As I stand here naked, in front of you, I wonder what you see. I feel your eyes glancing back and forth, and I see you smile, and I think to myself, you see my body, my complicated, beautiful trans body, but what else do you see?
Do you see what I see when I look in the mirror, do you see the battles I’ve fought on this pale freckled landscape, or do you see something else? Do you see something more, or something less?
I have a good relationship with my body. Just reading those words though, reminds me of times when I didn’t. For most of my teenage years onwards my body didn’t feel like mine. I covered it up, I refused to be photographed, I hid it as much as I could. I didn’t want the way I looked to be recorded, I didn’t want to be reminded of what I was. I didn’t want to see what I was.
My body wasn’t mine, it felt wrong, and as time went by, I started to realise why. I was trans, and worst of all, I didn’t know what to do about this.
It was a stark realisation, because honestly, there was nothing I could have done about it. When I was growing up there was no one I could talk to about it, and no information about what the way I felt meant. Sex education was strictly binary, and gender identity wasn’t mentioned, or even acknowledged as a thing because to most people it wasn’t actually a thing anyhow.
I remember thinking that maybe I should tell someone how I felt, I even remember teachers saying that we could ask anything at all and it would be fine, but deep down I knew that if I asked about this then fine would not be part of the equation. I saw how other people who were different were bullied and attacked and ostracized, and I knew I was different. I knew the only safe thing to do was to do what I always do when I’m not sure about something.
I took what was different about me, and I buried it. I buried it deep inside, and tried to live with what I had. For a while it sort of worked, but ask anyone who’s buried something and they’ll all tell you the same thing – you can’t bury stuff forever. The gradual erosion of living wears away whatever you cover it with and eventually that thing gets exposed again.
No matter how much I tried to bury how I felt, it got exposed. My false body couldn’t be hidden, and as I grew it rebelled against me, with unwanted hair, and height I didn’t want. It pushed and shoved and demanded to be noticed. I’m not what you want, but I am what you’ve got. You need to love me.
And the thing is I knew this. So I tried something else. I tried to listen, and I tried to love.
How do you even begin to do that though? Where do you even start? My body was a land that had been taken from me. I wanted it back, but to do that I needed to stake a claim, and staking claims? That’s a risky business.
You see the thing is, I’d already tried to claim back my body before. I staked my claim by starving my body.
To many people that doesn’t make sense I know, but to me it did. My body wasn’t mine, so I needed to regain control over it. I did this through not eating. I could control the shape, the size, the feel of my body by deciding what I would and wouldn’t put in it. I could punish my body, and I could make it listen, and then I could make it mine again.
And then that also became a way of dealing with stress, which in turn became my way of calling out for help when I couldn’t manage on my own, not that I’d ever admit that I couldn’t manage on my own. I’d managed on my own with this for so long that it had become a part of me, a truth hiding a lie. During these times I know I caused myself pain, but at least I had control over my body, at least I was making a claim.
This claim though, it wasn’t really a claim, it was an invasion. I remember one morning, catching myself in the mirror, and on seeing my reflection it suddenly occurred to me that this wasn’t a man’s body, or a woman’s body anymore. It wasn’t any body. My invasion had conquered my body, but it had left nothing. Nothing to build upon, nothing to make better, just skin and bones. This wasn’t a victory, but a loss.
So I stopped, and instead tried another way. It wasn’t easy, just stopping took, and honestly still takes, effort. When stressful situations happen, not eating is still my emergency response, it’s just now I’m aware that it is, and that sometimes makes a difference.
I made myself rediscover my body. I spent hours looking at myself. I still do. I forced myself to look at the bits of me I hated. I looked at them and tried to think about why. I exposed myself, to myself.
I looked at my tiny boobs, and reminded myself that although they’re small, they’re also in proportion to the rest of me and that they’re beautiful.
I looked at my face, with its big nose, and narrow eyes, and huge mouth and remembered how these things do make me different, but that different needn’t mean bad. I remembered how as a child different meant there was something I had to hide, but as an adult, it could mean something else, something better.
I looked at my body, with its gangly limbs, and awkward proportions, all scar marked by the passing of time, and learnt to love what I saw.
I repeated these mantras, even though I didn’t believe them. Over and over, time and time again, drumming them into my head so that they would create new pathways in my brain. New responses to age old feelings of self loathing and shame.
But it wasn’t enough, not yet. So I fell back on something I know, something I do love. I fell back on art, and I took photographs of my body. I took naked ones, and clothed ones, from above and from below. I capture parts of my limbs, and the shapes they make, and I learn to love them.
I make it a project, because if it’s that then there’s a purpose. Because the purpose of me learning to love my body isn’t enough, not just yet. It needs another reason, something I class as more valid, more real, more acceptable.
I took a photo of myself everyday, and I called it art, because this is something I know, this is something I value, this is something I love.
Maybe, I think, just maybe, given time, that validity, that love will transfer onto me, and onto my body. Maybe one day, I’ll take a photo, and put it on the internet, and other people will tell me how to love my body with their likes, and acknowledgement, and praise, and I’ll be able to think if all these people who don’t even know me think my body is alright, then maybe I should as well.
Validity from other people isn’t always a solid base to build from, but when you’re building from nothing you’ll take anything that’s going to get those footholds, because footholds are what start you off on the climb back up to acceptance, and self worth. Who shows you where they are doesn’t matter, what matters is whether you chose to use them or not.
So I keep on taking self portraits, and I start to think to myself, I like that photograph. I start to think to myself, I look okay with some weight there, I look okay being tall, I look okay.
I stake a claim, and this time it’s a claim that’s recognised, a claim that works, a claim that’s valid.
And it’s not just me doing this. I started noticing how other people felt the same. I noticed how my friends were all claiming their bodies back as well, using the tools they had at their disposal. I see people marking their bodies with tattoos, staking their claim with colours and shapes and symbols of power and ownership.
I see others standing naked and proud, allowing others to draw them, a myriad of individual interpretations surrounding them, formed in paint and charcoal, like offerings to their bodies.
Others still move their way to ownership, twisting and turning to rhythms and beats, a ritual dance of occupancy, displayed to an enraptured crowd of onlookers.
I see people claiming back what was taken from them, I see people fighting long and hard to own what was all of ours all along, even when it didn’t feel that way.
As I stand here naked, but not exposed, I remember my mantras. Words repeating, like rivers flowing in the landscape of my mind. I remember that this is a proud and strong bearing of skin and bones. I show you my body, my complicated, beautiful trans body, and I remember a time when this couldn’t happen.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Diva magazine.