Thursday, June 15, 2006

mirror, mirror

Had a really interesting therapy session with Amy today. We covered a whole lot of topics, but there's one that has been sticking with me this afternoon, partly because I haven't ever given it a lot of thought before, and that is the troubling intersection of eating disorders and transmasculine identity.

We were talking about self-image among transmasculine folks- how hard it is to develop a good (positive, accurate, healthy) sense of self when there aren't a whole lot of cultural reference points to go by, and what reference points exist are often fraught and problematic. That is to say, I'm trying to develop a sense of myself as a guy, and I'm trying to get a handle on my body, and how I feel about it. Looking to the world around me for masculine referents, I run into trouble sometimes when I try to compare myself to the guys I see around me, especially if I'm walking around in Chelsea! Those muscle boys can give anyone a complex.

On the other hand, trying to remember that everyone has their own bodies and body issues is, well, not only an oversimplification, but also an exercise in isolation. I need points of reference, and to be able to see myself reflected in others, even if it's funhouse mirror style.

But when I try to place myself into the context of the transmasculine community, uncomfortable tensions can unfold if I start, as is all to easy to do, comparing myself to other guys and either making unrealistic predictions ("Ooh, he's been on T for 18 months and he's got washboard abs...Only 16 months to go and then I'll have washboard abs, too!" Uh, yeah, or maybe he also does 500 crunches every morning.) or start giving myself a hard time ("He looks so much more like a dude than me. I'm not trans enough!") in all sorts of really messed up ways.

So all of this (as I was discussing with Amy) is not unique to me, and can be a veritable breeding ground for disordered eating. Particularly with transmasculine folks, who are often trying to look more masculine, and are often thwarted by curvy figures. Lose weight, and where do you often lose first? Hips, breasts, thighs...All body places that are heavily gendered as feminine. Plenty of guys want to lose those feminizing curves. I know I do.

Almost all of my issues with my body and my sense that I'm not particularly attractive are wrapped up in my gender. When I look in the mirror and I don't like what I see, most of the time it's because I'm not seeing a guy. That's getting better as I'm letting myself relax and learn about different masculinities, but I haven't been culturally indoctrinated for nothing. All these years of the different kinds of maleness don't just fade away.

I know for myself, I never had any trouble with my body until I started looking at it in a (trans)gendered manner. I remember being in middle school and starting to hear my peers complain about their bodies- thighs too big, breasts too small, whatever. I remember thinking (in that precocious, meta, self-analytic way that I had as a kid) that I was lucky not to be "one of those adolescent girls with body image issues."

And then I grew up and started getting naked with people and started facing my body as more than just the thing under my clothes, and it was a whole 'nother story. Then I looked at my large butt and thought about how unmasculine it looked, started hunching my shoulders to hide my chest.

All eating disorders are heavily gendered, of course- it seems like everyone's issues with their bodies stem from not feeling like "real" men or women, for whatever reason. But for me, instead of feeling like not a good enough girl, I started feeling like not a good enough guy...and it's that much harder to feel like an okay guy when you aren't even cut from the same cloth as the hegemonic mock-up.

So, what to do? Seems like eating disorders are often as much about control as they are about image, per se...for folks whose lives feel unmanageable or out of their control, at least they can be in charge of what they eat. That's got tricky ramifications for trans folks who want to medically transition but, for whatever reason, can't- too young, no insurance, no money, no support. They're seeking to modify their bodies, lose those parts that feel girly, and if they can't do it through hormones or surgery, maybe they'll try to do it by not eating. And hey, lose enough weight and you stop bleeding, too- another goal of many trans guys.

How do you approach someone whose disorded eating is based in a gendered body dysphoria?

A lot of the literature and ideology behind recovering from eating disorders and being body-positive have slogans like "Love your body!" and "Learn to accept yourself for how you are!" Which are great slogans...but are not the encouragement I would offer to many trans folks. I'm intensely uncomfortable and dysphoric in my body...don't tell me to love my body!

It made me sad, and uncomfortable, and unhappily aware of how tricky these intersections of issues can be. Amy said it was a big issue they talk about at Callen Lorde when they're talking about trans health, especially for youth. It made me think again about why I keep putting "hit the gym" on the top of my to do lists, even though I clearly don't have it prioritized enough to actually do it all that often.

And furthermore- and we talked about this in group, some, and I think I'll write more about it when I've let it chew through my brain a little further- I have to admit that on some level, I think it's legitimate for me to want a typically masculine male body. I'm trying to parse apart what I really want, and why, so that I can balance that with what I can and can't accomplish, and scrape out some peace of mind (and body) for myself.

But it's hard! Because I think it's problematic that my ass/thighs/hips make me uncomfortable in their enormity- I can tell that's coming from cultural indoctrination that says that guys don't have big butts (and really, neither should girls, but it's definitely a girl thing) and that is messed up on so many levels. For on thing, plenty of non-trans guys have wide hips and full thighs...back to remembering how everyone has their own complications, right?

On the other hand, I'm never going to be happy about having breasts, because I'm a guy, and guys don't have breasts (though again, I've seen the occasional non-trans man with a bigger rack than me). So I'm having them removed in less than two months, and I think that's important and valid and good. it okay for me to pick and choose what parts of my gendered body image likes and dislikes are okay?


roses said...

I think it's okay for you to pick and choose your likes and dislikes. There are certain things that will always feel out of place on a male body, such as breasts, and others that just happen to not be the norm of what we see in the media, such as big butts and thighs.

Also I think you look like pretty masculine from pictures lately. As in I'm starting to say 'damn Eli's hot' and considering that I'm a heterosexual woman that probably means you look masculine. Very nice jawline lately.

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