New Blog!

Hello dear readers! After close to a year long hiatus from writing, I am back! Except I have decided to start fresh with a new blog, Patience and Pressure.

I have learned a lot and come a long way while writing in Doesn’t Have to Be This Way, and will leave all of these posts up. Most of the posts here were ones I wrote and posted in a single setting, finding images using google and posting before I could get cold feat or overanalyze. My new blog is part of a shift in my posting, away from the ‘Quick! Post ASAP before I edit to death!’ and more toward patience and sitting on things a little longer.

Also, my new blog features images that I drew myself, like the one below – I’m learning how to draw cartoons! I’m super excited about this!

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I will continue to write about justice, trans issues, and anxiety. Please follow me there – I’ve already got a few new posts up!

http://patienceandpressure.wordpress.com

Deep thanks for all your support here – hope to see you there!

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International Women’s Day

[Below is something I posted on social media today. I’m sharing it here as is, unpolished (per my usual self-imposed blog standards), so more folks can easily find it and link to it if they want. Hopefully I will find time to expand on this more in a future post soon!]

So, FB tells me that it’s ‘International Women’s Day’, and I want to lift a few things up. First, it’s really fabulous to see so many folks taking the opportunity to lift up the names and accomplishments of so many underappreciated, badass women.

Second, I want to share my gut reaction when I saw the FB messaging about this day: I felt the dread of invisibility and exclusion – not as a man, but as a trans person. I felt the weight of all the exclusion and denigration of transwomen that has been spouted in the name of feminism. I felt the weight of how anatomy is equated with gender, and how conflicted and excluded (and misgendered) I feel as a person with a uterus from reproductive justice fights (while also not wanting to reframe yet another issue to be about men). I felt the invisibility of all of my non-binary trans siblings who do not have a day of recognition, despite also continuing to be erased out of existence. I felt the exhaustion of erasure in the face of binary gender systems, and how ‘women’s issues’ often focus disproportionately on the needs of financially stable, white, straight, cis women.

So today, I celebrate women of all flavors, and especially trans women and trans feminine people. I celebrate everyone who is expected to be a woman despite not being one. I celebrate all those who do not yet know they are women. I celebrate all those who do not yet know they are *not* women. I celebrate everyone who has forged on in the face of misogyny, in the face of being bullied for being too feminine – or not feminine enough. I celebrate everyone whose identities, lives, and accomplishments have been erased by omission.

Rock on, beautiful people. Keep being fabulous.

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TSA ‘Private Screening’ As A Trans Man, Part II

In the bathroom, I prepare for my next trip through TSA security. I have not yet left for the airport, where I will again stop in the bathroom one last time before getting in the security line.

I change one of my binder layers. I tug at it in different places to try to eliminate bulges and wrinkles, as if that’s ever something I can truly eliminate (it’s not). I put my undershirt on and give myself a torso pat down, trying to figure out what an agent might feel and deem suspicious. I take my undershirt off again to tug at different places. Rinse and repeat.

I feel frustrated. Already, I want my chest to be different than it is. Already, I am trying to make it as unnoticeable as possible on a daily basis. My own dysphoria and discomfort feels amplified this time. I am forced to spend time considering how much my ‘anomalous’ chest screams SOMETHING STRANGE HERE, BETTER CHECK IT OUT MORE CLOSELY, and to try to find yet another way to make something that takes up space not take up any space. I need a physics miracle. I need fewer surgery hoops to jump through, and less anxiety about new doctors.

At the airport, I go to the bathroom to check everything again. I start with another self-pat down through my shirt to identify ‘problem areas’. More layer removal, tugging, self-pat downs until I’m satisfied that I cannot make it any better than it is. I get in line.

I am feeling extra anxiety this time around because I’m at RDU, which is where I was pulled aside for my first private screening three weeks prior because an agent felt a wrinkle during my usual extra torso pat down.

A wrinkle.

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I have flown 11 times since being perceived as male, and had only one private screening. I have on two or three occasions explained, when questioned, that I am wearing a brace for medical purposes that I cannot remove, one time resulted in a palms-swipe for explosives, and one time it led to a private screening. Every time, I have had an extra torso pat down after the body scanner.

