Was I Trans?
I’m 27 now and healthy. Well, mostly.
I still weigh myself far too often if I get access to a scale, and I can’t eat cereal without compulsively swallowing the box and praying for a purge. Some habits take years to break.
But I no longer count the calories in each item I eat, and I keep down almost everything I consume. By and large my portions sizes are healthy and happy. I don’t pinch my belly every few minutes, nor berate myself for my diet sins. I no longer oscillate between ravenously hungry and belly-bursting full. I can think about things other than food for entire hours at a time.
Bulimia was my constant companion between the ages of 17 and 25, though my tendencies towards disordered eating began much earlier. I think I was eleven when I first noticed something wrong with my body. I didn’t have a period until well into high school, nor breasts, and my genetically flubby tummy was something to be ashamed of in nearly every outfit.
I also didn’t fit in with the other girls. Or at least, I thought I didn’t. I was the victim of fairly standard fifth grade bullying, as well as a transatlantic move before middle school accompanied by a nerdy, bookish streak. I was too embarrassed to shop at the ‘cool’ stores, so I stuck to dorky outlets occasionally punctuated with a few expensive but ill-fitting Christmas gifts. I definitely didn’t look or dress like the popular girls. I didn’t “fit in.”
And then, of course, my incipient gayness was the icing on the gender-not-belonging cake.
Notice that I said “gender-not-belonging” rather than “gender non-conforming.” I’ve yet to meet a soul who really conforms to their gender. Some people just notice that their particular brand of not-conforming makes them stick out more than others: it prevents them from belonging, or rather, is the most visible symptom of the fact that they don’t belong.
With regards to my gender, there was a time in which I could’ve gone either way. I had an androgynous, unappealing body, and I wasn’t the “right” kind of feminine — meaning, to my teenage mind, that I wasn’t feminine at all. (I remember sobbing as a sixth grader to my parents that I was “ugly, just so ugly.” Let me tell you now: I was awkward, I had buckteeth, I was not attractive. This was not a hallucination. Children aren’t blind. Dysmorphia is about values, not eyesight.)
The life-defining moment, banal and profound like every such moment, was viewing an episode of Gossip Girl. Impossibly beautiful Blair deals with her sadness and isolation by eating an entire Thanksgiving pie, beautifully, and then vomits it, also beautifully. She then repents, beautifully, in an easy phone call and a tearful confession. She remained skinny. It was all beautiful.
This could be my solution too: I could starve and purge myself into being feminine. Maybe I could be Blair. What is being a woman, after all, than painfully and delicately brutalizing your life so as to fulfill the worst stereotypes of bodily perfection? As an added bonus, if I could just force my square personality — modifying the mind by damaging the body, slicing off my physical edges to control my soul — into that curvy gender, I might fully identify as feminine and lose the desire for that group to which I did not belong; in other words, starving myself might make me straight.
Of course, that never happened. Instead I developed an addiction that controlled my life for nearly a decade, culminating in treatment at an eating disorder center (and a few strange vestigial habits, re: cereal). And I’m still attracted to women.
But believe it or not, I am grateful that my trigger into addiction was Gossip Girl. I am healthy now. I do not take daily medication. I still have all of my appendages. My teeth are a little acid-worn, but my bones are not brittle and I have (and now dread) that long sought after period.
Why am I grateful that I got sick in the way I did? Because as a teen vulnerable to whatever influence first appeared, I shiver to think of what would have happened had I discovered the possibility of transition.
Remember: I didn’t belong to my gender. I had a choice, at that time, though I didn’t know it. I could have brutalized myself into fitting into the elusive, impossible femininity, or — had I been born five years later — I could have brutalized myself into fitting into a just as difficult, just as unsatisfying, just as dysmorphic masculinity.
I had been a tomboy, I liked girls — being trans was a logical next step and the ‘solution’ to all my teenage problems: I’d be part of a special crowd (popular!), and I’d be straight. I’d have all the edgy uniqueness of the eating disorder without any of the pesky secrecy of hiding my self-loathing from my parents. Though teenage me wouldn’t have predicted it, my life would have been much worse.
People often mention the downsides of the medical nature of transition. The pharmaceutical industry is greedy and grasping, and has no qualms treating growing bodies as guinea piggy banks paying top dollar for unknown side effects — with the added benefit, of course, that lifelong customers please shareholders the very most. And surgeries, while safer than ever before, are never risk free.
But the medical transition, while problematic, isn’t actually the issue with a teenage transition. Even if the treatment had been safe, the process would have damaged me: the perfectionist, compulsive, frankly consumerist drive of body-alteration would have been the driving force of my character, to the detriment of my happiness. Because the problem was never my gender: gender doesn’t exist.
Gender is an imaginary construct cementing a body to a character trait, a stupid reduction that simplifies the complexity of the whole human person into a small number of selected stereotypes — and a color, so that you know what stuff to buy.
Transitioning would have locked my personality into this imaginary excuse for self-castigation and self-mutilation. My chances of looking truly masculine, just like looking truly feminine, would have been next to impossible — nether stereotype is accessible to any but the most genetically ‘fortunate’ or the most surgically altered.
There have been a number of teens who report being happier and more comfortable following their transition. I wonder if that isn’t more a result of the associated therapy, giving them the coping skills that teenagers so sorely lack. And I worry that if their therapy encourages — or even just neglects — their dissatisfaction with the body, their progress will plateau or deteriorate. They’ll be consigned to a permanently bifurcated life, with a mind and body that hate each other.
I am grateful to my eating disorder for the treatment that helped me accept my body as it is: still flubby, still ‘unfeminine’, still perfectly imperfect. More importantly, the therapy helped me with all of the associated emotions that I imprinted upon my body. It’s okay to be a woman aroused by women — it’s not a rejection of femininity. There is no amount of purchasing or counting or starving that can control my physique, nor the world outside it. Fitting in, being accepted, is more a function of time and maturity than any reflection on who I am.
Today, I know that I am perfectly average. To some people, I am beautiful (shout out to those girls and boys). To others, unattractive. I also know that this is the way of the world. And in fact, what makes me beautiful is more the background and life experiences of the beholder than any modification I apply to myself.
It’s also the key to my “gender”-belonging. I still find that I don’t fit in with most girls. My best friends are nearly all male. But as an adult, I understand that fitting in is about shared interests and preferences. It’s not about idealized performance. The more comfortable I am in myself, and the less focused I am on how I look, the more I see the value I bring to relationships in both sexes.
I am grateful that I am not trans. I am grateful that I spend my days coming to terms with my body, and slowly approaching peace. I am so glad that I am not still on the treadmill, painfully striving towards some gender ideal.