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Transgender Body Image

June 19, 2009

In the documentary Boy I Am –about the relationship between trans men and lesbians– several people mentioned worries about teens getting hormone therapy: they held that every female-raised person goes through body issues during that period.

This bothered me a little since the people saying this, for the most part, were not trans. And it actually clashes with my own experience. I didn’t grow up with any body image problems because, for most of my teen life, I’ve done a good job of ignoring my body. Whenever I did look at myself, I didn’t see anything wrong: my body fits pretty well into society’s standards of “normal”. I just didn’t identify with what I was seeing. I avoided mirrors because I was better off thinking of myself as a floating brain. Eventually, I started really looking at my body and thinking about how I perceive myself, and I realized that I would feel much more at home in a male-ish body.

What about you: do you think that being transgender is comparable to having body issues? I consider this comparison to be inaccurate because it implies that you can shoo away the desire to physically transition by improving your self-esteem. It seems common for transphobic people to insist that we, as trans individuals, should “accept ourselves” — accept our bodies. But is it less “noble” to change one’s body instead of changing one’s mind? Some people say it’s the easy way out; yet is it really easier? The process for getting surgery or even hormones is hard and full of hurdles;  accepting oneself as a trans person in the first place, in my experience, can be even harder. In any case, choosing an easier path doesn’t make you a lesser person; in fact, in can leave you more energy to pursue other worthy endeavors.

Still, I’ve been wondering: would it be possible for me to accept my hips, my chest and my beardlessness? It’s hard to look at myself naked, but it would also be fairly hard to get a prescription for testosterone, and it would be even harder to explain to my extended family why my voice suddenly dropped an octave. If I didn’t do anything permanent to my body, I wouldn’t have to worry about changing my mind in the future.

But I don’t think I would ever be truly comfortable with the way I feel in my own skin. If testosterone can make me feel beautiful, sign me up. Like I usually say to people who don’t understand the wish to transition: we all deserve to be happy, in any way we can.

Edited to add: I wrote this 2.5 years ago and I no longer believe that physical dysphoria can be neatly separated from other kinds of body issues; for instance, my past frustration with my curves might have overlapped somewhat with the feelings of curvy cis men. Now I think that all of us are exposed to images of “ideal” body types, and gender is a big part of that.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2009 4:44 pm

    I got tired of not feeling comfortable in my own skin. I had my first shot of T on Tuesday and I’m looking forward to finally seeing the real me looking back in the mirror.

    I sometimes compare my need to transition to someone’s need to lose alot of weight, or someone’s need to get a nose job to feel attractive. I don’t think that any of these examples should be told to change the way they think and that someone should do what they need to do to feel whole.

    I am going try to get my hands on this documentary. Great post.

    • genderkid permalink*
      June 19, 2009 5:03 pm

      I believe you’re right in that everyone deserves to change their body if they wish. I was thinking more along the lines of people –especially women– who are made to feel ugly due to the ideals of “beauty” we are shown by the media. Nowadays, for instance, there are many average-weighted people who think they need to lose weight to feel beautiful. If everyone lost several pounds to look thinner, they might even end up underweight. Maybe you’re right in that they don’t have to change their mind: we have to change the media.

      I’m glad you’re taking steps towards feeling comfortable with yourself!

  2. June 21, 2009 2:00 am

    I think that, for myself, being trans causing self-esteem problems. As in, enternal dialouge: [ look at this fat curvy body and my huge ass! i wish i could look like greg, he's so much better and sexier than me. arg ]. But, being transsexual cause this, and I think being trans causes body images and self esteem problem. Not that it is in itself a self esteem problem.

  3. luke permalink
    June 21, 2009 9:33 am

    I think trans body issues are a bit different as you have expressed here – most of the time when I see parts of my female self/body I think “this does not fit, it does not feel right.” It was very difficult for me to look in the mirror before I started hormones because what I saw was not what I felt and not what I wanted to see (in fact the exact opposite). Now that I am on hormones, my body image has been a lot more positive and I am beginning to see what I feel inside and know myself to be. It is still difficult though because there are still parts of myself I do not like at all and truth be told surgery is expensive and possibly a long way off – I try to ask myself once in a while “how can I accept this part of myself right now? how can I be okay with this for the time being for my health and my sanity?”

  4. genderkid permalink*
    June 21, 2009 11:03 am

    Thanks for stopping by, guys! Chase, I like the way you put it — being trans isn’t a self esteem problem, but it can cause self esteem problems.

    And Luke, I’m also learning to accept the way my body is right now. At first it was tough because I thought that accepting the way I look meant giving up on testosterone/surgery in the future; but it doesn’t have to be that way. Like you said, it’s about staying sane.

