What Happens When You Stop Hating Your Body?

I don't need to be Charles Atlas...

I don’t need to be Charles Atlas…

I was at the gym, doing seated overhead dumbbell presses (shoulders). I looked up at the full length mirror to check my form and I didn’t flinch. I didn’t judge. I didn’t wish I had bigger muscles or less flab. I didn’t wish I was using a heavier weight. I didn’t wish I was a boy. I straightened my left wrist and shifted my forearm to get back on course. I did a few more reps and finished the set. I wiped down the bench and racked the dumbbells.

It occurred to me that I don’t hate my body. I’ve stopped running the old tapes through my head.

When I first started telling my women friends that I thought I was trans, and that I didn’t know if I was going to take testosterone or get top surgery, they asked me why I couldn’t just accept my body the way it is. They’d tell me there is nothing wrong with me, that I am fine the way I am. A big strong butch. They were coming at it from a body positivity view. From a we don’t exist for the male gaze view. That you shouldn’t hate your body, you should hate the social construct of body image and beauty.

I didn’t know how to answer them back. What they said was true. Like them, I was taught to scrutinize my body and to judge it against everyone else’s. To fix my imperfections. To strive towards an unattainable standard. They weren’t wrong, but they were missing the point. I used to think that I hated my body. I said I hated my body. Now I realize that hate is the wrong word. I used to hate lima beans. I still hate liver. My body caused me pain.

If someone tells you that they are in pain, chances are you won’t tell them to love their pain, or to love the part of their body that is causing them pain. Chances are you will start asking them questions. Where is the pain? When did it start? How much does it hurt? You may start throwing out alternatives: herbal supplements, pharmaceutical drugs, diets, exercise, or surgery.

There were years when the tape ran continuously and the only way I could stop it was to eat or go to sleep. I wish I were a boy. Eat a bagel. I wish I wasn’t fat. Eat a slice of pizza. I wish I looked like that guy. Eat a knish. I don’t want to look like this. Eat a granola bar. I wish some one would pick me up and hold me. Eat a cherry-cheese Danish. Sleep and repeat. In between, I went to work and tried to be a good partner to Donna. I was distracted and disconnected.

I wish I could offer a flow chart for how I changed, but it was incremental. I tried several times to stop my chaotic/binge eating. I joined a gym. I talked my way through my childhood traumas. I accepted that wanting to be a boy meant I was trans. I told Donna everything. I read everything. I cut down on my drinking. We went to couples therapy. I went to Weight Watchers and lost weight. I changed my name. I started this blog. I bought some new clothes. I went to a trans support group. I had top surgery. And while top surgery was life-changing, I don’t think it would have had the same effect if I hadn’t done some work before it.

What happens when you stop hating your body? Who am I if I don’t feel that pain?

I’m still the same person but with a somewhat different shape. My head is a lot quieter. There are fewer distractions, and I know when I’m distracting myself. Sometimes I feel a loneliness, or a restlessness, that I could not tolerate or feel before. I’m not sure what it means, or how much work I have left to do to figure it out. To find a way to live in this body, in this culture, in this time and place.

Notes: It turns out that February 21 to 27 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This article by Gloria Lucas on eating disorders and marginalized communities (from The Body Is Not An Apology) highlights some queer and trans related resources and has lots of interesting links.

I’ve linked before to Anagnori on tumblr. I like their post, The more subtle kind of gender dysphoria , which addresses coping mechanisms for dysphoria.

20 thoughts on “What Happens When You Stop Hating Your Body?

  1. genderneutral

    I appreciate your sharing and the links. Much of what you say holds true for me as well. While my body dysphoria is largely gone I do still struggle with being overweight. I have so internalized societies image of beauty/handsomeness…it still can at times rule me. I keep working on it but it’s a tape that has run for so long. And it’s interesting because when I look in the mirror naked or dressed I like what I see. I am stronger, leaner, well proportioned. When I use my hands to feel my body I like what I feel – much the same as what I see plus the added textile affirmation that I’m really not fat. It angers me how ingrained these things can be. So while my dysphoria is really mostly gone it’s an age old belief system I am now fighting that quite honestly doesn’t belong to me in so many ways any more. I look forward to reading your links later today.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Sometimes I think we hard-wire the old image of ourselves into our brain. I still describe myself and think of myself as “chunky” or “stocky” and I get confused when people refer to me as thin (I think they are condescending to me but they are not). The surgeon who did my top surgery told me at my consultation that I’d do really well because I was thin – that it was much harder to get good results on people who are obese – but it surprised me that he mentioned it (previously doctors would tell me to lose weight – so I just expected it to be a non-issue once I did).

