Stop what you’re doing and take a quick look at the positioning of your body. Is your body language appropriate for your gender presentation? That’s what I have to do regularly as a transgender woman. And this is what transgender people experience many times a day.
Many of us who come under the umbrella term of ‘transgender’ contemplate on a daily basis how we present ourselves to the world around us. This means always thinking about our body language, gestures, and posture. We are aware that every move we make speaks about who we are and how the world will interact with us.
From my own personal experience as a trans woman just into my second year of transition I’m constantly thinking about my body language. For someone like me, communicating with ‘female’ body language comes naturally to me. But for the first 50 years of my life, I had to learn and practice the body language of the gender role that was assigned to me at birth – that of a male. I had to learn how to stand, sit, and gesture when speaking; how to carry things, what kind of facial expressions I made, and much more. When I slipped up, I would stop acting the role of a male and fall back to what was natural for me, presenting as female.
For transgender people, this situation is very common while transitioning. You are basically unlearning everything you had to do to survive in your environment on a daily basis, and reacquainting yourself with everything that feels natural to you. A significant part of this involves body language. Consider the difference in how women and men sit in a chair. The difference in how you carry things – heavy or light. Your gestures as you speak – expansive or confined. If you are sitting on public transit, where you typically sit, and how you sit. We’ve all seen the articles in recent months about ‘manspreading’. If you are transitioning to male, it’s something you have to learn, because if you sit with your knees and ankles together, you are going to get looks. We are typically judged by ‘cisgender’ standards, so one feels the need to ‘fit in’ to get along.
As I have become comfortable at last in my own skin, people have remarked frequently to me that they have seen a drastic change in my general demeanour. Previously, I had learned to give you the terse head nod and bone-crushing handshake. Now you will get a big smile, and I will offer you my hand to shake it, but lightly. I didn’t have to learn to do that, it came naturally, but I had to unlearn the grunt and handshake routine.
Next time you’re sitting in a coffee shop, take a moment and observe the people around you. Look at facial expressions, gestures, body language, and voice volume as people engage in conversation. What do you notice? What I’ve realized about myself is that I make much more direct eye contact when in conversation, I speak at a lower volume, I smile frequently and I find it much easier to focus now.
Recently, when I attended the Inspire Awards 5th Anniversary Gala, I was keenly aware of my own body language. When I had attended the gala the previous year, I had been a petrified wallflower, since it was my first major public event since beginning transition. This year, I was on the board of directors, one of the hosts during the reception prior to the formal portion of the evening, and on stage twice to present awards in front of a large audience. There were people there who had not seen me since the previous year and I thoroughly enjoyed watching their reactions. They heard my voice and were looking for me but until I stood in one of my typical ways or waved, they had not recognized me. I also noticed how a friend I had brought to the event had an experience similar to the one I had the previous year. This was their first foray into a large public event and they started out glued to a wall. But as they began to feel more comfortable and at home, they moved away from the wall and interacted with many people nearby.
I was not a petrified wallflower this year. People remarked that I was easy to find (besides the white hair that is) they just had to look for a big smile and there I was. Friends remarked what a huge change they had seen in one year, especially when I had to be on stage to present awards. I love that I shocked people, but that I was also a strong feminine presence. When I looked at pictures from the evening, the first thought I had was about my body language. I need not have worried though since now that I’m comfortable in my own skin, everything that I had previously suppressed has now become natural again and it shows.
Body language is an important part of how we communicate with each other every day. It can announce that you are approachable, warm and friendly, or that people should keep their distance. I would love to see the day when all members of our transgender family can walk proudly with their heads held high and not what I see many times, with downcast eyes and a timid demeanour.
Recently I was giving a talk to some transgender teens – a group that often finds it difficult to come to terms with their identity. I encouraged them to be proud of who they are and that their life experiences have given them something that others will never know – the experience of life from multiple places on the gender spectrum.
I’m glad I’ve had the experience of seeing life from both ends of the gender spectrum. For me this is a gift rather than a liability. And finally, my body language suits me in the most comfortable way.
– Christine Newman
This article is part of our issue COULD BE A SIGN: Ways of Communicating.