Julia Serano writes in her “experiential gender” chapter of Whipping Girl that one of the most difficult aspects of describing her transition stems from the fact that “there are so few words in our language that articulate ‘bodily feelings’ of any sort” (220). Gender related body dysphoria, a concept that is almost impossible to explain for the reason that Serano articulates, has commonly been described as a sense of discontent or discomfort with one’s body. Not every trans person experiences body dysphoria, and those who do would define it differently. Personally, dysphoric is how I feel about the parts of my body that make me feel like I could not possibly be who I am: those aspects of my body that make me feel like I could not possibly be a man.
Like everyone, I was born into a world in which a gender system was already in place, a world where the expectations for what a man’s body looks like were well established. When I examine the dysphoria that I feel about my body, I have to be critical of those ideas and understand that a lot of my dysphoria comes from being brainwashed to see certain body parts as gendered, when in reality, it is society that assigns gender to bodies. Nothing is inherently gendered without human influence. With that being said, body positivity is an important part of feminist discourse for obvious reasons.
As Tina Fey famously stated in her book Bossy Pants, our world never ceases trying to convince women that, “there are an infinite number of things that can be ‘incorrect’ on a woman’s body.” With beauty standards for women becoming increasingly unattainable with time and new photoshop technology, it makes sense why cisgender women are usually the focus of body positive conversations. But as we try to become as intersectional with our feminism as possible, I need to bring something to the attention of cis feminists talking about body positivity. There is not one way to practice body positivity. The “you’re perfect the way you are, you don’t need to change a thing” rhetoric, no matter how well intentioned, is simply not helpful, especially when talking to trans people who have, or plan to, modify their bodies.
It’s frustrating to think about the fact that there is not nearly enough research about the psychology of trans issues and trans people. Right now, it is not possible for me to know if I have body dysphoria because something went wrong when my fetus was developing where the wrong primary sex characteristics formed and my brain just knew it was supposed to be a different combination. It is not possible for me to know if it is just the fact that society shaped my understanding of men’s bodies for twenty years causing me to be unable to view my pre-transition body as satisfactory when paired with my identity. In reality it is probably a combination of these things. Regardless of if my body dysphoria is biological, a result of socialization, or both, my dysphoria exists and is not going away.
Whatever the reason for my dysphoria, it shouldn’t matter. I should not have to justify my need to alter my body. I cannot however, shake the feeling that I am not supposed to admit that society probably plays a role in my dysphoria. I get the overwhelming impression from the people around me that if doctors all of a sudden said that my dysphoria was caused by some biological/genetic reason, then society would see my body modification as justified. I argue that body modification is body positivity. And no matter what a person’s reasons are for altering their body, only that person can decide if it is justified.
Body modification has quite literally been my salvation. I resent the logic of and wholeheartedly disagree with any person who feels it is worth the suffering to spend years trying to make peace with a body whose owner feels betrayed by it. It does not make sense to suggest that someone suffer and lose years of their life trying to make peace with something that simply will never feel fitting to them or their sense of who they are. For some trans people, all the therapy in the world will never be able to do what hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or top/bottom surgery can for our mental health. Although I am not living absolutely free from dysphoria (that has persisted even after top surgery and a year of HRT), my dysphoria is more tolerable than ever before; and this is a reality that could never have been achieved without these interventions. Because whether or not gender is real, dysphoria is, and the arbitrariness of gendering body parts doesn’t feel arbitrary when you’re late to class because you feel disgusting in everything you put on.
I know that my transitioning with testosterone for a year does not make me more of a man than I was before I started HRT. I know that my chest, which has been reconstructed to look like what society thinks a man’s chest looks like, is not any more a man’s chest now than it was before I had surgery. But I still needed to have that surgery. I did not do it so that other people would see my chest as complementary to my identity; that is merely a bonus. But my chest was not right for me, unrelated to my specific gender identity, and it was never going to be right for me until it was reconstructed. Modifying my body to fit the vision of what I know deep within myself it is supposed to look like, was the most positive thing I ever could have done for my mental and physical health. My certainty that my body was meant to look differently than it did before HRT and surgery is a phenomenon I cannot explain for the life of me, but one that I am more sure about than anything else.