Based on those numbers, the chances are ~10% or less that I end up in private screening this time. But it is the unpredictability that makes this extremely anxiety-inducing and exhausting. What will this next agent decide? Is a wrinkle ok or not? If not, does a palms-swipe for explosives suffice, or are they going to suggest I might have to show them my underwear? Will they be friendly, or transphobic and awful? There is no way to predict. The not knowing makes me lose my apatite, and can sometimes even make it difficult for me to focus on a conversation in the hours prior to going through it. That’s how I felt today.

I take deep breaths through my nose as I push all my things onto the conveyor belt and get in line for the body scanner. This is where I have to give up agency over my body to strangers who likely have little to no understanding of trans people like myself, and a system explicitly designed around binary, gender-conforming bodies.

I step out of the scanner. An agent in front of me looks at the screen, then at an agent to my right and gestures to their chest area, indicating my chest area. They make me go back in the scanner. I wonder if they decided I might be a woman and wanted to push a different button. I wonder why they didn’t just give me the usual pat down. After time number two, I glance back at the screen and see a figure with orange ‘alarm’ boxes around the chest and armpits. I feel the shame of trying to hide something that I feel like I’m not supposed to hide, but that also isn’t wrong nor is it anyone’s business. I get the torso pat down I was expecting.

It’s always fast, but I’m always waiting for the moment when the agent steps back to ask me a question. This agent felt and nearly squeezed my armpit bulges. I thought for sure I was going to be asked about them. Instead, I am cleared.

I feel shaken and exhausted. I made it without any questions or additional screening, but I’m wiped out from the entire day of slowly intensifying anxiety I just experienced, all for this 2 minute exchange. I feel an echo of how I felt after private screening the last time.

Later, my flight is delayed and it looks like I might miss my connection home, and there are no more flights I could rebook on until the morning. It looked like I could take my first flight and probably sleep on the floor of a different airport, or rebook for the morning and return to the airport again later, which would mean having to go through security a second time. I spend considerable time weighing whether it would be worth it to spend the night on the floor of an airport rather than have to go through security again, and lean toward sleeping on an airport floor. Ultimately, I don’t have to choose. I make my connection and get to sleep in my own bed.

All this, and I have it easy. I’m a white trans man. No one is coming near my crotch with suspicion. No one is profiling me for extra scrutiny based on their perception of my race or religion. Most of the agents’ unconscious bias will be in my favor.

I cannot make my chest as it is into a shape that will not set off the body scanner. I will keep trying to find a way, but I do not think it’s possible. Until I have surgery (which is also not something all trans men even want), my chest will always set off the body scanner alarm, and I will always have a follow up torso pat down, and I will always carry the anxiety of random extra scrutiny that will always be a total crapshoot as to how I am treated.

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The more afraid we are, the more security we decide is ok. The more security, the more we are policed into narrow boxes of what is considered ‘normal’ and therefore ‘clear’ or safe, and the more our more vulnerable populations, who are more likely to be already struggling, bear the brunt of extra scrutiny on behalf of our ‘freedom’. And we are not actually safeguarding our freedom. We are all increasingly less free to be whole, to explore our own edges, to dare to stand out and be fully alive.

Every time I endure anxiety and extra scrutiny like this, I am bearing some of the cost of someone else’s idea of freedom.

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TSA ‘Private Screening’ As A Trans Man, Part I

I recently experienced what seems to be a right of passage for trans people who have to go through airport security: the private screening. I was on my way to catch a flight home after traveling for Thanksgiving, and wrote the following description of my experience immediately after it happened:

First ‘private screening’ with TSA, going through security at RDU:

After the body scanner, the agent who gave me the initial torso pat down (that I always have some part of no matter what) felt some wrinkles from my binder under my clothes, and asked if I was wearing a necklace or medallion. I said that I wasn’t, and made a quick calculation to explain that I was wearing a brace for medical purposes that I couldn’t remove. He explained that they needed to do a private screening. He called over another agent, collected my things, and then we all went to a tiny room with frosted translucent glass walls, a table and chair. They closed the door and the two agents stood facing me in this little room. I decided that now was a prudent time to disclose that I am trans.

