A beast on the left, squatting, and a woman on the right, sitting, with her arm around its back.
I’ve mostly reconciled with the beast inside me.

My slow escape from gendered self-loathing

Never have I been more alone than in this pandemic. Like many, I have vastly fewer social interactions and see many fewer people. While this has come as a relief after one of the hardest Winters of my personal and professional life, with that solitude has come much more of something that I’ve always struggled to face: myself.

I’m sure all of us struggle being alone with ourselves to some extent. There are things we don’t like about our personalities, our bodies, our choices. We punish ourselves for these things, and wallow in our shame. Some of us react to this with anger, others with sadness. If we’re lucky, we find a way out of our insecurities and failures and forgive ourselves. Maybe along the way, other people help us, reminding us that none of us our perfect, our failings are only part of us, and by no means do imperfections and failures define us. This is just part of being human.

I have these same struggles. But as a transgender person, being alone with my thoughts has also posed a more generalized struggle for self-acceptance. Early on in life, I experienced this as a comprehensive self-loathing. I wish I could describe it as anything less, but that’s what it felt like. There weren’t just aspects of my personality that I disliked or parts of my body that I disliked—I had a sense that the totality of myself was somehow wrong. My racial identity was this confusing blend of east and west; my experience of being a boy was that I was a fake one. At least in my sheltered corner of the white suburban Pacific Northwest, I didn’t make sense to me. My confusion festered into a pervasive denial of my humanity.

I feel lucky that my reaction to this as a child wasn’t paralyzing depression, or uncontrollable rage, but a deep conscientiousness. I learned early on that if just did everything that everyone expected, whether at home or school, people would affirm me totally. “You’re such a good child,” “You’re such a smart child,” “What a nice smile.” These little bits of general affirmation built an externalized confidence atop my foundation of self-hatred. As long as I wasn’t alone with myself, I could spend my time building that confidence higher and higher, never having to dig around in the basement.

As a teen, when my egg began to crack (a phrase now used by many trans youth online to refer to their first realizations of gender confusion), this foundation of self-loathing began to wobble. I began to notice that every time I was alone, with no distractions, I found myself in the disgusting, dark, damp basement of my mind. There was a beast down there, a twisted, broken, inhuman thing. It horrified me, partly because of how grotesque it was, but also because I knew the beast was me. Whenever I encountered it, I ran from it as quickly as possible, reading a book, doing some homework, playing a video game, or being a dutiful helper in my house. But it was always down there, and solitude clawed me down to its dungeon.

College was a great escape from that basement. For the first time, there were thousands of people around me looking to connect. In student housing, I never had to be alone, as there was always someone in my hallway awake at all hours. My introverted mind was exhausted, but at least I didn’t have to face the beast in the basement. And the tower of confidence above it grew higher and higher, while placing ever greater pressure on this foundation.

But when I moved out of student housing, and shortly after became a young parent, suddenly I was alone again. When my ex-wife was in class, I was alone with our beautiful infant child, who absorbed every bit of my love and attention. But in those quiet mornings and afternoons during nap time, the beast in my basement demand to be let out. I would impulsively wear one of my wife’s skirts, try some of her makeup, or read trans fiction, hiding in the bathroom with the door locked. But the euphoria of freeing that beast was always fleeting. As soon as I saw myself in the mirror, I was disgusted, and vowed to never let the beast out again.

Over the years, I engaged in the familiar acts to many trans women, buying clothing, hiding clothing, purging clothing. Each time the beast tried to gnaw its way to freedom, I aggressively locked it away to protect my family, friends, and community from its horrors. But over time, I began to accept that the creature was going to get out eventually. And I began to worry that when it did, and people realized that the beast was me, I would hurt a lot of people.

When I finally sought therapy about this self-loathing a few years ago, I quickly learned something important: I didn’t loathe my whole self, just my body. It was the thing I found disgusting and beastly. I liked other aspects of myself just fine: I was responsible, caring, intelligent, and kind. Sometimes I could be annoyingly argumentative, or impatient with ignorance, or impulsive interpersonally, and those were things I wanted to improve about myself. But I didn’t hate myself for them, and forgave myself for them readily. My body was the unforgivable sight.

Hormones helped me see that I didn’t actually hate my entire body, just parts of it. My feet and shoulders were too big. The hair on my face was someone else’s. My voice was a lie. But I liked my butt. And my eyes and lashes were pretty. I had thick, wavy, playfully unruly hair. And while my vaguely Asian face, with its little Danish bump on its nose, were a it mannish, they were unique and felt like me. Hormones have slowly helped fix some of things I loathed, softening the wrongly sharp edges, rounding my flat chest, and slowing the growth of my beastly leg, arm, and facial hair. My self-loathing slowly evolved into narrow list of bodily grievances.

Coming out helped me narrow that list further. It motivated me to work on my voice, helping me find a pitch and resonance that sounds more authentically me (at least to me). It freed me to change my name, breaking all the associations between my beastly self and my true self. It forced me to face the limits of hormones, deciding how far I was willing to go to surgically correct the damage of testosterone (not far). The freedom and support to make these changes helped me narrow my list of self-loathing even further: my feet are still too big, my voice is unmanageable, and my bits will be forever fallacious (pun intended :P)

All of this is so much better than comprehensive self-loathing. With the right clothing, and the right makeup, and the right hair, I don’t really hate how I look; I actually rather like how I look. Without those things, I’m still unhappy with the things on that short list, but not mortified. And I have a sense that my short list of dislikes isn’t really longer than other women’s. I probably experience the same struggles as other women to accept my body, the same unease about my dependency on clothing, hair, and makeup to mask my self-loathing, and the same frustration with a world that defines our worth aesthetically. And I say that increasingly aware that I am by no means an ugly person. On my best days, I really do feel beautiful and lucky to have the body I have.

On the worst days (and today is one of them), I sit in the basement, next to the beast, trying to remember how I ever thought I was anything but a disgusting creature. But instead of scaring me, the beast sits next to me, calmly purring or whatever beasts do, and I pet it. And when it notices my tears, it licks them away, and I remember, “I’m not broken. I’m not false. And I’m not a beast. In fact, I’ve never been more beautifully human.”

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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