Solidarity Opinions

LOST IN TRANS-LATION: Harmful (Mis)Representations and Perceptions of the Trans* Community due to ‘Transface’

‘It’s an interesting question, a kind of thought experiment, to go back and think what I would feel today as an out trans* person, if I had never seen any representation of myself in the media. On the one hand, I might not have ever internalised that sense of being monstrous, of having fears around disclosure, of seeing myself as something abhorrent and as a punchline and as a joke. I might be able to go on a date with a man without having the image of men vomiting. On the flip side, would I even know I’m trans*? If I had never seen any kind’ve depiction of transness and gender variance on screen.’

Jen Richards

I was speaking to a friend today, about our first experiences with transness (as cis-women). She told me that when she was at school, her Physics teacher had transitioned from male to female, and although my friend was never taught anything about the trans* community or trans* history at this school, all students were advised that it might take them some time to adjust to said Physics teacher after her transition. Apparently, they were even offered counselling in case people were confused or upset by it. Upon hearing this, I was the one who felt confused, and disgusted, and it got me thinking…

Imagine how it would feel, if teachers were to warn students that they might need counselling as a result of your existence? How would I feel, for example, if someone else labelled my cisgendered body as so abnormal in comparison to everyone else, that it might trigger a psychologically damaging reaction? I quickly realised, however, that I could never imagine this, because it would never happen. My cis-women’s body is entirely normalised within society and is not perceived as something which poses a threat to anyone. I also thought about how I would react if I was a child at this school, and if it had been my teacher that had transitioned and preferred to identify as female now rather than male. I thought, although it might have felt a little awkward and might have taken a little getting used to, referring to my teacher as ‘her’ now, instead of ‘him’, wouldn’t have affected me at all…and it certainly would not have caused me to need counselling. This idea was placed there by someone else, this person stigmatised by other adults, and these kids taught in that moment that transness was strange. Did anyone stop and think – what does it do to trans* individuals to tell them that their very existence warrants counselling for cis-people?

‘Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege’.

Bell Hooks

When I think about my first experience with transness, it was the news that Bruce Jenner had transitioned to become Caitlyn in 2015 (when I was 18 years old). Even then, I don’t think I really knew what this meant. I had never learnt about gender non-conformity or trans* studies at school and I hadn’t met anyone who identified as anything other than cis-gender. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I resided in a position of extreme privilege. I occupied a space where I had never been exposed to transness…it didn’t affect me, so I didn’t know about it.

These examples of initial trans* exposure speak to the harmful representations of transness as abnormal, shameful and taboo. They also exemplify how little trans* existence is actually acknowledged until it is experienced in everyday life. It seems that trans* identity is only spoken about when it needs to be, when cis-people are forced to be confronted with it. But we need to ask – why? Why isn’t it spoken about or deemed as something worth knowing/learning, and what does it mean when people in positions of extreme privilege and power get to choose whose bodies satisfy normality and whose cause confusion?

‘Being trans is seen as a stigma — you should be ashamed of being trans, you should be ashamed of being queer, you should be ashamed of loving a person of the same gender. You should be ashamed of contracting HIV/AIDS and living with that. We’re told constantly to just be quiet, to go live in the dark, to be secretive about who we are. And if we step forward, we’ll only be punished.’

Janet Mock

One of the reasons why cis people seem so sceptical about transness and generally misunderstand trans* existence is due to the problematic ways it has been continuously represented, and often misrepresented, on screen. A major issue within trans* representation is ‘transface’ – when cis-actors are cast to play trans* characters in films and TV shows. You’re probably familiar with Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of ‘Lili Elbe’ in The Danish Girl, for example, or Jared Leto as ‘Rayon’ in Dallas Buyers Club. ‘Transface’ has been a prevalent practice within Hollywood and the media for decades now, and seems, only recently, to be actually acknowledged as problematic.

