There is a common theme within trans stories and histories of a person vs. their body narrative. Most obviously, there is the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative. Even for people who do not describe their trans experience as having been born in the wrong body, there is still a duality between person and body almost always present. For many of us, our bodies are the locus of our gender dysphoria. There are specific markers on our body that have made others prescribe us as one gender when we are so clearly (to ourselves at least) another. There are specific changes many of us hope to make to our bodies in order to feel whole, sane, and happy. Until those changes are made (and even after sometimes), there are constant struggles to modify how we present our bodies to the rest of the world. And sometimes there is a deep personal and internal shame about parts of our bodies. There are realities about our bodies that others use against us to fight our claims to whatever gender we truly are.
Our bodies do not define who and what we are. But society often disagrees and tries to give our bodies, or at least specific aspects of our bodies (chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, genitalia, reproductive anatomy, hormones, etc.) the final say in what our gender and/or sex is. Consequently our bodies are often pitted against us in a battle of who gets to say we are women or men, both, something in between, or something altogether different. Even if we aren’t saying we are trapped in wrong bodies, most trans people are fighting or have fought with their bodies.
Alignment is a common term used in counseling and in making the case for medical transition. Most trans people identify their bodies as not aligned with their senses of self. As a result, I believe, few people with trans histories have positive relationships with our bodies. How can we respect or value something we are fighting against? Our bodies are not our temples. And even if you respect and value yourself, if you are trans, there is a good chance that “yourself” does not equate to or include “your body.”
Many trans people dissociate from their bodies. We avoid them, try to ignore them. At worst, we mutilate and self-harm. Most commonly, we are at least trying to hide them. I work with trans youth who have rejected programming related to physical movement as it draws personal attention to one’s own body. “I don’t like my body, I don’t feel comfortable in it and with it, so I don’t want to do something that involves it.” Consequently, there is a really serious lack of physical self-care among trans people. Particularly for those earlier in transition.
It is a vicious cycle, I think. In order to avoid the pain of the battle against our bodies (which we often interpret as a losing battle), we dissociate; we do not take care of our bodies and in avoiding them, we forfeit agency over them; feeling this increased control of our bodies over our person, we further dissociate, we give up any sort of body/person or body/mind integration, we avoid our bodies even more, we take less care of them, lose even more control over them, etc.
Here is what I propose (without research and only my own case study to present as evidence): If trans* people, particularly trans* youth, put effort into taking care of themselves physically, they would develop a sense of agency over their bodies and would feel less dysphoria and trauma, since much of that stems from the sense that our bodies have control over us.
I started taking care of my body on accident. After years of not. Before I knew I was trans, I cared very little about my body. I think I dissociated from it more then than even after I came out. I had terrible posture, I didn’t care about cleanliness or presentation (beyond pleasing the ppl around me), I had no desire to do anything physical or think about what I ate. I was not proud of my body and not interested in developing any pride in it. When I realized I was a man, or at least a boy, I became ashamed of my body and really wanted nothing to do with it. Testosterone and top surgery helped me feel more aligned and even proud. I began caring more about my presentation the more comfortable I felt with my body. But I still lacked a feeling of integration. My body was something I had shaped to fit my person, but it still wasn’t really part of my self.
Last July I was diagnosed with a gluten allergy. This forced a serious dietary change and required forethought about food. I started eating healthier and became more attuned to the physical feelings of being healthier. My diet quickly became rather healthy and now I take pride in making good decisions about food (even beyond the “hey don’t eat gluten” bit). I eat consciously and consider things like water intake, lean protein, carbs, food groups, caffeine and alcohol consuption, etc.
I have for a while wanted to start a workout plan. Not to be healthy but to bulk up. I wanted a more adult masculine body. I wanted to look like the men of GQ. I’ve started and quit a number of times. For Christmas, my best bud bought me “The Home Workout Bible” which is amazing. Earlier this year I developed a dumbbell-based workout, bought a year-long membership to a gym, and set in at the beginner level. In the beginning my workouts were based solely around gaining mass and I didn’t understand much about muscles and tendons and cardio, etc. As I started enjoying going to the gym, I did more reading, and I learned about how to take care of my muscle fibers and tendons, when cardio is appropriate and safe, and how to work out in a way that benefits my health as well as increasing my muscle mass. For the past three months, I have been going to the gym 3-5 times a week, with very specific and solid workouts and I feel great. I feel the effects. Increased physical stamina. Less general fatigue. Healthier immune system. Oh and I’ve decreased my fat and gained 15 pounds of muscle mass.
Through a healthier diet and very deliberate physical activity, I have increased my health, and started to shape my body myself, naturally. The changes that came from testosterone and surgery were amazing and much needed but there is only so much agency that one can feel from such external procedures. Nutrition and Exercise involve so much will power and agency. So by accident, I started caring about my body. And I developed a sense of agency. These days (or at least 95% of them) I feel great about my body, I am proud of it, proud of the work I’ve done. And I feel more like it is a part of me. The more integrated I feel (that is the more my body is a part of my self), the more comfortable I feel. And the more I want to take care of it. My body is becoming my temple. Or more than that. It’s becoming part of this person I love so much: myself!