Winter is finally over. I am shedding my winter layers. I am molting like a snake. Any day now it will be warm enough to walk around in jeans and a T-shirt. The pear trees are flowering. I got caught in a sudden rain shower that cleared as fast as it started. Afterwards, I smelled the warm wet sidewalk. It is a summer smell. I am not ready for summer.
It is impossible to accurately explain body dysphoria to someone who never had it. Each time I catch a glimpse of myself I expect to see someone else. My dysphoria is visual. My dysphoria is dissociative. I’ve learned I can manage it by keeping my hair short, wearing masculine clothes, de-emphasizing my breasts, and avoiding mirrors and reflective surfaces. I’ve learned I can manage it by avoiding bathrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, gendered spaces. I have expended a lot of energy manging my dysphoria, but it won’t go away.
I look in the mirror and I can’t line myself up with the image reflected back at me. When I see pictures of myself I don’t see myself, I only see someone who I can identify as me, but really isn’t me. Donna tries to take pictures of me on the sly. She knows if I stop and pose the result will be false; a picture of someone else.
At its most benign, my dysphoria is grating. It is like chewing your salad and coming across a grain of sand. Some days my dysphoria is disruptive and dangerous, as if I am walking down Madison Avenue naked. I panic and I want to hide, but everyone can see what is wrong with me.
There are days when I try to get dressed and everything looks wrong and feels wrong. When I change my shirt four times and still don’t want to go out. When I feel self-conscious and critical. When everything feels fake and nothing feels authentic. When the only thing that works is to break out the flannel and dress like a boy.
I’ve managed my dysphoria using the medical model of “primum non nocere” which translates as “First, do no harm.” In practice, it means that sometimes it is better to do nothing, or to do as little as possible, than to risk causing more harm than good. I talked about my dysphoria in therapy. I modified my wardrobe so I don’t wear stuff I don’t like. I legally changed my name. I experimented with sports bras and binders to find an everyday comfortable solution (double design co. purchased from Les Love Boat in Taiwan). I inched incrementally sideways. I have not done anything medical.
Is it possible for me to stop managing my dysphoria and to embrace it, as I embrace being butch and being transgender? Can I learn to live with it because it is a part of me? Can I acknowledge it and let it go, take away its power, render it harmless? Or is that futile? Should I try to exorcise my dysphoria? Would top surgery defang it forever? That is the $11,000 question.
I’ve tried to get by. As if I deserved to survive, but am not entitled to be made whole. I’ve never asked myself what being made whole would mean. It is too big and too open-ended a question.
Asking to be whole and comfortable in your skin is not too much to ask. The definition of that whole needs to be realistic and not idealized, so that we are not disappointed with whatever changes we make (style of dress, binding or not, top surgery or not, hormones or not). But, as you said, asking to be whole is a very big and open-ended question. It’s a scary one for us and for our partners. I’m with you, Jamie.
It is very scary to me and to my partner, as well! I wish I was like a lot of the YouTubers and this transition option was known to me when I was a teenager. But now that I’m an adult, I struggle between “NOW I can finally do this!” and “I’ve lived THIS long this way, can’t I just be okay?” My girlfriend wants to be supportive, but she left a 15 year unhappy marriage to a man to be herself: a lesbian. Now, she meets me and BAM…. it’s a decision that effects both of our lives….
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I think it would have been easier for us to deal with this when we were in our teens or 20s. At almost 46, it’s hard to change. My wife is not fond of change anyway (nor am I), but we agreed on top surgery and a name change. And, given that you, Jamie, and I all partnered, our decisions do impact our partners. And, their processes are different from what we are going through. That was something that I hadn’t considered–what is the process that my wife is going through? How does my identity affect hers? What are we both comfortable with?
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Donna was also with men for a long time (although in many different unsatisfying relationships). I don’t think it is an accident that women who identify as lesbian (but may be bisexual in nature and used to be with men) are attracted to butches/trans-masculine/genderqueer people. We ring a lot of their chimes and they like the idea of getting the best of both worlds.
