“Your stomach looks like dough,” my brother told me. He was probably about six, which places me at about nine. We were out on the boat with family, like we often were in the summer. “My stomach,” he said, “is flat and tan, but yours is soft and white like dough.” And he laughed, meanly.
I don’t hold this against my little brother. He was young, and he was parroting the kind of talk we were hearing around us. He had body image issues of his own. These kind of comments stuck with me though, and I was ever-conscious of my stomach. I had a very warped self-image as a child, and felt a lot of pressure to have a body my parents and society approved of.
Fat-shaming strangers was common practice in our house. My mom berated herself over any weight she gained. I had an uncle who seemed to take every opportunity he could to shame the kids in the summer. My thin brother was teased and called a “skeleton,” again and again, despite that it clearly upset him. My little cousin, was always getting fat, according to my uncle, and he would publicly proclaim this. No one called him out on it. It was no surprise to me when I learned my younger cousin had an eating disorder in her teen years. And my other cousin was already fat beyond help, as far as everyone is my family was concerned. She was scrutinized in private and public, and it was made very clear to us that to gain weight like her would make us less loveable and sympathetic human beings.
I tried very hard to stay slim through my childhood. My body tends to stay fairly slim at its natural equilibrium, but I still had anxiety about it. A lot of my family’s body shaming was masked as regard for health. But it was actually related to classism. Fat people were called “lazy” and “gross” and the ones who got pointed out were usually poor. It was one of the many examples of the poor interpersonal boundaries in my family. Our bodies were seen as extensions and reflections of our parents, and they were therefore invested in us being slim, athletic children. There was seemingly more concern for thinness than mental wellbeing and self-esteem.
I envied my brother’s body. Perhaps this is typical for trans males to feel in childhood. I didn’t completely put the picture together, because even if I had been able to articulate that I wanted to be a boy, it would have been fruitless. But even before puberty, I wished I looked more like he did. He tanned easily. He could cut his hair short. He could go shirtless. He had no curves, no flab, and no butt. He didn’t have to wear glasses or dresses. I was older, and treated like I was smarter and arguably more important, but I hated my body. I have trouble recalling a single thing I liked about my appearance.
When puberty hit, this all got worse. Now my brother had even more traits that I coveted such as a lower voice and height. Meanwhile I was moving in the opposite direction, becoming curvier and more feminine. I had to shave my legs or risk my parents’ disapproval and disgust. I had to buy bras. It wasn’t too long into this charade that I gave up and started presenting androgynously.
But with that also came starving myself.
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A question that I’ve had on my mind a lot lately is what is the line between accepting your body and accepting that you need to modify your body?
As a trans person, some people would say I have no business speaking about “radical self-love,” since I’ve made many efforts to change my body over the years. Doesn’t that show an inability to accept and love my body, as it is?
This thinking can become dogmatic. I remember I went through periods of intense guilt over transitioning. Why should it even matter? But it did matter. Would it be noble of trans people to not transition, and try to force themselves to be happy, for the ideal of radical self-love? No. That wouldn’t be self-love at all. That would be neglecting to care of oneself. But how do you know what’s healthy?
The same goes for tattoos, dying your hair, tanning or bleaching your skin, bodybuilding, straightening your hair, getting breast or butt augmentation. I don’t judge anyone who makes body modifications, whether they are moving towards the cultural ideal or away from it.
Body modification can be a form of self-care. It can mean you love your body enough to listen to what you need to feel comfortable. Most everyone modifies their bodies in some ways- earrings, haircuts, bras, styling facial hair, shaving parts of the body, make-up, etc. The body is also always changing, whether we interfere or not. What matters is how you are feeling inside. And that’s your business.
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Transitioning didn’t fix everything for me. That’s because not all my body image issues were about being trans. In fact, for a while, transitioning intensified my dysphoria. I wanted to be the perfect man. And then I wanted to be the perfect gay boy. And now, I still struggle with trying to be the perfect…something. Perfectionism is the culprit. I’m still in the process. But I am probably the most comfortable with my body that I’ve ever been. And this has partly to due with the control I’ve had over it, and the changes I’ve made through transition. I don’t want to undermine that. But it’s more importantly because I’ve gotten away from a family dynamic that was unhealthy for me.
I’ve looked at those messages I received in my youth, and I’ve been honest with myself about them. Trans or not, I would have hated my body, for various reasons. And now I’m on a road to recovery, so to speak. I don’t obsess over my stomach like I used to. I don’t count calories, and I no longer have an eating disorder. But I do catch myself fixated on whether my butt is “okay.” What does this mean? I’m not exactly sure. Which probably explains why it takes up so much of my brain space. I’ve decided to take the middle ground. I can do some butt workouts, as long as it isn’t obsessive. But that alone isn’t the answer. I also need to be real about why it matters so much, and about my self-esteem.
The good news is, I’ve learned to stay away from people who project onto my body. My partner and new family do not police each other’s bodies. Sometimes I mess up, because of my upbringing. But I’m dedicated to building a life where I’m valued for the person that I am, and not my body. I like when my body attracts my partner, sure, but there are no expectations of me to look a certain way. The more comfortable I am with myself, the less I expect things of others’ bodies as well. This is what I wish my parents, and some of my aunts and uncles, had worked on before they decided to have children. But what I control is how I choose to live. And I’m feeling pretty good about that these days.