I Thought I Was Ugly. I Didn’t Realize It Was Gender Dysphoria.

For a long time, I couldn’t place why — I just felt ugly.

And not just in the insecure way, but in the something-is-so-wrong-but-I-can’t-place-what way.

No matter what I did, or how often my friends reassured me, nothing seemed to change the fact that something didn’t feel right when I looked in the mirror. And no one seemed to see it but me.

As someone assumed to be a girl, I figured that hating how I looked was a rite of passage. I could never articulate what I didn’t like, though. It wasn’t my nose, or my lips, or my teeth.

When people asked, I helplessly explained, “I don’t know, I’m just ugly.”

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When I look at old pictures of myself, though, I start to understand. For one, it doesn’t even look like me.

It wasn’t that I was ugly, so much as I didn’t look like myself. But not even knowing what “transgender” meant, I didn’t have a point of reference to understand my feelings at the time.

It wasn’t that I was ugly by some objective measure, or even that someone had told me I was and the comment stayed with me. It was that I was dysphoric — the body I was in didn’t feel like mine, and I could only react to it with discomfort and, at times, disgust.

There’s this narrative around transness, that we all knew immediately that we were meant to transition, meant to live in a different body, that the gender we were assigned is not the gender we actually are. For many of us, however, that’s simply not our story.

For me, none of that occurred to me consciously for a long time. I just knew that I didn’t like how I looked — that I was deeply uncomfortable with myself — and at times I felt that very strongly. It took much longer to understand why.

Transitioning happened for me a little haphazardly, and maybe a little organically, too. I was drawn to short hair, and after cutting it, I felt euphoric in a way I couldn’t deny. I loved androgyny as a style, and after experimenting a little, started to find new ways to express myself. I followed my intuition, not entirely sure where it would lead me, trying not to overthink what it said about me or my gender.

And then I noticed something: The further I moved away from the gendered expectations that came with being perceived as a woman, the happier I felt.

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Ugliness is such a profound, raw, and vulnerable emotional experience for some trans people. For me, it was the driving force in my transition.

“Ugly” was the only word I had to describe my dysphoria, which meant it flew under the radar for a long time.

It didn’t raise any alarms for the people around me. It just confirmed the sexist notion that women are supposed to be insecure, and therefore my discontent was an acceptable, albeit sad experience that came with the territory of my assigned gender.

But something intuitively pushed me forward. Part of that was finally meeting other transgender and non-binary people, who gave me the language I didn’t have, and filled in the gaps of knowledge I desperately needed.

I became acquainted with the feeling of gender euphoria — the sense of affirmation and even joy that comes with being “seen” as the gender you truly identify with. For me, I had waves of euphoria as I started hearing my new name, my new pronouns, and my new reflection staring back at me, being shaped before my eyes by testosterone.

Dysphoria is a complicated experience, and I think it’s very misunderstood, even by some folks in the trans community.

It’s not like I looked down at my body and saw a vision laid before me, immediately understanding that I wasn’t a girl. It was, more often than that, the sense of lingering discomfort, confusion, and profound emotional rejection that unsettled me, often on a deeply unconscious level.

Dysphoria, for me, has always been the battle between my conscious desire to take the easiest and safest route in life — one that cis people repeatedly told me would be living as a cis woman — and my unconscious and, at times, desperate need to transform my body so that I could live authentically and comfortably.

At first, it was easy to reject my dysphoria as feeling “ugly” and nothing more, because it felt safer to consider myself a cisgender person who felt ugly, rather than stepping into my life as a transgender person, considering the many risks and struggles that came with it.

Dysphoria never provided me an answer or a clear path forward, as it sometimes does for other trans people. For me, it created a problem, and it was one that I didn’t initially know how to solve.

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But as it turns out, transition was the right thing for me, even if it took years to understand that.

The profound anxiety that I had when I looked at myself has been replaced with a kind of joy — a joy I’d never had before transition, in which I can see myself and not only do I look good, but it looks right.

My friend Jes Baker, a fat activist and incredible blogger/human, said to me before that a lot of our unhappiness with our bodies happens when we look at the mirror expecting to see someone else (paraphrasing, but you get the idea).

In some cases, coming to terms with our bodies as they are can be our greatest act of self-love. There’s abundant messaging in this world that tells us to reject our bodies, and unlearning that shit takes time. But for others, change is how we make peace with our reflection.