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  2. Fredrication

    As usual your reflections are spot on! I was never part of the butch or lesbian society so the talk on “loving ones body” we’re more subtle, but it was still there. I never really figured out why it never hit the mark for me, but now I do.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Glad it resonated with you. It took me a while to realize that “hate your body” is a cliche term just like “trapped in the wrong body” and that when I put it in my own words (pain) it made a lot more sense.

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  3. Adrienne

    I think this distinction – something you hate vs. something that causes you pain – is very insightful. I believe that my spouse never hated her body, exactly, but at the same time it did cause her a certain amount of psychic pain. And as an outsider, that description makes it much easier to empathize with the feeling. Hate feels like a choice, but pain is something that needs to be healed.

    And that question – who am I if I don’t feel pain? – is one I’ve grappled with also, though in different contexts. When pain is pervasive in your life to the point that it drives out other things, it becomes wrapped up with your identity… and it takes a long time to rediscover yourself when it’s gone.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Dysphoria and the internal repercussions of suppressing your gender are different from hating your body (which is used as a not very accurate shorthand for it). Unfortunately, most people don’t understand what dysphoria is like, but they do hate or have hated their body. I get really upset when someone suggests that transitioning is de facto misogynist – and it doesn’t help to keep repeating “no I’m not…”

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  4. asynca

    For 15 years I assumed my dysphoria was body dysmorphia because I was always about 25lbs overweight (which, to my eyes, looks like 100lbs). Now I understand they’re not the same thing, but BOY do they feel similar. They contribute to each other (for example, it’s harder for me to appear androgynous because I have fat distributed in female-type patterns on my body, and the bigger my chest is, the harder it is to get it perfectly flat) but they’re not the same thing. I once tried saying on a trans forum that I found dysmorphia to be a very similar experience to dysphoria, and BOY did I cop it. Apparently I was Not A Real Trans and I needed therapy. I’m still trying to work out if I feel like the ‘trans’ title applies to me (I don’t use it currently, it doesn’t feel exactly right), and I still feel like both my experiences with my weight and my gender are very similar.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If it is your experience that dysmorphia feels like dysphoria, that ought to be sufficient – they are your feelings – it doesn’t mean everyone else has to feel it that way.
      Trying to get your body to match your gender identity is a tricky thing (particularly if your gender identity leans towards androgyny, non-binary, or genderqueer). I don’t think it is always possible or desirable, yet there is a assumption that somehow you will find a way to do it, including hormones and/or surgery and that if you don’t you are not “real”. There are a lot of good reasons (financial and health related) for going natural.
      I also don’t know how tall thin and flat got to be the “standard” for the middle – some of us are going to be short and pear shaped unless there is a lot of surgical/hormonal intervention – and I’m not sure that makes sense or is fair to the person “born that way”. Or that fat/body positivity should only be for cis women? Or that a 40 year old, AFAB, should strive to look like an 18 year old man?

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  5. halitentwo

    Once again Jamie, you were spot on! I so relate (as usual)! I can’t imagine looking in the mirror and not flinching, loathing, being angry. I can’t imagine liking my body. Because it feels so wrong. But I also can’t imagine who I would be without that ache. Much of who I am, how I respond to others, how I parent, how I minister to people at work is based on my own wounds, my own pain. My wounds make me gentle with the wounds of others, my loneliness allows me to understand, to reach out, a constant reminder that everyone has an inner narrative that is painful in some way, that needs tending to. Who would I be and what would I be like if I didn’t have this constant prodding of my own?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Glad it resonated with you. The good, or the bad, news is that not being in pain now does not alleviate, heal, or take away the old pain. The old pain is still there. It is still accessible (or won’t go away). You can still draw from it.
      What is different is that I am not in the constant pain that I was in five years ago before I started dealing with this. And that I am not experiencing dysphoria in the mirror anymore.
      This is an issue for me in my perpetual decision whether or not to start some form of T – my face doesn’t really bother me right now – and there is a trade-off between wanting a lower voice and having my face (and hairline) change – that I have to weigh.

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      1. halitentwo

        Honestly Jamie, I’m just waiting for you 🙂 Same considerations about T. But I feel like, “well, if Jamie does it…” Just say the word friend and I could jump on that wagon with you!

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