‘Transface’ is extremely damaging to the trans* community for a number of reasons. Firstly, it strips trans* actors of the opportunities to portray trans* life and to be the authors of their own stories. The consistent use of ‘transface’ has meant that there has been an absence of trans* actors in the media, which has led to the lack of trans* visibility in the media and the erasure of transness altogether. As well as this, when trans* individuals are not at the centre of trans* storytelling, it leads to inaccurate and messy representations, which, more often than not, lack nuance and complexity and often creates offensive stereotypes. Unlike cis actors, trans* actors have the ability to depict transness in a way that is authentic to their lived experiences, and struggles, and – believe it or not – triumphs. It takes a trans* actor to be able to implement this in their portrayal in a way that does them justice. As Jen Richards claims, ‘if I am playing a trans* character, I don’t have to play the transness of it’. And if cis people take on trans* roles as a way to challenge themselves as actors, then why is this opportunity not given to trans* people? Why have trans* people historically been excluded from any consideration of playing cis roles?

‘It lends itself to this idea that we are just comedy, we are just some kind of freaks, that we are just playing dress-up in order to make other people laugh.’

       Tiq Milan

The trans* community are disproportionately abused, violated and murdered every year, with more than one in four trans people having faced a bias-driven assault[1]. When cis-men play trans* women and when cis-women play trans* men in roles, it perpetuates the idea that trans* people are just men and women in dress-up, and you can take the clothes and the costume off at any time and the game is up. But trans* people can’t take their transness off, because it isn’t a costume or play. It is real life, and they are the ones who face the real-life consequences when, at the end of the day, they come face-to-face with hatred in the street, at a bar, or at a bus stop.

In the US, the ‘Trans-Panic Defense’ is a space in the law which allows people to be ‘partially or completely excused from crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction’. When allowances for hatred, abuse, violence and murder are literally written into the law against trans* individuals simply because they are trans*, then surely it seems vital that we get the representation of transness right? When people watch TV shows and films where cis-actors are playing trans* roles and there is a clumsy representation, it reinforces the idea that a trans* woman is just a man in dress-up. This makes it more likely that when people or violent men are confronted with a trans* woman in real-life, the reaction will be a mocking, abusive one… rather than one of neutrality and understanding.

Jen Richards, a trans* actress and activist, suggests that ‘part of the reason that [cisgender] men end up killing trans* women…is [because] their friends, the men whose judgement they are fearing, only know trans* women from media, and the people who are playing trans* women are the [cis] men that they know’. She maintains that, ‘this doesn’t happen when trans* women play trans* women…because it deflates this idea that [trans* women] are somehow men in disguise’.

Nick Adams, the director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, suggests, ‘for decades Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans* people, and sometimes they are being taught to react to us in fear, [and] that we are dangerous, that we are psychopaths, that we are serial killers, that we must be deviants or perverse, why else would you wear a dress if you’re a man?’. Laverne Cox has also said that ‘for a very long time, the ways in which trans* people have been presented to us on screen has suggested that we are not real, have suggested that we are mentally ill, that we don’t exist…yet here I am, yet here we are, and we’ve always been here’. According to a survey carried out by GLAAD, ‘80% of Americans do not actually personally know someone who is transgender, so most of the information that Americans get about who transgender people are, what [trans*] lives are about, comes from the media’. I believe that this fundamentally proves that there is a strong correlation between the representations of trans* people that we are shown through the media, and the subsequent treatment of trans* people on the ground.

‘Seeing trans people loved, uplifted and well regarded in film and television can endear you to step in when you see a trans* person being harassed on the street, and to make sure the trans people in your life are supported in ways that affirm their humanity. But when all you see reinforced is violence, we are put further in harms way.’

Laverne Cox

We must identify the media, now perhaps more than ever before, as a vital tool of communication with a monumental amount of influence, and the ability to educate people on transness and the intricacies of trans* life. When the media talks about transgender issues – it is imperative they get it right. A positive change in the ways trans* people are represented across all forms of media would directly impact the treatment of trans* people and their bodies on the ground. It is vital if we are ever to relieve the plight of trans* individuals living in a society that has been constructed to exclude and punish them. In order to be good allies to the trans* community, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and invest our support by watching films and TV shows like Pose, where trans* actors are at the forefront of telling their own stories, and question cis actors who take on trans* roles. If we all think back to our initial experiences with transness, to those often flawed points of reference we hold, and challenge them – we are taking little steps to reduce stigma. Those little steps eventually amount to a lot, and hopefully will build greater allyship for a community bursting with life, love, and stories to tell.

