There’s a parallel that’s been rumbling around in my mind for quite some time now that I’ve been hesitant to write about for fear of stepping into a topic that I know not nearly enough about. I’ve often noticed that whenever I read something written by a trans person, I see lots of parallels with recovery from an eating disorder and with weight loss narratives. And then last week I got a little kick in the pants from a friend who posted an article about weight loss and said they felt parallels with their experience of transitioning.
So I’m just going to go for it. I think there’s a lot of rich support and community that could be built by talking across these boundaries and experiences, and speaking to similarities. I obviously am not trans, so I’m going to do my best not to make statements about the experience that I don’t know anything about, but I will try to pull from places that I’ve heard others describe it and the struggles that they’ve mentioned. I would love to hear any trans perspectives or challenges.
The thing that strikes me most about recovery, weight loss, and transitioning, is that all of these processes circulate around bodies changing (and along the way minds and identities). There is probably some sort of final goal (lose weight, gain weight, present as female/male), but there are all sorts of small changes that a body goes through that must be incorporated into a new identity, projected to the world, adapted to, accepted, and understood as “me” by the individual who inhabits that body. While the particular changes may be different, the experience of “is this me? How does this work? Where did that muscle come from?” is shared. And there are many elements to it that are confusing and difficult which could be made easier by shared conversation from a variety of perspectives.
At the core of all of these things is the process of changing body so that it fits into your sense of who your are: it is creating an identity through a body. In many ways, I think that all of these processes of changing your body are coping mechanisms for feeling that something is wrong with the way you view yourself or the way that others view you, or for feeling as if your body is standing in the way of you creating a healthy identity and life for yourself.
This process is hard. Really, really hard. It doesn’t make sense and there’s really no template for it because asking “how can I get people to take me seriously when my body no longer takes up the same amount of space?” is not considered Real, Deep, Appropriate work in the social justice community. But this is work. This is the work of understanding that we are physical creatures, and that our physicality can change who we are. This is the work of creating our own identities in such a way that we fully accept the body that is a part of us. Sometimes that involves large, sweeping moments of self-realization and sometimes it involves little things like “I really liked the way I could pick up a heavy couch when I was fat. How do I do things that need strength when I’m skinnier?” It’s the process of learning yourself all over again, but it’s not particularly sexy and it’s not particularly interesting unless it’s your life and you can’t for the life of you figure out how to move your damn bookshelf.
Everything about your body can affect the way you interact with and view the world (or yourself). Having different muscles can affect your mood and energy level, hormone levels can affect your basic perception and sensitivity to stimuli, the sheer amount of space you take up will affect how big, intimidating, powerful, or potentially dangerous you see the rest of the world as. It may seem simple to change your body and switch from checking “female” to checking “male” on the census form, but actually understanding how your body changes your perspective is a much harder and much more subtle process that involves figuring out all those little pieces and putting them together into a new conception of “this is me and this is how I see things and this is how I do things”.
For myself, I have found the process of adapting to my changing body to be frustrating and angering. I’ve often wished that I could talk about it more openly with others, that people were there to commiserate, or that there was just some sort of guide book (will I keep gaining weight forever????). I have heard some of these frustrations echoed in other places, by Zinnia Jones, by those who have lost a great deal of weight. Many of us just want some reassurance that our bodies haven’t turned into something alien and unknown. We want to know that other people’s bodies reacted the same way or similarly. We want to know that we’re still ourselves.
But we also want to know how to relate to the world with a new body. A body that was fat and is now thin is going to take up space differently, move differently, have different strength, touch things differently…even something as simple as sleep differently (welcome to skinniness, where you can’t sleep on your side because your knee bones rub together and it hurts like a bitch). And so many of us are looking for a model of “how do I do stuff when I’m like this”. We’re trying to figure out how to tell other people about our bodies and how our bodies match our selves and what part of our bodies fits our identities. It’s difficult when you’re in recovery to explain your body. The body is often in flux, you’re not “skinny like you were supposed to be”, you don’t entirely understand your body as “right” yet. It doesn’t wholly feel like you. The process of labeling your body and then explaining yourself to others is difficult and something that anyone whose body goes through a drastic change must learn how to deal with.