But, and it is a big but, it becomes problematic when we start to consider identifying as transgender – because of the deep seated transphobia and the shame of having to tell people that their partner is trans (it is a narcissistic injury to be with someone who is trans or transitioning because it implies that there is something wrong with them) and because there is no recognized identity for a partner of a trans person.
The idealized vision is key because I suppressed my desire to be a boy for so long that it is completely incongruent with being an adult (and I probably will have a little keg-belly sticking out if I get top surgery instead of the six pack abs I imagine in its place).
The perpetual question is whether it is better to work at finding a place that is comfortable or better to try to make the place I am in more comfortable, or just keep muddling about until something clicks. If it were just me I’d lean towards finding another place, but with Donna I’m more in the try to be comfortable where I am and muddle department.
One way to look at things: Suppose that you do not take any medical actions. 10 years from now will you regret that you did not? Will you be able to accept that you made a decision not to have surgery, and to be content with that decision, to be content to live with your disphoria?
Suppose that you do elect surgery, and that it does not make you as whole as you would like. Suppose that it even wakes the beast within you just a little bit more. Will you look back and regret the decision?
Suppose that surgery costs your relationship. Suppose that not having surgury costs your relationship.
I suppose that these are the things that always go through your mind, and that them being restated is not necessarily of any benifit. For me, surgery did wake the beast. Four years ago, I was willing to defer to people’s expectations of me. Now, I am increasingly unwilling to back down. (“wake the beast” is a little bit of an overstatement. But it is descriptive)
To continue with your metaphor (which I like) the beast is wide awake, pacing, and staring me in the face. How do we live with each other (in dog terms I’d ask who is the pack leader?). Do I tell it to go lie down and settle? Do I chain it to a tree and let it bark its head off? Do I slowly try to train it to live with me, understanding that there will be some very frustrating times ahead?
RIght now I feel like I could go a year without surgery and I’d be OK, but I don’t want to put it off forever. As long as the door is open as a possibility, I can handle it. I’d like to do it right away, but I can wait – I don’t think I can promise to not do it at all (even if I never do it – I don’t want to give up my free will for the sake of a false peace in the relationship). I actually did describe it to someone as being like a truce instead of a peace. It is OK temporarily because it allows us to communicate, but not a good long term solution.
I have made my way through life with these little bits of progress, and little ways to trick myself. Once I started on hormones, I could have put off surgery for a year or two longer than I did, but some of the medications did not agree with me, and the surgeon, who was at that time prescribing my hormones, basically told me to “shit or get off the pot.”
The point is, as long as I am making progress, I can be content. This is true with many areas of life.
Compromising within a relationship is a mature thing to do. There is such a thing as moving on with your life, but there is also such a thing as making sacrifce for a person that you love.
Such a confusing thing. Don’t you wish you could be more like Gracie?
I’d like to be like Gracie in many ways (cute, a magnet for women, and able to run really fast), but sometimes she is also one obnoxious dog (barking and demanding attention) and those are qualities I don’t want. On the other hand, if I were my dog, I’d probably be a happy dog.
once again Jamie, you’ve read my mind and put the words so eloquently in print. having literally changed my outfits 3 times this morning because nothing felt/looked right, leaving me feeling like an ugly sausage, I cried reading this. someone gets it. because hell if I can explain it. perhaps all we can do is muddle through together. thanks for writing.
Thanks. The dissonance and distortion are impossible to explain (except to maybe a 15 year old who doesn’t have the right clothes either). When I’m feeling OK about myself all of those shirts are just fine. As soon as I feel any self-consciousness, they are all wrong and I imagine how strange I look to everyone else (or that literally I am wearing my feelings on my sleeve).
Lots of dysphoria talk going around today, I’m noticing. Is it the warmer weather?