‘How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take people to see that? We’re all in this rat race together!’

Marsha P. Johnson


  • Disclosure
  • Paris is Burning
  • Pose
  • The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson


  • Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, dir. by Sam Feder.
  • ‘When a heterosexual man is charged with murdering a transgender woman with whom he has been sexually intimate, one defense strategy is to assert what has been called the trans panic defense. The defendant claiming this defense will say that the discovery that the victim was biologically male provoked him into a heat of passion causing him to lose self-control. If the jury finds that the defendant was actually and reasonably provoked, it can acquit him of murder and find him guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. The trans panic defense strategy is troubling because it appeals to stereotypes about transgender individuals as sexually deviant and abnormal’. Referenced in, Cynthia Lee and Peter Kwan, ‘The Trans Panic Defense: Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and the Murder of Transgender Women’, Hastings Law Journal, 66.77, (2014), 77-132 (p. 77).

[1] National Centre for Transgender Equality, Anti-Violence (2020) <; [accessed 6 August 2020].

Solidarity Opinions

Body Over Mind?

‘Femininity as spectacle is something in which virtually every woman is required to participate.’

Sandra Bartky

Human bodies are under constant scrutiny to look, behave and take up space in a particular way. Growing up girl, I have experienced first-hand the pressures that are placed on women to carry out the social ideal of femininity. For as long as I can remember, I have been conditioned to believe that I must look a specific way, and if I fail to fit this prescribed criteria then I am ugly and therefore unsuccessful and hold less value. The media has consistently promoted a particular image of perfection to me, something that I should aim towards embodying – the conventionally attractive woman. Supermodels and social media influencers are celebrated as performing femininity ‘perfectly’, which leaves women like me desiring more from our bodies. We wish we were thinner, or had curves, had bigger boobs, or smaller tummies, had longer legs, and peachier bums. Women are deterred from loving their natural selves at all costs. The ‘natural’ woman is rarely celebrated or represented in the media, because it is much harder to make money off of a woman who loves herself. Instead, there is a large focus on what women can do to improve themselves…how they can change their bodies in order to mimic the appearance of the conventionally attractive woman that we see being celebrated and praised so highly in the media. Performing femininity ‘perfectly’ seems to serve as an inescapable requirement that all women must endeavour to achieve, no matter the cost…

‘I say I love myself, and they’re like, “oh my gosh”, she’s so brave. She’s so political. For what? All I said is “I love myself, bitch!”’


Trends and norms of feminine appearance seem to change drastically over time, meaning the pursuit of this feminine ideal can be a confusing and somewhat dangerous territory to navigate. Due to these frequent changes in bodily trends though, there is an unreasonable degree of pressure placed on women to keep up with this ‘perfect woman’ ideal, which can often lead to us carrying out appearance-related rituals that compromise our mental and physical health. For years now, I have been carrying out disciplines and routines to ‘better’ myself, by making small changes to my body. I exercise, diet, wear makeup, buy new clothes, paint my nails, style my hair, do skincare routines, shave my body hair, wear perfume, get piercings, apply fake-tan…the list goes on. I have tried fad diets, meal replacement shakes and even bought pills which work by suppressing your hunger. Weirdly, these rituals seem to disguise themselves as things I just do for ‘self-care’, to make me feel better. It’s interesting to me the relationship I have between feeling happiness and looking like anything but my natural self. My automatic assumption that to be happy is to be pretty, thin and conventionally attractive. But then I remember that we live in a capitalist-functioning society that rewards women for adhering to the ideals of feminine beauty that the media shoves down our throats (and has done since we were little). I think that from a very young age, girls are encouraged to believe that if they look feminine, behave in a feminine way and have feminine values and interests (whatever this even means), then they have somehow won, or achieved something… If we are thin and beautiful and we fit in, that this equates to our success and therefore our happiness. We are told off when we do things that ‘aren’t ladylike’, or if we are wearing outfits that are considered ‘slutty’ or ‘too revealing’; we are politely reminded that only ‘really skinny girls wear those dresses’ and that being ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ is unattractive and something that we should steer clear of.  

