For as long as I can remember, my body has always been a source of stress and friction. It never felt quite right. But when I came out as transgender and began to transition in my early 20s, a lot of things suddenly made sense. I thought I was starting down a path that would solve all my body insecurities.
I started my transition at age 24, first changing my name and pronouns. Then I started working on my appearance ― making changes to my hairstyle and wardrobe, binding my chest to make it flatter, and ultimately planning my (still pending) top surgery. But even as I felt better about some aspects of my appearance, I found myself hyper-fixating on others — especially my weight — in a way I never did before.
It never mattered to me what my body looked like when I was presenting as a girl, because I knew deep down it would always be wrong. But once I began presenting as a boy, I suddenly had a very specific picture in mind of what I should look like, and I beat myself up for not matching it. Where was the lanky, ungraceful boy I knew I was supposed to be? I was wearing his clothes, but they still didn’t look right on me. I felt too large, too curvy, too soft and squishy. I was so close to being him, and I hated myself for not being able to get the rest of the way there.
Suddenly, my discontent with my body had a specific objective to latch onto. I could finally look how I wanted — if only I was skinnier! My lapse into unhealthy eating was slow and insidious, beginning as a reasonable desire to eat healthier, but sneakily morphing into intense feelings of guilt for eating a certain way, or eventually, for eating anything at all.
I increasingly associated food with regret and shame. My reflection still didn’t match up with my internal image of myself, and every time I ate, I felt like a failure for not doing more to make it right.
“My reflection still didn’t match up with my internal image of myself, and every time I ate, I felt like a failure for not doing more to make it right.”
My story is no anomaly. Research has suggested that transgender people are at a significantly higher risk of suffering from eating disorders than cisgender people. In one study, transgender college students were significantly more likely to report being diagnosed with an eating disorder in the past year than their cisgender counterparts.
Society polices women’s bodies in a way that it doesn’t for men. For better or worse, presenting female for most of my young life, I got used to that in many ways. Honestly, I hoped that I would have the opposite experience when I shifted toward a more masculine presentation. Maybe it would be more OK for me to be chubby since it’s more socially acceptable for men to be a little chubby. Of course, that isn’t how it happened for me.
Actually, weight is a difficult topic for a lot of transmasculine people. Body fat accentuates all the feminine characteristics that can cause massive gender dysphoria for many transmasculine folks — curves, wide hips and a large bust. In my case, when chest binding wasn’t effective enough, or when top surgery felt unattainable, I constantly had to fight the urge to starve away my unwanted breasts. Especially when I was struggling to access the trans-inclusive health care that I needed, it felt like the only way I could take my transition into my own hands.
Unfortunately, society exerts pressure on trans men in other ways. Expectations that trans men perform clichéd “macho” masculinity don’t make it easy to discuss struggles with body image and disordered eating, which are too frequently associated directly with femininity.
Being trans often means hanging by a thread onto any scrap of acceptance society is willing to give you. I often feel like people expect me to fit into a very narrow model of what it means to be transgender — a narrative that begins with experiencing dysphoria and undergoing medical transition and ends with me feeling better than ever about my body.
“Expectations that trans men perform clichéd 'macho' masculinity don’t make it easy to discuss struggles with body image and disordered eating.”
I’m nonbinary, which means that while I am transitioning toward the masculine side of the spectrum, I don’t actually identify as a trans man, and my transition will look different to reflect that. As a result, I am constantly put in a position where I have to defend myself from accusations that my identity isn’t real, that I’m an attention seeker or that I’m not trans enough to claim that label or be part of that community. The further away you are from that classic transition story, the harder it is to discuss your transition and your body publicly.
Why? Because trans bodies are treated as public domain, available for open discussion and up for debate. Anything I say publicly about my body opens the door to people making unsolicited comments — comments like “you don’t really need to get surgery, you just need to lose weight!” Anything I do that strays from the typical transition story gives people an opportunity to undermine my identity and question if I really am who I say I am. Questions like “If you’re still not happy with your body after you’ve transitioned, were you ever really trans at all?”
Even at age 28, I am constantly treated like a child who doesn’t know what’s best for myself, and any tiny insecurity about my body that surfaces is like another crack in my armor and more ammunition for those who believe they know more about the person I am than I do.
The transgender community is also at a higher risk than the general populace for certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV. I hear these statistics again and again. If it’s so important to educate our community on issues that affect us, where is the corresponding education about the risks of eating disorders?
“Anything I do that strays from the typical transition story gives people an opportunity to undermine my identity and question if I really am who I say I am.”
Having space to share my experiences with negative body image and disordered eating with other transgender folks has been a huge blessing for me. Knowing that others have struggled with the exact same issues I have struggled with makes me feel less alone. Wishing that my trans friends would be kinder to themselves has made me realize when I, too, need to be kinder to myself.
I’m still on this journey. I’m not finished with my transition, and most days, the body I see in the mirror still isn’t quite right. I still have days where I don’t feel like I deserve to eat, and my boyfriend has to gently convince me that I don’t have to do anything special to “earn” dinner. Being honest about it has helped a little. Analyzing why it’s so important to me to look a certain way has helped a lot.
Societal pressure to “pass” as cisgender is pervasive and fuels a lot of these body insecurities. I’m not even a man, and I still let myself get so wrapped up in passing as male, rather than expressing myself in the most authentic way I can, in all my nonbinary glory.
Trans folks need to be able to talk about our bodies, our struggles with eating disorders, our complicated relationships with food, and our pursuit of self love, even when it’s challenging ― especially when it’s challenging! But space for that will never exist in society until we normalize the idea that not all gender transitions look the same.
There isn’t a single “right” way to be trans. For me, rejecting cisnormativity has helped me assure myself that it’s OK to eat, it’s OK to take up space and it’s OK to love my trans body the best I can. Accepting that we’re all unique ― and that means unique journeys, dreams and insecurities ― is the first step toward allowing people to open up. And for many of us, opening up is the first step on the road to recovery.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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