Reader Ramblings: Physical and Social Dysphoria

This question was submitted about two weeks ago. Immediately I knew how to answer it, yet it forced me to dig deep to come up with a coherent reason WHY I felt the way I did, and closely parallels what has lately been troubling me.


i’m having trouble with my chest, i guess. not when i’m naked, not when i’m alone (or alone with my partner). i only have trouble with my chest when i’m in public. i consider top-surgery now and then, but i know i’d miss my breasts when naked and alone. when i’m naked and alone, i feel whole.

i think you’ve been in a place similar to this place. i guess this message is asking for reassurance that this place is real, that real people have gone before me.

The Two Needs

I relate to what you say in some ways, but not in others. Let me explain.

People often say gender is entirely a social construct. They posit: “If you were on a deserted island, would you feel the need to transition?” My answer: Yes. I never wanted breasts, never liked having them. When I was clothed, I bound my breasts as flat as possible. Alone and naked, I felt constant unease, uncomfortable in my own skin. I saw myself in a way that was deeply incongruous with my current body. This was all before I had even heard the term transgender, let alone let in sink in.

So you see, I never had a “complicated relationship” with my breasts. The decision to get top surgery was very straightforward. And now I feel a great relief that my biological unit is in line with myself.

On the other hand, I am grappling with the idea of hormones. This is because people currently perceive me as a certain gender, and I would very much like to influence that perception in a different direction. There is a solution to this problem: Testosterone. More and more I feel the need to take it, because of this need I have for other people to perceive my gender a little “more correctly.” However, if I were on a deserted island, would I consider taking T? Probably not. It’s not so much a biological need as it is a social need, but for me, it is more and more becoming a need. And let’s face it – we are social beings, and social perception matters to everyone, a lot.

Moreover, I can point you to other people who struggle with the exact same dilemma you have. Among them are other transmen, non-binary trans* and genderqueer people of different flavors, and lastly, butches. I’ve read a lot of blogs, stories, articles, and books, on the complicated relationship a butch has to hir/her/their chest. They love ’em but they hate ’em. Some end up binding, some get top surgery, some still struggle, and some come to acceptance. This is a running theme in S. Bear Bergman’s books, both Butch is a Noun and The Next Exit May Be Behind You. You can also try reading blogs by butches, non-op transmen, etc. A few that I recommend are Butches A-Go-Go, Just Another White Woman, and any blog mentioned in her Liebster post.

Lastly, I’ll say surgery is a process. Part of the process is all that stuff that happens inside your head before you do it. In the end we might end up in the same place, but how we all get there varies vastly. There are as many paths as there are people, and only you can set your own path.

The Moral of the Story

i guess what i can really take away from this is that body dysphoria and social dysphoria are different things, but they both need to be taken seriously.

Exactly that.

22 thoughts on “Reader Ramblings: Physical and Social Dysphoria

  1. I’m a butch who’s been having very similar feelings for a long, long time. I’m ok with my breasts when I’m alone or with a romantic partner, but I’m extremely embarrassed by them in public. I hate the way they make my shirts look (what I wouldn’t do for a straight, neat line on my button-ups), and I hate other people noticing them (again, romantic/sexual partners excluded).

    I suppose in a way, it’s a trust issue. My breasts make me feel vulnerable and unsure; allowing somebody to see them is a big deal. So when random strangers on the street are able to see I have them, I feel very…violated. I want to be seen as masculine and really, there’s nothing that makes me feel less masculine than that. I’ve considered a reduction (C to A, preferably), but I can’t bring myself to take that financial and physical risk, at least not yet.

    If you’re interested, I wrote a blog post this past summer about my complicated relationship with my chest:

  2. I am genderqueer, and I have a rather large chest (wearing an F cup bra). I have come to peace with my physical body, but it was a long, and in many ways still ongoing, process. For a long time I debated top surgery, and have only set aside the option for now. I may at one point decide that top surgery is the correct way to go for me, but for right now I am comfortable with how I look (most days.)

