Gender Non-Conforming Perspective: Body Image and Identity

Alok Vaid-Menon

Alok (they/them) is a gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, educator and entertainer. They are known for their sense of style, comedy, a poetic challenge to the gender binary. Alok has been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, and that’s just the beginning. They have also presented their work at over 300 venues in more than 30 countries. You can learn more about Alok here.

Given the lack of diverse voices typically found in discussions of body image, we wanted to interview Alok for our PRIDE month series and ask their opinions on body image and identity as someone who identifies as a South Asian nonbinary person.

TEP: Tell us about yourself!

Alok: Hi my name is Alok as in tell me Alok! I’m a gender non-conforming writer and performance artist with a lot of feelings!

TEP: Where were you born and raised? Where do you currently live?

Alok: I was born and raised in College Station, Texas and I currently live in New York City.

TEP: How do you make a living? What do you like to do?

Alok: I am a writer and performance artist. My favorite thing to do in the world is to have long conversations with my friends. I’m constantly meeting people for coffee or meals and just figuring out our lives and how we got here. There is nothing more wonderful than a day chock full of the people I love and admire!

TEP: We know our lives are shaped by our identities. Could you tell us about how your identity has affected your life?

Alok: In a very real sense — it’s made me have to deal with constant discrimination, harassment, and violence. Navigating the world as a visibly gender non-conforming person means that the world flings a lot of its anxieties and projections on me. I’ve had to learn how to develop a thick skin and hold my head high in a world that disputes my existence. But it’s not all been negative — my creativity has been nurtured and celebrated, my relationships strengthened, and my conviction on who I am and what kind of world I want built!

TEP: What are your thoughts on the Body Positivity movement?

Alok: To be honest, I’ve struggled with the body positive movement because it has for so long been dominated by white cis women. What’s important to understand is that as a gender non-conforming person of color there is a direct correlation between loving/celebrating myself and being attacked for it. It’s not just that I need to be positive about myself, it’s that society needs to stop being invested in gender binaries. However, I’ve recently been uplifted by the visibility of queer and trans Black people and people of color in the body positivity movement not just calling for celebration, but calling for organizing against discriminatory policies and institutions, moving the onus on society and not the individual. I’m fighting for a world where all people can safely self-determine their gender and where all gender expressions are appreciated and recognized as valid, and I think that is deeply related to body positivity.

TEP: Can you speak to your relationship with your body? Studies have shown the majority of us are unhappy with our bodies. Do you identify with this?

Alok: Yes, I am constantly struggling with body-image issues: feeling too masculine, too feminine, too hairy, too ugly, too, too…but I always remind myself that I’m not the problem, the norms are the problem. That it’s not my fault that I feel uncomfortable in my body, it’s the fault of a profoundly violent and discriminatory world!

TEP: How do you promote body positivity?

Alok: Currently the only trans experiences which are recognized as legitimate are people to identify within the gender binary of “man” and “woman” and often only people who are taking hormones/pursuing medical transition. As a nonbinary person (neither a man nor a woman) and a gender non-conforming person not currently on hormones, for me to exist in my truth and claim my legitimacy and beauty is already an act of resistance. However the work doesn’t stop there — I use my poetry and writing to advocate for people like me, to demand justice for all trans and gender conforming people of color. I believe that advocating against murder and brutality against Black trans women and all trans femmes of color — all of this is ultimately about body positivity.

TEP: What do you love the most about your body?

Alok: I actually really love my chest hair! It’s so confusing that this world still regards body hair as “unhygienic” or something that needs to be removed to be beautiful. It’s a built in crop top! I love that I am so creative — that I can take all of the bad cards the world has dealt me and make some fab accessories out of them!

TEP: Do you have any advice for those struggling with eating disorders or body image issues?

Alok: As someone who has long struggled with body image issues, it was really important for me to recognize that it’s not my fault. There are so many corporations and systems and institutions who literally profit off of us not feeling good about ourselves — this is all a calculated strategy to uplift and prioritize white/cis/thin/hairless/able bodies. So it’s not just personal, it’s political. And you’re not alone! There are so many people out here like me fighting for a world where all bodies are celebrated!

TEP: What is one thing you wish people knew?

Alok: I wish people knew that we are far more expansive than our bodies — that we carry so much trauma, memory, ancestry, history, energy, spirit! And that you can never really know someone just by looking at their body.

TEP: What is one thing you wish people would stop asking you?

Alok: Are you a man or a woman? (lol)

TEP: We know you are a phenomenal writer, what’s is your favorite piece you wrote?

Alok: My book of poetry FEMME IN PUBLIC! Which you can order here!

TEP: What is your favorite quote, poem, or book?

Alok: This is going to sound geeky but whatever! I love science fiction/fantasy! And growing up I was utterly obsessed with Robert Jordan’s series WHEEL OF TIME! It’s like so freaking long, but I’ve read it multiple times!

TEP: Favorite food?

Alok: Malayali Food (from my home in India, Kerala!)

TEP: Any last thoughts?

Alok: I love and need you very much. I am because you are.

Tags: ,

The Emily Program Logo