The agents were friendly, and didn’t bat an eye when I disclosed that I am trans and that that’s why I was binding my chest. They never suggested that I remove my binder, and they never questioned my gender, but they did say that if they couldn’t ‘clear’ it through my shirt, then they were going to have to see it. I stressed to them that that’s like asking someone on strip down to their underwear. They explained that since I was a male, my torso isn’t classified as a ‘sensitive area’, meaning that according to policy, it didn’t matter how private that area is for me.

I suggested that they change their policy for trans passengers. They were friendly and polite, and suggested I fill out a comment card after the fact (and did, in fact, provide me with one later).

I removed my sweater and outer shirt, leaving just my undershirt covering my binding (and thank everything I happened to be wearing a darker, more opaque undershirt today – will be doing that on purpose for future travel).

The agent who was going to do the pat down asked some questions to thoroughly ensure that a pat down was not going to cause me physical pain or discomfort. He then gave my torso a very thorough pat down, feeling every wrinkle and seam. I gave more descriptions of what he could expect to find, just to be as non-threatening and transparent as I could, with the hopes that this would ease things and speed up the process. The other agent made small talk with me to keep things light, which I did appreciate.

I am extremely lucky, at least in some respects, that having a total stranger with lots of power over me throughly feel up my torso isn’t triggering or traumatic for me. Uncomfortable and invasive, yes, but not scarring. Others are probably not so fortunate.

After I was cleared and could put my shirt and sweater back on, I explained to them that I had heard of folks who have had bad experiences, and that the unpredictability itself is stressful. They listened and waited as I collected my things and put my shoes back on. Again, they were always friendly and polite. It could have been a lot worse – and at any time in the future, it still could be.

I would like to know more about this policy of having to ‘see’ my binder, and whether that’s actually true. If I had had to go that far, it would have crossed a big, unacceptable line for me. It still feels unacceptable that that was even considered an option.

I am still calming down from the adrenaline, and may have more feelings later. I am glad I will be home soon.

About half an hour later, I added the following:

I am feeling angry, invaded, raw, and vulnerable. My feelings are as much to do with a reaction to loss of agency and knowledge of my inability to prevent this from happening again, as other things. I want to be in a quiet small place and not interact with anyone.

I am listening to comforting music, charging my phone, and considering getting a hot chocolate or something.

I am more seriously considering doing pre-check. But also I shouldn’t have to.

After I got home, I searched the internet for specific policies about having to reveal binders to TSA agents, because this just seemed outrageous to me. The National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) says the following about the subject:

Travelers should never be required to lift, remove, or raise an article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic item and should not be asked to remove it. This applies to binding items, breast forms, and other prosthetics. If a TSA officer asks you to reveal a prosthetic item, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly explain the situation.

When I tried to find a TSA website with this level of detail, I couldn’t find any, so I emailed NCTE about my experience, and asked the following questions:

1 – Is there a policy and/or strategy that I can cite/use to prevent having to strip down to my binding in the future?

2 – What is the most effective way to file a complaint about my experience in terms of wording, existing policies/information to cite, and/or legal framework?

I got a response from Harper Jean Tobin, whose name I recognized immediately. Among other things, she said:

I’m sorry to hear about this awful experience you had. TSA has communicated to us many times the “life [sic] or remove” policy and I am not sure why it’s not currently stated on TSA.gov, as it has been previously. I will try to ask that next time we talk to TSA staff here in DC.

She also said that complaints don’t need any legal basis, as they are there to put pressure on the institution to change.

I have since taken another look for information on TSA’s policies for trans passengers, and found the following:

Prosthetics: If you have prostheses, you can be screened using AIT, walk-through metal detectors or a pat-down. You will not be asked to lift, remove or raise any article of clothing to reveal the prosthesis in a sensitive area of the body. You will not be asked to remove your prosthesis.

Not only does this  not mention chest binding specifically, but it runs right into the same problem I encountered during my private screening: the issue of what is considered a ‘sensitive area’.

I replied to Harper Jean Tobin with this information, and plan to file a complaint specifically detailing this hole in their policy as well.

I have flown  5-10 times since I changed my ID to reflect my gender and name accurately and have been perceived accordingly, and this is the first time I have had to deal with private screening. I can always expect to have my chest area subjected to a minor pat down after the body scanner, but from there it is entirely up to the discretion of the patting agent whether to do a more thorough screening, and this is where some of the uncertainty lies.

