Biogeochemical girl

Published on 2024-02-01

The idea of being "biologically" female is about as nebulous as it is sought after. It can mean a number of things. If you're biologically female, you may be one, some or all of:

  • Hormonally female, that is, you have estrogen levels like those of other biologically female people
  • Chromosomally female, that is, you have combinations of chromosomes like those of other biologically female people
  • Anatomically female, that is, you have primary and secondary sex characteristics like those of other biologically female people.

And from this, two key details stand out:

  • "Biologically female" is in fact itself a spectrum. No two women will not have the same estrogen levels or identical anatomy, and more often than you may expect, many won't share the same chromosomal makeup.
  • What it means to be "biologically female" is circularly defined. If you consider yourself biologically female and you think some other woman isn't, then that's because you think they're different enough from you to be disqualified from the label. To be biologically female is to be like biologically female people.

This is what gender theorists mean when they call biological gender a social construct. When people talk about biological gender in the context of gender identity, they are in fact talking about an idea someone came up with to discriminate between "real" and "fake" women in a world where women can have penises and men can have vaginas. It's a way to sidestep needing to acknowledge that everyone has their own experience of gender.

"Biological gender" is at best a conceptual model for how human bodies operate, and it's one that hurts a lot of people in the way it materializes patriarchal power structures--it lends the authority of science to something that ultimately we just made up. You know, like economics.

Anyways. So that's biological gender.

Some people make it their personal mission to replicate the biological female of Plato's realm as best they can. They take estradiol and anti-androgens, they undergo surgeries to change so-called primary and secondary sex characteristics, and they fear how they might be read if future anthropologists dig up their bones.

I too have felt these fears. And it's not like they don't have merit. Passing as a woman can be a serious safety concern, and if nothing else, looking like a woman can be pretty cool! But I think the only thing that's given me any semblance of peace in the long term has been taking a step back and trying to understand the bigger picture.

The other week, we were talking about nutrient cycling in one of my classes. There's three major categories of nutrient cycles:

  • The geochemical cycle - the cycle of nutrients throughout the Earth
  • The biogeochemical cycle - the cycle of nutrients between all the organisms of the living world and the ground
  • The biochemical cycle - the cycle of nutrients within a particular organism

Both an organism and its ecosystem are considered open systems--that is, they receive and output both energy and matter. Often times, it's not useful to think of things in terms of individual organisms, because each organism is deeply interrelated with all their neighbours in their ecological community and their physical environment. The biochemical cycle only makes sense in the context of the biogeochemical cycle, and so on.

If gender is a social performance, then the act of transforming your body to align with what most people think of as being "biologically female" is like becoming a biochemical girl. The biochemical girl is the sum of a network of processes and functions that produce characteristics her culture perceives as feminine.

But being a biochemical girl doesn't mean anything on its own.

Equally as important is the work we do to support the larger ecosystem in which biochemical girls exist. The biogeochemical girl shapes and is shaped by her environment to generate femininity as an emergent property of the vast network of relationships that constitute the world she lives in. In the grand scheme of things, her being a "biochemical" girl is relatively insignificant, assuming that she's supported by relationships that allow her femininity to flourish.

In this sense, while the most significant advantage of being a biochemical girl in a particular ecosystem is that it may help you to find and gain access to that niche, it certainly isn't necessary. What combination of processes a particular person chooses to engage with to produce a world they can live in comfortably depends a lot on the context of their life. That context may even change over time.

The goal is always to become a biogeochemical girl. How you get there is up to you.

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