The Opposite of Gender Dysphoria
On finding a new way of relating to my body
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
― John Muir, The Mountains of California
For a period of my life, I was completely consumed with a feeling I called gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria - dryly defined in the DSM as “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and their assigned gender, lasting at least 6 months” means different things to different people.
This is what it felt like to me:
This feeling had been a bodily malaise before, but during 2016-2017, emboldened by my definition of it, it morphed into a consuming obsession. The feeling of discomfort with my sex characteristics. Wanting to take my body off, be free of it. Staring miserably at myself in the mirror. Binding. Scrutinizing the shape of my body under the binder, under the sweater.
I pinch the fat on my body. I feel a roiling unease. I want to be someone else. I start to be very cruel to my body, and blame it for my problems, my lack of confidence, every time I have betrayed myself. I made a laundry list of the corrections that would have to happen. Testosterone, yes, for some time. And then top surgery. I’d have to start working out, to balance out my hips. I needed to train my voice to speak in the calm monotone I associated with maleness.
This, to me, was gender dysphoria.
I know that for many people, transitioning soothes these problems. There’s a phrase called “gender euphoria,” which is the corresponding joy of imagining life as your desired gender. The opposite of gender dysphoria.
I experienced a kind of gender euphoria when I imagined my life as a man. I imagined myself happy, free, my body an afterthought. When I imagined these things, I felt a dizzying sense of hope and possibility. “This is gender euphoria,” I thought. “This is a sign that I’m trans.”
But the gender euphoria did not truly extend into my transition. As I took physical steps, my dysphoria only increased. Once my chest was flattened by top surgery, my hips seemed monstrous. Once my voice was deeper, I agonized over the girly inflection of my speaking. As strangers began to call me “sir,” the joy of accomplishment was undermined by the hollow feeling that I was hiding, pretending.
Instead, the gnawing need for more change kept growing. The dysphoria increased, magnified, like a dragon growing in size and appetite the more I fed it.
It was a time of obsessing, of chasing something that was impossible. It led me to a bad place.
I’ve spilled a lot of ink talking about gender dysphoria: the way it gripped me in 2017, and the after effects that transition has had on my life. But let me tell you about a different feeling, and a different way of relating to my body. Let me tell you about something that is the closest thing, to me, to “the opposite of gender dysphoria.”
In order to explain what I mean by that, you’re going to have to come with me on a little hike.
The Adventure of Breakneck Ridge
I live in Manhattan. I took a weekend train out to Cold Spring, New York a few weeks ago with my fiancé. We had originally intended to rent a Zipcar to go upstate, but the car we reserved was dented up, with deflated tires and a dashboard full of blinking warning lights. The customer service person on the phone was no help: there were no cars nearby, we’d have to take a train to the Bronx to find one. Fuming and discouraged, we called the whole thing off.
After trudging home, cursing the car company, we settled in for another day of working on our laptops. But look! All hope was not lost! A train was available to Cold Spring. We rushed to the station, stopping at a nearby vegan soul food place to grab lunch. We shoveled vegan BBQ chicken into our mouths in the freezing air while waiting for the train.
The train was sparsely populated, with windows on either side. Out the windows to the right, we passed beautiful small towns, the occasional fabulous mansion, wineries. To the left, constant and sparkling, the broad waters of the Hudson. I love being on a cross-country train. Ever since I was young, it feels like magic: sitting in comfort, watching the land go by.
We arrived in Cold Creek and began to look around. The shop were sweet, but what really intrigued us was a white board propped outside a vintage store. Hand-lettered, it said “ride to the hike - $3/ person.”
I shyly inquired inside. The old man who came down looked us up and down. “You have food? Water? You’re sure you want to hike in those shoes?”
Of course we were sure! Sure, we were dressed in street clothes, but I had no doubts we could handle a nice nature walk.
Still skeptical, the man took our money and drove us up the road to the beginning of the hike.
Before he left us in the parking lot at the base of the trail, he hopped out to give us some advice and a map. As I read the map, I re-noticed that it was called “Breakneck Ridge.” While doing a quick Google search of Cold Spring the morning before, I had seen this information, but had sort of filed it away as unimportant in the back of my mind.
As we looked up the rocky face of Breakneck Ridge, we began to rethink our bluster. The trail up the mountain is steep. Instead of a winding, walkable path, we were faced with a steep ascent covered in jagged boulders. (I would later learn that the mountain was used as a quarry, resulting in sharp cliffs and fields of large rocks.)
It was early March, and still cold, so there weren’t many other people there. But from those who were there, it was clear we were underdressed. The other hikers were dressed in pro-hiking gear, fit and athletic, with those sleek little sport backpacks. I was in heeled Chelsea boots, my fiancé, in street sneakers. My mastectomy scars throbbed under my fancy new coat, irritated by the change in the March air.
“I don’t know about this,” I said.
We probably should have turned back. A feeling of extreme unease descended on both of us. But our ride had already driven off, and we didn’t like the idea of walking back along the highway.