I am trying to have a plan for what I will do the next time this happens – and it could happen any time I go through security. I have to fly again in about three weeks. This is what I am currently envisioning:

1 – If questioned after my initial, inevitable torso patdown, I will say something like: I am wearing chest compressing undergarments that I cannot remove [for medical purposes].

2 – If brought to ‘private screening’ and asked to reveal my binder, I will explain that I am transgender, and maybe say something like this: The National Center for Transgender Equality has worked with TSA on policy for screening transgender passengers, and their understanding of TSA policy is that I should not be required to reveal my chest binder. I am male, yes, but as a transgender male who has not had top surgery, my chest is indeed a sensitive area, and I am not willing to humiliate myself by revealing it in order to avoid discrimination. Please let me know of other ways I can assist you in clearing my torso for travel.

Maybe if I point out that not letting me travel without humiliating myself by revealing a private body area even potentially constitutes discrimination, they will back off? Ideally, I would rather never challenge a security agent, and I also worry that mentioning discrimination will only escalate a situation, no matter how calmly I put it. I am also considering putting my phone in an outer pocket of my bag set to record audio before going through the scanner, just in case.

I should be able to fly without having to reveal intimate underwear to TSA agents, and if that is not the case, something is seriously wrong.

Part of the trouble here, too, is that the best way to put pressure on TSA would be to post this more publicly, somewhere like Twitter, the way that Shadi Petosky did just a couple months ago when she faced even more horrific treatment than I did from both TSA and American Airlines. But I also do not want to be that ‘out’ at this point, because that brings other risks with it. This is a catch 22 that many trans travelers find themselves in.

I have been processing my other emotional responses to this experience, but will save that for a second post. Stay tuned.

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Bravery

“You’re so brave!”

This is a refrain that many trans people hear with some frequency. I don’t know how to respond when people tell me this.

Thanks?

I am brave the way someone might run through a field of thorny rose bushes to escape a forest fire. I’m just trying to live my life.

At work the other day, we were having a social event that involved a trivia quiz about various lab members. One of the questions was something like ‘Which of the following people is about to have a baby?’ One of the people listed was a guy. Someone yelled across the table, “Hey Joe* are you about to have a baby?” People laughed at the idea that a guy might be pregnant. [*Joe is not his actual name.]

I felt alone and disconnected. After all, I have a uterus, and testosterone does not eliminate all risk of pregnancy by itself. I could have spoken up about the existence of trans people, and the reality of men who have babies – I wouldn’t have even had to out myself as trans – but I remained silent.

To be brave would have been to have spoken up in that moment, and to have stood up for myself and all of my other trans siblings.

This man is wearing ‘period panties’ from a company that’s apparently paying attention. Click the image for more about these particular panties.

Instead, I imagined the awkward silence, awkward follow up jokes, and suggestions that I was being too serious, and I felt discouraged. I imagined the end of my success as a scientist, the loss of the connections that I did have, and I chose to maintain my sense of safety.

I have replayed that scene in my mind several times, going over what might have happened if I had chosen that moment to come out as a man equipped with an all natural baby-making machine. I don’t really know. But chances are, no one would have assaulted me, or murdered me, or even started looking for ways to legally fire me. There would be some awkwardness, and then life – and science – would carry on anyway. What an incredible privilege it is that I wouldn’t have to fear for my life or well being. Someone might even call me brave.

But bravery is when we choose to do something that we didn’t already have to do.

I’m not saying that I have not had to do things that require courage in order to be my whole self. I might even argue that doggedly pursuing wholeness and self-actualization is an act of courage all by itself. But when a cis person calls me brave for being trans, I feel like they are missing the part where I didn’t really have a choice. This is just who I am, and I would rather be covered in rose thorns than lost to a forest fire.

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I cannot go back in time to that moment at the lab social event and choose a different response. I cannot even promise that next time I will get it right, because that would be disingenuous – I am still lost in fear. I am, however, committed to continuing to reframe what ‘safety’ means in my life, and to let go of fears that aren’t actually keeping me, or anyone else, safer.

Paraphrasing a quotation from Cheryl Strayedfear is just a story we tell ourselves.

We can change that story.

