I was distracted.
Because I was designated female at birth, I had a lot to worry about when it came to my body. Was I thin enough? Was I beautiful enough? Was I alluring, desirable, fuckable? Would anybody want me?
I was a teenager immersed in beauty ideals, expectations, and ultimately, body terrorism. The sheer amount of time I spent ruminating on my weight, on my makeup, on my appearance, and yes, judging the women around me, was alarming.
I wanted to be enough.
At first, the body policing I heard – your lips are too big, your face is too fat, your nose is shaped funny – came from the outside. But eventually, the voice of judgment that appraised the value of my body was coming from inside my head.
I became my own body terrorist. “Not good enough,” became my mantra. I waged a war against myself and against the women who I thought did “femininity” better than I did. When I wasn’t busy grappling with my low self-esteem, I was giving side-eye to other women – the ones who made “femininity” seem effortless. I resented women who somehow managed to be beautiful without even trying.
I didn’t become beautiful through self-imposed body policing. I didn’t become more desirable or better somehow by being critical of women. I became depressed, I developed disordered eating, and I felt empty. It wasn’t until college, sitting in a women’s and gender studies classroom, that I realized that gender was a performance we were all wrapped up in. At the crux of it is a belief that there is a right or wrong way of doing gender, a right or wrong way of existing in our bodies.
From there, I reached a conclusion that changed the entire course of my life: “Woman” was a label I was assigned, but it was never one that I chose. When I abandoned who I was told to be and how I was told to look – when I dared to dream of what existed beyond these societally-imposed boundaries – I made a shocking discovery: I wasn’t a woman at all. I was transgender. But like the fish in the bowl who cannot see the water, I had spent so long trying to be who I was expected to be, wrapped up in my obsession with being enough by someone else’s standards, that I had never seen past the policing to get in touch with who I really was.
My transition liberated me. It gave me permission to pursue my own truth, my own concepts of beauty and goodness that did not rely on tired, sexist stereotypes. And that journey made me happier, less critical of others, and less critical of myself. I no longer felt like a failure in my own gender, because I finally understood that gender is not something that we can fail at. There are, quite possibly, as many genders as there are people, and the diverse ways that we express and perform gender are far more beautiful than the uniformity that society tries to violently impose upon us.
My transition marked a commitment not only to discovering my gender identity, but also to cultivating a practice of self-love and self-affirmation. It meant challenging the voice inside my head that urged me to discount my worth and to reflexively compare myself to others. It meant untangling my own desires from what society expected of me. It meant taking a step back and prioritizing my own needs and desires above the need and desire to be “enough” in the eyes of others. Instead, I wanted to be enough, for myself and for no one else.
Part of loving myself also meant having the courage to pursue a gender expression that felt authentic – less like a performance, and more like an honest communication of who I was. It meant having the courage to toss aside gendered expectations, and be visibly queer in a cisnormative society. It meant honoring this new journey to be unapologetically myself at every moment, even when my mother asks, “Why did you stop wearing dresses?” Even when my coworker says, “You looked better with long hair.” Even when the client at work asks, “What were you born as?”
My transition helped me find the strength to stand up to body terrorism, both outside me and within me, and to understand the real meaning of “being yourself” in a world that only wants you to live your truth if it aligns with the gender they assign you, and only if you follow their prescribed and impossible beauty ideals. To this day, I am in awe of the kind of limits we place on our potential as human beings, all in the name of “gender.” And I wonder what kind of people we would become if, instead of having gender and its expectations imposed on us, we were instead encouraged to seek out our own truth.
I had been told my entire life that I was a special snowflake, and that being unique, standing out, and being myself were very important things. But the way that people reeled when I stopped conforming to my assigned gender confirmed for me that that advice was a lot of lip service.
“Why would you do that to yourself?” “But you were so beautiful before.” “Would it kill you to put on some makeup once in a while?” The suggestion that I was somehow damaged goods after I transitioned was an awful feeling. So many people urged me to reconsider. I’d grown up being told to be myself, but when I was finally doing it, the response was often anything but supportive. It was as if my body existed to please everyone else except myself.
Gendered expectations don’t just hurt trans people. They hurt us all. The kind of body terrorism that stems from policing gender impacts every single one of us, especially those of us who express ourselves in ways that are deemed “unmanly” or “unfeminine.” The boy who wears the leopard print flats is no less of a boy, the girl who shaves her head is no less of a girl, and the androgynous kid who wears a chest binder is no less of a human being.
Starting today, we can all take a step toward self-love by reminding ourselves that there is no right or wrong way to express our gender – by simply looking at ourselves, however we are, and saying, “You are enough.”
When we decide to abandon what society has told us is the “correct” way to express ourselves and our gender, abandoning a “right” way to exist in our bodies, something empowering happens. We affirm the diversity of gender and gender expression, and we celebrate the beauty in it. By doing so, we don’t just create a better world for trans folks. We create a better world for everyone.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a man and a woman sitting on a brown sofa, side by side, with space between them. The man is on the left. He is holding a martini glass and looking to the left. He has short reddish hair and is wearing a brown plaid shirt, a light brown vest, and a pair of blue jeans. The woman is on the right. She is holding a glass with red liquid and looking to the right. Her hair is brown with bright red streaks, and she is wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans.]