I often write about things like body positivity, and how it’s okay to be trans – how it doesn’t make us worse as human beings. I also speak a lot about the things I’ve gained through transition, and how much my life has changed for the better because of it.
I say these things because they’re true, and because they’re important. And because as much as I am able to, I spend a lot of effort and energy trying to cultivate and grow these ideas within myself. And pretty often, I’m successful. I have, overall,
a mostly an at least sometimes decent relationship with my body, and I’m okay with who I am – including the fact that I’m trans.
But… I don’t feel that way all the time. I don’t think any of us do. And I think it’s important to talk about that too. Through the posts I write here, I want people to gain hope and understanding… but it’s not fair for me to suggest that it’s always smooth sailing.
There are times when all of that trans-ness catches up with us. And, when it does, it can be debilitating, overwhelming, confusing or even terrifying.
I do spend a lot of time thinking about what my being trans means – both the ways in which it enriches my life, and the ways in which it detracts from it. And I do that because I don’t want to become resentful. If I don’t think about it – if I don’t pull these issues into the light, and unpack them, and carefully think about what they mean and how they make me feel – then I don’t own it. I give it room to grow and fester and to take over.
I’ve lost a lot of things in my life. Some of them were not directly attributable to being trans, of course.
But a lot of them were. And in the future, it’s likely that more will be, too. There are some opportunities that I will never have – some doors that are shut for me in life, and will remain so, no matter what.
And somehow, I have to accept that. I do accept that. But accepting it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it.
I do feel it. Sometimes very acutely and very painfully. And even with all the acceptance, and the acknowledgement, and the self-care, I still start to feel bitterness or resentment.
I’ll talk sometime in the future about a few of those concepts, and some of the other aspects of being trans that might manifest as loss. But now, I’m going to talk specifically about my relationship with my body and my image.
I can’t have a straight-forward relationship with my body – or with other people
Now, I know that a lot of cis people have complicated relationships with their bodies – of course. I know they feel inadequate, I know they compare themselves to other people, or to pictures in magazines, or to a set of arbitrary ideals of acceptability and beauty. Women in particular are subject to a whole range of damaging and unfair expectations that encourage them to have unhealthy relationships with body image.
So, I do all of that too. The insecurities over the cellulite, and the flab on my arms, and the blotches on my skin. But on top of all of that, I have the trans stuff. Where I constantly fixate on all the evidence of the damage that was done to me by testosterone. I worry over the size of my hands, and the size of my feet, and the shape of my pelvis, and the size of my breasts relative to my ribcage, and the protrusion of my tracheal cartilage, and the line of my jaw.
When I’m dysphoric, I start to scrutinise every photograph of myself, lest I look “manly”. I’m conscious of how I stand, how I walk, how I carry my hands. I compare myself to cis women, to trans women, ordinary people and celebrities – basically to everyone. Measuring myself up, feeling relief over some characteristics, and deep pain over others.
And part of why it upsets me is because I know better. I know that I’m secure in my identity. Not just that, but I know that, unless I out myself, or I am in the presence of people who already know I’m trans, I’m read as cis and I’m read as pretty. I know that this spectre of “manliness” that haunts me is just a ghost, a relic from a time when I learned how to put on an act.
I know that I shouldn’t judge other people, and especially not other trans people. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to them. I shouldn’t surreptitiously inspect to see if my hands are more delicate, if my skin is smoother or less hirsute, if my hips are rounder, if my posture is better. It’s wrong, but sometimes I can’t help but to do it anyway. Of course, I never say anything out loud. And of course, I feel terrible for even having had those thoughts in the first instance.
Not just that, but I can’t help but wonder who is judging me. It’s an insecurity that I’ve mostly overcome in day-to-day life, though I still have moments where I wonder if someone is scrutinising my appearance – if they’re (and I hate this word, and it should never actually be used) clocking me as trans. Because, even if they were – why is that a bad thing? I made a conscious decision not to be stealth. I’m not ashamed of that I’m trans… but internalised transphobia is a bitch.
For me, my being trans means that it’s difficult for me to just be. To find time and space and company (even if it’s my own), where I don’t have to think about my trans-ness is a luxury that is scarce and often short-lived.
Eventually, the clothes come off and I need to face what’s underneath
From what I’m told, I generally know how to dress pretty well. And, not counting the unfounded insecurities that I wrestle with which I’ve already described, my day-to-day existence is otherwise pretty uneventful in terms of gender.
But, eventually, I have to take those clothes off. There’s a point where I have to confront my bare body. A point where there is no more hiding, and no more disguises, and no more excuses. It’s just me and my skin. And that skin carries many painful truths. Staring at it, I am reminded of all the ways in which this body has been damaged. I’m reminded of the legacy of animosity between us. I’m reminded how foreign it feels.
I try to be kind to myself. I try to look for the features that reassure me. I try to remind myself that I am still young in transition, that the hormones work slowly, that they have already wrought so much change in little more than a year, and that they will continue to for years still to come. I try to tell myself that the misplaced muscles will shrink, that the proportions will improve, that the features will further soften.
To an extent, it’s true. Much of that will happen still. But I wonder if it will be enough.
There are some things that can be fixed through surgical intervention – and perhaps it’s out of reach right now, but just knowing that there is some kind of solution is a little reassuring in itself. It helps make it easier to tolerate some of it, knowing that it doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent.
Some of it is unchangeable. Tragically and forever unchangeable.
Because this is the truth – I am not cis. I will never have a cis body. Parts of my body might change – but that fact never will.
This body that betrayed me, it stares me in the face every day. And though I try my best to learn how to love it, and although I have made great progress, that betrayal still stings.