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Just do it already: The Invisible Barriers of Anxiety

On any given day, there are a number of things that I feel lots of anxiety about. I know that if I just do them, I will feel better, and yet doing them is not so straightforward for me. These things range from daily activities like replying to emails or writing a protocol for a new experiment in lab, to bigger picture tasks like making an appointment with a new doctor or confronting (seemingly endless) bureaucratic systems that still have the wrong name/gender listed for me.

NOT HELPFUL

I know that often (almost always) the anxiety I feel about these things everyday far outweighs the trouble it would take to do them. When I got my first credit card in college, I waited 9 months to activate it, feeling lots of anxiety about using it incorrectly or missing a bill, and then further anxiety that I had waited too long to activate it. When I finally got up the nerve to call to activate it so I could start building credit, it was a 2 minute phone call with a robot. I felt so relieved, and then also frustrated that I had spent 9 months feeling anxious about doing this thing that took 2 minutes and didn’t even involve talking to another human.

What ultimately drove me to finally activate my first credit card was that my anxiety about not having any credit started to outweigh my anxiety about activating my credit card. It wasn’t any kind of sudden realization about just doing it – this rarely drives me.

For any of these tasks, I rarely can just do them already. On top of that, I carry a lot of shame about having not done them. I couldn’t even talk about my not-activated credit card at the time. It’s incredibly isolating.

I have internalized the idea that putting things off or procrastinating is irresponsible, lazy, and somehow morally wrong. I believe that I am broken and unlovable for not being able to eliminate procrastination and anxiety from my life. Frustratingly, these beliefs only make my anxiety worse, and make it harder to do things.

You want me to do what?

When someone suggests that I should quit worrying and just do it already, it’s kind of like telling me that I should just reach out and touch a hot stove and ignore my brain’s instincts that this is a bad idea. It also sends me a message reinforcing the idea that something is wrong with me and that I am a failure, which actually makes it even harder for me to do the thing in question.

You see, my anxiety is a survival mechanism that’s stuck on a higher-than-necessary setting.

Almost every task is coded as a threat. If I try to do this thing, I might fail, and then I will surely die. It is not rational, and it is certainly not conscious. Trying to apply conscious, rational solutions is futile and aggravating. (This drives me up a wall as a scientist who prefers reasoned, rational steps forward.)

Almost every new task comes with an anxiety wall of some sort that requires extra energy to climb over. No task is exempt.

For example, the other day I received a lovely, supportive message from a friend that asked nothing of me. This is possibly the most non-threatening kind of thing to respond to. Immediately in my head I knew what I wanted to say in reply, and I very nearly just replied right then and there, but for some reason I decided to do it later. The ‘later’ I imagined was a time in the near future when I had spent more time seasoning my brief message and mentally bracing myself for any unexpected anxieties that might accompany my response. Even I am frustrated when I do this, and yet I can’t just stop. This was an entirely positive, benign message to have received, and yet even this came with an anxiety barrier to conquer.

Click the photo for an awesome post on Wait But Why about procrastination, full of excellent visuals.

So I procrastinate. My brain is trying to protect me from potential threats by avoiding exposure in the first place, or by giving me a false sense of control. I have control, I think. Look at how I get to choose when I do this thing. But do I actually get to choose? Procrastination gives me the illusion of control when it is really anything but. It is a reflex, like pulling away from a hot stove, except with significantly less understanding from everyone around me, including from myself.

Things That Help

1 – Deadlines. As frightening as deadlines can be for me, they provide impetus for me to conquer my anxiety wall by a predetermined time rather than put things off forever. While some things come with built-in deadlines, lots of other things don’t.

Deadlines can still be hard, but they’re a strategy.

For example, I could put off making a first appointment with a new primary care doctor for a long time. Right now, there’s a high chance that I will actually make an appointment in the coming month because I told some friends that I would make progress on this by our next meeting, which will be in November sometime. (Incidentally, we were supposed to meet in October, but I put off setting a date, probably on account of my self-assigned homework. Anxiety is clever sometimes.)

An important note: Do not ever try to set a deadline for me on my behalf without asking if this is what I need. If you think a deadline might be what I need, ask me first: “Would it help to set a deadline for this task?” Some things may need to be broken down into steps, which brings me to the next point.