It’s not at all surprising then, that often girls feel inadequate and learn to hate their bodies. Fad diets, Botox and cosmetic surgery, hunger-suppressant pills, meal-replacement shakes, and excessive exercise seem to serve as a solution for us to ensure that we don’t become this fat and ugly monster that we are all too often poisoned against? Recently though, I have seen that girls seem to be hating their bodies at a much younger age, they are embarking on these dangerous ‘solutions’ and feeling the need to alter themselves when they are still kids. But when celebrities, and social media influencers, and even ‘normal’ young women in their 20s/30s who these girls look up to as role models, are promoting vitamins that give you better hair and skin, pills that suppress appetite, teas that reduce ageing, meal replacement shakes, skinny tea/coffees that are filled with laxatives, waist trainers, and Botox and cosmetic surgery, to young, vulnerable, and easily influenced girls, I think it’s easier to understand how these children can come to hate themselves. No girl should be led to believe that it is healthy to suppress their hunger, or consume laxatives, or squash their bodies into tiny waist trainers (which can severely damage our internal organs), or drink a shake rather than eat a meal. Why are women of all ages, but particularly girls between the ages of 15-25 encouraged to drink tea to reduce their ageing??? I wish the people who promote these products would think about how damaging these habits are and take responsibility as role models who have the power to influence young girls, who don’t need any more added pressure to look perfect. I wish they could understand, that preserving the mental and physical health of young girls is more important than making money from destroying the self-worth of children. Having said this, it seems easier to understand why it is considered such a political statement, for women to declare that they love themselves.          

There is an obsession surrounding the rhetoric of losing weight, looking younger, before and after/transformation pictures, going on ‘health kicks’, detoxing and how to obtain the perfect ‘summer’ and ‘bikini’ body (this one is actually astonishingly toxic to me – why have we been taught to think that our bodies are seasonal? In winter, they’re not allowed to be seen, they are being trained to perfection for the big reveal in summer…Our bodies are not school projects or artistic sculptures that we don’t want anyone to see until they are finished or look perfect). When I think about it, I’ve never heard anyone speak about losing weight in a negative context, women seem to gain respect, value and likeability after sharing their weight loss journey. I often hear ‘she’s lost so much weight’, closely followed by something like, ‘doesn’t she look amazing’. It’s worrying to me, that at 23 years old, I’m only just starting to really understand how damaging these comments are.              

‘You can’t hate yourself happy. You can’t criticize yourself thin. You can’t shame yourself worthy. Real change begins with self-love and self-care.’

 Jessica Ortner

‘Hating our bodies is something that we learn, and it sure as hell is something that we can unlearn.’

Megan Jayne Crabbe

For quite a while now, me and my body have had a mutual understanding that we make each other sad. I don’t blame my body for that (although I have in the past), but growing up girl and trying to cope with the pressures of being and looking like the right ‘type’ of person has had a detrimental effect on my mental health. On several occasions, I have found myself terrified to take up space or be seen in public because I have been ashamed and disgusted at the way I look. Growing up, I would often cancel plans because I didn’t feel comfortable seeing other people. If my sister and friends managed to persuade me to come out, I would try on clothes or look in the mirror and just cry, then I would force myself to exercise, cry again and find something to wear that still didn’t look nice but also didn’t look completely awful (or as awful as it did half an hour ago before my exercise), and then I would let myself go out. I wouldn’t be filled with confidence, but soon enough I would be drunk so I wouldn’t care/notice as much. (Shoutout to Fern and Yasmin for dealing with my shit and getting me through that time).  I truly hated my body and punished myself for it at every opportunity. I had internalised feelings of guilt which meant that my relationship with food was awful. I would often find that I was starving/depriving myself of food, and when I got to university, I would occasionally make myself sick so that I wouldn’t feel so guilty for eating. I have had friends in the past who told me I had ‘Body Dysmorphia’, but I was in denial about that too. I remember thinking, I’m not mistaken, I know what I can see in the mirror, I just don’t like it, I don’t have a problem, I just need to change the way I look, and then I will be happy. It’s weird because when I think about it now, I can see how irrational and problematic all of that behaviour was, but at the time it’s very easy to convince yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy unless you look a particular way.

