[Editor’s Note: This piece is a part of the ongoing series on the Lesbian Day of Visibility for the month of April 2018. The series is an attempt to create discourse on topics that often do not appear in mainstream conversation. To visit all pieces under this theme, visit : http://gaysifamily.com/tag/lesbian/.]
Dysphoria is one of the defining factors of the trans experience for me, and indeed one of the most painful aspects of it to confront. I’m not entirely successful at that either – there are times when I so loathe my body (or particular aspects of it) that I become suicidal (there are also times where I am suicidal due to other reasons and dysphoria becomes a prominent part of the supporting “logic”). Even when that’s not the case, sometimes small things like looking at my nude body (in the bath) is distressing, or even sometimes my reflection in the mirror or my image in a photo. I transitioned when I was 18, so living as a woman for the last ten years has mostly eliminated the dysphoria I had from being pigeonholed into a male role (although misgendering does still bring this out sometimes), but I still have a strong sense of dysphoria about certain aspects of my body. There are a few things that I’ve largely gotten over like the general disgust with my height/the frame of my body and the size of my feet (it’s really bloody hard to find shoes that fit properly), but then certain things remain. The two things that bother me most to this day are facial hair and my genitals.
Not all trans people go through dysphoria, and not all people who experience dysphoria have a binary identity. One could theoretically be a trans woman who’s perfectly happy with her body without surgery or hormones or anything, just as easily as one could be a non-binary person who demolishes gender norms but still has a strong sense of dysphoria. I personally have always dealt with a lot of it, and my experience with dysphoria long predated my awareness of being trans.
My inability to fit into so-called “male” gender norms was evident early on (though I was pretty unaware that this was the problem), but so was my discomfort with my genitalia. Yes, when talking of body dysphoria there’s no polite way to put things. I was always uncomfortable with what’s there, and I distinctly remember this even from an early age through various instances. I think it’s important to note here that I did not necessarily directly associate my genitals with my gender at the time – I found one uncomfortable and did not understand the other. So that is an important point.
With puberty came a myriad of frustrations, and this indeed marked an important turning point in how I thought about things – up until then I just kind of found my body sort of strange, but once it started changing in ways that I found disturbing this became a deep discomfort. I also remember the various instances of dysphoria in the years proceeding this, as I became aware of the fact that I was trans.
When I was fourteen, I started attending a boarding school – which meant two things: namely, that I had to live in a dormitory with boys (there was simply a Boys’ Dorm and Girls’ Dorm – it was a small school) and that I had a little bit more leeway in terms of experimenting with my self-expression. The dormitory is of importance because of how little I felt I belonged in that space, and this became rather acute even midway through my first year. There wasn’t a lot of harassment but I simply didn’t see myself the same way and ended up realising that there was a term for what I was feeling around the same time. And of course on top of that, everyone’s body is going through puberty at that time, but it was also the first time that I could really observe the differences between bodies demarcated as “male” or “female”. This became distressing for me to see, and I longed to be a girl. I don’t know how better to explain that.
This went on for all of high school, and it was horrifying experiencing a male puberty, more so because I’d read some things about being trans and theoretically knew that there were things that I could do to prevent going through this. It took me years to get over my regret for not having access to these things, and I really regretted the fact that I wound up so tall and also disdained the masculine attributes that came. It had a devastating impact on my body image and my confidence in general, and I think also that not being able to transition probably deeply impacted my studies as well as worsening my anxiety. It’s really frustrating to have lost one’s adolescence, to say the least.
My mother caught on to the fact that I was wearing skirts and had also successfully attempted to join the girls’ hockey team, and wasn’t particularly thrilled about either of these things. My grandmother also had an issue with it, and would pay visits to campus just to see what I was wearing. The school authorities themselves were a bit more open, but ultimately I was forced into downplaying my gender expression if not hide it. That went on for four years, and while boarding school ultimately allowed me more freedom than my family would have in terms of expressing my identity, I was still stuck in a male role. That sucked. I didn’t date either, because I didn’t want to be seen as anyone’s “boyfriend”.
I decided to go to college across the country, away from my relatives and their interference, and started transitioning almost literally after arriving on campus. It definitely helped a lot to be able to simply live as a woman for once, and I did well in my first quarter of classes. I also began HRT and came out to my mother. The former was great: I could finally think clearly and my body began changing. The other was a disaster, but the details of it are not necessary to recount in a piece on dysphoria. That aside, I think dysphoria was a factor in my decision to choose my freedom over my (somewhat toxic) mother.
If I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with my genitals, the advent of facial hair and body hair was a new horror. I was well aware that I was trans and that there were theoretically things that I could do to prevent this while it was happening, and altogether puberty was a rather horrifying experience for me. Facial hair (and shaving to remove it) is a markedly masculine characteristic and I really wanted no part of it. And yet fate seemed to inflict it on me with utmost cruelty. Yes, I’ve tried various methods of getting rid of it, but none have been entirely effective and most all of them leave behind severely irritated skin. Even laser didn’t really work on me. Nowadays, it’s that irritation that’s really an issue (I resent having to wear concealer), and otherwise when I travel then stubble is still a problem (travelling is anyway disturbing for a variety of reasons).
