Gender Expression and Image


Gender Expression and Image

Michelle Horne, Lydia A. Fein

Key Points

images Social environments and the reactions of others are involved in transgender identity. development. Presenting oneself as one’s true gender can be both a challenge and a liberating experience.

images Affirmation and validation of one’s gender identity are very important. When the responses received from others differ from expectations, gender dysphoria can worsen.

images Dressing as one’s true gender is often the first external manifestation of gender identity.

images Transgender persons experience high levels of body image dissatisfaction, and this can put them at risk for self-harming behaviors and disordered eating, and they may experience significant social anxiety.

images The main goals of image consultants are to help all transgender persons honor themselves through outward expression.

images An image consultant’s job is to coach, guide, educate, and mentor clients in the areas of appearance, behavior, and communication.

All persons live within social environments and rely to varying extents on the reactions of those around them to develop an understanding of their own nature and persona. For transgender individuals, this involves presenting themselves to others as their true gender, and this public disclosure of gender identity can be at once liberating and anxiety ridden. Concerns about the attendant social stigma associated with gender nonconformity can be a substantial factor leading to gender dysphoria.

From Gender Binary to Gender Spectrum

Transitioning is a unique process that entails different components for each person. Through changes in lifestyle and medical and surgical modifications, transgender persons alter their appearance, and accordingly, how others perceive them. Just as the transition is unique to each person, so are the goals for gender expression. Some persons seek to live a “stealth” lifestyle whereby their goal is to present wholly as their identified gender and not disclose that they are transgender. Others may opt to live openly as transgender. In more recent years, the gender binary has gradually become a gender spectrum, and through this evolution, persons may now increasingly identify with gender nonconformity and consciously present ambiguously or at various points along the spectrum, thereby rejecting traditional male and female presentations.

Although the gender spectrum is becoming an increasingly accepted concept, traditional representations of male and female gender are by and large those of societal norms, and for many transgender persons, assimilating into society as their true gender is a priority. To achieve this goal, an image consultant may be a beneficial member of a transgender person’s care team.

Gender Expression

Appearance is a key aspect of self-identity. Therefore it is important for transgender persons to present themselves in such a way that they appear to others as their true gender.1 Outward appearance, including one’s manner of dress, hairstyle, speech, posture, walk, and body language is what drives perception and assignment of gender in society. Devor2 uses two key themes to characterize the process of transgender identity formation, witnessing and mirroring. Witnessing is the need to be seen by others for who one is, and mirroring is the need to see oneself reflected in others’ eyes as how one sees oneself. These are affirmations of an individual’s identity and provide validation. When the messages received from others differ from expectations, gender dysphoria can worsen.

Gender expression has a profound impact on many aspects of transgender persons’ lives and is integrally involved in the formation of gender identity. Dressing in the manner traditionally attributed to one’s identified gender is often the first outward manifestation of gender variance for many transgender persons.3 Frequently, dressing as one’s true gender is clandestine but serves as a way transgender persons can express their true identity, even if it is only in private. Eventually, most transgender persons will reach a point at which they begin to transition publicly. Again, this often starts with changes in clothing and outward appearance. Bockting and Coleman4 identified stages of transgender identity development. The third stage, exploration, is characterized by experimentation with stereotyped notions of femininity and masculinity, addressing personal attractiveness and sexual competence, and transforming shame into pride. Thus outward appearance can be crucial to the process of gender identity formation.

It is important to understand that gender expression for some trans persons may in fact be to appear easily identifiable as transgender. Trying to completely assimilate as a cisgender person may carry its own set of stressors and has been associated with higher levels of depression and increased stigma in transgender individuals.5,6 Openly identifying as transgender may bring a broader network of social support and subsequently greater comfort and confidence in one’s appearance. Still, presenting oneself in a manner that most organically represents the true self is crucial, whether it be to assimilate completely with cisgender persons or to live openly as transgender. In either scenario, guidance from an image professional may be beneficial.

