Physical Appearance and Voice in Male-To-Female Transsexuals

This is an interesting study of the importance of physical appearance versus voice for passing. The authors used two panels to rate the “femaleness” of male-to-female transsexuals. They rated audio tapes, video tapes, and videos without sound.

The judges were randomly divided into two groups. “Each group of judges rated half of the subjects from the auditory-only mode and the audiovisual mode, and half of the subjects from the visual-only mode and the audiovisual mode.” This controlled for possible order or sequence effects.

The panelists did not know that they were listening to or looking at trans women.

The study found that overall the video alone was most likely to be rated female, the video with sound was next most likely, and the sound alone was least likely to be rated female.

Thus, appearance and voice work together when figuring out someone’s gender. To put it another way, a feminine appearance can make a voice sound more feminine.

There were, however, a few individuals who were rated more feminine without the visual appearance. For them, a feminine voice helped counteract a less-feminine appearance.

The study also found that in the auditory only mode of presentation, the average fundamental frequency of the voice was correlated with a female rating. The voice itself makes a difference.

It would have been good to have had the panels rate some cis women’s voices and photos for comparison.

This is a well-designed study that supports the conclusions the authors make. It underlines the importance of working on multiple factors for passing.

The authors of the study conclude:

One implication of this finding is, at any rate, that the success of vocal training in male-to-female transsexuals is not solely dependent on vocal characteristics, and that any assessment of the success of voice training should take into account the possible contribution of a client’s physical appearance. Whether or not the increase of fundamental frequency in a particular male-to-female transsexual is sufficient is probably also determined by the acceptability of the client’s physical appearance. With a physical appearance that rates high for femaleness an individual with a less female voice may nonetheless be accepted as a woman. Conversely, a female voice does not automatically guarantee that an individual will be accepted as a woman if physical appearance is not acceptable. As acceptability of physical appearance can influence perception of femaleness of the voice, speech pathologists involved in gender teams may consider devoting special attention to training clients with respect to physical markers of femaleness such as in clothing and makeup. Since physical appearance can apparently positively influence listeners’ judgment of the femaleness of the voice, extra attention to physical appearance seems worthwhile, particularly in those cases where efforts to alter an individual’s voice proved less successful and where other procedures (voice change surgery) are not an option.

Original Article:

Physical Appearance and Voice in Male-To-Female Transsexuals by John Van Borsel, Griet De Cuypere, Hilde Van den Berghe in J Voice. 2001 Dec;15(4):570-5.

Bold added by George Davis.

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