    In a lot of ways, it was getting to the point where I could look at myself and be comfortable naked and alone that allowed me to accept my body in its current state. In other ways, it was learning to accept myself as I am internally that allowed me to disregard the exterior shell that houses my spirit and carries it around.

    In still other ways, the decision to forgo top surgery had a lot to do with finding a romantic partner who supported either choice I made. She, a ciswoman who is the first to admit she has a lot to learn (as we all do) about the trans* spectrum, gave me the social acceptance of my gender that I needed. She doesn’t blink when I refer to myself as her boyfriend or girlfriend alternately, and makes an effort to use the pronouns I prefer when referring to me.

    In finding that there were people like her that saw me as I am without caring much about my physical body, I discovered that once I relaxed into the legitimization, I didn’t actually care all that much either.

  3. I feel the same way about my vagina – even on an island, I wish I was born without one. But I really don’t get particular about who knows I have one, and I sometimes even can put things in it during sex, if I’m in a good mood. But breasts… meh, I really don’t care. I just wish people would stop looking at them or even acting like they exist.

  4. Thanks for your input – so many different perspectives!

    It’s funny to notice how each person has a different (gendered) body part they are uncomfortable with, and one they are fine/ok/meh with. On that note, boobs are a particularly interesting topic. They have a double standard of sorts – they’re yours and for your body and your partner (if you’re into that), but other people also see them, and make assumptions about you based on their prescence/abscene.

    Also remember that we often change our minds. How many times have you said “I would _never_ do X” and then a few years later you’re doin’ X? That’s OK, it’s called evolving. As humans we are constantly analyzing ourselves and the world around us and making decisions at every moment. So if today you decided you don’t want surgery (or X) you can always decide to do it tomorrow. That doesn’t mean you were wrong the first time, it just means you were right then, and you’re right now.

  5. I’m a butch and I’ve been struggling with similar feelings since I learned about top surgery a few years ago. What I like about my chest is that it can be nice in bed, sometimes looks badass in sports bras, sometimes clues people in that I do not prefer he/him pronouns (even though I always check my binding when people “ma’am” me…), and might be handy for breastfeeding five or ten years down the line. What I dislike about my chest is… almost everything else. I’ve got E cups, I don’t expect them on my body and get an unpleasant surprise every time I look in the mirror, the way they fill out clothes makes me nauseous, and binding provides less and less mental relief as time goes on.

    It’s a process, it really is. I’m not sure I could have fast-forwarded through any of it. After an endless mental ping-pong game, this fall I realized that I couldn’t live the rest of my life without being able to stand up straight and committed myself to getting some kind of surgery. I spent a few more months going back and forth daily on whether to get a reduction or top surgery. Things seem to be stabilizing in the direction of top surgery. I fret about my chest for hours every day, and it’s just not worth that. All I have to do is decide whether I can trust myself to know what I want.

  6. Reblogged this on This Mongrel Land and commented:
    I like this post because in some ways this is an issue that I struggle with. Like the reader who sent in the question, when I am alone, or naked or with my partner my chest doesn’t bother me, in fact, my chest in and of itself never really bothers me because I’m actually quite fond of my breasts. I like having them, I just don’t like being read as female and having breasts is seen as a rather obvious indicator of femininity by people who believe that gender is binary. I know I could never get top surgery because I know I would miss having breasts, but at the same time I also kind of like the idea of being flat chested sometimes. Really, binding should be the best option for me, but I’ve tried it several times (with ace bandages) and it’s been too uncomfortable to do for very long because it impedes my ability to breathe. I suppose I could get a chest binder, but I’m not sure I’m willing to drop that kind of money on this just yet.
    I also like that Maddox points out the difference between social and physical dysphoria, because a lot of the dysphoria I experience is social. Most of the time I feel very comfortable and at home in my body, especially in spaces with friends and allies where I know that my gender identity is respected, but when I leave that bubble, certain social situations make me very uncomfortable. The problem is, that the only real way to rectify those situations that make me uncomfortable would be for me to alter my body/appearance which is something I’m not sure I want to do because I like my body and I like the way I look. Plus, I’ve just never been particularly big on changing my appearance for the sake of others or to influence their perception of me and so to start doing so now would be… weird.