2 – Plans. If you’re a friend of mine and I’m venting about feeling anxious about something, a really great way to help sometimes can be to help me put together a plan – but, as always, make sure you ask me first if this is what I feel like I need. Sometimes I just need to vent. If there is a specific task that needs to be accomplished, make sure this plan has a clear timeline, and then gently hold me to it by checking in. Be sure to avoid guilt or shame, because those are 100% counterproductive and drive me deeper into anxiety and farther away from action.

I sometimes also make plans just for myself. If I am procrastinating in lab, for example, sometimes I can pull myself out of it by making very detailed lists of what I’m going to do first, second, etc., that include things like putting music on and going to the bathroom. Breaking a pile of things down into discrete tasks interspersed with relief steps (like music) can make a day seem way less daunting. I then make sure not to worry too much about sticking with the exact plan – the point is to find a way to start.

3 – Listen and validate. If I’m venting about something I am struggling to do, even if it seems like a super easy, benign thing, don’t remind me about how easy it would be to just do it. Often what I need is to find a way to feel less ashamed and afraid. If I can find a way to reduce my anxiety about a particular task, it will become much easier to do it. Reducing my anxiety takes time and effort on my part, and can involve anything from mentally preparing to do something for several days, to venting about it to 5 separate people who all validate my frustration.

In fact, venting is a huge part of my coping strategy. Sometimes I just need to write out stream-of-consciousness emails to clear my head and break the isolation and shame. I highly recommend this as a strategy.

4 – Patience. Sometimes my anxiety makes it hard for me to do things in a way that impacts folks around me. Please understand that I am doing my best, and that my best usually still involves unavoidable procrastinating.

Also, though, I also really struggle to be patient with myself. If you’re frustrated with me for procrastinating something, know that my frustration with myself is higher. Anxiety is a real barrier, but when we are unable to acknowledge it, it feels like running into a wall that no one else sees, and having no explanation for not being able to go through it.

5 – Structure. Related to a couple points above, I need a certain amount of structure every day to get things done. If I am given a vague-seeming project with no clear guidelines or measures of success, I am being set up to fail. I will put an enormous amount of pressure on myself and end up avoiding all tasks as if they are a spitting fire that I’m supposed to go stand in, and everything will slowly spiral. I have learned this the hard way.

In science, especially science grad school, self-motivation is valued extremely highly. Folks will sometimes brag about how little guidance they were given in grad school (or about how miserable they were), as if it’s some kind of right of passage (or hazing). For someone living with survival-mode anxiety, this is a nightmare. I am fortunate that my PhD experience has involved a number of significant shifts (including my advisor switching institutions entirely) that brought me from minimal guidance to a full on support structure, and I am doing so, so much better. Having learned this, I can keep it in mind when looking for my next position.

Just because a particular way of functioning is socially valued in a particular context does not mean that it’s going to work for everyone, and our ability to conform does not determine our value. At least, I am working on believing this more.

I do want to clarify that I am able to do a great many things mostly on my own. Just the past year alone has come with a long list of things that I have been able to achieve or put together, even if it has also come with countless hours of decompressing with Netflix. There are lots of tasks for which the energy balance works out, and I know I will gain more energy from doing them than it will take to do them, such as writing these blog posts. But I don’t get to choose which tasks are going to be harder.


Bottom Line
: Anxiety is exhausting and irrational, and requires a lot of extra energy every day. Anxiety, for me, is a survival mechanism on hyperdrive that I cannot just turn off (so please don’t try to ask me to). For me, anxiety results in lots of invisible barriers that don’t make sense and that are hard to overcome.

Anxiety and its invisible barriers are real, and even if no one else can see them, you are still ok and a good person. I am working on believing this about myself, but it’s true for everyone, too.

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My Body Is ‘Inappropriate’: Practicing Self Love

[Content note: Discussion of body image and weight in the context of oppression and internalized feelings.]

I want to take a minute to talk about self-esteem, particularly as a queer and trans person.

Every day, at least once a day, I walk into the men’s bathroom, do my business, then look in the mirror as I wash my hands. I rarely used to look in the mirror before I came out and began transitioning. Now I check out my face, make sure my hair isn’t doing anything wonky. Then as I turn to walk out, I look at myself from the side to assess the state of my torso – my bound chest and my protruding belly, hoping I will see something different than the last time, hoping that I will finally like what I see. I rarely ever do.