Anyone who insinuates that they could possibly know me better than I do, and know what I need more than I do by telling me that I can find completeness without body modification is extremely off base. Because the implication is that I am somehow destroying something that was fine the way it was. But again, only I can determine that fact; “fine” only exists about me if I believe it. After all, “healthy” is not truly “healthy” unless physical and mental health are both included. If a person needed to have brain surgery to save their life, our society would never question that choice. But when a trans person needs to have surgery to keep them from wanting to take their life, suddenly that surgery isn’t considered “medically necessary.” This is a serious problem that presents itself to trans people in many ways when they are trying to access life saving treatments like hormone replacement therapy or gender affirmation surgery.
American researcher and author Brené Brown has written extensively about the issue of shame in her book titled, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). She has uncovered a complex web of shame that explains where messages of shame come from and which messages affect us the most. We receive clear messages from both micro and macro sources about who we should be, how we should be, and what we should be. She has uncovered that when shame comes from micro sources the most close to us in the web, such as family, or even more so ourselves, that is when that shame has the most negative consequences on us. For people with body dysphoria, this hatred of our physical selves is extremely palpable and negative because it comes from within. Few sources are able to inflict shame on us as effectively as ourselves. It is no coincidence that her writing spoke to me because she cites body image issues as one of the most salient ways that shame manifests in American society.
This directly relates to the messages that are most likely the cause of body dysphoria for trans people. Brown identifies a “Double-bind” and describes it as the condition of having very large and extensive expectations, but having, “…very few realistic options that allow us to meet any of these expectations” (Brown 22). And the options that do seem to be present, all expose us to some type of penalty. Her example talks about “thinness” and how you are supposed to be thin, and desire thinness without being overly obsessed with dieting or weight. We see this play out for trans people in the sense that society tells us, “If you want to be a man you have to act and look like this”, but then when a trans man tries to alter his body in order to be able meet this expectation for a man’s body, he is punished and is told that he needs to learn to love himself the way he is and not mess with something that isn’t broken. Or as I was told by a friend, that by changing my body to match how I have always felt it was supposed to look, aren’t I just “allowing my body to be aligned with what other people have grouped into a gender and therefore just trying to fit into a mold that someone else has made?” I don’t think I need to explain how dismissive it is to insinuate that I would make such a huge decision like surgery just to make my body make sense to other people rather than to make it make sense to me.
Brown goes on to offer solutions and explains that the only way to escape this shame web is to reclaim our real-power, because shame is what happens when our real-power is taken away. Having real-power means, “basically the ability to change something if you want to change it”. She says:
When we talk about shame powerlessness, we’re really talking about three specific components of real-power: consciousness, choice, and change. In order to effectively make changes and address the problems in our lives, we need to first be conscious or aware of the problem. Second, we need to be able to problem-solve and identify the choices we can make to address the problem. Once we are aware of the problem and our options for dealing with it, we need to be able to facilitate change— we need to be able to act on those choices. (25)
To apply this model directly to trans people with body dysphoria, the first step is being able to identify that the uncomfortable feeling and sense of discontent that you feel about a certain part of your body is related to gender and is dysphoria. This commonly takes years for a trans person to finally understand because we are not taught as children what dysphoria is or that it exists at all. Once you understand that, you may research the ways you can help yourself which will range anywhere from DIY methods like binders, packers, padding and tucking, to HRT and surgery. But the most important part of that is being able to make those changes. That means having access and support that allows you to actually make a change rather than continually suffering.
In Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness, she talks at length about her relationship to her body. She expresses many sentiments, one of which is that there is no right way to have a body. And whatever you need to, be able to, “exist, live, and dream in [your] body” (Mock 226) is absolutely necessary regardless of why your dysphoria persists. Because as Mock says: “…We are more than our bodies; we have different relationships to our bodies; [and] our bodies are ours to do what we want with” (172).
Brown, Brené. “Understanding Shame.” I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). New York: Gotham, 2007. 22-25. Print.
Fey, Tina. “All Girls Must Be Everything.” Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. N. pag. Print.
Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. New York: Atria, 2014. 172-226. Print.
Serano, Julia. “Experiential Gender.” Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. N.p.: Seal, 2007. 220. Print.