There are aspects of my body that I’m either okay with or become okay with, even seemingly masculine ones. For instance, body hair on my torso always plagued me until about a year ago when it finally started reducing due to my being back on an anti-androgen (after several years). There’s still hair there, but it’s hardly visible and anyway women have body hair. Actually, that’s the thing: so long as my body hair is no more than that of a “normal” (read: cis) woman, I’m not the least bit bothered to remove it and hardly wax or shave my legs more than once in three months. Obviously, having a full-on Baba Ramdev coat of fur would be deeply disturbing for me, but the interesting thing is that as much as society pressures women to remove their body hair, I’m still okay with it so long as it doesn’t pass a certain threshold. Maybe this is why I always wished to date a Malayali woman.
While I do want (and for that matter really need) SRS, I’ve never much cared of the idea of breast implants or any such thing and I kind of feel like it would be ‘unnatural’ in a way. Putting some synthetic material inside my breasts seems invasive and I cannot really reconcile myself to this when I could achieve the same thing naturally through hormones. SRS is slightly different because it doesn’t put anything inside the body that wasn’t already there (remember that the process essentially reshapes what’s there, maybe “taking away” a few things but not putting any silicone or anything inside).
I don’t think it’s true that dysphoria necessarily goes away, and basically anything short of actually dealing with the problems physically probably won’t work for me. I know that my sense of dysphoria related to my genitals simply will not go away without undergoing SRS (there are anyway so many layers to it), but then at the same time dysphoria does seem to evolve over time. For instance, as much as I used to despise my body and not recognise my reflection in the mirror, I don’t have the same problem now.
Ignoring something that has distinct physical manifestations simply doesn’t work, and my experience with trying to deal with dysphoria in this way was that it just made me dissociate. Oh, yes, I stopped caring about my body. I stopped caring about everything else too. This is a rather unproductive way of dealing with things, so I don’t think it’s really worth it to try and ignore my dysphoria and would be in my best interests to go through with SRS and so on rather than being distracted by this for the rest of my life.
If dysphoria is a complex thing to face, it becomes even more complicated in terms of spirituality. This is not the usual conflict of feeling guilty about my identity or what society would think, but merely a conflict that arises with the concept of the soul not having a gender. Male and female are irrelevant, and therefore ultimately my desire to be female-bodied is ultimately irrelevant to spirituality – and indeed, my dysphoria is ultimately a distraction from it. I do, however, feel that if I were to address these issues through medical intervention that they’d be less of a distraction here too.
All of that aside, the fact that I am a trans lesbian does not really affect these things too terribly much – at the end of the day, these identities are irrelevant to realisation or attainment. However, experiencing dysphoria on such an intense level has indeed pushed me in a direction to transcend all of this. Whatever helps, I guess.
My experiences with dysphoria are only mine personally, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest that all trans folk experience dysphoria nor even that all of us experience it in the same way. However, just as trans identities have existed in various cultures and throughout history, so too do expressions of body dysphoria. Hijras and some of the other traditional trans identities in India have long had emasculation processes, which were typically followed with a few rituals recognising the “birth” of a “new” woman after castration. The cult of Cybele – which spread from ancient Phrygia but also found its place in Rome – focused on the worship of the mother goddess by emulating her consort Atthis. That myth goes that Atthis was the high priest of Cybele, but fell in love with a mortal woman in spite of Cybele mistaking his bhakthi for romantic love and offering her powers. Eventually, Atthis runs away with his lover and Cybele drives him into a fit of rage, wherein he kills the mortal woman and then castrates himself when he comes to. Atthis then committed suicide, and was immortalised in the form of a fir tree – but the followers of his cult were mostly what we’d call trans women today, and in addition to castrating themselves and dressing as women they would also do sex work and beg in a manner very much reminiscent of today’s hijra community. So too of course is the goddess myth – the goddess Bahuchara Mata is commonly worshipped amongst hijras, and so the association with a particular female deity remains even if the myths are vastly different. And of course they both use emasculation as a rite as well as a solution to dysphoria.
There are plenty of traditional trans identities which exist around the world where there’s some attempt at addressing dysphoric feelings. While hijras and the cult of Cybele used emasculation as a primitive form of SRS, this particular thing is not common across all trans communities. Still, there appears to be a clear indication that many trans people throughout history have wished to pass as the gender they identified with and done so. This, of course, is at least partly an attempt at reducing dysphoria.
Trans identity in the modern sense is very much connected to the idea of dysphoria in a medical sense, perhaps too much so because it’s often assumed even though many trans people do not experience dysphoria as such. It also manifests in vastly different ways for different people – for instance, I go through dysphoria mostly on the basis of my genitals and body hair but breasts are less of a concern. There are undoubtedly a number of trans women though who might not have any issue with their genitals but wish to have breasts – one simply cannot universalise the experience of dysphoria. Likewise, there are plenty of non binary people who experience dysphoria in ways that are distinct from binary trans people and their stories are likely different still from either of the examples I’ve given (or maybe not).
One does not simply get over dysphoria, for the most part. It’s this weird evolving thing that tells me I still look like a man regardless of how pretty I am or how well I pass. It clings and sometimes prevents me from going about my life, and it leads to a lot of sexual frustration. In my case, the only ways that seem to work in dealing with it are transitioning medically and socially. Talking about it might make the issue clear, but it’s not going to simply just go away because I do. It’s not a case of “mind over matter” either, and if that worked then I’m sure I’d have been happily free of dysphoria years ago. And it’s frustrating how physical the experience of dysphoria can be at times – it’s not just in my head.
These experiences are my own, and I’m sure there are a number of trans people who can relate to my experience. There are invariably plenty of trans people who may or may not go through dysphoria and yet cannot relate to these feelings though too.