My parents never bought Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, or Snow White. They weren’t stories told in our house or movies played on our TV. There was no Princess Tiana then, but my parents only showed us films with “colored” princesses: Mulan (Asian), Pocahontas (Native American), and Jasmine (Arab). We also loved the African animals of The Lion King. We never idealized whiteness in our house. None of this was done overtly, though it may have been intentional. Only in retrospect did I realize the kind of tacit self-love my parents were embedding in us.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Around the age of thirteen, I realized that the world was telling me that light skin and “good hair” were better, skinny was better, and whiteness was better. In fleeting moments, I wished I could be white. I begged my mom to straighten my hair, and she did. I went through sometimes unreasonable means to lose weight, and I tried to keep my somewhat light skin out of the sun.
If I had gone to my parents begging them to be white, I think they might have laughed, cried, comforted me, and worried what they did wrong as parents. But what if I had told them not only that I wanted to be white but that I actually was white? What if I had declared that the race of my body simply didn’t match that of my mind? I think they would’ve been deeply troubled.
The Bluest Eye
The famous Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye, parallels this idea. The main character, Pecola, is a dark-skinned girl who desperately wants blue eyes. By the end of the story, she has blue eyes—or at least, she believes that she does. We, as the readers, don’t applaud this. In fact, by the end of the novel, we think Pecola has lost her mind. We know that it’s not really blue eyes she wants, she wants something much deeper—love, acceptance, respect, honor . . . the intangible human desires we all crave but are not equally given. We know that she has not received this, but instead is a victim of perpetual abuse, and there is no easy solution to her problems.
But what if it were really possible for me to become white or for Pecola to acquire blue eyes? Would that be the end of the story—the happily ever after? Would changing our physical appearance magically erase all our issues of self-esteem and self-worth?
No, of course not. The eyes and the skin color were never the problem: racism and abuse were. We would only be putting a Band-Aid on the real issue. The many men and women who “passed” as white during America’s shameful Jim Crow era may have gained the social privileges bestowed by being white, but they also lost their heritage, their family ties, and their integrity, thanks to the lie they were forced to tell every single day.
Race, Sex, and Gender
But what if, instead of wanting to be white, I wanted to be a man? What if, instead of crying to my parents that I was really a white person, I told them that I was really a man and that I desperately wanted to change my body to match my mind? If, in this scenario, you think that my parents should applaud my courage, accept my new gender identity, and run to the nearest surgeon, please ask yourself: “Why?”
There’s no doubt that race and sex are two very different issues. Race is a social construct invented during the era of slavery. Before the European enslavement of Africans, there were no united “black people” in Africa, and there were no united “white people” in Europe. Thanks to slavery, the labels of black and white became a convenient way to continue oppression, but they are a relatively new way of identifying one’s self.
But sex is not a human invention. Yes, gender roles are culturally created. Still, that does not erase the fact that every human being (except intersex individuals, who represent a tiny percentage) is born with a distinctive set of physical and biological attributes that constitute them as male or female. That is a truth that cannot be erased with time.
Self-Love as a Virtue
When we want to be something other than our true authentic selves, that is self-hate. A black person who wants to be white is practicing self-hate, and so is a man who wants to be a woman or a woman who wants to be a man. We live in a climate of incredible self-absorption, but we won’t encourage people to love the body they’re in? We tell women to love their curves and love their age and love the skin they’re in but we won’t tell them (and men) to love the sex of their bodies?
We cry out about the horrors of female genital mutilation, yet we allow the practice in our backyard. We ignore the cries of patients who wake up from surgery full of remorse. We ignore their suffering and delude them with the promise of quick fixes and instant happiness. At The Federalist, Stella Morabito quotes a man who, upon waking up from his surgery thought, “What have I done? What on earth have I done?”
Eerily, in his Vanity Fair interview, Jenner echoes this man as he recalls his own thoughts after his ten-hour face feminization surgery: “What did I just do? What did I just do to myself?” Another post-op patient says in an online forum, “I am grieving at how I have mutilated my body.” Here at Public Discourse, Walt Heyer has written about the regret he experienced after his sex-change surgery.
We are playing a dangerous game. A man or a boy whose penis has been surgically removed can’t go back in time and return to his God-given nature. What if we spent the money we spend on surgery and drugs on therapy and learning self-love? We should be teaching a message of self-acceptance instead of buying into the latest surgeries or believing we’re born in the wrong body.
The Slavery of Freedom
Paradoxically, the more our society tries to free itself from gender stereotypes, the more it becomes enslaved to them. By saying that people can be born in a body of the wrong gender, transgender activists are saying there is a set of feelings that are only allocated to women and another set for men. Therefore, they believe, those who feel things that do not conform to their sex’s acceptable set of feelings must outwardly change their gender to match their mind.
Why are we colluding with narrow ideas of femininity or masculinity? What does it mean to “feel” like a woman? Should we question that idea as much as we have questioned ideas of a “woman’s place” or a “man’s role”? When did we come to accept the idea of “gendered thoughts” or “gendered feelings”?
As a linguistic student of Arabic, I recently learned that women and men are not opposite so much as they are complementary. The idea that one could feel opposite from one’s biological gender is actually nonsensical, linguistically and in reality. Men and women are different, but not so categorically that one can feel as though he or she were the other. We are full human beings, free to think as we wish without questioning our authenticity as men or as women.
“Bruce lives a lie. She is not a lie,” says Bruce Jenner in his interview with Diane Sawyer. Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner, told Sawyer that he has a “soul of a woman,” that he spent his life “running away from who I was.” At the time of that interview, Jenner’s voice and appearance are strikingly different from what they have been in the past, but not drastically enough to give the illusion of being female. Admittedly, Jenner looks much more feminine on the cover of Vanity Fair. Still, if he chooses to go through gender “reassignment” surgery, he will not become a woman but merely an illusion of one. As Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief for Johns Hopkins Hospital, has written, “‘Sex change’ is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women.”
People opposed to the transgender movement are often accused of being bigots. In truth, I—like many others—harbor no hate for people who suffer from gender identity disorder. Rather, I feel deep compassion and concern for them in their suffering. As someone in the field of psychology, I hope we can one day find a more holistic, less invasive means to treat this disorder. However, I will concede that I find something quite insulting about the entire phenomenon. It is an insult to the other sex to think that by “dressing like them,” “talking like them,” or claiming to “feel like them,” you can therefore be them. Being a man is about more than wearing a suit, and being a woman is about more than putting on makeup. If we feel confined in our bodies, perhaps it is not our bodies we should try to correct but our spirits we should reconnect with.
Nuriddeen Knight is an alumna of Teachers College, Columbia University, where she earned an MA in psychology with a focus on the child and the family.