I think it all begins with the question, “Who am I expecting to see looking back at me?”

Every day, I think the person I was waiting for is finally coming back to me. And I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful that feels.

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15 thoughts on “I Thought I Was Ugly. I Didn’t Realize It Was Gender Dysphoria.

  1. bobcabkings says:

    I hope that your writing and the general higher visibility and discussion (even when it is from the stigmatizing or DE-legitimatizing side) of trans, fluid, and non-binary people and experience will give young people (and even older ones, I suppose) that language for their feelings that was so missing for you for so long. I’m reminded that in the stories of magic, it is knowing the true name of a thing that gives power over it. Without the names and language, understanding is thwarted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      That’s really at the heart of why I started blogging — I wanted to share the language and perspective that have helped me get to a better place with myself, with the goal that maybe it can help other folks too. That’s what’s so magical about digital media in particular — we’re creating new language all the time, and we have new platforms to reach folks who need that language most. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. CassandraToday says:

    “There’s this narrative around transness, that we all knew immediately that we were meant to transition, meant to live in a different body, that the gender we were assigned is not the gender we actually are. For many of us, however, that’s simply not our story.”

    THANK YOU, Sam! We all have different stories around coming to understand our transness. My story is not the same as yours, but it too is not the standard narrative.

    For as far back as I can remember (kindergarten), I thought that cross-dressing meant there was something wrong with me — that it was some kind of sickness, or worse, a moral deficiency. Over the years, every time I stopped and then started again, it just proved to me how immoral I was, how little self-control I had. The fact that dressing up was often accompanied by literal self-flagellation just reinforced the idea that I was morally depraved. To say nothing of the fact that there was also a sexual element to it once I reached puberty.

    Finally, in middle age, I started seeing a therapist for my depression. She didn’t limit our sessions to depression, though; she pushed me to explore all sorts of questions I’d avoided thinking about for decades. I came to understand that I kept this female person, ultimately named Jenny, locked up inside myself, as if in a cage. Every now and then, I let her out, when I cross-dressed. But because she was a morally corrupting influence, I beat her and raped her, then when I was done, threw her back in the cage. No wonder I felt guilty, treating someone like that.

    When at last I let her out for good, I understood that I was finally doing, not an evil act by acknowledging her, but the good and moral and right thing. The less I acted out being a violent male rapist, and the more I embraced and cared for her, the less guilty I felt. When I finally transitioned at work (the last place I came out), people told me how brave I was. To me, it wasn’t an act of courage, it was an act of kindness — the same sort of kindness I expected myself to show others. Now, 11 years later, I have no doubt that transitioning was not only not immoral, it was one of the most supremely moral acts I’ve ever done.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, and even when your stories don’t directly resonate with my own experience, they touch me, and make me think. Thanks for being you, and for being you so publicly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      “To me, it wasn’t an act of course, it was an act of kindness.” THIS!! I so deeply relate to the way you described this. For me, it was an act of kindness, an act of survival, AND an act of liberation all put together. And easily the best thing I could’ve done for myself. ❤ I'm so glad that you were able to find my blog, and so grateful that you shared this with me. 🙂

      Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Honestly, it has taken such a long time to even begin to put the words together. It’s a long process, and there are still so few resources that really break down all the different ways dysphoria can manifest. Hopefully with more trans folks opening up publicly, we can build on the resources so it’s less of an uphill battle for everyone coming up behind us. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gabriel says:

    This really described my transition and dysphoria in the best way possible. I always felt ugly and a large part of it was because I didn’t look like myself. I still don’t so maybe that’s why I still find myself ugly.

    Like

  4. omgeelouise says:

    This is so inspiring! I’m happy that you have been able to share you’re experience with everyone, I’m sure it will be inspiring and motivating for others in your situation! You’re so brave!!

    Like

  5. digitalhyperlexic says:

    I get this. I *very much* get this. Forgive me for being presumptuous, but I look at the first photo in your post and I see someone trying their best to smile…but still feeling incredibly uncomfortable. I look back on my old photos trying to pass as a cis female, and see the same look on my own face. I thought for years I was just an ugly woman and kept trying to bury myself in makeup, dresses, and so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Not presumptuous at all! A lot of my old photos just look like I’m genuinely uncomfortable and uncertain. I totally get that, trying to bury oneself — I’m glad that I’ve found my way out of that and into the person I was supposed to be. I hope you have, too!

      Like

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