And it’s not just about me.
If I undress in front of a partner, my body betrays me then too. The history that I carry with me is something I can’t hide when my clothes are off. Exposing myself before the eyes of another is terrifying. I wonder what they see. I wonder what they think of me. I wonder how they interpret all the incongruencies laid bare in front of them.
And… there is nothing I can do. I can’t disguise it beneath fabric. There are no excuses to be made.
It is my truth, and I have no control over it.
I have to hope for acceptance and compassion. And I have to try to understand that even in the context of the best intentions, and the utmost love and respect and consideration, my flesh will still sometimes provoke a response. That just by being, it will sometimes hurt or upset.
And if, or when, it does… I have yet to learn how not to blame it.
It’s easy to say that it’s not my problem, if someone else has an issue with my body. But that’s a gross over-simplification… after all, it’s my body that precipitates these reactions. And in many instances, the response isn’t measured or malicious – it’s reflexive and involuntary. If I even struggle sometimes not to be upset by my own body, how reasonable is it to have that expectation of someone else? Acceptance is elusive and, even when it’s present, it can be fleeting and unreliable.
It’s hard for me to accept that this is something I will likely carry with me my whole life. Always being guarded, cautious, uncertain. Always afraid of the inescapable inner violence that comes with living in this body. Always wondering if the tenuous balance is about to give out, and what the consequences might be if, or when, it does.
And hoping that maybe, some day, some how, I could learn how to work through it and rebuild when it all comes it crashing down.
We have a right to enjoy our bodies, but I might never be able to enjoy mine
Everything I’ve mentioned in this post has been difficult for me, and this point is no exception. For all the reasons outlined already, I’m sure it’s possible to understand how I would have a complicated relationship with my own physicality. I’ve said on a few occasions before that I’ve struggled with sex and sexuality. A lot of that, in retrospect, had to do with dysphoria, and some of it has become better.
But it hasn’t gone away. Not completely. I wonder if it ever will.
I had hoped, when I started hormones, that as my body started to change, I would grow to be more comfortable in it. And that I might even learn how to enjoy it. I’d hoped that the closer it grew to become what it was meant to be, the less ashamed I’d be of it. I hoped that eventually, I might even be able to relax. To just let go of all the preconceptions, and all of the pain, to breathe in and out slowly and deeply, to allow myself to experience sensations without having them become caught up in critical and detrimental thought.
I didn’t expect it would happen without work, or effort, of course. But even so, sometimes it seems hopeless.
My ability to feel, and to experience, and to enjoy is all wrapped up in this flesh. This flesh that doesn’t feel like it’s even properly mine. This flesh that has reflexes and responses that scare or upset me. This flesh that betrays me.
Even on the exceedingly rare occasion that I am distracted enough from my discomfort with my body to experience some small degree of enjoyment, the aftermath is often marked by conflict and confusion. It becomes difficult not to fixate on everything that’s wrong, everything that doesn’t fit, everything that feels so out of place. And, it’s hard not to perceive it as abhorrent or disgusting. It’s not exactly guilt or shame – it’s a feeling of being unsettled, or even shaken, but deeply and fundamentally. It’s bizarre, and it’s uncomfortable, and it hurts.
It’s a struggle for me to accept that my body can do this to me. That it belongs to me, and that I live in it, and that it has a technical capability for having certain sensations and experiences that are meant to be enjoyable… but that somehow they become twisted along the way.
I can pin the blame for some of this on society, and the way it encourages us to see trans bodies. Our bodies are regarded as being deviant, or perverse. Often they are fetishised, sexualised or objectified. Frequently they are appropriated through violence or coercion, because other people feel they have a right to them. Sometimes they are beaten or stabbed or strangled because they’re seen as evil.
And of course, even as a trans person, I’m not immune to the reach of some of these harmful ideas. There’s no way that I could have spent 30 years living in this world, and not internalised at least some of those toxic thoughts.
But it’s not just that. It’s the conflict with my sense of self. It’s the dissonance between flesh and mind, body and spirit, figure and soul. It’s the disjuncture and the disparity. It’s that inharmonious imitation of balance that is all too easily dispersed, and it’s the raw wound that lies bleeding beneath it.
Sometimes, the body is an apology
This has been a really difficult piece for me to write, because it has forced me to examine a lot of my own prejudices, and a lot of my deep-seated insecurities. Things I am ashamed to admit, because I should know better. In fact, I do know better. Intellectually, with my capacity to reason and think things through, I know better.
But that’s also kind of the point. Even though I know better, I don’t necessarily feel better. Some of my emotional responses, some of the feelings I have might be irrational – I might even know them to be false and unfounded. But those feelings are real and they are valid. It’s a difficult thing to examine them, because part of that process involves having to acknowledge the idea that they make no sense. In fact, I have to work on forgiving myself for feeling the way that I do – I have to allow it to happen, and try to understand that it’s not a failing on my part.
So this is the thing. For all the body positivity, and all the affirmations, and all the knowing-that-I’m-valuable, and all the trans-is-beautiful, sometimes things are still going to be difficult. Sometimes my body will betray me. Sometimes it will hurt, and sometimes there will be loss, and sometimes I will feel resentful and hopeless and devastated.
It happens. And when it does, I should acknowledge it. I should be compassionate towards myself as best I can, and try to remind myself that it’s okay for me to feel like this, that it’s okay for me to be insecure or upset, that it’s okay for me not to have an always-perfect relationship with myself and my body.
And I hope against all hope that some day, maybe I can oust these demons that plague me.
It’s just part of the process.