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Nov 17, 2023

What is gender dysphoria?

Finnegan Shepard Founder of Both&

There’s a lot of information on the internet about gender dysphoria. The medical definition of gender dysphoria is “a marked incongruence between their experienced or expressed gender and the one they were assigned at birth.” In other words, it is feeling like the gender you identify with and feels right to you doesn’t match with the gender you were assigned at birth.

As an important note, this article is not medical advice and should not be taken as such. In fact, we want to intentionally avoid talking about this through a medical lens, and instead offer a more personal, storytelling lens, where we share a number of people’s experience with gender dysphoria (as well as gender joy). While gender dysphoria is an incredibly challenging experience with all sorts of mental and emotional impacts and needs to be taken very seriously, it’s important to also share stories of hope. Right now there is a lot of negative a painful news out there, and as a community we need to hold space both for the challenges we face and also for the wins.

 

Experiences of gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria can take a lot of different forms. Below, we have extracted a handful of examples from interviews with community members, all of which depict feelings of gender dysphoria. So, if you are wondering whether gender dysphoria is something you are experiencing, you might find the following stories informative.

 

“When I was younger, I never really noticed pronouns. It was like they were this kind of placeholder for language that didn’t mean anything. But then when I was in middle school, I guess around 12 or 13, I started noticing people using ‘she’ or ‘her’ in reference to me, and because I was starting to associate it with other things I saw going on around me–the way teenage girls were dressing, how they talked about boys, these kind of implicit gender associations, I became more and more uncomfortable with those pronouns. It was like death by a thousand paper cuts.”

“When I was nine, my cousin got married, and she wanted me to be a flower girl. There were five of us. She wanted all of us to wear matching dresses. I remember feeling so excruciatingly uncomfortable and also ashamed. I loved my cousin. I wanted to make her happy. I wanted her to have her perfect wedding. But putting on the dress made me feel like I was crawling out of my skin. I spent the whole wedding with my arms crossed over my chest, jealous of my boy cousins who got to wear suits.”

“Boobs. My boobs are the thing that make me the most uncomfortable. I feel pretty fine with the rest of my body, I don’t think I want to go on hormones, but if I could just have top surgery and have a flat chest I know I would be so much more comfortable in my body. Everything about my chest, the way it feels, how clothing sits on it, everything. Ugh. It feels
so wrong.”

“I never recognize myself in photos. It’s the weirdest thing. Sometimes in the mirror I feel like I’m really seeing myself, especially if I angle myself in a particular way, but in photos I am always like ‘who is that?’. All I can see are the curves, all these little things that look feminine when I know that’s not me.”



As you can see from the examples above, gender dysphoria can be triggered by a variety of things, from pronouns to clothing to photographs to the way a particular part of the body feels. Sometimes it’s triggered by all of these things, sometimes some of them don’t register at all but others do very acutely. A really important thing to remember is that there is not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to experience gender dysphoria. Unfortunately, because the way the medical system is set up, gender queer people have been forced into ticking certain boxes to be able to access medical care, and that has created a false binary of what is ‘real’ dysphoria versus ‘fake’ or passing. If you experience a dissonance between your gender identity and your gender assigned at birth, that is gender dysphoria. Of course, there is also no single way to ‘treat’ gender dysphoria. For some people medically transitioning provides enormous relief and resonance. For others, socially transitioning or playing with presentation brings a sense of alignment. There’s no single path. The important thing is for you to remember that you are not alone, that it is okay to feel what you are feeling, and that there are a wide variety of options to explore.

 

 

Experiences of gender joy

Person smiling with eyes closed with the words "Gender Joy"

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, we feel that it is very important to share not just stories of gender dysphoria, but also experiences of gender joy. Navigating your own gender journey will be a life long process with many twists and turns, and the truth is that while there are undeniably a lot of challenges, there is also so much beauty and curiosity and fun to be had in this exploration. Below, we’ve shared some stories from trans and nonbinary folks experiencing gender joy.

