Body image is a really weird thing if you’re trans.
I mean, body image is a really weird thing even if you aren’t… but maybe it’s fair to say that it’s an especially weird thing if you’re trans.
And especially if you’re a trans person who has dysphoria – because not all of us do.
I spend a lot of time thinking about – and speaking about – dysphoria, within the context of my own trans experience. What always surprises me about dysphoria is how dynamic it is, at least in my experience. As always, what I say is representative only of my own personal experiences – some trans people will share some of my sentiments, but many will not. For me, I experienced dysphoria my entire life. But it took me a long time (nearly three decades!) to understand it for what it was. I’d never been comfortable with my body – that much was always certain. I just never understood why I wasn’t comfortable with it. I thought it was icky, and gross, and ewww… and somehow, I managed to make peace with that, probably because I thought that I was icky and gross and ewww. So maybe, in some twisted sense, it was appropriate that my body should be too.
It’s a little weird, when I look back, because I can pick out some physical features that I was never happy with. Like, for example, I always knew that I hated the wiry hairs on my legs, or the fluff on my trunk. I didn’t like how it felt, I didn’t like how it looked, and I was extremely self conscious about it. But in addition to those specific things, there was also a lot of discomfort that was less specific. I hated the shape of my body – not anything particular about it, I just didn’t like the way it looked in the mirror. Too fat, too lumpy, too something that I can’t put my finger on. I assumed for the longest time that I had lingering issues from my childhood, because I used to be a fat kid. And I felt that otherness very acutely. There’s still a long way to go in the world when it comes to body positivity – even our language is geared towards the idea that being fat is shameful.
So for me, in a sense, my history of being overweight became a scapegoat for many of my body issues – and it kept me from understanding that they were manifestations of dysphoria.
I went through a phase where I tried to exercise and bodybuild my way into a perfect male physique – it’s a coping mechanism that a lot of trans women try. For me, I hoped that if my body conformed better to the expectations that society put on it, maybe I’d feel more comfortable in it. I never felt like I was the epitome of manliness – in retrospect, it’s pretty easy to understand why. But at the time, it felt to me like I wasn’t measuring up. I was shorter than average, and smaller than average, though I did my best to convince myself otherwise.
Needless to say, there was no quantity of creatine or resistance training that could ever make me love my body.
So, we had a complicated relationship with each other, my body and I. For years we lived in a tenuous balance, never quite getting along. I treated it with less respect than I should have, and it rebelled with physical symptoms. The mirror remained a painful place for me, and sex… well, sex was disastrous. Though that is a tale for another time.
And, all the while, I used to receive strange compliments that I could never understand. People said I was attractive, and it was hard for me to process. I never saw myself as attractive. I never felt attractive. I didn’t understand how anyone else could possibly think that I was. I was especially never happy being in photographs. I tried to duck and dive and avoid finding myself on the wrong end of a camera, and on the occasion that I did, I was never pleased with the results. I always thought I looked gross and icky and ewww.
And I was always covered up. Maybe I’d be wearing short sleeves, but never short trousers. And ohmygosh you would never ever, catch me in a photo with my shirt off.
Yeah, I kicked myself too when I started to understand. Once I recognised what I was experiencing as dysphoria, it all fell into place. And along with that, the vague discomfort started to get a lot more specific – I could start to pick out all the things that I didn’t like about my body.
But at the same time, that gave me a new perspective on the things I did like. My hands, my narrow shoulders, my facial features – all the bits that I used to feel a little self-conscious about, because they were so un-manly, and suddenly I could embrace those features. It was liberating. And more than that, it gave me some reprieve from the distress that all the rest had caused. It gave me something to focus on when I had an especially bad day with dysphoria. It was a reminder that my body did belong to me after all.
Really, in so many ways, this is one of the defining characteristics of my transition – it has been about claiming ownership over my own body.
This is why I cringe at the association that so many people have that equates transness with being trapped in the wrong body. It’s a trope that hurts and damages us and strips us of our agency over our bodies. For some people, those feelings might be true and valid – but they’re not universally true. And they certainly aren’t true for me.
I’ve never been trapped in the wrong body. I’ve had a complicated relationship with my body, sure. I’ve had times where I didn’t get along very well with it. Sometimes I looked at it and saw things that didn’t fit. But it’s always been my body. And because I am female, by extension it is a female body, and I am female-bodied.
And, as I’ve grown into it and it has grown into me, I’ve developed a new respect for that body. The estrogen has helped – of that, there is no doubt. In the nearly-a-year that I’ve been on it, it has softened my skin, plumped up my curves, started to grow some breasts, got rid of some body hair, and just generally left me feeling a lot more comfortable. When I look in the mirror now, I see more that I like, and less that I don’t. But though my body has changed, it’s still the same body – it’s still my body. We’ve just learned how to love each other. And that love grows with each passing day.
My body is not perfect – I will not be in the Sports Illustrated anytime soon (though maybe the Pirelli calendar is a prospect?). I have cellulite and stretch marks. My arms are still too muscley. I don’t have washboard abs. The list goes on, and on, and on. But what is a perfect body, anyway? And who defines it?
To me, a perfect body is one I can feel comfortable living in. One I can be proud of when I look in the mirror. One that I can love with all my heart. So this is my perfect body. And it’s still changing and shrinking and growing and developing, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make it any less perfect.
So, here’s my perfect body. The same one I used to loathe and resent, and the one that was never found in photographs. The one that was always covered up and hidden away. The one with which I never imagined I could make peace.
The one that belongs to me, and the one that I have learned to love.