Growing Pains of Self-Imagery & Gender Dysphoria
A Synopsis of Mental & Somatic Symptoms Experienced by Many Transgender and Gender- Nonconforming People, with A Call to Action Towards Changing the Narrative of Self-Imagery.
As a transgender author and transformative life coach, I'm not going to give you the same meat-and-potato-food-for-thought that many others successfully provide to the internet. This is more like a juice cleanse; the only appetizing part about it is that you know you need it and will feel way better after you do it, and the digestibility of the content is based on your willingness to drink the dang drink or throw it out. Here's the good news, I am happy to provide you with the drink! I'll make it taste as good as it can while making sure you get those much-needed nutrients, and of course, it'll be made with love. So, let's discuss the fun topic of self-imagery and gender dysphoria!
As a society, we typically don't discuss this topic because it is sensitive, it's triggering, and it's usually damaging when discussed. The unfortunate fact is that most people, including myself, tend to overgeneralize self-imagery with outward appearance while disregarding self-worth, inward experience, and outward expression. Most Americans I know are raised with some form of gender roles and expectations. With those roles come many unspoken rules for how the binary genders are expected to appear. To add to the nuance of expectations, companies create television shows, movies, and advertisements that solidify the boundaries of the binary. As an adult, who believes gender is a spectrum and opposes the patriarchal-gender-binary, it begs to mind the question, how do we create a new, more inclusive narrative around self-imagery, and what do we as a society want that narrative to look like?
Gender Binary: Applied Expectation
I wouldn't hold much validity to these topics without being as vulnerable as possible. Perhaps I feel a sense of tranquility towards these topics because, as a child, something felt off. Now as an adult, I have the vocabulary to express feelings of the past and carry the duty to share, as it could relate to anyone you may presently know.
Between the ages of six and twelve years old, I couldn't put a pin on what particularly felt off, other than having specific thoughts that I could relate to the female AND male identity, and having intense internal sensations when the topic of my gender would arise in any form was a commonality. I knew I enjoyed activities that boys liked, and separately, I knew I enjoyed activities that girls liked. Having male and female friends that I could relate to for different reasons made me feel an internal sense of unease because I did not see my other male peers behave in this same pattern. In fact, I noticed that I enjoyed playing with my female friends more than my male friends and that I spent more time with my female friends than with male friends. I just like being around girls...or maybe it's because I have more females in my family than males. I thought to ease the mild shame. You're just a cute little lady's man, -a generalizing comment I heard a lot around the topic of my friendships.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of spending time with two other boys in my room. I was about six, and I remember wearing a matching Michael Jordan jersey tank-top and shorts. That outfit at the time was my favorite! I looked like a young pro basketball player, and I felt powerful wearing it. My friends and I had noticed that there were some girls our age that would play down the block, so we wanted to impress them by staging a fake fight. The goal was to look like strong muscular macho -ahem young boys? -in front of these young girls. The hilarity of the experience ends with the fact that being children, we got too wrapped up in the playtime rough housing that was occurring in the present moment, that thankfully, we never ended up making it outside. The intentions, however, share the fundamentals instilled by the institutions that create the culture of our society. Boys pick up the message that they must appear strong and act boastfully to attract the opposite sex. Mind you, this is a snapshot of a singular experience, let's dive slightly deeper into the nuance of gender roles, how it impacted my dysphoria, and how it could be harmful to your friends and family members.
Gender Dysphoric Childhood
We moved to Black Forest, Colorado when I was entering third grade. For me, this meant having to make new friends and being anyone, I wanted to be. The topic of identity was brought up, by my sisters and mom from time to time when I would express my concern about making new friends in a new location. I had never been the new kid and I didn't much enjoy the fear of having to make a new tribe or cultivate a new reputation -good or bad. Up until that point in my life, I simply conformed to the generally imposed expectations; that was my identity -the average, middle-class, white, American child.
A few outward assumptions I had towards being the new person in school and in the neighborhood was that first, I was going to be identified as being from the city, and not from around town. Secondly, I recognized after meeting my potential neighborhood friends, that there was a hierarchy well established amongst the boys and girls, and jumping in with the expectation that I could be anyone I wanted was a facade. So, I rooted in my basic values for the first few years to make genuine friends & connections in my new environment. This worked for making some close friends in general and helped me identify the ideals and values I wanted to have. Although, because Black Forest had a slightly smaller population at the time, it felt far more isolating and the truth was, there really were only a number of possible friends that were living there and attending my school who were similar to me at the same time. Thus, concepts such as gender identity versus identity alone were not viable concepts to explore within the community at large, nor in my home.
I noticed imposed gender roles in my family when we had to move our home's furniture to its next location. I remember feeling an unfair expectation that I, although only seven at the time, had to lift heavier and more dangerous objects than my sisters, who were about 11 & 15. I noticed they got to pack boxes and load light objects like lamps while my dad and I had to attempt to move the couches, beds and box springs, and of course, our family heirloom piano. If I remember correctly that piano definitely almost killed my sister, my dad, and me at two separate points in the moving process.
Not having words to express your feelings about your identity and gender roles is like trying to communicate through duct tape with three-hole punch vent holes. It's not effective, and if you keep at it, you may very well want to give up on talking before you pass out from lack of oxygen. That's the feeling of suffocation. For years I was suffocating, and the deprivation of vocabulary played a large role in the creation of a lot of suffering. I never expressed these feelings of unfairness in expectations to my parents, and I was taught not to express big feelings because usually there were more important topics for our parents to be concerned with. The lack of communication about deep feelings on identity assimilated into a lack of identity.
