Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 2 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 3: What You See
“Are you watching closely?”
– Alfred Borden (The Prestige, 2006)
In my last post, I discussed how the analogy of an optical illusion – specifically, the multistable perception that arises when viewing ambiguous images – has given me a more concrete framework to understand my experience of body dysphoria. Optical illusions have been described as an experience where “expectations are violated”, so I had challenged myself:
Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?
Certainly, part of the optical illusion effect comes from gender dysphoria itself. The inexplicable but undeniable distress I feel in response to seeing my female anatomy, and the detachment from my physical appearance that developed as a means to cope with that distress, both contribute to difficulty recognizing my mirror image as an accurate reflection of myself.
But now I think there was a second layer to that illusion: my own expectations about what male and female bodies are supposed to look like. My physical androgyny, deliberately designed to minimize female traits and partially successful in reducing the intensity of body dysphoria, became an optical illusion because it did not match conventional expectations of “male body” or “female body” and generated mutually exclusive alternating interpretations of “boy” or “girl”. “The perception of multistable stimuli can be influenced by contextual properties of the image, including recognizability and semantic content.” (Leopold 1999) My ambiguously androgynous mirror reflection became an illusion by violating my gendered-body expectations and refusing to align with any recognizable gender pattern in my mind.
Which leads to the third layer of this illusion: the insidiously deceptive illusion of opposites. For so many years, I assumed that because my brain did not expect to see a female body, it must expect to see a male body instead. This was an appealing and self-reinforcing assumption because a “male” body is a concrete and easily visualized image. Dozens of male bodies cross my sightline each day. My mind catalogues all their physical similarities, an additive assimilation of biased data to create an increasingly narrow idea of what makes a man a man. This process provoked a constant self-loathing comparison of my female body to their male bodies and a vicarious idealization of stereotypical physical masculinity.
A couple of months ago, I had several long conversations about my ongoing disordered eating issues and my experience of body dysphoria with a new acquaintance. When I described the optical illusion effect associated with seeing myself in the mirror, he asked, “Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror, to try to acclimatize your mind to the mirror image?” I immediately dismissed his suggestion, telling him that spending more time in front of the mirror would only prolong the uncomfortable optical illusion sensation.
But over the next few days and weeks, I found my mind continually returning to his question. Everything I hear, every word I read, everything I see – all of it, all the time – it just keeps echoing around in my brain like a constant cognitive echolalia. Questions always echo loudest.
“Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”
“…spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”
“…yourself in the mirror?”
I started to reconsider my original dismissal. I tried to imagine spending a longer period of time in front of the mirror. Anticipating the same discomfort and confusion that has always plagued my reflection, I remained rigidly resistant to this prospect. Until I finally realized: I don’t need to look at my reflection LONGER, I need to look at it DIFFERENTLY. I should stop trying to force the optical illusion into a logical conclusion. Instead, I need to try to see past the deception and reveal my brain’s expectations. I should stop letting myself get distracted by the magician’s misdirection, lulled over and over into seeing the impossible while knowing that it is impossible. Instead, I need to ignore the magician’s diversions and focus on the cold hard mechanics of the trick to see how it’s actually performed.
So began the mirror experiment. With an odd mixture of anxiety and curiosity, I propped myself cross-legged on the stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror for an hour.
The first few minutes in front of the mirror were dominated by self-judgment. I felt so obnoxiously vain – with respect to Greek mythology, such intense focus on my reflected image is practically the definition of narcissism. But I was able to rationalize it by reminding myself that someone else had suggested this mirror experiment. After I let go of that self-judgment, the insights that arose during my time in front of the mirror were incredibly enlightening and completely unexpected.
As I stared at my reflection, I intentionally kept changing the lens through which I viewed my mirror image. I started with a third-person lens, trying to see myself neutrally, objectively, as an outsider. I wondered: What does my psychiatrist see when he looks at me? What do my friends see? What do strangers see? I revisited echoes from previous conversations, comments other people had made about my physical appearance.
“I see you as female right now because I’ve read your file and I know your age. You’re 24. But you don’t look like a 24-year-old man… probably based on the lack of facial hair. So if I just saw you on the street and didn’t know your age, I would assume you were an adolescent boy.” – a psychiatrist
“You think 80% of strangers read you as female and 20% read you as male? I dunno, McMurray… I think it’s closer to 50-50. Or maybe 60% would say you’re female, 40% male. There have been several times when we’ve had coffee where someone comes up to me after you’ve left and asked “Who was he?” or asked if you were my son.” – a friend
“Hey. I just wanted to say… you look so good in that tank top! Like, your shoulders are so jacked! Oh my god, I wish I had arms like that.” – an in-patient on the psychiatric unit
“Don’t take this the wrong way… but… your perception of yourself as ugly or unattractive is not exactly accurate… I think that might be an unrealistic and negative distortion. At least from my perspective.” – an acquaintance
Hearing those echoes and seeing the person in the mirror through this third-person perspective was like seeing an engaging snapshot of a stranger, appreciating their appearance and finding yourself curious about who they are and what their life is like. Such strict objectivity was surprisingly reassuring.
I mentally hit ⌘S to save an image of that objective snapshot, then discarded the third-person lens, toggled the microscope, slotted in a first-person filter, and reattached my “self” to the body in the mirror. As my first-person perspective came into focus, I felt the familiar flutter of distressing dysphoric confusion, but I hit ⌘S again. Then I opened up two Preview windows side-by-side to compare the third-person and first-person images.