When I think about the relationship I have had with my own body, it makes me really worried for younger girls who are yet to navigate this complex relationship that the vast majority of women go through with their bodies. But what makes me most sad when I think about the constant pressure that female bodies face, is that I have never met a girl who feels, or has always felt, completely secure in her own skin. The vast majority of us seem to experience this horrendous rites of passage, filled with self-hatred and criticism. Research suggests that 86% of women are ‘dissatisfied with their bodies’ and want to lose weight, with only 2% of women around the world describing themselves as ‘beautiful’. In addition, ‘women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity’. The NHS has suggested that anorexia and eating disorders in younger children may be increasing. In 2019, they revealed that, ‘child and adolescent psychiatrists reported 305 new cases of anorexia during an 8-month period, among children and young people with an average age of between 14 to 15 years. Overall, that translated to around 14 new cases of anorexia per 100, 000 young people aged 8 to 17 each year.’ These statistics demonstrate the cultural obsession with dieting and the pressure women face to attain the feminine ideal, that only seems to be worsening and becoming more and more out of control. Perhaps a more refined focus on recognising the beauty within our true, natural selves and representing diverse female bodies, rather than the perceived beauty in enforced ideals would significantly reduce the number of women and children who suffer from diseases associated with poor mental and physical health.

‘Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.’

Serena Williams

Me and my body are getting along much better now. I appreciate what she does for me rather than hating her for what she looks like. It seems I have finally realised that ALL bodies are worth celebrating, including mine.

It still frustrates me when people pass judgements based on the appearance of others, but hopefully one day in the future, they will realise how damaging their words can be and that there are far better things to do with their time. I don’t expect body/appearance shaming to end tomorrow, or that people will stop making money by looking like and promoting the ‘perfect woman’. But I hope with the current traction of the body positivity movement as well as developments in the representation of diverse bodies e.g. the Savage Fenty show (I would highly recommend watching if you haven’t already, and choose to buy Savage Fenty instead of Victoria’s Secret); that people will be able to see their beautiful, normal, body types being reflected back to them, popularised and celebrated, and will hopefully be less likely to undertake gruelling processes to change themselves to fit into a rigid mould that society expects of us.  

As we enter the Holiday/New Year season, I think it is important to be mindful of the toxic rhetoric that surrounds New Year resolutions and goals. Let’s be a little more kind to each other and ourselves. Don’t let yourself feel bad for eating, or feel the need to eat extremely clean/minimally now so that you can ‘treat’ yourself over Christmas, don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on yourself to lose that quarantine weight. Make your New Year’s Resolution to become healthier, or increase fitness, to get into yoga or meditation, rather than to weigh less or look thinner or anything that reinforces being this unrealistic image of the ‘perfect woman’. Uplift friends, family and strangers with compliments instead of making insulting/judgemental comments. Make an effort to unlearn negative stereotypes and call people out for their objectification and sexualisation of the female form. Look in the mirror and compliment yourself as though you would a friend. We will likely be bombarded with sales pitches from members of pyramid schemes to encourage us to buy products to get that bikini body for 2021, but let’s avoid buying into this punishment and reward rhetoric where we are convinced by others that our appearance needs fixing. Remember, there is no one ‘perfect’ body. Bikini and Summer bodies do not exist. Our bodies are unique and incredible, they do so much for us. ALL of them deserve to be celebrated and loved. Let’s avoid any appearance-related judgements and prioritise mental and physical health after a truly challenging year.

‘And I said to my body softly, “I want to be your friend.” It took a long breath and replied, “I have been waiting my whole life for this.”’

Nayyirah Waheed


Listen to Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), by Baz Luhrmann