I can’t answer your questions for you, but I can tell you that you deserve to be whole. A thought exercise I do when I can’t quite get to the point of “I deserve more than just survival” is to imagine what I would tell my partner, if my partner and I were to switch places. And I would tell her to go for it– to do something small, at first, and see how it felt, and go from there.
Definitely the warm weather! My problem is that with top surgery, there is no half way. I either do it or I don’t. Right now I am much more interested in surgery than testosterone (which admittedly would give me the ability to play with the dosage and the duration – and stop or tail off when I got the desired results – or continue for the rest of my life). For reasons that are unclear to me T is not appealing.
I think I am I’m content to be read as queer or ambiguous instead of male – I don’t think anyone reads me as cis-female. The issue is how I look to myself, and whether top surgery will be gender confirming enough.
It’s definitely the weather. Since I switched to short-sleeved shirts for the season, it’s been hard to cover up the 40-42D’s that I have as well as I could with sweaters and button-down shirts. (I don’t bind because they’re so dang large.) Because I tend to wear polo-type shirts, I feel like “the girls” are on display, and that’s just uncomfortable.
I think the weather also contributes to the dysphoria we each feel in another way. When I see a guy jogging without a shirt, I often see the idealized chest that is in my mind. As Jamie said, I too will have a bit of a belly and not a six-pack post surgery, but my upper chest is what I am more concerned about.
Waiting for surgery is hard. Mine could have been done months ago, but my job (college teaching) means that I have to wait until I am off, so July 1 it will be. I could handle that because the time to surgery was finite (Mom even sent me a “two more months” note!). Jamie, I admire your resolve and your respect of Donna and your relationship. My wife is still leery of surgery, but she knows it’s what I need. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for both of us. I have hope that Donna will come around as S has.
So I understand the issue with top surgery being all-or-nothing sort of a deal.
But I guess I’m curious, if it’s NOT gender confirming enough, could you THEN do T or something similar?
And if you did top surgery, would it be a mastectomy with a masculine chest reconstruction, a mastectomy, a reduction? It seems like that would make a difference
‘I’ve never asked myself what being made whole would mean. It is too big and too open-ended a question.’ …
Oh, Jamie, you just did.
Time to find some answers? Not all of them, and not all at once, but soon.
Thanks! The summer will give me a lot of opportunities to think about where I want to go and what I need to do. I think that trying to tolerate my situation is not going to work in the long run, but it buys me time to figure out what is a better way.
You absolutely deserve to be whole–to do so much more than just get by–to thrive, to be joyful.
I don’t know about either embracing or exorcising, but I think you can accept your dysphoria and find a liberation in that. To do that, you may need to open yourself to that open-ended question–to take the risk of sensing the answer, without being able to know it or contain it in advance. The strange thing is that in some way, you know the answer already, since it is inside of you. I think many times, the important thing is not the content of that answer, but the act of asking, an act of great compassion and surrender to what is.
Wishing you peace and strength.
There is a part of me (stubborn) that believes that I should be able to master dysphoria – and that part fights it rather than embracing it. It would be a huge improvement to be able to say, “what I am feeling is dysphoria” and name it and move on, rather than having the battle to beat it back so that I can get on with life despite it. When it is suppressed/internalized it is very hard to feel compassion.
Having compassion for ourselves is one of the hardest things in life–and also one of the most important. I wonder if the stubborn part of you feels like naming & not fighting the dysphoria is a kind of defeat? So often, what the ego (in the Buddhist sense) thinks is defeat is really victory in disguise.
Thank you for writing this, I can totally relate. Looking at pictures of myself in summer clothes makes me so upset I can barely function. I wish there was more visibility/clothes for butch/masculine non-cismen of various body types. I can’t figure out if my body is something I’ll never accept because it is fundamentally in conflict with my self-image or if I haven’t found a way to express my gender with my body because it’s hard to use clothes designed for cis-male bodies or fuller-figured cis-female bodies (which are often designed to emphasize curves) to achieve a look that doesn’t make me feel like a child playing dress up or a woman showing off her curves. I wish you the best in figuring this out.
