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.
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.