Dysphoria, Body Image, and Self-Consciousness at the Beach

The Beatles in Miami, 1964. Photo by Charles Trainor.

The Beatles in Miami, 1964. Photo by Charles Trainor.

It has been almost two years since I went swimming. It is a shame. I love the beach and I love swimming in the ocean.

I stopped going to the beach because wearing a women’s swimsuit hit the perfect trifecta of dysphoria, negative body image, and self-consciousness. My Speedo made me look like I had breasts (or more accurately, I could not ignore my breasts when I wore it). My Speedo displayed my hairy armpits and a tract of dark hair running from my crotch to my big toe. I wore a T-shirt and shorts over my swimsuit except when I was in the water.

I was envious of the guys. Gangly teenagers in baggy knee-length board shorts. Collegiate life guards with ripped abs and a full body tan. Pale dads with beer bellies rolling over the edge of their trunks. There was not a woman on the beach whom I wanted to look like. Not even the other butch lesbians.

I don’t want to look like a woman. I look a little less like one now than I did three years ago, but I’m not sure what I actually look like. I’m not sure what I want to look like; how much further I want to go, what I’m willing to do to get there.

Currently, I have (knock wood) very little body dysphoria. I attribute this to top surgery, losing weight, and making an effort to wear clothing I feel comfortable in (refusing to wear anything that triggers my dysphoria). I have vestiges of negative body image. I am self-conscious.

I’ve never worn a bikini top (even with board shorts) or shown my midriff in public. The tops were too girly, and I was too chubby. Today, I like my chest but I’m still critical of my middle-aged jelly belly. I repeat to myself, over and over, that this year I’m going swimming in board shorts and a rash guard. It is my mantra.

I have dormant self-consciousness about not shaving. The last time I shaved was the last time I wore a skirt, and I forget how rare it is for women to have visible leg hair. When I feel self-conscious about it, I remind myself that shaving body hair is a cultural convention that I don’t take part in. Being hairy feels right to me because I associate it with being masculine.

I am actively self-conscious about how masculine I look, and how my gender expression makes me stick out. This is strictly about how others perceive me and potentially judge me as butch or transgender. I don’t blend in. I don’t identify with any of the media images of what women should look like. Sometimes I am grateful that there are so few media images of great looking butch, genderqueer, and non-binary people. There is no one to compare myself against. There is no genderqueer at the beach look.

As pasunhomme noted in last week’s post, the beach is the most cisgender place in the USA. The public beaches in Massachusetts don’t have formal dress codes, but they prohibit nudity (and women can’t go topless). There is an informal dress code; no cross-dressing at the beach. And my plan is to violate that rule, and swim.

Notes: I love this picture of The Beatles at Miami Beach. When I was six I wanted to look just like Paul McCartney in A Hard Day’s Night. Some things never change.

I recently came across a short essay by Dean Spade: Dress to Kill, Fight to Win.  It encouraged me to find an alternative to that accursed Speedo.

26 thoughts on “Dysphoria, Body Image, and Self-Consciousness at the Beach

  1. hopenotgone

    I grew up near the beach in southern California. Being decidedly NOT naturally thin, or blonde, it definitely was an uncomfortable place for me. I think that even many people who identify with typical gender roles have a hard time at the beach. I’ve never bared my midriff in public, either. You’re not alone!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Having almost gotten over dysphoria, I now have to challenge the negative body image and the self-consciousness part of it. I think all girls (at least in the USA) were raised with the idea that you had to be “perfect” to wear a bikini once you hit your teens; and that if you had any flab you had to cover it up. It is a hard lesson to undo, even if you queer/genderqueer.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      RIght now I’m self-conscious no matter what I wear, so the first baby steps are to get into the water with shorts and a rash guard. Fortunately in July the water in Gloucester is about 65-68F so it is cold enough not to look like an idiot – weirdo in the water with a shirt on.
      It is more important to me that I feel comfortable with what I’m wearing than that other people feel comfortable, but I can’t quite turn off that critical voice.

