Swimming upstream

Another eventful – and stressful – week behind me. And, as usual, so much to say about it all.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that right now, I am in the United States, and have been for a few weeks already. This week that has just passed marks the end of the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship, and it culminated with a Presidential Summit in Washington, DC.

DC is a lot of different things, and it’s a far cry from Columbus, where I’d spent the initial weeks of the Fellowship. The city is – or at least, feels – much denser than Columbus. It’s definitely dirtier. And life there moves at a faster pace. Columbus sleeps during the summer. Or perhaps not sleeps, but it naps. DC is always awake.

Travel to DC involved a lengthy bus ride – which I’d choose over an airport any day (but more on that in a bit), but which does tend to be rather draining. By the time I arrived in the city on Sunday evening, I was quite exhausted and tense.

The week that followed offered little in the way of reprieve; early mornings, so that I could get to the gym before the start of the day’s proceedings, and a full schedule each day, right up until my departure from the hotel on Friday morning, at the irredeemable hour of 4am.

There wasn’t much room to breathe. And it was a departure from whatever sort of stability and ritual I had cultivated while in Columbus.

It might be worth reminding you, at this stage, that being far from home, and away from my support structure, and feeling a little bit isolated within the context of the program at large, that routine is a source of comfort and support during trying times. So even though my Columbus routine was in itself rather suboptimal, it still gave me something to cling to.

By Tuesday evening, I knew I needed some time to reflect and gather myself.

The rest of the South African contingent had headed off to the South African Embassy in DC for a reception in honour of the program. I would have loved to have been able to attend, but the self-care bells were ringing.

“Sit this one out, Stace. Take some time for yourself. Make room to breathe. There’s a long way to go this week, and you need to reach the end of it”

I mean, I don’t really remember the specifics of the internal dialogue, but I am pretty sure it went something like that.

It’s a big step already. Because I’m good at pushing myself too hard, and giving too much, and only realising too late just how unsustainable that is. So to be proactive in recognising these things… well, it took a lot of time and effort and hard work to get to this point. And I’m far from perfect at it, trust me. But I’m better than I was, and I’m continuing to improve, and that’s good enough for me.

So I spent another hour or hour and a half at the gym, sweating out some of my frustrations. Exercise has been one of my only reliable sources of endorphins and, to be honest, I think I’m kinda hooked on it. Eating has been difficult – though this, in its entirety,  is a discussion for another day – and it’s been the gym (and the road) that have saved me from what could easily have been another foray into a “body image-dysphoria-depression complex” that I’m just not equipped to deal with. So I don’t know, maybe I’ve developed tolerance and dependence. There are worse things that can happen.

My biggest concern is just trying not to injure myself, because if I have to sit on the bench, things have the potential to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

If you follow me on social media, you’ll see that I’ve been posting a lot of topless selfies (well, almost topless…)

I might have detailed this before, but I was overweight during school. It’s been a long time since I shed the weight, but there’s still some psychological baggage that lingers. Anyway, to omit some of the less germane details, it’s just one of the factors that, over the years, has made me uncomfortable and ashamed of my body. As you might be able to imagine, any “regular” body issues that I have – like weight, or skin, or cellulite, or whatever – don’t exactly play nicely with the trans-specific body issues. It really is a vicious cycle.

A large part of my journey, especially of late, has been reclaiming my body image, and trying to find the beauty and the positivity in that. And, to be quite frank about it, it’s often elusive. And almost always fleeting. But those few moments of peace and pride are worth chasing after, because they are a respite – no matter how short-lived – from what is otherwise a constant struggle.

I put on a fair bit of weight when I started on estrogen. It wasn’t a huge deal to me, to be honest. Because a lot of that weight went into useful places. Breasts and hips, for example. I wasn’t fat again – not by a long shot. But I wasn’t as skinny as before I started on the meds.

I’m back down, a year and a half later, to just about the same weight I was before HRT. Except that this time, I’m in much better shape. I’m fitter and I’m faster. And I’ve been working pretty hard to get here. I’ve been especially focused since I landed in the US. Partly because the exercise helps me maintain my mental health and wellbeing, but also because of how difficult it can be to find healthy food around here.

And that’s important because… I can’t afford to lose this.

Here’s the part where I come out (as I sometimes do on this blog). Today, I’m coming out as vain, and superficial, and not-always-able-to-be-my-own-source-of-validation.

Whew, now that’s a load off.

