Tyler Ford is busy. The 24-year-old agender writer and speaker from Boca Raton, Florida, barely has time for their own writing between modelling engagements, interview requests, and inspiring teens on Tumblr. Since participating in Season Two of The Glee Project, they've worked with Miley Cyrus's Happy Hippie Foundation, given advice to LGBTQ youth on MTV, and spoken at countless schools, in between contributing poetry for Rookie and articles for the Guardian. We caught up with them in Brooklyn, New York to talk about body positivity, Insta-praise, and complimenting yourself.
Broadly: Can we talk a little bit about your relationship to your own body? How do you feel about it? I'm obsessed with your "Compliment Yourself" shirt—is that something you practice every day?
Tyler Ford: Thank you! I'm physically disconnected or detached almost all of the time and always have been. I love my body, but my favorite thing about it is my brain. My body houses me, and I am thankful for that. I do often look in the mirror and think, "Hell yes," and I am the first person to say, "I'm so cute," but most of the time, I'm not thinking about my body. I am VERY often thinking about how other people project gender onto my body, which has less to do with thoughts about my body and everything to do with my safety and the assumptions people make about physicality and how it relates to gender.
I design the t-shirts I sell (My Friend Tyler™ designs) based on my personal values, mottos, and beliefs. One shirt reads "Compliment Yourself" because I think self-validation is incredibly important. If I don't acknowledge my own strengths and my own power and my own beauty, I am doing myself a great disservice. Moving through this world as a black, queer, asexual trans person means to be told I'm wrong or I'm disgusting or I'm ugly or I'm inhuman on a regular basis. If I don't have a foundation of self-love and self-awareness that I can pull from to get me through all the bullshit, my self and my ability to live my life gets lost in the sea of everyone else's toxic judgments.
I do compliment myself often, and I think we all deserve that from ourselves. When I was four, I didn't spend time picking myself apart when I couldn't color inside the lines. I held up my papers and exclaimed, "I made a pretty picture! Hang it up on the wall!" Why at 24 am I expected to tear my picture down, to think that it doesn't deserve a spot on that wall or anywhere else in this world? That doesn't serve me or anyone! Self-hatred keeps me down and I want to rise like a balloon for the rest of my life because I have shit to do! I have a life to live and I can't accomplish anything if I'm not acting as my own personal cheerleader. No one else is going to do that job for me.
On social media, I get a lot of comments that read, "you're so cute!" and "you are BODY GOALS" (these comments are balanced out by the "ew you need to shave" and "you're disgusting" comments).
What kind of compliments do you normally receive re: your bod? Can you think of a recent example?
On social media, I get a lot of comments that read, "You're so cute!" and "You are BODY GOALS" (these comments are balanced out by the "Ew you need to shave" and "You're disgusting" comments). People I know personally have different reactions to my body—particularly women I'm close to, and especially family members or adult women who have known me since I was young. They tell me I have the "perfect figure" or the "perfect body." They say things like, "You're so thin!" or "You're so tiny!" or "If I had your body I would do ABC and eat XYZ!" None of these register as compliments to me, though many people have good intentions when they say these things to me (I think?).
How does it make you feel to hear people say stuff like that about your body?
When talking about my body, women often compare their own to mine and it is makes me want to crawl into a hole. I am here to talk about body issues and oppressive beauty standards all day long, but I cannot compare my body to anyone else's. I don't like thinking about my body, and comparison is unhelpful and unhealthy for both of us. Most of the above comments on my body are uncomfortable because people don't know what my relationship to my body is, they don't know how it feels to live in my body, they don't know what my experiences are or what my life is like, AND they're telling me that my body is the perfect body for a woman. I'm not a woman. Please stop telling me about how much heterosexual sex you would have if you had my body—you're projecting gender and sexuality onto my body, and I don't want to know about how much sex you think this body deserves, as if any body is inherently deserving of sex.
Do you think your relationship to your body has been affected by the praise it receives?
My relationship to my body has definitely been shaped by what other people have said about it, and how other people judge bodies in general. In middle school, I would alter the way I groomed and dressed based on what boys had to say about my body, and based on who was on the cover of Cosmopolitan and what they looked like. I don't think there's a way to avoid that as a young person. As an adult, I'm more aware of beauty constructs and social constructs and things that perpetuate feelings of self-hatred, so at this point I'm more apt to listen to my own praise as opposed to praise from other people. I know what I'm supposed to love and supposed to hate about my body—and I love it all in resistance to that.
Do you think you'd notice if people stopped complimenting you on it?
Yes, I would definitely notice if people stopped commenting on my body. It would be a relief, but part of me would probably be like, "Um, why are y'all sleeping on me?"
How are you with receiving compliments in general? How about giving them?
A couple weeks ago, I was at a birthday dinner with a bunch of friends. A close friend of mine told me, "You look really cute!" and I responded, "I know, thank you!" We both smiled, but the rest of the table gasped and there was a small uproar. I looked ethereal that night, I knew it, and I deserved to know it and to feel great about it. People are really shocked when I claim who and what I am with confidence. I don't typically preface my thank you's with I know's, unless it's in response to someone I'm close to or spend a lot of time around, but I do often accept compliments graciously and confidently. I'm very good at giving compliments and I love helping people feel great about who they are. I often send my friends spontaneous texts that detail things I admire and love about them to remind them that they are important to me and to the world.
A good compliment is honest, sincere, and truly for the benefit of the recipient.
What makes a good compliment?
A good compliment is honest, sincere, and truly for the benefit of the recipient. A good compliment is selfless and holds no expectations for any particular response.
What's the best compliment you've ever received, either on your body or anything else?
"We're better off in the world with you here," and "I'm a better person for knowing you."