap. Thank you for refusing to be silent!

    • I am glad to have been made aware of the sort of problems the intersex and trans persons endure with the medical community. Even more so I am horrified to read of it! I was naive in thinking those professionals were above that sort of really improper and very hurtful behavior. I am stunned and sorrowed to read of it.

  3. I can only echo others in saying this is a great post about a situation that desperately needs change. I’m sorry you have had to deal with it. Thank you for writing about it.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Feminist Reader

  5. I read this article a few times because I do want to understand how transgender issues intersect with feminist issues (i mean that as a positive concept). I think one thing that needs to be stated clearly, is that transgender people are not being isolated from a ‘working’ medical system, they are actually being ostrasized from a system that is barely addressing our biological needs because it functions by centering on the concept that human biology is best understood when it is that of a cis heterosexual male. All variations on the cis heterosexual male template confound the proponents of this system. It is a system of learning that is unaware of its own subectivity and one that i hope will change the more trans people speak up about how they feel as “victorian exhibits” but this system also STILL is in the dark ages when it comes to cis women’s biology and health . I mention this because women are still in the beginning stages of awareness of their own biology and how to articulate and pursue health in settings such as this. So I believe trans people may have this in common with cis women and it could be a great way to encourage progress if we all push for greater awareness of the diversity within human biology and the need for a priority shift towards the actual goal of health and how that is manifested and interpreted person to person.

  6. Fantastic post, Jennie. I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with all of these experiences. Screw ‘immodesty’. Thank you for raising your voice about this.

  7. Pingback: What We’ve Been Reading… « UpRoot

  8. It’s all too easy to blunder and say the wrong thing when the rules are so confusing, but for most of us, sexual activity if the least of our concerns (“sexual activity is the least of our concerns” is correct I believe)

    Yes, I’m always looking for these little Microsoft errors (from the days when everything was written in Microsoft word, and most people just used the Spell Check)

    Otherwise, spot on! As a trans woman (almost 3 years into transition, and 3+ years in a relationship with ANOTHER transgender individual) I can echo that even though this hasn’t happened to me (that I know of) that I’m sure at some point it will, and I shudder to think of the responses…

  9. Stacey Gray says:

    I am so happy to see that others have had this experience.

    I have never had a negative view of my body. I was not raised to find the body disgusting, to be embarrassed or even overly modest. A body is a body, everybody has one! Raised on the farm, sex was always just a fact of life. There was no lasciviousness, just simple, healthy reality.

    I transitioned M to F in my mid 50s. Prior to transitioning I was an active naturist, a nudist. The transition made that an uncomfortable environment while my body changed, and since then circumstances have precluded active participation with the community. But the point is, I have never known a necessity for modesty.

    During one early appointment with my endocrinologist I agreed to observation by a medical student interning in the office. The young lady I later found was either Indian or Pakistani. In the course of my examination, my doctor asked to examine my naturally developing breasts. As we had done this in previous examinations I thought nothing of dropping the front of my gown. I am comfortable with my body, the doctor had seen them before, I assumed the intern had seen breasts before, what is the issue? The intern was shocked! My doctor turned to her and explained that trans women don’t have feminine modesty.

    I was to say the least taken aback.

    A subsequent visit to my dermatologist, a man who had been inspecting my sun damaged skin for years suddenly became very squeamish about seeing my breasts. It’s the same skin that was there the year before, just a little more contoured, I really don’t understand! He asks that I leave my bra on, shrouds my upper torso in a sheet, then picks it up to peek under. He moves straps and band up and down etc. to inspect the non-mounded or nipple areas, and asks that when I see the endocrinologist or my GP, that I ask them to do the balance of the exam, and tell him if they see anything suspicious.

    I find this all quite strange. I suppose my question is, am I supposed to be femininely modest for me, or for them? In the 21st century I find it illogical that a physician trained and practiced in anatomy exhibits such a Victorian attitude. But I am quite happy to hear that I am not the only one who notices this anomaly in the medical community.

  10. Pingback: Queereka | Quickies 01/28/2013

  11. Pingback: Don't Just 'Reframe' Purity Culture—Rethink the Whole Concept