Transition and Body Image

by Ashley Altadonna

My issues with my body probably began around the time that I started crossdressing.  As I stood staring deeply into the mirror of my parent’s bathroom, I hoped to see a beautiful young girl peering back at me. Like many other trans women, I prayed that I might somehow magically wake up one day with a female body. As I got older my gender dysphoria worsened as puberty began to wreak havoc on my body in the form of broader shoulders, a pronounced brow and jawline, acne, facial and body hair, and an Adam’s apple. It felt like my body was continually rebelling against me.

As trans and non-binary people our relationships with our bodies are usually complicated, to put it mildly. We are subject to the same societal pressures and messaging of what an “ideal” body is supposed to look like, along with the added struggle that our gender identities don’t match up with the bodies we were born into. While not every trans or non-binary person may have issues with their body-image due to their gender identity, many certainly do.

Research has shown that transgender and non-binary individuals are often the highest at-risk for eating disorders, in part because we may use eating disorders as a coping mechanism for the stress of being trans. Many trans and non-binary folks may also use disordered eating behaviors to suppress or accentuate certain gendered bodily characteristics. A lack of access to health care, in particular, gender-affirming care, only increases the chances of eating disorders.

One’s body-image is both mental and emotional.  It is the mental image we have of our body as well as the ways we feel about it. Having a healthy body-image means liking and accepting how you look and recognizing the individual qualities and strengths that make you feel good about yourself. Our body-image is also connected to our self-esteem, or the value and importance we place on ourselves as a person.  Our self-esteem generally impacts how well we take care of ourselves -emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Having good self-esteem means feeling “good enough”, even when dealing with difficult feelings or situations. Since our body image and self-esteem directly influence each other they are tied to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is why it is crucial as transgender and non-binary folks that we are allowed and able to express our gender identities and remake or reshape our bodies in ways that make us feel better.

For some of us, this means hormonal treatments or surgeries, others might change our clothing choices or our hairstyles.  We might use binders or shapewear to give our bodies the outlines that are more aesthetically and authentically us. When we are able to look into the mirror and the reflection staring back is more genuine, the positive impact it has on our thoughts and feelings can be life-changing. As representations of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people become more accepted and common in media, it not only destigmatizes trans and non-binary bodies, it expands the boundaries of acceptable body types for everyone.

When I finally began my transition, it was an opportunity and a catalyst for me to care more about my body and myself. I quit smoking and started exercising more. The first time I went in to begin hormone replacement therapy, it was probably the first time I had been to see a doctor in over a decade. I cut back on my drinking due to estrogen’s effects on the liver. As the effects of estrogen began to take effect, I started to like my body and myself more.

There are things we can do without access to medical treatments to begin feeling better about our body-image: 

  1. Treat your body with respect by eating well and exercise. Focus on feeling good, not on controlling your body.
  1. Dress in a way that makes you feel good. A new look can really change how you feel about appearance and yourself.
  1. Make a list of positive benefits about the part of your body that you don’t like. Maybe you aren’t thrilled with your chest…but it holds your ribs and lungs and heart.
  1. Be aware of the messaging about bodies that the media gives us. Challenge those stereotypes. There is no one ideal body.
  1. Be aware of negative thoughts. What we tell ourselves may be true or untrue, but just because we might think “I’m hideous!” doesn’t make it a fact (no matter how much our brains like to convince us it is). Examining your thoughts and evaluating whether they are accurate or helpful can help to lessen the hold they have over you. Think about what you might tell a friend who expressed a similar sentiment to you.
  1. Surround yourself with friends and/or family that support you, and accept you for who you truly are.
  1. Be kind to yourself. No one said this was easy. Keep trying and believe in yourself.