Prior to this mirror session, I didn’t think that I had a distorted body image. I thought I saw myself realistically and just didn’t like what I saw. But this direct comparison of two different perspectives on my appearance illuminated several previously unrecognized negative distortions. I am not actually not as homely as I always thought, I am leaner and more muscular than I thought, I look physically fit and healthy. These realizations came with a deep sense of gratitude for my body and a brand new desire to treat this body kindly, no matter which gender its appears to be.
This direct side-by-side comparison also revealed a troubling cognitive sleight-of-hand: whenever I see myself, my mind immediately hones in on female anatomy and magnifies the size and significance of these female features while largely ignoring other aspects of my appearance. Being able to see myself in the third-person image without the mentally Photoshopped enhancement of physical femininity finally allowed me to appreciate how small and insignificant these female anatomical traits are on my own body.
The next step was to return to the original challenge I had set for myself: examine my expectations. I adjusted the microscope once more, retaining the first-person lens but changing the position of the focus to visualize the expectations underlying the outward appearance. It’s obvious that I do not expect to see a female body in the mirror, but do I really expect to see a male body instead? That’s an easy assumption, but is is accurate?
I have struggled for so long to create a tangible idea of my transition goals. Considering making masculinizing modifications to my body has always seemed appealing, but those options come with risks and side effects and I have been unable to clearly visualize the final outcome of these steps. So I have been overwhelmingly uncertain to what I extent I want to medically transition.
With the focus on my expectations, I opened up a third window in my mind: a CGI animation program. I imported the objective third-person image of myself and translated that into a 3D avatar that represents my current body. Then I started building an avatar to represent my “ideal” body. To do this, I had to disable the program’s automatic preset templates for “male” or “female” characters – templates generated from internalized expectations of what “men’s bodies” and “women’s bodies” are supposed to look like, expectations accumulated after nearly two and a half decades in a world that revolves around binary gender stereotypes. Without a 2D image or a preset template, I had to start from scratch on my “ideal” avatar, first building a basic genderless human body and then adding and subtracting anatomical features (a beard, a penis, a square jaw), adjusting ratios and proportions (broader shoulders, bigger deltoids, narrower hips), until my “ideal” avatar finally emerged with a startlingly concrete clarity. My “ideal” body seems to be one of nearly symmetrical androgyny: a lean and physically fit individual with moderate upper body muscle mass (prominent but not bulky), a smooth chest, a shoulder-to-hip ratio of about 1.2 to 1.4, a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.8, and a well-defined jawline. Beard and penis not required.
Having created realistic 3D models of my current body and my “ideal” body, I aligned these two avatars side-by-side on the screen. I reduced the opacity of both images to about 50% transparency and dragged the “ideal” avatar over top of the “current” avatar. And then I looked for discrepancies, trying to figure out where the two avatars differ. To my astonishment, it became clear that the differences between my real body and my ideal body are far more minor than I had previously believed! My ideal body has a slightly more masculine silhouette than my current body (broader shoulders, more upper body muscle mass, wider waist, narrower hips) and slightly more masculine facial features. Otherwise, my real and ideal avatars are almost identical.
This realization was profoundly reassuring. I finally have a concrete mental image of what I want my body to look like in the future – I have an avatar to project forward in time. I also have a much more positive and more realistic perspective on my current body, a much more authentic acceptance of my current appearance, and an overwhelming gratitude for my body. My androgynous appearance no longer seems ambiguous, because I no longer have to force it to align with expectations about what men and women look like. My androgynous appearance is now unambiguously, unequivocally, unashamedly my own. “In addition to being associated with perceptual transitions during multistability, activity in frontal and parietal cortex can also contribute to percept stabilization.” (Sterzer 2009) I think these cognitive contortions through the looking-glass have finally stabilized my perception of my mirror image in a way that could be comfortable and consistent over time.
My mind lingered for a few more moments, visualizing my real and ideal avatars, regarding them both with dawning respect and gratitude and affection, feeling a growing groundedness inside these bones and vessels and muscles that are my home for life. And then, ⌘S one more time – these images are worth saving, remembering, cherishing – one by one I closed all the windows I had opened in my mind. After the software was shut down, the microscope dismantled, the lenses stowed away, I found myself with nothing left between me and my mirror image. And it was in that one raw unguarded moment that I realized: I DON’T WANT TO KILL HER. I had just spent a very intimate hour with this girl – I had seen every subtle change in her expression, seen tears of gratitude welling up, watched a bemused little grin flicker across her face, I had watched her body shift and stretch, had seen the athletic strength and flexibility behind even the smallest adjustments in posture – and I could not bear the thought of killing her. Reattaching my “self” to that thought, I realized: I DO NOT WANT TO KILL MYSELF. More than two years of suicidal ideation – varying in urgency and intensity but relentless in its constant haunting presence – evaporated in that single second. Just like magic.
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.
The Pledge is my female body: real, ordinary, medically unaltered.
The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.
For years, my brain was stuck at the Turn, constantly creating illusions without really looking, desperately wanting to fool itself into seeing a body that matched my unchallenged expectations. I finally made those expectations disappear.
But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”
– Cutter (The Prestige, 2006)
And now I’ve brought something back: a realistic perception of my female body, stripped of illusion and expectation, gently wrapped in gratitude and acceptance.
My body is my Prestige.
Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264.
Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.