I was the only girl in my eating disorder treatment group who hated yoga. Once a week we were taken to the yoga studio to get in touch with our bodies and learn to love ourselves, and once a week I complained, griped, rolled my eyes, and tried to think of excuses to get out of it. On the outside, I looked just like the other skinny, ill-looking young women, but inside I felt an intense, irrational resentment at being expected to love my body. The others didn’t feel the same way—at least not if their enthusiasm for the dreaded yoga classes was any indication. I was willing to eat healthily, expand my horizons from an obsession with eating and weight and throw myself back into work, dating, and the many other joys of life, but the very idea of loving my body gave me the willies. As my anorexia and bulimia improved, my intense discomfort with my body didn’t change one bit, at least not until I started wearing men’s clothing and found an uneasy truce with my female curves, mostly by ignoring them. Years after I recovered from bulimia and anorexia, I continued to feel as though I could ignore my body or hide my body but never, ever, love it as it was.
Looking back, it’s clear that most of my struggles with my body were likely because I was transgender and didn’t know it. My comfort in my own skin improved drastically with men’s clothing and a male haircut, even more so when I began binding my chest. Once I started testosterone therapy, and my body began to masculinize, I found that for the first time in my life I was hungry for role models of body-positivity and self-acceptance. Without gender dysphoria getting in the way, my remaining insecurities and feelings of self-consciousness seemed like something worth working on. Transition has made my body feel less like a hated imposition and more like a part of my being, something I can imagine feeling positive about. So I wanted to know what it might mean for a transgender person to love and accept their body during and/or after a transition?
To try to answer that, I spoke with some members of the transgender community who are further along in the transition process than I am.
“Accepting your body, ultimately, is a choice.” Rachel, a trans woman who transitioned almost 15 years ago, told me. (I liked talking to Rachel, because she seemed so sensible and down-to-earth. She sympathized with my early-transition awkwardness, though she’d left it far behind.)
But, if accepting your body is a choice, then what about dysphoria?
“Dysphoria is a birth defect,” Rachel explained. “There’s really no comparison between dysphoria and insecurity. The causes are entirely different—it’s the effects that look the same.”
Still, I wondered if there was any way to love and accept your body in spite of dysphoria. That was why I spoke to Jordan, who identifies as non-binary transgender. Jordan is spending a month without binding their chest, because they experience breathing problems when wearing a binder.
“For me, body-positivity has been very complicated, in part because I grew up with a lot of negative messages that came with identifying as a girl or a woman. I think for a long time I ignored my body and tried to hide it, but more recently I’ve tried to have a better relationship with my body.”
Jordan still hasn’t decided whether to have surgery to remove their breasts. Like Rachel, Jordan believes that there’s a difference between dysphoria and insecurity, but Jordan also echoed some of my uncertainty about how exactly to distinguish between the two, struggling to articulate the ways they were different. When Jordan talked about going out with a female chest and a masculinized appearance, trying not to think about whether other people were looking at them or what those people might be thinking, I recognized a lot of my own early-transition struggle to be natural in public places. It’s not uncommon for people to hesitate before calling me either “sir” or “ma’am” or to stare at me on the street as if they’re trying to figure out what I am. If there’s a trick to feeling confident and secure in spite of that, I haven’t found it yet.
Beckham, a fully passing trans man who has benefitted from both testosterone therapy and chest surgery, drew parallels between trans people’s efforts to feel positive about their bodies while also changing them and the normal experience of cis people who change their bodies by losing weight, working out, or having plastic surgery. “Even people who aren’t trans have at least one thing they’re not cool with, and if it’s possible to fix that, I think it’s healthy to change that about yourself,” he told me. “I thought I was pretty good before [top surgery] as far as body-positivity goes, but once you do something to fix something, you feel so much more comfortable.”
But, I asked Beckham, are there things that you know you will never be able to change? How have you dealt with that?
“Sure there are. I’d love to have lower surgery, but at the point where science is right now, I’m not comfortable with the form or function I would get. It’s important to learn what is fixable and what might not be.”
A theme of all three conversations was finding the right balance between making changes where you could and accepting reality without letting it get you down when you couldn’t. This isn’t unique to trans people, even if the changes most of us decide to undergo are more drastic than the sorts of changes other people experience. Transition is not an endless process, and it is reasonable for trans people to gain a level of ease and acceptance of their body over time. Even though the technology to make a trans person’s body an exact copy of a cis body does not exist, it is possible to find a place of positivity and self-acceptance after transition. In my case, although I’m not thrilled about the in-between stage of early transition, truly accepting and finding comfort within my body was something I once couldn’t even imagine having. I’m not there yet, but at least through transition I finally have hope for a normal, reasonably positive relationship with my physical self.