By Finn Saager
‘I’m standing in front of a mirror in my camisole and jeans. Marle, the woman next to me, asks me to name all the positive things about my body. When it remains quiet, she says, “You know, from the picture you brought I can see that you used to have a very beautiful feminine body. You’re trying to lose weight to become prettier, but in reality you’re becoming less pretty the thinner you get. If you gain weight, you would regain your femininity.”
The only thing I think is: why would I want to be even more feminine?
Last week I did the cord exercise with Marle. I had to lay down one cord in a circle the size of how big I thought my hips were. With another cord I had to show how big I wanted my hips to be. With the last cord I had to measure how big my hips actually were. The reality: the slimmest of all.’
This is what No tells me when we talk about what it’s like to have both Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and gender dysphoria. I recognise a lot in their story and it made me think: is there a link between the two? And does it lead to an eating disorder more often, as it did with No and I?
Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a disorder in which your own body image, how they see it in the mirror, doesn’t match what your body actually looks like. The distorted body image presents itself differently in everyone. In No it presented itself in the idea that their hips were much wider than they really were. Characteristic of BDD is the revulsion or shame someone feels for their own body or parts of it.
The feeling of disgust against your own body, is also often experienced by people with gender dysphoria. For me it means that I feel aversion for what I consider to be female about my body: my breasts and hips. This makes me feel alienated from it. It’s as if I’m renting a body that isn’t mine. A body that I experience as female and that doesn’t match how I see myself in my mind: flat chest, slim hips. Every time I look in a mirror, I don’t recognise my body as my own.
These two condition can overlap and it can be difficult to know whether what you’re experience is body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria. Or, like for No and I, both. For me the BDD was partly caused by the internalised idea that value and beauty equal thinness. This then lead to an eating disorder. I tried everything not to get fat because I thought I had to be thin to have value and be seen as beautiful. It therefore took a long time before I realised that the body dysmorphia was also caused by gender dysphoria. I realised this only after I had dismantled the idea that I needed to be thin and started working towards self acceptance and self love. I learned that my body exists to keep me alive, and that that is enough; it doesn’t have to fulfil some harmful societal ideal.
But despite the fact that I started eating well and treating my body better, it still didn’t feel as if it was mine. I realised that the image I had of my body in my head still didn’t match with what my body actually looked like. The image I had of my body, was that of a boy’s body. What I felt was gender dysphoria. Because of the body dysmorphia I constantly think my hips are wider than they are, that my face is more feminine than it is. This triggers my gender dysphoria because I don’t want to look like a woman. And the dysphoria in turn triggers my eating disorder, as I’ll become thinner if I eat less and I associate thinness with looking more masculine. If I’m thin, my feminine shape disappears. In my head I know, though: there are plenty of cis men with wide hips, stomach and chest fat, and a round face. That doesn’t make them any less man, and neither does it make me less masculine.
All together it’s a turmoil of thoughts and feelings. Thanks to the conversation with No I started wondering whether other trans people have similar experiences. That’s why I turn to you now. What are your experiences with the correlation between gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, and an eating disorder? Do you want to share your story with us? Let us know, and I will e-mail you personally.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A disorder in which someone experiences a distorted body image and sees the body, or parts of it, as defective and shameful. This idea often manifests itself as persistent and negative thoughts of disgust and shame. For these people, their own perception of their body does not match the reality. When they look in the mirror, they see their body as distorted and their ‘flaws’ as exaggerated.
Gender dysphoria: Gender dysphoria is experienced by people whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. For them this leads to stressful and hurtful feelings, also referred to as dysphoria. Gender dysphoric people do not have a distorted body image. Gender dysphoric people with body dysmorphia do. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, but for those that do this can result in a lot of stress and pain.