Dysphoria didn’t teach me to hate myself. It didn’t show me that my shell was improper. I wasn’t automatically hateful of my appearance. I learned I was wrong by being consistently treated in a way that caused me pain. I came to understand that my shell was to blame: my appearance, my body, was what allowed humanity to hurt me. Dysphoria didn’t teach me that my body was wrong. People did that.
We explain to small children the differences between boys and girls by describing bodies. When parents bother to describe it at all. My parents went down that road. They were reasonably open about bodies and their functions, as Mormons go, but they were already breaking away from that heritage by the time I got old enough to ask the dreaded question.
> “WHAT MAKES BOYS DIFFERENT FROM GIRLS?”
“What makes boys different from girls?” I don’t remember the precise answer, but I got a powerful impression that the privates made the gender. I was a boy because I had a penis. I struggled in the company of boys, except for my brothers. Boys were rough, loud, and a little frightening. My best friend in kindergarten was a girl. She was someone I enjoyed playing with, we would sit and do what six-year-olds did at play time. There was another girl on the end of my road that I enjoyed visiting, though she was quite a lot younger than I was. I liked going round there and playing with the My Little Pony figures (not so keen on Barbie).
I learned to stop associating so freely with girls when the humans around me made certain observations. My relationship with my best friend was sexualised: she became my girlfriend at some point. We started hugging because we thought that’s what you did. Adults did that when they were ‘together’, so we worked with the models we were given. I remember at one point I asked to marry her, and I meant it the way children do: I wanted to keep playing with her and we were moving up a year. I could tell we might not be friends after that. Boys couldn’t be friends with girls. Grown-ups got married to stay friends.
It came to a head at the end of kindergarten when the other children challenged us, ridiculing that we were sat under a tree together. “We’re not in love! We’re just good friends.” I protested in a pocket of silence from the encircling group. They howled their mirth and danced around us, chanting. I remember my friend came to my birthday party, a couple of years later. She didn’t say much and sat at the table, idly observing. That was the last I saw of her.
My attempts to mix with boys after that were of variable success; mostly, I was content to hide away and watch. My solitary pursuits —books, sand building, the occasional swing — were punctuated with awkward attempts to mix with children. Children assumed I was weak. I would be given a ball and be told to throw it as hard as I could. I would hurt them. Some stopped playing with me because I was too rough and I was confused. I thought boys played rough.
I would observe the girls playing cooperatively at skipping rope or clapping games, but they ignored me. By then I knew that I couldn’t join them. I had the wrong clothes on. I had the wrong hair. I had a penis. Once in a while, I would be allowed a boy role in a game of house. The boys would shun me when I did.
Though I knew I hated my appearance at age three, my actual body parts didn’t bother me so much. It took being stripped of my friends and the disdain of my peers to identify my body as the problem. My shell meant I was alone.
There were many intervening years before I finally gave up on trying to grow into my shell, but those early years were what taught me my body was wrong. My parents weren’t concerned about the gender of my playmates. My brothers thought it odd but didn’t especially care either. My family became my friendship group, but with no sisters I was still on my own and it was my body’s fault. My hair, my clothes and my penis were what mattered.
> "AND I HATE MY BODY NOW. I DIDN’T BEFORE.”
And I hate my body now. I didn’t before. My hair and appearance were chosen for me because of my penis. My friends were taken away from me because of my penis. My self expression was limited by my penis. It’s easy to look at the many other facets of gender, of socialisation, and say it couldn’t have entirely been my penis, but that’s where it began. I had a penis, so the web of assumption was formed.
It’s heartening that I could get past my body and be deemed a girl by society. I changed my appearance, my hair is different. The long term impact of testosterone exposure is being fought back. It proves that my penis wasn’t the thing that makes me a gender. Except that I’m ostensibly a grown-up now. Grown-ups get to choose their outward markers. Children don’t.
Children are dressed by parents and judged by peers on the basis of their genitals. Preference counts, but the guiding principles remain. Parents can be accepting of their child’s choices, but outsiders don’t have to be. Outsiders will look at a child and make value statements on the basis of a child’s assumed genitals. If corrected, they will confirm their own impression even if they approve: “It’s brave of you to have short hair, ” is the same nudge towards conformity as, “You should grow it long so we know what you are.” I had a penis, and so I was given a palette of expression. Rejecting that palette has consequences.
Despite my best efforts, I still hate my body. It was what got me into this mess. It wasn’t to blame, but it’s what others used to make it acceptable to subject me to decades of pain. I hate it for that. Dysphoria made me want to emulate girls. It did not make me hate my body. The unthinking punishment from those around me did that.