Body Image

The social construct of gender largely depends on the presence or absence of certain characteristics that are typically associated with males or females, such as facial hair or breasts. For transgender individuals, dysphoria can arise from the incongruence of outward appearance and identity. They may also experience dissatisfaction with their body image, which is a complex psychological experience of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors related to one’s physical appearance.7 Transgender persons experience the highest levels of body image dissatisfaction with regard to secondary sex characteristics.8

Dissatisfaction with body image puts persons at risk for self-harming behaviors and disordered eating and may cause significant social anxiety.9,10 Because of dissatisfaction with the secondary sex characteristics of the wrong gender, cross-sex hormone therapy and surgery have been shown to improve body satisfaction and image in transgender persons.11 Still, there are certain unchangeable aspects of appearance, such as stature and bone structure, that may cause persistent distress.

Clothing and other nonmedical lifestyle modifications may be beneficial in alleviating some of the distress associated with these less malleable aspects of appearance; for instance, learning how to dress for one’s body type or finding flattering hairstyles and makeup. In a study conducted by physicians at the University of Miami, lifestyle modifications such as changing one’s style of dress, changing one’s hairstyle, and wearing makeup were considered very important to transgender persons for passing as and feeling comfortable as one’s identified gender.12

Image Consulting

Clothing and appearance have been shown to have an impact on the formation of impressions of a person. Complex judgments about others can be made in a matter of seconds.13,14 Even subtle differences in one’s style of clothing can generate a different impression among observers.15 Individuals can make calculated changes to their appearance to project statements about their identity or to shape others’ impressions of them.16 For transgender persons, this can be crucial to their transition as they strive to outwardly express their true gender. An image consultant can help transgender individuals achieve the outward appearance that is congruent with their identified gender, which allows them to be perceived by others in the manner they desire.

For image consultants, working with the transgender community has some specific challenges, because they are dealing primarily with how the world sees these individuals and, to a greater extent, how they see themselves. One of the main goals for an image consultant is to help transgender clients honor themselves and bring these images into harmony. It can be both humbling and gratifying to be invited on such a personal journey that engages all aspects of personal change, and along the way to share and contribute to making someone’s life a little better.

Image consulting is typically offered in a private practice format. Their clientele may be derived from referrals by health care providers, advertisements, or word-of-mouth within the transgender community. Private client work involves a broad spectrum of services that are customized for each client. The process is thorough, intense, and ultimately transformative. Clients may consult with an image specialist at one particular time during their transition, such as when they first start presenting as their true gender, or they may continue to work with the consultant on a long-term basis. New clients typically complete a confidential intake form, which offers them an opportunity to share their “image story” and in turn helps to create a roadmap that determines the most appropriate services to achieve optimal results. The client’s image story helps to ensure fidelity to the client’s goals and acts as an accountability document. The image consulting program may include color analysis, style and body type analysis, clothing personality assessment, and behavior and communication coaching.

Color analysis helps transgender clients understand their best colors, also referred to as “wow” colors. The process involves using drapes of fabric in shades of color representing the four seasons to determine which color scheme suits the client best. Many variables are needed when determining the season, such as skin undertone, hair, and eye color. After the color analysis, clients are empowered to make better selections when shopping for themselves using a palette of 36 colors that correspond to their season. By building a wardrobe with their “best colors,” they are in essence creating harmony and balance, two important life qualities. Coloring is a characteristic we are born with. It is not makeup or clothing or even the color we dye our hair. It is not external. Creating the most powerful connection to who we are on the inside occurs through color. It creates a beautiful congruency. For transgender individuals, the color analysis allows them to align their external appearance with their inner self. This translates into wardrobe, hair, and makeup alterations, which are then done with the help of the image consultant. Many transgender clients who seek image consulting often wear black or gray or colors that are not within their best palette. They may also have hair or a beard that is too dark, which makes the face appear darker or shadowed. Similarly, their makeup color choices can be too dark or heavy, and the result is harsh and overdone, or too light, causing the face and neck to appear too pale.

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Jan 3, 2017 | Posted by in UROLOGY | Comments Off on Gender Expression and Image

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