 

“I had this girlfriend in high school, this was back before I was ‘out.’ To be honest I didn’t even have the language for my transness yet. But she just kinda saw through me, or like, she saw the real me before I had a name for it. She would always call me her ‘stud,’ her ‘boyfriend,’ her ‘prince.’ I never knew how to respond, I was so happy whenever she said those things but also really embarrassed because I felt like I was somehow being ‘caught out.’ But she must have known how much I loved it, because she kept doing it. Our relationship ended when we went our different ways/off to college, but I still attribute the foundation of my confidence to explore my trans identity to her giving it a kind of name. It sounds so simple, but when someone else names it for you, it releases you from that fear that you are crazy or pitiable or anything like that. It was the smallest, most magnificent gift.”

“When I was maybe six months into transitioning, I saw a friend post on IG about this brand called Both& Apparel. I think I’d seen some ads of theirs or something but I hadn’t really paid attention to it, because I’ve been so disappointed by brands in the past that claim to be designing for me, only to try them out and have the same terrible fit. But when my friend posted about it and was so genuinely happy in the clothes, and the clothes legit looked so good, I was like, ‘hmmm, maybe I should try this after all.’ So I ended up buying one of their shirts, I think it was the Finnegan, and oh my god. I had no idea a shirt could actually do that. The minute I put it on and looked in the mirror I was like, ‘oh my god, that’s me.’ It was just perfect. It made my shoulders look super buff, it wasn’t clingy at all and my binder wasn’t poking out the top which drives me nuts. I didn’t realize clothing could bring so much gender joy.”

“I was boarding a plane last month and the air steward behind me was saying, “sir,” and I didn’t even realize she was referring to me. It was the first time someone in public had called me sir. I was kind of nervous to turn around and have her change her mind/it be awkward, but that didn’t happen. I said, ‘yes,’ and she just asked if I would mind changing rows, and I was so happy I didn’t even care that I was now in an aisle seat when I prefer the window. It suddenly felt like the future was wide open and beautiful and filled with possibility.”

 

Tools for self empowerment

The hard reality of gender dysphoria is that it is rarely a brief experience. For most of us, gender dysphoria has lived in us in some form or another for most of our lives, and the experiences of confronting it head on, having it deeply impact our day to day experience, and navigating our decisions around how to live with it and move towards gender joy is a long and arduous process. However, while it’s important to be honest about the realities of gender dysphoria, there are also a lot of resources and tools today that can help alleviate it (again, this is not medical advice, just shared experience from other folks in the community). When talking with other trans and nonbinary people, these are the top things that people listed as being crucial aids for them in their journey:

  1. Community/representation. It’s so important to not feel alone in your journey. Finding companionship and/or ways of feeling kinship is a huge comfort. This can come through online or in person communities, finding representation in media or books. There are a lot of other people out there experiencing or having experienced the same thing, and the more you are aware of that and feel less isolated, the better.

  2. What makes you feel good in your body? This is a really important tool that a number of people listed. While the body can be an uncomfortable place to inhabit, there are often situations and ways of being in the body that feel better than others. Some people feel really empowered when they work out or lift weights. Some people find a lot of empowerment in cutting their hair, or when they are able to go off deep into nature and swim topless, feeling free from societal norms.

  3. Gender affirming clothing. One of the most powerful tools to feel like you have agency in your body is in building a wardrobe that helps you feel comfortable and confident in your body. This can be constructed in a variety of ways, from functional wear like binders or gafs to pairing ‘traditional’ cisgender fashion from both the men and the women’s department together, to trying out brands like Both& that make clothing in proportions specifically made for AFAB folks wanting a masculine silhouette.

  4. Self care and patience. This one is really hard, but something that pretty much everyone listed. It can be so uncomfortable to live with gender dysphoria, and can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. But things do change, and you have to be as kind and patient with yourself as you can be along the way. You have done nothing wrong, nothing is wrong with you. Try to give yourself as much love as you can. You deserve it.

 

Conclusion

If you are looking for a medical deep dive on gender dysphoria, this article isn’t for you. There are plenty of those articles out there. Instead, what we wanted to do today was to provide a more human approach, sharing real stories of gender dysphoria and gender joy from the trans and nonbinary communities. It is through stories that we are most able to recognize ourselves, find comfort and empowerment.

If you would like to share your story with us, please reach out, we always love talking with more people in the community.