  5. Tess Eract permalink
    June 21, 2009 10:30 pm

    All right, I got here in the middle of things and don’t know the beginning, but for some of us, body hatred starts way back before either gender dysphoria or weight issues. Or even religious/puritan doctrine.
    It starts with a steady stream of doctors, dentists and p.e. teachers finding this or that wrong with us when we thought we were all right. Finding this or that subpar and never pointing out something better than usual to balance it out. No sooner do some of us become conscious beings than the onslaught begins. One gets to feeling that one’s body is a mass of flaws, and one never asked for those people’s opinions anyway. Some poor kids can’t even escape this garbage at home. Their parents make them feel abnormal about their complexion, their bowel functions, and who knows what else-and sometimes the p.e. teachers won’t even leave them alone when they hit college age.
    I’m not sure how closely this is related to gender issues, or weight issues. My not being comfortable with any known gender and also being asexula is, in fact, a separate issue. But being told constantly, in words or in actions, that my body was substandard and had no compensating strengths–and was not geting better no matter how I tried–that sort of thing can’t be good for anyone.
    I’m not ruling out the possibility of doing some things to my body–but it will be my choice and my opinions that count. And I am more interested in calling to account those who don’t stop to think about what just what they are pumping into a kid’s head, and what may already have been put in there.
    Thanks, Happy Solstice and don’t give up.

    • June 23, 2009 8:25 am

      THIS! Oh god this.

      There’s a lot of thoughts racing through my head as I read the post and comments. I’ve been thinking a lot about body image, as ever since coming into my transness this has come into extra sharp focus.

      What Tess Eract highlights is true, and it is relentless. Just last weekend my parents managed to do it again, this negative reinforcement. It’s as if people don’t realise that you know others are judging you. Why would you want that from loved ones?

      Loving one’s body and feeling at home within it are hard challenges, and being trans only throws another spanner in the works.

      • genderkid permalink*
        July 6, 2009 2:38 pm

        “It’s as if people don’t realise that you know others are judging you. Why would you want that from loved ones?”

        Exactly! Sometimes people think it’s their duty to inform others about their perceived flaws: “Oh, someone should tell AZ that she’s getting fat. And that she looks silly in that hat.” They might even mean well. But AZ probably knows what she looks like, and it’s up to her to decide whether she wants to change or not.

        I was lucky enough to (mostly) escape body hatred because I’ve always been very thin. My family kept telling me to fatten up –I actually grew up believing that skinny people were ugly!– but, since the media tells you the opposite, I guess both messages canceled each other out.

        Besides, I was fortunate in that I read a lot, and most books told me that it’s important to be beautiful on the inside. So it didn’t really matter if I loved my body or not.

  6. NancyP permalink
    June 24, 2009 12:51 am

    I can understand genderkid’s comment about thinking of oneself as a floating brain, and this avoidance of body image is not clearly restricted to transgender people. I can’t say that I really wanted to be in a male body for the sake of the body (as opposed to the privileges), but I disliked the treatment given those possessing a female body. I was an early maturer (for that generation), felt self-conscious because of the peer attention given to my breasts (but not me, the person) and because of the diet mania and maternal pressure to femme up. Added to this was the intensification of the social message “girls don’t do X”, X being science, although thankfully my parents and teachers counteracted that message. I didn’t look like a boy and didn’t act like a girl, so what was I? Floating brain, in my self-image. Asexual. Feminist, because I would be classified female by other people, even if I felt nongendered. I dressed in butch most of the time, with loose shirts, and avoided bright colors or anything else that would draw attention to me. Nearly 40 years later, I still have a body/self image close to the one I formed as a 12 year old, in that gender is not the most important feature. I am also still asexual, and never could imagine anyone being attracted to my body, probably because I looked upon it as “irrelevant” or not-quite-fitting. I don’t consider myself trans, because I am not out to change any specific feature, and consider myself merely gender-variant.

    • Zebee permalink
      September 2, 2009 8:01 am

      NancyP you are me, pretty well entirely. The floating brain, the dressing butch, the asexuality.

      I did want to be a boy when I was young and I still don’t fit my body but I don’tt know if I am enough that way to be trans.

      I suspect if I had known that such a thing was possible I might have taken it when I was young, but too late now really.

      Now I feel that I’m not female or male, but that still doesn’t work because I look female. But looking in the mirror it just isn’t right.

      • genderkid permalink*
        September 2, 2009 4:17 pm

        Hi Zebee, there are people who don’t identify as trans (butches, genderqueers) but who take hormones anyway, or bind their chests, because it makes them feel better about their bodies. I’m not saying that you should necessarily do this –hormone therapy isn’t the answer for everyone–, but it’s a thought. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. June 25, 2009 4:17 am

    I haven’t seen this documentary yet, but I’m excited to.

    And yes, we do all deserve to be happy. The predicament is that there are some situations that can’t be thunk out of. Sure, there have been people throughout history who have had no other choice but to accept the inevitable – but were they truly, genuinely happy? If they had the choice to physically do something about it, despite the consequences, would it have made them happier?

