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Dear Virgie: How Do I Support My Trans Partner’s Desire to be Buff?


Dear Virgie,

My partner is a thin trans man and I’m a fat cis woman. Recently my partner has had some heartbreaking instances of being misgendered and in part blames his thinness. He’s expressed some mean self-talk about his body (wishing he was more “buff” or muscular to be read as male). 

How do I both support him in the changes he wishes to make to his body, but also remain body positive and encouraging about the body he has right now? 

Not to mention: trying to take care of myself while hearing mean self-talk around me? 

Hey friend!

Body size and gender are so thoroughly linked culturally. And it sounds like your partner has the added stress of intentionally performing gender to protect against misgendering (i.e. feeling emotionally and potentially physically unsafe). I really like your approach: both desiring to support him in his needs and also take care of yourself.

I think practicing this mindset of individuation is central to my advice.

Individuation is like the opposite of codependency. It’s the recognition that you are your own person with an identity all your own, a personhood that no one can take away from you and a personality that does not have to waver to get people’s approval or love. In short, when we practice individuation in our relationship we are saying, “you are your own person and your hopes and desires do not change my worth or my needs.”

Related: It’s Not Always Oppression Olympics; Sometimes Social Justice Must Be Urgent

I am sure that not everyone would agree with me on this, but I actually think it’s OK for partners to have different goals or desires when it comes to their bodies. As long as both people practice respect and these differences feel good to both people — as long as it works for each respective partner — then I think that’s great. I like the idea that people can come together and have amazing relationships without the expectation that you will both speak the exact same political language. I like that there’s room for the nuance of your boo’s gender presentation as well as your needs for body-positive language and intentions.

Negotiating those differences will be very you-specific, but I think some negotiating is going to be central to you both feeling good moving forward.

This can look a lot of different ways but, for instance, my partner likes going to the gym and I find the gym to be a soul-leeching place that feels unsafe to me. He REALLY wanted me to like the gym so we could have quality time together there. I also think he wants to spend more time at the gym and figured that if I was his gym buddy then he’d go more often. He was hurt that I had so much judgment about the gym (I wouldn’t call it “judgment” — I would call it astute observation — but anywayyy). We had to have a discussion about this and we came to a pretty peaceful conclusion: I wouldn’t talk shit about the gym and he wouldn’t ask me to go. Sometimes if we are both feeling like doing something movement-oriented we’ll go to the park (for me) and I’ll walk faster than my typical distracted amble (for him).

For your relationship maybe the conversation looks a little like an interview: ask your partner what kind of language feels affirming to him, then he asks what feels affirming to you. After that, I would be frank about your “no go” phrases and sentiments. Be specific. If you’re OK with a phrase like “today I’m working out” but not OK with a phrase like “today I’m working out because I need to look buff,” then say that. You aren’t obligated to explain why you have the boundaries you have. Your partner’s job is to respect your boundaries.

Related: Dear Virgie: Give Me One Tool for Jumpstarting a New Relationship to my Body

Maybe you guys can come up with a playful way of dealing with slip-ups. Maybe there’s a body-negative jar (kind of like a cursing jar) and he has to put $1 in the jar each time he crosses the line. Maybe if you hit a certain amount you get to go on a date or buy a body-poz book to read together.

I think the final thing I want to say is that it’s amazing that you are thinking about all this, but the culture’s fucked up feelings about trans bodies (and fat bodies!) is not your fault and it’s not your job to take on the entire culture in your relationship. Show up for your partner, but be grounded about the inescapable ways the culture plays a role in your relationship. Be gentle with each other and remember you’re each just one person trying to experience intimacy in a fraught world.



Virgie Tovar, MA is an author, activist and one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master's degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.

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