I struggle with the belief that I am too fat and too trans to be attractive and lovable.

I have really great friends, several of whom have been great about pointing out to me that I am attractive and lovable, and this helps a lot. But then my brain says ‘yeah, but most people will know that you’re body is wrong, and not good enough.’ ‘Look at your big belly and hips, look at your chest which you have to bind to feel like yourself, which might repulse someone else, too. Surely no one could love this body,’ says my brain.

I know that attraction is not only about how well someone physically conforms to conventional – read: oppressive mainstream – ideas about what we’re all supposed to look like. I know that attraction and love go way deeper than that. That’s part of why it’s so easy for me to ignore this issue – I just stick it in the back of my mind and try not to think about it, because there are more important things to consider.

But as a trans person and as a fat person, I am told that my body is a problem. Is the problem. My body is part of who I am. I cannot separate myself from my body, as much as I have wanted to at times.

It is really hard for me to love my body as it is in this world, and similarly difficult to believe that anyone else could, too. This is a really lonely feeling. I try not to think about it too much, but it consumes many of my thoughts on a daily basis.

It’s not just about gender – it’s about bodies, too.

I also feel like my body is inappropriate and unprofessional. It feels as if my body is some personal weirdness that I shouldn’t bother other people with. All day, everyday, a small part of me is trying to shrink into myself. In the bathroom, I’ll look in the mirror and stress about my chest – surely people can tell something weird is going on there, even if they think I’m a cis man, and if they somehow knew that I was binding my chest as a trans man with no surgery, then would somehow be being in appropriate, simply by existing as who I am. As if it would be my fault if other people thought I was weird, or if they felt uncomfortable about my body, and I would be somehow instantly less worthy of employment or recognition, as if my body were ever any of their business in the first place.

Even when this isn’t in my conscious thoughts, I carry this anxiety around everyday.

And when I’m not focusing on my chest, I focus on the rest of my torso, which isn’t skinny – and in fact testosterone redistributes fat to the belly from other places – and wouldn’t look as clean cut in a button down because it bulges in places that tall, thin, white, cis men in professional attire don’t have bulges (you know, because that’s what all worthy men are supposed to look like </sarcasm>). Never mind that all men’s clothing is designed with some imaginary, ‘conventionally’ attractive cis man in mind and doesn’t fit well to my narrower shoulders and wider hips. It feels like it’s not possible for me to dress properly in a professional or fancy setting because I cannot change my body to be shaped correctly.

Basically, I feel like my body, and thus I, am constantly inappropriate, simply by existing as I am, and that this is my fault and I have to hide this fact somehow, or pretend that I am not.

A major part of the shame I feel about my body comes from messages I receive from the media that I have a choice about the shape of my body, that this inappropriateness of my body is my fault, and if I am just shamed enough about it, I’ll be able to just be different than I am. “Just lose some weight!” Yeah, that’s not a reasonable thing to suggest.

  1. Weight does not equal health, and vice versa. You cannot assess someone’s health by how fat they are (or are not). In fact, exercise and fitness are more important health factors than weight (and no, ‘fitness’ does not include weight as a factor). (See these studies: 1, 2)
  2. Weight loss, and associated efforts, comes with risks. One risk for me personally that I don’t need an official study to know is true is heightened anxiety and plummeting self-esteem. When I have tried to lose weight in the past, this is all I got out of those efforts. Anxiety is a bigger threat to my health than my weight. Additionally, my diet and exercise have both varied a lot in my adult life – my weight has not.
  3. Shame is paralyzing for me, not motivating, and only increases my anxiety.
  4. Weight loss is ineffective in the long term (>5 years) for most people, and often results in weight gain. (See these studies: 1, 2)
  5. Some of the health risks that have been associated with fatness cannot necessarily be separated from the risks associated with bearing the stigma of being overweight – being shamed and discriminated against will also cause you heart problems. (See 1, 2 – from this source, “Finally, statistical models suggest that the desire to lose weight is an important driver of weight-related morbidity when BMI is held constant”)
  6. Speaking of studies, a lot of the ones out there suggesting that weight loss is always possible and always healthy are deeply flawed. See this post for some more on that.
  7. It is totally possible to be healthy and fat! And besides, my health is no one’s business and should not determine the appropriateness or worth of my body.