    Obviously the answers depend on individual circumstances – but, nowadays, the option to alter one’s self physically in order to bridge the physiological disconnect exists, and definitely helps those of us who can’t think out of a physical condition. :]

  8. SociologicalMe permalink
    June 25, 2009 5:55 pm

    Speaking from the position of a cis-woman (which I hope is ok with you, genderkid, and not an intrusion into your space) I can tell you that my struggles with body acceptance seem to me to be fundamentally different from what trans people describe. I have had the “I’m just a floating brain” self-image–I think that may be a more general thing for anyone whose mental picture doesn’t match up what they see in the mirror. But when I read about trans people’s experiences and when I talk to my friend who is trans, I hear things that I don’t recognize from my own struggles. I’ve never felt that my size or my curves don’t match my inner self, just that they don’t match media images and cultural standards. At first, I didn’t know that there was a difference between cultural standards and my inner self- at that point, I might have thought my experiences were identical to those of a trans person. Once I did a lot of inner work and course work in sociology, I felt much more comfortable as an embodied person. I’ve never felt that, for example, my breasts are out of place or don’t fit, as some commenters are mentioning. This may not be true for all cissies, but this is my experience. Again, I hope this is helpful and not an intrusion, and I apologize if my opinion is unnecessary or unwelcome.

    • genderkid permalink*
      July 6, 2009 2:54 pm

      Your comments are very welcome, SociologicalMe! This is a blog by a trans person, but that doesn’t mean that only trans people can voice their opinion. I’m not *just* a trans person and I’m sure that parts of my experience are shared by people of various genders and non-genders. Actually, as I read and listen and recognize myself in others –and as others tell me that they can identify with parts of my life– I’m ever more convinced that we all share a common human experience: it’s just colored in billions of different ways.

      I appreciated reading everyone’s point of view on this subject; it’s a sensitive issue, so thanks to everyone for sharing their story: Tess Eract, NancyP, Mel…

  9. queenemily permalink
    September 2, 2009 5:06 am

    I think the trans = not enough self esteem fundamentally misunderstands what drives the need to transition. I didn’t feel ugly or whatever, I felt *wrong*. Years of counselling and anti-depressants didn’t help one little bit, indeed I got worse over time until I could barely stand the wrongness anymore.

    Hormones fixed all that very very quickly. I don’t really understand in a conscious way why that it is, but it is.

    • genderkid permalink*
      September 2, 2009 4:23 pm

      Exactly! I don’t feel like my body is ugly. It’s actually pretty nice, if I may say so myself. It’s just that it isn’t the right body for me.

  10. Johnny permalink
    September 15, 2009 2:31 am

    when i was a kid i didn’t care about body image, but when it became apparent there were differences, it kinda got in the way. it stayed that way for a long time, but i am happily on T now, and glad that i have the magical ability to morph. moving to the city was another change, learning how i was being read by people not only relating to my gender, but also my race, which is still a bit of a Pandora’s box.

  11. Veronica permalink
    September 15, 2009 3:19 pm

    I’ve never compared gender trans body issues to cisgender body image issues. Honestly, I thing that’s a hetero world / cisgender way of blanket dismissing transgender folk. It falls into the heal your gayness right wing mindset, obviously based in phobia. I think that it is really difficult for anyone cis to understand what gender variant folk go through inside, and especially parents. I haven’t seen ‘Boy I Am’, but if it’s lesbian women judging transmen in a general way, there’s a lot of potential for misreading, and also subconscious feelings can enter into a judgement like ‘following a trend’ or opting for male privilege etc. I’m very wary of second party judgements etc. and always want to hear it in the first person. Anyway, as far as yourself goes and your ambivalence about T, I can only say stick close to yourself and decide for yourself etc. My choice to go HRT was actually pretty difficult. I know some people jump pretty quick, but that doesn’t mean they are right or wrong about it either. They say nature advocates quickness. Cheers.

  12. September 17, 2010 11:45 pm

    I believe that being transgender isn’t a “disease”, as some may call it. I see it more as “not feeling comfortable in one’s own body”. All my life, every female in my family was girly/femme. I have always been a “tomboy” at heart, but being around my family, and seeing those tv commercials, I wanted to fit in. I just started a new school and every girl there is girly/femme. And once again, i’m trying to fit in. I hate dressing the way everyone else does, but i also don’t want to be made fun of. I talked to my mom about, [who is a Female to Male], me wanting to be a boy. She’s taking me to therapy to see if it might be right for me. I don’t know. At this stage in my life, everythig is going by so fast, it’s confusing me.
    Hopefully, one day, i’ll finally dress the way I want to at school. Just to see what happens. I’m glad your making this blog, genderkid. I like knowing that i’m not the only one going through these things. I know i’m not, but sometimes it seems like it.

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  1. Linksplosion! Bodies and body image edition « Zero at the Bone
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