In my first mirror experiment, I was wearing a fitted tank top and baggy sweatpants, sitting cross-legged on a stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. So my reflection focused on my face and upper body. I had intentionally chosen baggy pants and a cross-legged position to conceal my hips and thighs, which have long been a prominent source of body dysphoria. Perhaps that was cheating, a bit – after all, I had challenged myself to evaluate my mirror image as objectively as possible. Despite a little cheating, that mirror experiment generated so many important insights, allowing me to create a more positive and more realistic current body image as well as a more concrete idea of what my ideal body looks like to help guide transition choices.
Since then, I have repeated the mirror experiment countless times, for shorter periods. I pushed myself to continue stripping away the cognitive and physical illusions I have used for so long to detach myself from every aspect of my body. I pushed myself to look at my reflection wearing tighter pants, like jeans and workout capris. I pushed myself to change my position, sometimes sitting with my legs stretched out or dangling off the shelf, sometimes standing or leaning against the wall, legs apart and legs crossed. And I pushed myself to engage with my own image, not just in bathroom mirrors, but also in all the other reflective surfaces that bounce our selves back to us as we move through this fragmented world: the darkened window of a gift shop after closing, the smudged glass of a framed grad photo, the shiny plastic of a gas-station trashcan, the metallic blade of a new kitchen knife, the sleeping screen of an open laptop, the mysterious blackness of a stranger’s sunglasses or the familiar blue of a close friend’s eyes.
So my reflection has become a dynamic and ever-present companion. Reflection on reflection remains an intriguing process. And as I’ve expanded my mental library of my own reflected images, I have added incremental insights and deeper awareness to the major realizations from that first mirror session. These insights and awareness continue to solidify the growing comfort and gratitude for my body.
But this comfort and gratitude are continually challenged, often unexpectedly. Near the end of stay in hospital, I had finished my morning workout, taken a quick shower, towelled dry, and wrapped the disappointingly tiny hospital towel around my waist. I studiously avoided dropping my gaze low enough to risk seeing my bare chest. I stood with my back to the bathroom mirror and reached down for my stack of clean clothes. And I realized – in a heart-pounding moment of fear and curiosity, shame and acceptance, annoyance and awareness – that I was still cheating. So I straightened up and, in a clumsy bathroom pirouette with a frayed white-towel skirt, I turned around to the face the mirror without a shirt or bra.
I had not been able to tolerate the sight of my bare chest since I was in my early teens. When I turned around that morning, my eyes initially focused only on my face and arms and shoulders – anatomy which was comfortably familiar after previous mirror sessions – dancing deliberately away from the lower half of the mirror.
So I forced my focus downwards and inwards. And – to my complete astonishment! – I felt only the mildest discomfort. I saw the unwanted female breasts. I felt disappointed by their presence. But behind them, I also saw the power in my pectoral muscles and I saw the gentle rise and fall of breaths moving through my chest.
Certainly, the presence of breasts was uncomfortable and undesirable. And if I could have snapped my fingers and created a flat male chest just like that, I would have done so without hesitation. But I knew that was impossible. And I know that getting a mastectomy will be a long, painful, and potentially expensive process that is also impossible in any short-term timeframe. So that moment of seeing my naked chest in the mirror helped me achieve a radical acceptance of those impossibilities and a neutral peace with my current reality.
I may decide to pursue top surgery in the future, but that choice – previously motivated by disgust and self-loathing – became less urgent and less desperate as I stood in front of the mirror. I am now less convinced that top surgery will ultimately be necessary, but I will be open to that option moving forward. I will also be open to this ongoing process of accepting what’s real and revising what’s ideal. And I will remain open to any further insights that my capricious mirror image chooses to share with me.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome –
– Derek Walcott
(Love After Love, from Collected Poems 1948-1984)