Many people who have transgender feelings deal with them through body modification, or “body mods.” Some feel better if they see in the mirror a body that looks more like the gender they want to be; others feel better if they are treated as the gender they want to be, so they change their appearance in order to increase the chance that this will happen.
When we think of transgender body mods, the first one that comes to everyone’s mind is “the surgery,” meaning genital surgery. There are other surgeries that people talk about, and the modifications that happen with hormone use. There is long-term hair removal through electrolysis. Finally there are the toxic modifications produced by the “pumping” of silicone and other substances into bodies by exploitative quacks.
The body mods I’ve described are permanent, or at least very hard to reverse. There are short-term grooming procedures like makeup, clothing and wigs, which can be removed within an hour. In between are medium-term changes that Helen Boyd has called “soft body mods,” which don’t last forever but are hard to reverse in the short term.
Helen tells a story of meeting people in a bar near a trans convention and knowing instantly that they were cross-dressers, even though they weren’t cross-dressed at the time. She noticed things like pierced ears, sculpted eyebrows, lack of facial or body hair, haircuts that could work for either gender presentation, clothes that look similar to men’s clothes but were cut for women, and long fingernails with clear polish. Lots of non-trans men have one or two of those things, but relatively few have more than two.
Many non-transitioning trans people are careful about their muscles: not too big for male to female people, bigger for female to male. We may also try to gain or lose more fat in the places that look right for our target gender presentation, even though many people say that targeted fat loss doesn’t work.
There are also behavioral changes that affect how our bodies are perceived. Some of us try to walk or stand or hold our arms in a way that minimizes signals of one gender and highlights signals of another gender, and we may try to modify our voices to sound like our target gender. (The extent to which we succeed is a matter of debate, but it’s clear that some of us try).
These behaviors and postures are temporary changes, but if they become routine they can change our muscle memory and “bleed over” into our other gender presentations. If this happens with influential people, it can be copied by others. This could be part of the origin of the movement and vocal patterns we see in some gay men, that are stereotyped as “swishing” and “lisping.”
Body mods are not always permanent, and they’re not always obvious. Without being permanent or obvious, they can affect the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. And they’re not all cheap; many of them represent a significant investment of time, money or both.