Learning about how to talk to others about a new body is something we could all use help and support with. How do you respond when someone says “you look different” or “you look healthier” or “you look great!”? How do you tell others what you identify as? How do you look down at yourself or look in the mirror and think “yeah, that’s me. That’s just me”? For me, this process is hardest when I think about my body in the long term. I keep thinking that I’ll drop the weight again, that I’ll go back to the “real me”, that somehow this is just a temporary state of unreality. I have no idea if there are trans individuals who feel this way, but I have heard from some people who went through weight loss regimens that they think about whether the weight will come back, and worry that they’re in a temporary state. I imagine there might be some parallels when you haven’t reached a point of feeling comfortable in your gender identity (sort of in the “still transitioning” point of being trans). I think all of us wonder if the changes will stick, if we should commit to ourselves as we are.
And a big part of that is learning how to internalize this new shape as “me”. While I have never transitioned, I would imagine that it takes a bit of time after hormones/surgery/whatever to get used to the changes (hey I have boobs that didn’t used to be there! That’s odd). For me, it was more along the lines of getting used to being present when I wasn’t entirely happy with how I looked. I wish that I could speak to some of those trans people about how they learned to see their bodies as them, how they learned to view those new manly muscles as “me”, how they started to see boobies as part of their bodies.
One piece of identifying with a new body or a changing body is accepting that there are both pros and cons to any change. For me, I am highly aware of the cons of my changing body (uuugh I’m fat and my thighs rub together) but I often forget about some of the positives (I don’t feel dizzy all the time, I am more physically capable, I’m not nearly as fragile and don’t expect others to walk all over me because of my petite and sickly frame). I think because of the very positive framing of transitioning in the mind of the person who transitions, speaking to people who have transitioned could be an amazing way to remind me of the benefits I’ve gotten from my new body. On the flip side, I think the perspective of someone who is more hesitant to change their body could be useful for someone who is TOTALLY GUN HO about their new body and might need a moment to slow down and learn the ways that their body can’t quite keep up to past expectations.
There are elements to being larger, to being male, to being more muscular that are AWESOME. You take up space. You feel powerful. You feel capable. You even feel like your body protects you from smaller things like hard surfaces or the boniness of your own ankles. But there are elements to being smaller, to being female, to being dainty, that also rock. The world fits you. You get to wear awesome fucking dresses. You’re often allowed to express more emotion and enthusiasm without ridiculous policing. It’s a great practice to recognize the good things about being you right now and being the you that was (sidenote: I am not saying that “female” equals smaller, more dainty and “male” equals bigger and stronger).
Part of this is being honest about the nitty gritty changes, which I believe is a place where all of those whose bodies go through extreme changes can support each other. Your hair fell out, or you get diarrhea constantly, or you get bizarre heart pains, or your mood is all over the place, or your tits are really tender. For people whose bodies haven’t changed these are uncomfortable and overly personal things that shouldn’t be shared. But when your whole world is in flux, it can be extremely comforting to be able to tell someone. I think that’s true no matter the cause of the changes. Recognizing out loud that these are things that are happening can be a big step towards actually accepting yourself. And I don’t think that it matters exactly the experience of the person being open, whenever someone is willing to be vulnerable about these things it makes it easier for others.
At the end of the day, trans narratives, weight loss narratives, and eating disorder narratives are all focused around a body that changes, usually in an attempt to make that body fit with an internal conception of “who I am”. Nobody likes to talk about how the body actually changes, but rather they like to focus on external categories like “fat” “thin” “male” “female”. But in all of these narratives, bodies change slowly, with little adjustments in how we walk and talk, in how much space we take up, in our strength, in how alert and awake we feel, in our moods, in our flipping bowel movements. And for most of these narratives there are pros and cons. Hopefully each person makes a choice that makes them feel more comfortable and more confident in their own body, but change always comes with some cost. I wish that we could talk about what it means to see your body change, to adjust in small and large ways, to move into a new category and identity, to say good bye to some things you might have liked.
I think some dialogue across these spaces could be good for both: we have different concerns about the ways that our bodies change, but I believe we can provide insight to each other. Having an outside perspective that isn’t so wrapped up in the same concerns (ah! gaining weight! ugliness!) might help us see some of the benefits of how bodies change, help us deal with the difficulties, and give us support around the weird little things that happen. And if we can speak across some of these boundaries and labels, we might learn to accept others’ identities a little bit better when we see the parallels to our own.