Bird tattoos come to life

Body as canvas

For transgender youth, body art can be a path to identity and resilience

“My tattoos help me, or at least in the way I see them, help me reclaim my body in a way I feel I haven’t been given the opportunity. I feel a lot of people have been born into their bodies and feel comfortable in them, I feel my tattoos are me taking my body back from the image this world had for my body and making it into my own and kind of beautifying myself that way.”   —Jax, 21

Tattooing and piercing, once associated with those on the margins of society, have become widespread in recent decades. But within queer culture—meaning gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons—its use is about twice as common as in the population as a whole.

A recent study explored the use of body art by transgender youth in particular. It drew on data collected in a larger study of 90 transgender participants from eight cities in the United States as well as Ireland and Canada. The youth in the study described their body art as a way to document their changing identities and relationships with their bodies.

Transgender youth include those who were assigned a gender at birth at odds with the gender they identify with, often from a young age. As these children mature into puberty, some express body dissatisfaction and hatred and may seek to modify their bodies.

Many of the study participants described giving a lot of thought and planning to the process. They described the results as positive, associated with declaring and gaining social support, resilience, and asserting ownership and control of their bodies, often for the first time. For example, one 26-year-old chose a song lyric for a tattoo:

“[I]t was this reminder that like the way that I own my body and the way I survive is by owning my body,” said Justin. “I have to do that in order to survive. And tattooing is this really positive way to do that so to get his tattooed on there was really good.”

Contrary to associations with self-destructive behavior, body art was described by participants in the study as constructive and creative, an instrument of health and connection.

Other studies from this research have focused on body image, community connections, and family relationships. The research has yielded two big takeaways: first, that “ownership” of one’s body leads to self-acceptance, and second, that trans youth experiences can add an important perspective on research about body size and image in the general population. For example, a lot of general research on body image focuses on size, which for trans youth intersects with gender identity. Elements of gender expression may be relevant for understanding body image among all people.

Seeking good, happy lives

Jenifer McGuire led the international interview study. McGuire is an associate professor of family social science who joined the faculty in 2014. Research on transgender youth has been a subfocus of hers since her postdoctoral research; she was led to it through her work with community centers and schools.

Jenifer McGuire
Jenifer McGuire

“I’m not as interested in why kids are trans as in how they can have good, happy lives,” says McGuire. “Transgender youth face disproportionate risks. We can also learn things from working with trans kids that will help us understand development for all kids.”

McGuire came to Minnesota after faculty positions in Washington and a year as a visiting research scientist in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, she worked on a study following the first group of adolescents who went through puberty suppression therapy to delay puberty and sex change.

“The U has one of the oldest clinics in the U.S. that works with trans youth,” she says, referring to the Center for Sexual Health. “It’s very exciting to be here.”

Just in time

For trans youth, the risks are high for being bullied, developing eating disorders, being rejected by their parents, and suffering from mental illness. Transgender people are the victims of the highest rates of homicide in the world.

In 2014, the American Psychological Association took a stand by publishing a policy statement declaring it unethical to suppress gender variance. McGuire’s research comes at a time when families, professionals, and communities are seeking information about a complex topic.

When the Minnesota chapter of the National Council on Family Relations held its annual one-day conference in New Brighton last December, it chose the topic of gender variance. McGuire was invited to give the keynote.

“Transgender issues were in the news, of course, but the organizers still didn’t know whether people would come to hear about the topic,” says McGuire.

The conference filled. More than 150 attended at the metro site and five more remote sites around the state. The Worthington newspaper covered it.

This year McGuire was selected to be the Children, Youth & Family Consortium’s 2016–17 scholar in residence. She’ll write for its publication and prepare Lessons from the Field for clinical and health professionals and school personnel (see below).

“One of the things we’ve learned is that what works for the LGBT population as a whole doesn’t necessarily translate into greater safety and perception of safety for trans kids,” says McGuire. “Our trans kids would be a lot better off if we took better care of them … and there are lots of ways to do that.”

Transgender (trans), gender variant, and gender nonconforming are adjectives used as umbrella terms to describe persons who identify with or express a gender identity that differs from the sex assigned at birth.
Within the transgender community, there is often a variety and continuum of behaviors and self-ascribed labels that reflect this variety of transgender identities and experiences. Some individuals may identify as genderqueer, nonbinary, or as another gender, possessing characteristics along both masculine and feminine continuums or possessing gender characteristics that are not easily categorized as masculine or feminine.
The terms transwoman and transman (or the child/adolescent counterparts transgirl and transboy) refer to an individual’s identity in living as a different gender from that assigned at birth.
Cisgender is an adjective used to describe persons whose gender identity is congruent with sex assigned at birth.


“Body art among transgender youth: Marking social support, reclaiming the body and creating a narrative of identity.” Jenifer K. McGuire and Alison Chrisler. In The Young Are Making Their World: Essays on the Power of Youth Culture, Yuya Kiuchi and Francisco A. Villarruel, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

“Body image in transgender young people: Findings from a qualitative, community based study.” Jenifer K. McGuire, Jennifer L. Doty, Jory M. Catalpa, and Cindy Ola. In Body Image 18 (2016): 96–107.

“Transfamily theory: How the presence of trans* family members informs gender development in families.” Jenifer K. McGuire, Katherine A. Kuvalanka, Jory M. Catalpa, and Russell B. Toomey. In Journal of Family Theory & Review 8 (March 2016): 60–73. DOI: 10.1111/jftr.12125

“Ambiguous loss as a framework for interpreting gender transitions in families.” Jenifer K. McGuire, Jory M. Catalpa, Vanessa Lacey, and Katherine A. Kuvalanka. In Journal of Family Theory & Review 8 (September 2016): 373–385. DOI: 10.1111/jftr.12159

Learn more about McGuire and her research. She is working with the Children, Youth & Family Consortium this year as the CYFC Scholar in Residence. See more information on the CYFC website.

See also Meeting the Needs of Transgender Youth through University of Minnesota Extension.

Story by Gayla Marty | Image from iStock | Fall 2016; update March 2017