  7. Speaking as someone who only partially identifies as neutrois, I agree that this is an important distinction to make. I’m MAAB, and while I don’t strongly identify as male (I’ve read your post on why you identify as neutrois, and every single male stereotype you cite as not applying to you is also one that doesn’t apply to me), neither do I have any problem presenting as male and being read as male. Social dysphoria is totally absent for me.

    That didn’t stop me from deciding that I’d rather be physically sexless before I knew there was a word for that, or even connected it at all with transgenderism. I’m ace, and I don’t even enjoy physical arousal. I don’t like having genitalia, and I don’t like being conscious of having genitalia. More than that, I don’t like the consequences of the hormones it produces. Facial hair is a nuisance, and while most people associate low libido with depression, it’s the opposite for me.

    So, its safe to say that in your hypothetical desert island scenario, I’d be feeling the same way. It’s also safe to say that in a wildly hypothetical scenario wherein I decide that I’ve had enough and want genital surgery, and somehow find a way to make it happen, I’d still be going around letting people operate under the assumption that I have a penis and that that dictates my gender.

    1. Seth, thank you so much for sharing. It struck me in that I think you pretty much nailed exactly how I would feel were I MAAB neutrois. Your gender seems pretty clear to you, and I am still amazed at how much diversity there is in everybody’s unique experience of it.

      You mentioned being bothered by hormones. For a testosterone-producing person, hormones are a more complex cocktail. If you consider taking anti-androgens it gets tricky, as you also need to take estrogen, which has feminizing effects that a lot of neutrois people find quite distressing. Thus finding the balance is not so easy, and I can see why someone would prefer not to.

      It sounds like you feel most strongly about genital surgery. If you desire it, don’t be discouraged, you can still pursue it. There is a community of MtN and MtE (male-to-eunuch) who seek genital surgery for a number of reasons. It is not straightforward, but it is entirely possible.

      Again, thanks for giving us an insight into your self.

      1. Coincidentally, I thought you nailed how I’d feel if were FAAB. While I meant everything I said, I may have made the dysphoria out to be worse than it actually is, and frankly, genital surgery is a scary idea. I can’t shake the thought that I might be better off for it, but I’m not sure I’d ever actually want to do it.

  8. I’ve never liked having breasts. When I was young, I asked my mom if I could just chop them off. She told me I couldn’t. Now I know that I could. If I were alone on a desert island, I would consider them a nuisance. I either can’t feel them, or they hurt. I detest bras, but I need to wear them to keep them out of the way. I’m fairly certain I will never want children (or be in a position to have them), so it’s unlikely that I would use them for their biological purpose. The main thing though, is that they balance out my figure in well-tailored clothes. But it’s nearly impossible to find those. When I *do*, I look fantastic. That is the only “pro” I have found to having breasts. If I didn’t have them, I’d likely still look good. Now that I know I can get rid of them, the idea keeps me up at night.

  9. Thanks for this post, it helped me explain to my partner some of my feelings & ambivalence. I’ve never liked my secondary sexual characteristics — ideally I wouldn’t have any! But socially speaking, the pitch of my voice, shape of my face, body fat distribution, height, etc. would all be completely comfortable to me if only people would interact with me the way I identify, except those are the cues they’re using to gender me, so are getting in my way. For me the social dysphoria is almost entirely the issue — I will do anything in my power to change my social perception. But being disabled and trans* my relationship to my body is complicated by a lot of feelings of helplessness & being “stuck” with what I’ve got anyway, being a gender mismatch is just another thing that went wrong with my body.

  10. This is an old article, but I’m commenting because I’m so, so happy I found it. In most of the queer social circles I belong to, other trans* people are so focused on their body dysphoria & transitioning, it often makes me feel a little alone or invalidated as a person who primarily experiences social dysphoria. I only want to hide my breasts or my hips or my voice when I’m in public, & it has everything to do with how I’m being perceived. My body doesn’t really bother me, but being called “she” certainly does. At this point, I can’t imagine getting top surgery or starting hormones, but that doesn’t make my struggles any less legitimate.

    Thanks for the understanding! :]

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