Illness or Identity?
How a person with anorexia sees gender dysphoria.
The furor over the “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina has given the Trans movement the perfect kindling to continue fostering their campaign of nationwide acceptance. It has also sparked a semi-hysterical “transphobic” backlash of self-righteous traditionalists. I do not consider myself in either camp; I approach this topic with a wrenching awareness of what it feels like to be disconnected from your body. To hate the way you look in the mirror with every fiber of your being; and to be willing to undergo great feats of self-mutilation to achieve a vision that is always just out of grasp. My perspective on the matter however, probably would not go over well among most LGBTQ individuals. As a person who has struggled with anorexia nervosa since puberty, the transgender anguish resonates with me. The similarities between the two illnesses are striking. And yet, one is an identity, and the other is a disorder. Why?
At the heart of gender dysphoria is a paradoxical desire; to be characterized as something that one simultaneously declares is ineffable (i.e. gender roles are illusory cultural constructs, but I yearn to concretely embody that illusion). The contradictory desire in transgenderism is similar in hopelessness as the desire in anorexia. The goal is to be thin, and one is never thin enough until one is dead. The goal is to be a gender other than one’s biological makeup, and one cannot alter one’s chromosomes and genetic makeup.
If a man wants to wear makeup, dresses, even get breast implants, who are we to stop him? If he wants to legally change his name to Maureen, great! But the policing of language, the implication that by misusing a pronoun we are savaging a person’s very core, is untenable. Using ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ may very well hurt someone’s feelings, but that is a level of sensitivity on par with agoraphobia. The onus is on the person to find ways of coping. The world cannot be responsible for the validation of a confusing, opaque issue. An issue that has been too quickly transferred from “disorder” to “condition,” from irrational to heroic.
Advocates insist that gender dysphoria is not a pathology. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) describes a disorder as “a description of something with which a person might struggle, not a description of the person or the person’s identity.” This is an absurd string of verbiage. A person’s identity is not their biological sex. That is part of their identity. However many individuals with gender dysphoria feel they must try and change their outward appearance to match this inner ideal. Due to the myriad physiological makeup of the human body, however, this attempt is often a mighty undertaking. One may even go so far as to say, a struggle? The intensity of the desire, the all-consuming to alter one’s self, is what I find most similar to my own illness. We cannot rest until the outside matches the inside.
Many individuals with eating disorders assume an identity centered completely on that disorder. According to an article on the Social Issues Research Centre website, pro-anorexia website espouse starvation as “the right lifestyle choice for them, and will allow them to achieve happiness and perfection.” Imagine if someone with crippling OCD about germs could impose their beliefs; we’d be obligated as a society to carry gloves and wear face masks. The same could be said for a chronically depressed exhibitionist. Accommodation and what is essentially encouragement of a delusion is bound to “improve” the life of an individual who has felt like an alien in their own body for years. Unfortunately social support is never going to change the basic biological facts. Clinging to an illusion does not make a person crazy, marginalized, or inferior. It makes them human.
We CANNOT rely on our “feelings,” as strong as they are. If I relied on my feelings, I’d be dead. Why? Because my feelings tell me that eating food means gaining weight and gaining weight is intolerable. Transgender children are apparently absolutely sure they were born in the wrong body. It is a belief held so deeply that we throw out all the entrenched knowledge of psychology and mental illness to appease it. People with anorexia can often trace their discomfort with their own bodies back to early childhood as well. Both situations are abstract feelings that clearly contradict reality. The certainty that one is a woman despite being born a man sounds awfully similar to the conviction that one’s body is overweight even when BMI is at starvation levels. The feeling of hunger- the most primal, ingrained of physiological response- impels the individual to abstain. Can you question the depth of that belief?
No one with any understanding of the matter is denying that a mismatch exists between the person’s brain and their body. The approach to “wellness” however, is hopelessly backward. The brain is the component of this puzzle with the capacity for immense plasticity. Noninvasive reconditioning occurs every day. The body is the factor that is hardest to alter in any meaningful way. So why are sex reassignment surgeries the gold standard treatment method in gender dysphoria literature? Why is such a drastic, violent procedure championed so fiercely?
The question is not whether someone’s identity should be validated, but whether the validation should accompany an attempt to fabricate an impossible artifice. If a man feels he is a woman on the inside, this begs the question; what is a woman? The unswervingly nebulous explanations that abound in defense of transgender rights echo the desperate bravado of the pro-ana crowd.
As stated above, an adult has the right to dress, act, and live however they damn well please. But the swiftness with which the transgender “condition” has been accepted as mentally healthy perspective is unfair to both the public at large and the individuals themselves. There are no 100% effective treatments for anorexia nervosa, but that doesn’t mean that’s how my mind is supposed to work and I should embrace it.