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  2. Kris

    I am still drowning in dysphoria because of my weight and B and I have just started a weight loss program that promises 7-10 kg loss every month. I am so hungry, I could eat my pillow, but the dysphoria makes me determined to lose the all-too-feminine curves this time. Your successful weight loss is an inspiration to me. Please send vibes to increase my willpower, the pillow is looking more and more palatable by the second!

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    1. Tea With Ess

      I’m not much for diets and depriving oneself of food (might be because I sometimes can’t manage to eat no matter how hungry I am). That being said, I’m totally on your side and I really hope it works for you! I hope you get a body you feel more at ease with! And you might want to change the pillowcase to something less tasty 😉 take care!

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    2. Jamie Ray Post author

      I send you my vibes – I did it very slowly (1-2 kgs/month on Weight Watchers) and managed my hunger by eating a lot of fresh fruit. It took about a year, but I got used to eating differently, and I haven’t put it back on, but I always feel on the verge of bingeing.
      The only warnings that I would offer are that I felt curvier thinner than I did heavier (different curves- but more feminine) – and a little more vulnerable. Ultimately the weight loss was a good thing, but it was psychologically more complex than I expected. I should add it still is more complex since I am still dealing with it.

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  3. Maria

    It makes me sad that gendered identity is so definitive and there’s a huge absence in the recognition of various gendered structures and identifying practices within mainstream society. I think that gender roles arent as black and white as social structures aim to determine and there’s a whole range that’s completely ignored.
    In recent years I read articles about sufism in the middle east and how sufi monks sang Christian psalms and chanted imitating women’s voices and they also dressed as women. This was a recognised practise and one that was highly respected. Many of the monks preferred to remain dressed as women and believed that inside they were women. Believe it or not they were not frowned upon within the State but rather recognised as enlightens souls within society. This practice later spread to kashmir and again was recognised not only as a spiritual belief but also recognised as a set social norms and of cultural and national identifying practices.
    It makes me sad that nowadays that gendered identity is challenging social norms; it shouldn’t be this way.
    On a lighter note I hope you have a wonderful time at the beach and I look forward to hearing about your experience.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think people in the U.S. are more dense about this than in other countries – we are distrustful of anything with nuance and like everything clear cut and unambiguous. We have more in common with non-Christian fundamentalists than we want to admit.

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  4. anexactinglife

    I have had the urge to swim lately but can’t yet face the idea of change rooms and wearing a bathing suit at the pool – and I don’t even have gender dysphoria. I love the Beatles photo. I wonder if they felt pressure to hide their skinny white chests, or if male nipples and navels were considered too sexual?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If you google image “beatles on the beach” or “beatles in miami” there are very few pictures topless – I do think is was considered risqué to show them shirtless. On the other hand the composition of the photo is much better with the white shirts picking up the white foam – so hard to tell. I remember those terry cloth short sleeve shirts – my Dad had one for the beach too. I like the photo I choose because of the joyfulness of the them in the water.

      I hear you about the self-consciousness at the pool. Being that exposed is difficult – a lot of unrealistic societal norms about what women’s bodies are supposed to look like (as if anyone over 30 doesn’t have flab, love handles, wrinkles, and other marks that can’t be photo-shopped out of reality).

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  5. halitentwo

    These posts so resonate with me. All winter long I tell myself that “next summer” will be the summer I swim. I have the trunks and even a rash guard. But I stare longingly at the male bodies and my eagerness to swim evaporates. My pecs look like boobs to me and I spend my summer hot and covered up.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      This is my third next summer! We are going to be in Rockport on Cape Ann from July 5 to July 12. If you want to take a day off and play hooky maybe we could go to Good Harbor Beach and look like fools together? If you are interested, my email contact is on my About page.