See, here’s the thing. Those selfies? The ones where I’m not wearing very much clothing, or where I’ve just been working out, or where I’m lifting my top above my navel? They are affirmation and validation for me. Because when I send them out into the world, what I’m actually doing is saying “I am unashamed of my body”.

And all the likes, and the comments, and the support that I get, all the people that tell me how I’m inspiring them, all of the compliments and well wishes… well, they validate that statement.

I shouldn’t need it to be validated. I know this. But sometimes I do, because I’m human. Don’t get me wrong – putting those pictures out there is part of my activism. Taking my body, my trans body, my trans body that is subject to so many expectations and restrictions and criteria and judgment, and showing it off to the world, letting people see it in all its feminine glory? That is a radical act, of that I am convinced.

But it’s also self indulgent. Because as much as I make a statement to the rest of the world with those photos, I also make a statement to myself. A statement that I can fall back on when my memory fails me, and I start to succumb to the doubt that lurks just beneath the surface.

I’m not apologising for it. I understand that I shouldn’t need anyone else’s approval in order to feel good about myself, and I recognise that any external source of validation is probably an unhealthy one. But I am under a lot of pressure and strain – especially now – and I need to get through the day, and stay as healthy as I can. And anything that helps me to do that, even if it’s just a makeshift, short-term fix… well, I’ll take it.

I decompensated a few months ago. I don’t want to decompensate again. Not now. Not when it could potentially be so catastrophic.

So, I declined the invitation to the Embassy. I took the night off. I spent another hour or hour and a half at the gym, sweating out some of my frustrations.

And afterwards?

Survivor / Pixabay

I went to the hotel pool.

I put on a bikini top, and a pair of shorts, and wrapped myself in a towel, and off I went to the hotel pool.

I jumped in and swam a length back and forth, dodging the kids, and the other swimmers, and the foot danglers.

And then I climbed out, spread my towel over one of the loungers on the deck, draped myself over it, and stared off into space, watching and listening and just taking in my surroundings.

As you might have gathered, the pool was quite well populated at the time. People and families were coming and going. It was a hive of activity.

And I was lounging, wearing nothing but a swimsuit (and a flimsy one, at that), right there in the middle of it. Contemplating my body issues, and my stressors, and my future, and my assorted existential angst.

It struck me then, as it sometimes does, just how much privilege I have.

Because, as I lay on that lounger, although I was consumed by my own insecurities, no one cast an eye.

For a lot of trans people, the swimming pool is anathema. It’s a taboo, some forbidden paradise into which we dare not venture. Because it is the seat of exposure, and the seat of judgment. So many cis people have hangups about taking off their clothes in public spaces; how much harder do you imagine it must be when you’re trans?

For many of us, clothes are not just fabric, but armour. They help us protect our weak spots and our insecurities. And they give other people something else to focus on instead of our bodies. Something less sensitive and less vulnerable. Something further removed from our sense of self.

And I could cast mine off. I could sprawl out on that lounger, unafraid and unashamed. And no one gave a damn.

I speak often about the way I am read, and how that affects the degree of ease with which I navigate this world. And this was a very glaring example thereof; had my bone structure been bigger, or my body hair coarser, or my features less delicate, or my identity and expression less binary… well, instead of lying on the deck and being able to space out for an hour, I might’ve been subjected to nasty remarks, insults, threats, abuse, or violence.

And for what? I’d still be the same person, with the same ideas and values and hopes and desires. No better, no worse. But I’d set off alarm bells nonetheless, and I’d have to pay a price for that.

I’m not much of a swimmer, to be honest. I like the water, I’m just not very good in it. It tends to get into my sinuses and irritate my nose, and the chlorine and other chemicals leave my skin feeling a little rough afterwards.

Not just that, but I didn’t have any life-changing epiphanies while I lay on the deck listening to the road and the kids and the splashes of water from the pool. I didn’t solve any of life’s great mysteries. I didn’t even solve any of my own.

But that’s not really the point. Because I had the opportunity. I had the opportunity to swim in the pool, and to lay on that lounger, and to not have to worry what anyone thought of me. No fear, and no anxiety. Or, at least, not about my safety at the poolside.

And I am acutely aware that there are so many of us who don’t have that safety. Many of us who might be great swimmers (not that it makes a difference), or who might unlock the secrets of the universe in a moment of quiet poolside contemplation.

And they just don’t have the chance, because if they were to try, what would the cis people say? What price would they have to pay?

Whatever that price is – even if it is just anxiety and worry – it’s too damn steep. And I wish and hope that some day it won’t be.


IMG_20160512_235529My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here. 

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