[Thanks to Ragen Chastain’s blog danceswithfat.wordpress.com for being a good source for finding primary resources and analysis – particularly this post, among others.]

Bottom line: Suggesting that I could try to lose some weight is about as effective (and offensive) as suggesting that I just try to not be trans. Even if you believe that weight = health, the idea that losing weight is something not only that is possible for me to do (which it isn’t necessarily), but also that I should make it my top priority (as if I am not allowed to make different decisions about what my priorities are or consider the risks I mentioned above unless I’m ‘appropriately’ thin), or else I deserve ridicule and shame, is horrendous and oppressive.

Also, it remains absurd and oppressive that any body of any size or shape is somehow inappropriate or wrong, the way I feel about mine. But these remain the messages our society cultivates and reinforces, and the messages I am stuck trying to stop believing.

Internalized fat shame is part of what made me disconnect from my body when I was younger, and ultimately was part of why it took until my mid-20s to realize that I am trans. When I thought I was a woman, I just accepted the fact that I was supposed to hate my fat body.

Just think about that for a moment: I simply accepted that I was supposed to hate my body.

Coming out as trans and taking medical steps are part of my journey toward loving my body – and thus myself. Not trying to lose weight is also part of my journey of self care and self love, just as riding my bicycle around for exercise is an act of self love and self care. And yet it still remains incredibly hard to love my body. I still am stuck with the belief that my body’s size and shape is a result of my own unworthiness and failure as a human, and is a significant problem. The media and our culture reinforces these ideas everyday: being fat is always bad and never ok and always the fat person’s fault and always a crisis, and also you’re not supposed to be trans. Learning to love my body is a long process, and requires constant effort that I do not always have energy for.

Loving my body requires that I reclaim it from all of these awful messages.

So here are some other things that I try to remember to do to reclaim my body:

  1. I think of friends of mine who I care about, who have bodies similar to mine in one way or another, who have love in their lives and do amazing things.
  2. I try to notice physical manifestations of anxiety and stress – muscle tension, grinding my teeth, holding my breath. Just noticing can be a good thing, but can also help me find ways to address my anxiety.
  3. I would like to focus more on what my body can do – it goes fast on my bicycle, it walks around and does lots of science, it’s there for me to hug people when I have the opportunity, it can feel the softness of my bed, it houses my really awesome brain, and it keeps on living and breathing and beating its heart when I sometimes do things that aren’t so great for it.
  4. I try to drink enough water, though often am not good at it. Hydration affects all levels of things for me, including my mood and self-esteem, and is an incredibly easy thing to fix when I’m focused on it.
  5. I avoid reading articles about weight loss. I try to avoid reading anything about someone else’s ‘dramatic weight loss’ – or gain. I try to avoid anything that will further my own internalized fat shame.
  6. I try to catch judgmental thoughts I have about other people’s body shapes or sizes and redirect my thoughts, and try to think positive thoughts about whomever it is. Honoring other peoples’ bodies helps me to honor my own.
  7. I try to notice what I am assuming about someone based only on their body. In fact, I try to avoid commenting on other people’s bodies in any way, unless it’s a very general, positive comment not associated with stigmatized ideas. Like, I’ll say that someone is hot or attractive. Or I’ll talk about dimples, or actually changeable things like hairstyles. But I will not comment on someone’s size or weight, or things they cannot change.
  8. I try to notice when I am assuming that I will never be able to do something because of my body. Says who? Then I try to think of others with similar bodies who do incredible things I never thought someone with a body similar to mine would be able to do.
  9. I try to imagine cis male pecs as being similar to boobs, because in many ways, they really are.
  10. I focus on how irrelevant my body shape and size is to my ability to do science and do it well.
  11. I focus on parts of my body that I do really like – my hands, strong muscles in my arms and legs, my face.

What do you do to love and reclaim your body? How is it for you and your body out there?

[Note: Because talking about fat acceptance tends to bring on the worst, most judgmental, concern-trolly comments, if you are interested in commenting, please first read the guidelines for comments that I have posted in the first comment.]

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