Something I’ve noticed over the past few months is a shift in how I manage physical dysphoria. For the past five years, after gaining a lot of weight which accentuated my female anatomy, I coped almost exclusively though avoidance: showering in the dark, avoiding mirrors, deleting photos of myself, wearing baggy clothes, etc, basically pretending that my body didn’t exist.
But after a rigorous workout routine for the last 8 months, I have lost weight and built muscle and restored some of the physical androgyny that made me feel more comfortable as a scrawny teenager. I am able now to tolerate seeing my body or my reflection or my image in photos with less disgust. With this has come a shift from avoidance to compulsive body-checking and self-monitoring. Instead of avoiding mirrors, I now find it extremely difficult to pull my eyes away from my reflection.
This fascination (or perhaps obsession) seems motivated partly by simple astonishment and gratitude that I can actually tolerate seeing myself. But it is also motivated by a constant effort to reconcile that body as my own, which feels completely incomprehensible and beyond my power of imagination. The person I see in the mirror – the face, the body, the clothes – is all very familiar and recognizable, but in the detached non-self way that a close friend’s or sibling’s appearance is familiar and recognizable. When I see myself in a photo or in the mirror, I often notice myself thinking, “I suppose if I HAD to have a female body and could choose to look like someone, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to look like her.” And then I remind myself that I DO look like her, that it’s actually ME in the mirror or the picture. But my mind remains unconvinced, and I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.
The other part of this is that when I see my reflection or even just look down at my body, my appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours. Sometimes it looks like I’ve gained 20lbs since morning and in my mind I immediately start making sweeping restrictive changes to my diet, only to see myself later in the day with the impression of almost unhealthy leanness and then erase all the dietary changes I just made.
More often it doesn’t look like weight gain or loss, it seems instead like a generalized skeletal reconfiguration, like all the ratios and proportions of my body (waist to hip ratio, width of my shoulders, angles of my face) have shifted to create subtle but – to me – obvious and unsettling differences in my appearance. My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different, like looking in the mirror and seeing various digitally altered versions of your friend or sibling. Even when I mentally account for the differences in clothing, lighting, mirror distortion, etc, I can still see very clearly all the structural changes in my appearance.
This feels like a new experience that has emerged in the past few months, probably because it has been so long since I was actually able to see myself without immediate revulsion and withdrawal. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone completely insane… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.
“What a strange thing a mirror is! And what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man’s imagination!”
– George MacDonald (Phantastes, 1858)