By middle school, if I were asked to describe my dysphoria, presuming someone educated and aware of my symptoms asked how I was coping with the changes of school and life, I would tell them this;
I recently got diagnosed with asthma. I feel it come on whenever I have to exercise a lot. I hate it. I never use to have it before we moved. What's worse is lately, I feel an aching within my stomach. It physically hurts me, and I don't know why, but I do know the situations that cause the pain. It hurts when I'm told that I'm not man enough because I don't even have a single chest hair yet. It hurts me when my teachers identify me with a group of "boys". It hurts me whenever I see girls getting to play games that I am not allowed to. I hate it when teachers talk about how my voice is so low that it vibrates against walls & objects. I really want the other boys at school to see me for a boy, and I don't know why I even have that thought. Sometimes I think to myself, "Maybe I'm a girl stuck in a boy's body. Maybe this will change and I'll not grow any body hair and turn into a girl by puberty." I feel happy when I think that, but I am so scared of what others would think if I said it out loud that I'll take it to the grave if I have to. Having to bottle my feelings hurts my stomach too. I don't want anyone to think that I'm gay, so I do my best to act masculine and tough so no one sees that I really am concerned with these thoughts that I'm having. Maybe I'm just a perverted child and I'm full of sin -that's what I've been told by the churches that my friends, family & I have attended. I try to let it go, but it kinda keeps coming back. I really like songs by Shakira and Rihanna, but I can't tell anyone that either because then people will call me a girl, and getting called a girl is the worst feeling. Sometimes at school when other boys challenge my toughness, I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach, my whole entire body tenses up, I see my friends as targets with the very same weaknesses I have, and I start challenging their masculinity. I do the very harm that causes my own pain because I have to prove that I'm tough and can be mean too so then they know not to mess with me. Sometimes, things feel so stressful that I don't even have a moment to think before the next bit of stress is added on. Most of the time I feel shaky and tense like I want to scream and punch something, but I don't know why. Sometimes when I feel these heavy emotions, I don't know how to cope, so I find any objects that I can use to hurt myself to feel the pain. The pain calms me down and takes me out of my head. I know everyone says it's wrong and bad, so I just feel even more guilty. I can see the concerned faces of my parents, friends, sisters, and teachers. Seeing their concern concerns me. They keep asking me things like, "What is wrong with you?" and "Why would you do something like this?" whenever I do something that shocks them, and it hurts my whole body. I don't know what's wrong with me. I guess I'm just a bad child, a bad student, angry and bitter towards the world and my mom and dad. I feel hopeless and lost, but for some reason, I keep going. I think deep down, I believe there are better days to come.
Coming to Light with the Present
Truth is, I couldn't tell you how I survived the trials and tribulations, and now I can empathize with the LGBTQ+ youth that faces suicidal ideation. Society imposed so many rules that the structure itself caused me to collapse countless times. Today, society imposes many, if not all, of the same rules that confined me to a lack of identity and a lack of capacity to express my innermost feelings. Today, these rules tell you and your loved ones; your children, their friends, your friends, your partner, etc. -what they can and can't eat and drink, how much they can eat and drink, how to behave around each other & in different environments, how to talk and what to say about societal topics, how to conform, what they can and can't acceptably do, and the worst imposition of all, stand out but fit in at the same time. Additionally, we create these rules around topics we know little to nothing about. We fear that which we do not understand. The enemy of fear is understanding, so how can we work to gain a sense of understanding for the things we fear?
When you take a moment to pause and listen to a message, outside of your echo chamber, you have the opportunity to gain insights, but if you allow your thoughts & feelings to be the captain at the seas of high emotion, you will inevitably find your ship sinking time, and time again. This method to achieve understanding is not about changing someone's fundamental opinions. It's not changing someone's opinion at all. Understanding is about gaining insight and clarity and applying your logic and critical thinking to the information presented to you. Ask clarifying questions at the risk of sounding ignorant. Return to the discomfort until you hold the resiliency to fully grasp the message of another. Understanding is also not about agreeing with one's message, it's about simply acknowledging another human being's message.
If we want to create a society wherein our suicide rates are significantly lowered along with gun violence, police brutality, white supremacy, and a slew of other dystopic facets, dare I say war, then we as individuals need to do the very uncomfortable and yet very rewarding work of starting to ask questions without bulldozing them with layers of opinions. We need to be willing to meet and destigmatize our fear. Fear has been helpful for our survival, but we are nearing the day & age where truly the only useful trait of fear is the alarming sensation it provides us and applying it with the indication that we must further investigate the subject in question. If we simply allow our fear to continue to guide us as a society, then we likely will find ourselves further polarized and far less progressive as a civilization. I'll leave you with this loose construct; I'll leave it loose with intentions for a flexible application to our present society. When we allow fear to control our actions and decision-making, then we ultimately create situations wherein self-fulfilling prophecies and confirmation biases flourish. Unfortunately, this knowledge of your fear is being used to sway your decision-making for the benefit of other people's agendas. If you are feeling fearful about information being provided, perhaps it would be helpful to use Socrates' three sieves method, with a modern twist:
The first sieve is Truth: Is the information I am receiving factually based? Can it be found in other articles agreeing with the information, or backed by science?
The second sieve is Goodness: Is the information positive, progressive, or uplifting? You can break this down by asking, is this information going to make me upbeat or upset?
The third sieve is Necessity: Is this specific information necessary for me to truly know to make an informed decision for my family, my life, or my future? Could this information have an impact on the people I care about?
If applied properly, these concepts can allow you to take fear's blinders off your everyday vision and move forward with a better understanding of the world at large.
About the author
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