Thanks. I’ve gotten pickier and pickier about men’s clothing and trying to find stuff that doesn’t swim on me (I am 5’4 and 140 ish pounds) – and I have almost completely given up on women’s clothing because the current styles are way too feminized (it was not always this way) and I need to wear petites in pants which is impossible. I can’t even find stuff at LL Bean anymore that I can wear (once in a while a flannel shirt or a sweatshirt but not much).
I have treated myself to a handful of custom made shirts at CEGO-NY, which are expensive, but really fit nicely (sleeve length/bust/shoulder/hip).
I’ll definitely check out that store. Even if it’s something to aspire to, it’s still really helpful to find new options. I’ve basically gone from plainish women’s clothes to strictly button down shirts to almost entirely men’s shirts. It’s made a huge difference in how I feel about myself and how people seem to interpret my gender identity. When I used to wear slightly feminine cuts on occassion, people would suddenly make a point of complimenting the way ‘that blouse brings out your eyes’. Shudder. I’m 170 and 5’5 and its almost all the legs and hips, so pants are kind of the lingering challenge. Also, sorry to have gone on a clothing tangent. I really enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more!
I’ve been thinking about this post all day, with words of wisdom from bygone authors tumbling through my brain… What can I say, I asked myself, that would be somewhat insightful? And the right words just wouldn’t come.
Then, just now, I ran across this, which – if nothing else – will hopefully make you smile:
Sometimes I think the answers to The Big Questions In Life are like that.^
Oh, for goodness sake! The photo didn’t post! Here:
I love how WordPress does unexpected things with links (and nested comments); but it is a great image. Also annoying that you can’t edit a comment that you left on someone else’s blog when you see your typo.
I work for a large public agency – and the staff has bad morale (no pay raises in six years for non-union employees) – our management would not dare to put up inspirational or motivational posters because they would be defaced or modified in a minute.
Because I find your writings to be both inspirational and motivational: http://mrsfever.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/2624/. (Nope, not a poster.)
No action required. 🙂
Just a random wanderer who came across your blog: I very much relate to this post. My experience with dysphoria is similar, as well as my fears about “taking the plunge”. With no guarentee that transition will make me happier, doesn’t it make more sense to sit around being miserable? Hmmm.
(Also amused at the Donald picture, he was my favorite as a kid. Just coincidental.)
Glad you found my blog, and welcome. For me, I can see myself as a boy, but not as a middle aged straight white guy. A young hip guy maybe, but not a guy my age, tragically uncool. I’d much rather be a queer misfit.
I’m a big fan of using comics and cartoons to illustrate how I feel, they catch embarrassment and humiliation brilliantly.
Yep. Know what you mean about avoiding reflective surfaces, etc. In some ways the dysphoria has gotten better since I’ve been on testosterone. For me the face hair and breast shrinkage helped a lot, along with how my body is reshaping.
But funny thing, in some ways I’m more dysphoric (or so it seems) since the 100 lb weight loss due to all this extra flesh.
My body is a distortion of ripening masculine shapes, deflating feminine breasts (I bind because they still jiggle when I walk) and lots of loose skin….not sexy, not attractive at all.
Really a mood killer when I catch a glance of myself in the mirror.
There are days when I don’t want to go outside at all, or if I do I want to be alone.
I don’t have a partner, per se, to share these feelings. Some of my friends try to understand but unless someone has had that level of disconnect from their physicality they won’t completely get it. Bless them for their empathy though.
Each person deals with dysphoria in their own way. For some, like me, taking t. helps. At least my face is more mine that it ever has been before. I always envisioned myself with facial hair, now that I have it, and see my arms, shoulders and legs mutating to maleness, I feel a lot more comfortable. But hormones aren’t for everybody.
Thanks for writing about this. Just know you are not alone. Aho!