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  6. rimonim

    Ugh, I recognize the pain in your post. You’re carrying a lifetime of wounds–wounds that were inflicted on you on purpose, because of who you are. Yet your wounds are also battle scars. You belong to an ancient lineage of warriors, healers and border-crossers. We in-betweens have magical powers. There is a lot to be proud of in being butch.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There is a lot to be proud of in being transgender and in being butch. But sometimes I need a break and a vacation from it. I am fortunate that we can afford to travel and that I can afford to buy as many beach outfits as I need to find one that “works for me.” The challenge is to create a peaceful reality from what is currently just in my head.
      We could go someplace either so private or so queer that “what people think” is moot, but I’m very partial to the north shore of Massachusetts and I like that there is no scene, and other than my gender mishegas it is very relaxed (i.e. it is neither Fire Island, nor Provincetown, nor Miami Beach).

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  7. Skip

    My ID (birth, official, and everything public) says F but my presentation and mental self-image say WTF, to the point that I answer to whatever address (“Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Uh…”) is given. Even though I have always gone by a F name at work, I have been “wrong restroomed” by coworkers and the office maid on different occasions. One guy calls me “hey buddy”; I’m not sure what’s up with that.
    .
    I haven’t shaved my legs or armpits in 30+ years. About a year ago with extreme difficulty I stopped obsessively pulling out the hairs on my chin, and I’ve managed to grow a tiny but noticeable patch of inch-long beard, enough so that everyone can see it and doesn’t know quite what to say about it.
    .
    My response to those who think we should be bald as babies all over: we are mammals, and mammals have hair. Deal with it.
    .
    Swimming: Board shorts. T-shirt. Done. Everyone else is too busy worrying about what everyone thinks of them to notice what you look like.

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    1. SashaQ

      I also get this. I pull my chin hairs out, but I have discovered shaving so when the hairs grow back they’re all the same length and I like the texture of that.

      I’ve never shaved my leg hairs as I find them very useful but it’s a long time since I’ve been swimming because of comments other people made… I read the swimwear post with interest, though, as a more comfortable outfit might make the experience more comfortable all round…

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  8. Jamie Ray Post author

    Check, check, check….I’m with you on all of it. I have two last frontiers I haven’t dealt with – the beach and what to wear when I have to dress up (i.e. can’t wear chinos or jeans). I’m hoping no one dies or invites me to a wedding for a while because I don’t have a suit (and the prospect of getting a one-suit-fits-all-occiasions-just-in-case-I-need-it is not appealing).

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  9. DogDharma

    Oh, you bring back delicious memories of the first time I swam in the ocean without a shirt. I think beer bellies are sexy. My last uncle passed away in 2003, and I wore blue jeans and a black suit jacket, crisp white dress shirt, and subdued tie. You go Jamie, and I wish you all the best in your journey. Thanks for checking in on my blog today.

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  10. Pingback: Links of the Week – May 1, 2015 | Boundary Issues

  11. perpetualtomboy

    I’ve been swimming 3 times since I had top surgery in September 2014 – all 3 were in hotel pools when visiting my niece and nephew. Since they don’t know about my surgery (they are 6 and 10), I wear a rash guard and trunks when I swim with them. But I’m so eager to be able to swim topless that it kills me to even wear the rash guard! If I had been swimming alone I think I might have taken off the rash guard. Though I would worry a bit about hotel management hassling me, it’s unlikely as every time I’ve been in that pool there have been no other guests swimming at the same time. And should I get to the beach this summer I think I’m going to go for it and swim in just trunks. The FREEDOM! I crave it! And I hear you about the jiggly mid-section – I’ve definitely got it. But during this last visit with my niece and nephew I was playing football and tag and riding scooters with them for hours outside. And I realized that though there may be many areas of my body I’m not entirely satisfied with (my belly, my wide hips, my double chin), I’m just so happy to not have a flopping chest anymore that the rest of my body worries pretty much melted away. It didn’t faze me how much my belly jiggled while running with my nephew – as long as it wasn’t boobage jiggling I just didn’t care. It felt so carefree to finally be able to run without feeling such crippling self-consciousness over my DD chest!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You look great (and your chest looks great) in the video that you posted.

      I’m looking forward to trying out my swim outfits – I think I might do a trial run next weekend if the weather is good.

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