I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t exactly have the most the health of body images. I struggle constantly with my self-esteem, and with feeling comfortable with how I look. But I think that’s part of life both as a trans person, and as woman in general for the most part. But despite all of that, I’m still astounded by how much transitioning has improved my self-image and my ability to love myself.
Gender dysphoria takes all kinds of forms, and we come to understand it in a myriad of ways. I don’t think I truly understood the true depths of my dysphoria until I actually started to transition. For much of my life, just looking in the mirror could bring on waves of anxiety, shame, and revulsion. I went out of my way to avoid looking in mirrors whenever possible, and to avoid being photographed or caught on video camera. Seeing any representation of my physical appearance instantly triggered a massive punch of self-hatred. In hindsight, I can’t believe I didn’t see how massively unhealthy this was. But, I was one of those kids who was relentlessly and brutally bullied from almost day one, and I lived through some pretty horrific abuse at home, so it’s not surprising that I had internalized a lot of what was said to me. I was picked on almost every day for being “fat”, and I had a parent who reinforced that bullying at home. The part that I still struggle to push past is that I really wasn’t overweight. I was a perfectly healthy and normal weight for my age and height until college. What I was really being bullied for was being different; the fact that was a little bigger than some kids just gave them as easy handle. I was very much the “weird” kid; the combination of being autistic and “intellectually gifted” left me with a profound difficulty relating to almost anyone. I was basically a sitting duck. But I was too young and socially-inept to understand any of this, so what I internalized is that I was fat, and that no one likes fat people, and that the reason I couldn’t be happy with how I looked was because I was heavy.
I continued to struggle with weight and body image through college, and my confusion about my gender identity began to come to head. Even the multiple occasions when I managed to get my weight down to the lowest it had ever been as an adult, I still recoiled every time I had to look at my reflection. In some respects, this colored my thoughts about my gender, and I had myself firmly convinced that because I was so fat and unattractive, I could never live as a girl and not basically look like a monster. So I buried all those feelings of confusion and unhappiness, and just tried to push on with my life. I had equated all those ugly feelings when looking in the mirror with my weight, and so I gave it absolutely no deeper thought. And to make matters worse, because I couldn’t gain any boost to my self-esteem when I was thinner, I felt almost no drive to do much work to stay at that size. After all, why do all the work of keeping your weight carefully controlled if it doesn’t make you feel any better about yourself? And so it remained for many years.
The early stages of figuring out my gender situation, and learning how to look and dress as a girl are pretty personal, and I’m not sure I’m quite ready to share those moments publicly yet. But eventually I realized that the situation wasn’t nearly as dire as I had thought, and eventually started down this path. And I will NEVER forget the first moment I looked in the mirror and didn’t want to throw up. It was a lightbulb moment like no other. By my current standards for myself, I was still a total mess…still new to makeup, hair still rather short and difficult, and so much else. But I remember staring at that mirror, and feeling comfortable with the image looking back for the first time in my entire life. And all I wanted to do was cry. It wasn’t that particular moment, but a similar one a few weeks later where things finally started to really click into place. I certainly wasn’t any thinner than I had been in a few years; the only thing that had changed was the gender presentation. And there it was…I had spent my entire life hating what I saw in the mirror every single day because it reminded me that my body was not one that matched my brain. And even those early attempts gave me a relief from that hate for the first time ever. And that was really the moment where there was no going back. Sure, a lot more examining and soul-searching and making sure I was really up to the trial that is transition occurred following those moments…but in my heart I think I knew what I needed to do. And as I moved through those early stages of transition, I started to realize that what I had spent so many years chalk up to “just” really awful self-esteem was actually deeply rooted in my dysphoria and my unhappiness with my birth assigned gender.
These days, I think I’m pretty much like almost any other woman…sometimes I’m frustrated by my hair, or my skin, or my eyebrows, or what-have-you. And some days, I just don’t feel all that pretty. But those are minor quibbles, not the previous heartwrenching disgust. More often than I could have ever imagined, I can look in the mirror and feel a surge of happiness, confidence, and comfort with myself that 10 years ago I would have said was absolutely impossible. Even on the days when I’m in what I like to call “comfortable and lazy mode”, with my hair in a ponytail and not much more than a smidge of eyeliner on, I can still walk by the mirror and feel happy with what I see looking back. I’m still don’t think I’m very photogenic, but I even manage to occasionally end up with a picture where I think I look pretty. But most of all, I just feel comfortable in my own skin, and it gives the confidence (usually…no one’s perfect!) to just be myself. Some of the most striking things I’ve heard from people who have known me through transition are the comments about how much happier and more confident I look. I’ve got a long way to go, but just the simple freedom to be able to glance my reflection and see myself smile back is huge step forward for me, and every one of those looks is like a tiny victory.