So we set off. After ascending an initial path up a steep foothill, we began clambering over boulders. There are spray-painted white dots every few yards to indicate which direction you should be going. I’ve spent some time in climbing gyms, and I began practicing my moves on the rocks. It scared me, because while we weren’t scaling the face of a cliff, it was still clear that slipping could cause serious injury. My fiancé and I took different ways at parts - each trying to figure out how to reach the next white dot on the trail.
I placed my toes on a nook in a boulder, cautiously pressed upward, went cold as I felt my foot sliding around in my shoe. Strength shot into my arms, I gripped the top of the rock with white knuckles and clawed my way over the edge. Phew. I thanked my arms for knowing what to do.
“Maybe don’t go this way,” I called back to my fiancé.
Every time we reached the flat top of a foothill, another stretch of rocky terrain appeared before us. “I keep thinking we’re almost to the top,” he said, laughing. “But then there’s always more.” We consider going back, but one vertiginous look down makes us reconsider. No, we had to keep going.
Finally, we reached the top of the trail. The steep incline gave way to broad, flat rocks. Limbs aching and hearts pounding, we looked across to the landscape before us.
When you’re walking in the city, you often can’t see very far. The buildings are tall. If you look down Broadway at the top of the hill, you can see the different edges of skyscrapers and buildings leading down the street’s corridor to the vanishing point.
This was different.
We were 1400 feet up. The Hudson river stretched out in either direction. Beyond it, the swell of the Storm King Mountain, still covered in snow and skeletal trees. The mountain reminded me of the graceful head of a whale breaching above the water of the river. The road below was a tiny stripe. The stark landscape undulated before us, carved with the gentle insistence of the silver river.
We stood there, the two of us, taking in the vista. The trip to the top had been terrifying. My limbs ached. But look - we had made it. A year of sitting in our apartment on our laptops had made us weaker, hunched, pale. Still, we’d made it.
I gulped from my water bottle. It tasted better than any water I’d had before. The peanut-butter filled pretzels were similarly scrumptious, and I wolfed them down without a hint of the calorie anxiety that haunts my thoughts from time to time. Everything was imbued with the intense satisfaction that physical exertion gives you. My whole body hummed with exhaustion and endorphins.
The Opposite of Gender Dysphoria
The journey had been hard-won, and now that we were at the top, we were in excellent spirits. We swapped stories with a father and son duo approaching from the other side of the mountain. After taking in our fill of the landscape, we started back on the winding path down the other side of the mountain.
The road back down was much easier going, so we talked as we walked. We discussed an article we had recently read about how modern movie stars were immaculately muscular and ‘roided up, but in becoming so perfectly sculpted, they had lost a sense of sensuality and humanness. In the article, the author lamented that the joys of embodiment had been replaced by a neurotic focus on controlling and perfecting the body.
On that topic, my fiancé remarked that sometimes he felt pressure to go to the gym to look more like that - to have a “good” body, muscular and photogenic, impressive to others.
“But this is so much better than going to the gym to try to have some perfect body,” he said. “Exercise where we go out and do something is way better. We gotta do more of this.”
We passed under a jagged ledge encrusted with icicles. It was just above freezing that day, and the icicles were melting. Droplets of water fell down the rocks, sounding like a gentle spring rain. Winter was almost over.
As we basked in the sounds of the mountain, we both agreed that this was the kind of thing we wanted to use our bodies for: making our way through the world and experiencing things with our miraculous senses. I thrilled at the touch of the wind on my skin and the sound of the melting ice. We were both giddy. I may have even hopped and skipped along in a frolicsome manner.
And this, to me, the opposite of gender dysphoria.
Up there on the mountain, I was not trying to express any particular gender, any image of masculinity or femininity, through my voice, my movements, my posture.
I didn’t worry about the curve of my hips, as I used to, scrutinizing my silhouette in the mirror. How could I begrudge my strong hips and low center of gravity that had just helped me propel myself up the mountain?
I didn’t begrudge the ungainly boniness of my shoulders and arms, as I sometimes have in the past. How can I resent my arms, which caught me and steadied me a dozen times when I slipped?
I didn’t worry how the passing hikers saw me, what gender they perceived me as, what they thought of my body, if my voice sounded weird. It didn’t matter. We were just people, making our way across uncertain terrain.
So. If I were to try to express a feeling that is the opposite of gender dysphoria, it is something like this: the feeling of being tired, triumphant, and sore, having climbed a mountain and come back again.
I am grateful to my body, and sorry for the various wounds that I have inflicted upon it. Life in a female body - indeed, life in any human body - is filled with suffering, anxiety, vulnerability, and pain. Gender dysphoria is one facet of that universal fact of life. I no longer consider it a good reason to drastically modify my one and only body. I no longer think there is an internal, hidden, better me waiting to be freed through surgery, starvation, or injections.
At the end of the day, I am my body. Any frustration I take out on my own flesh is a rebuke to my own being. I learned this the hard way.
Now, to be clear: I’m not trying to say that mountain climbing is a widely-applicable treatment for gender dysphoria. Not at all. Gender dysphoria is a deeply personal kind of suffering, and I can only speak for myself.
But standing on top of Breakneck Ridge with my love, tired and ecstatic, ears numb from the cold, looking at a view we literally clawed our way up to see, I felt at peace in my body and at home in the world.