Growth Filtered Through Dysphoria

Photo by Jordan Whitt

Clara Barnhurst

We emulate what we most relate to in the world, but we’re also told what to emulate. Some people grow up with stronger examples to follow. Some end up with clearer instructions. It’s not quite so dualistic as that: you can have clear instructions and a strong example or just the opposite. Or anything in between. But we figure out who we are by referencing others. Simple, right?

Growing up, I had a strong bond with my two younger brothers, both very close in age. My parents quite often referred to us as a set. I strongly identified with the group; that the group was male gendered didn’t matter to me. We were ‘the boys’. It didn’t refer to me, personally, though I did understand that I was classed as a boy. There weren’t many children on our rural road in New Hampshire so my brothers were my playmates.

Though we had a bitter rivalry that lasted into our mid teens, my brothers and I were quite clannish about it. Outsiders were treated with a unified front: people threatening one would find themselves having to deal with the other two. We would support each other if some were hurt, but once we were all fit and free of outside threat, we would resume our own internal struggle.

It’s been pointed out to me that often we find people we resonate with among the group we’re told to select from and use them as a compass for growth. We learn what kind of person we want to be, particularly when we get into adolescence, and find a reference point to work from. Other people. Role models are inevitably gendered; dysphoria can scramble the messages we’re given about who to copy.


A girl that spends her entire life being told she is a boy will be given a palette of expression. That palette will be broad or narrow, depending on the attitudes of their family and surrounding subculture. She will pick from her perceived options and, if the options she’s offered aren’t compatible with her identity, there will be dissonance. That dissonance maybe explicit or implicit; it depends on whether she understands that she is a she.

This isn’t to say that a role model need be a matching gender. Only that the lens a person views that role model will be gendered, filtered through one’s own gender and qualified by the role model’s gender. A girl that emulates her dad, a male teacher or male friend is no less female. But the way she emulates these male role models will differ from the way boys would. Add a mismatching gender assignment, and we have another filter: the girl is given options gendered male, but will respond as a female to the male stimulus and emulate the most resonant option as a female. There are no firm boundaries to any of this.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I was given a broad palette to express myself with, but a powerful pair of childhood friends was likely what kept me from wavering too far from the expectation of my assignment. It went further: the established group identity gave me an outlet for growth — a way to avoid dysphoria. I loved my brothers (even when I hated them), wanted to be like them because they were my best friends, strongest allies, and most important family to me. As it turns out, they also protected me from myself.

This whole idea of imprinting never occurred to me until a few days ago when a friend mentioned how disruptive it was to not know who to follow and how. How it left her generally confused about how to be. It never occurred to me that this was a problem because in my own reference, my brothers, and to a lesser extent my mum and dad, were always there to show me.


Hindsight tells me that dysphoria managed to complicate my own growth just as it would have had I not been in a free thinking family with a strong group identity. I ended up connecting to friends outside my family through my brothers. Of course I had friends, but most of them were also my brothers’ friends. In a way, I used them to keep myself away. I didn’t know at the time, but hindsight tells me that dysphoria is an isolating feeling. I used my closer ties to isolate myself.

Does any of this really matter? Do we need to imprint with people? I don’t know but anecdotally, we need those people to help guide our own growth. Without them, we tend to get lost; we drift. I can see a scenario where I never transitioned: a potential me that just found her place and enjoyed the broad expression she was afforded by her loved ones. Does that make my womanhood any less valid?

I don’t believe it does, but in that scenario I probably wouldn’t be aware I was a woman. Just this really weird guy that sang to his own tune. A dreamer, a little repressed, with friends but reclusive without intervention. I know from my current vantage that the weird guy in my imagination would be very unhappy, but he wouldn’t know: his life would just have that unhappiness without any other context.

Role models give us context. When I came out and started looking more to my mum and female friends for guidance, I found a new context to understand myself. That dysphoric filter was still there, except now it was telling me how I could never live up to the people I emulated. That complicated things, but not nearly so much as my attempt to live my life through my brothers (and later through partners).

My context is female whether I’m aware or not. Whether I ended up being that strange, popular, withdrawn man or not. That is the thing that scrambles everything, and the dysphoric filter makes it all seem wrong even when we do try to fix it. But as the dysphoria fades away, we discover who we would like to be. And that’s the next best thing to knowing who we are.


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