Why “passing” doesn’t define your transition

passing
Photo by Jiroe on Unsplash

I’m just going to come right out and say it: people being jealous of you for how much you “pass” is not a worthy transition goal. This is unhealthy at worst, and unrealistic at best (for most). A better transition goal is to attempt to maintain body neutrality, or body positivity if that works for you. Through basically ignoring my body beyond the attention needed to keep myself alive and healthy, I have found that I can appreciate the changes my body goes through as they happen without giving in to the desire to constantly body check myself to see how much and in what ways my body changes.

If I allow myself to focus on the body as the main vessel of transition I am quickly met with a slippery slope back into the eating disorder and severe body dysmorphia that I have struggled with for my entire life. My body changes pretty wildly every single month, and in a variety of ways each time. Some months I gain 15lbs during my cycle, some months I lose 5lbs. Some parts of me are more swollen than they “should” be, or than they were last month. I can’t even give another example because I have been actively trying to avoid letting this topic take up space in my mind for so long. Suffice it to say that my body has been less than helpful in my quest to “feel like a man”. In fact, my body has been my largest impediment to this feeling.

All this isn’t to say that this approach is best for everyone. For some monitoring the changes your body goes through may be helpful “to see how far you have come”, and this can be affirming for some. One just has to look at the plethora of transition selfies and videos available online for proof that a lot of people find a lot affirmation in comparison. This same idea is also pushed in the weight loss industry as a way to “help” or “encourage” people to keep up healthy lifestyles.

I see monitoring my calorie intake and sometimes even focusing too much on the quality of my food (is it “healthy” enough?) as playing on my obsessive tendencies. Tendencies that have a propensity to bring to the surface a certain form of internalized transphobia that I wasn’t even aware I was dealing with. I regularly catch myself focusing on how much my body doesn’t “look like a man’s”. Yes it does. It just looks like a trans man’s body. It is a man’s body because it is my body. I have been forced to expand my cissexist definition of “man” and found that the audacity to self-define is not the exclusive domain of cis people.

This could easily have been titled “why external validation doesn’t make you trans”. Your transition is not defined by how much you look like a cisgender person. I am not cis and because of this I have to ask myself if how much I “pass” really matters to my perception of myself and my inherent masculinity.

This is not to say that “passing” itself is wrong, or the desire isn’t useful in a good many situations. A lot of trans people find comfort, and psychological and material safety in “successfully passing” or “going stealth” in their everyday lives. This essay is not designed to excoriate “passing”, itself. Rather, here I attempt to offer an alternative to the self-hatred, and dissonance that does occur when one, like myself, is visibly queer and not in imminent physical or material danger because of this. The alternative I offer is to base your perception of your transition around more than one facet, and on facets that are within your personal circle of influence.

Yes, a lot of the time hormones and surgeries can bring on the bodily changes that one should have had all along. But that does not mean that you have to focus all of your mental and emotional energy on policing your self and your actions so as to prevent “looking like a man/woman”. This is just a hamster wheel of self-hatred with a veneer of “transition goals” slapped over it. In fact, I argue that we shouldn’t base most aspects of our sense of self on “not being a man/woman” because this is just unproductive. I posit that one should focus on growing up well.

Part of growing into a mature adult is striking the appropriate balance between having an internal locus of control and understanding the limits of one’s personal circle of influence. Trans people do not have a choice but to work toward this balance because we cannot afford to let other people tell us who we are and should be. They will try, and they will always fall short of who we know ourselves to be.

My thinking on this issue has been deeply influenced through learning more about nonbinary people and their experiences. Because there isn’t really a way to “pass” as nonbinary, this “passing is the goal” problem can’t really exist. (Of course, that is not to presume that nonbinary people can not “pass”. This is not true in any sense.)

For nonbinary people “passing” cannot be the sole factor on which they define their transitions, so they must take a more multi-dimensional approach. This may sound basic to some, but for me, seeing this reality for the first time opened the door to the possibility of a more playful relationship with my gender. From watching, specifically Milo Stewart, and other nonbinary creators, I have been able to get a glance at an existence that isn’t ruled entirely by the norms of cis experience. This idea of someone wanting to live and thrive in a space that is so uncomfortable for me gives me hope that I can be happy regardless of how much my body changes, or doesn’t. And if I can be happy regardless of if I “totally pass” or not, then I can free up some of that energy I was wasting on obsessing over my body and appearance, and direct it towards the more appropriate goal of growing into a decent man, which is something over which I have total control.

Complement this with an interrogation of the disillusionment many face when exploring masculinity in earnest.

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