Feeling Inferior in Every Gender Role (or, why I Smoked 3 Packs a Day at Age 14)

Normally, this blog is pretty cheerful about life as a t-girl. When I’m glum, I go figure out the underlying issues and then I write about them.  So, I’m not glum, but earlier today I was.

How I look cosmetically is an attribute of who I am, and it doesn’t define me. I know that logically, but wow, it’s not an easy concept to assimilate at an emotional level.

Based on learning what looks good in front of a camera, and the pretty crude skill of throwing away all the pictures that don’t look good, I photograph well, and some nice people have said some nice things about how I look in photographs. I really do appreciate every compliment.

In real life, some days are better than others. I’m not going to be winning any aesthetic contest in person any time soon, and in the grand scheme of things, my life is nevertheless wonderful, but something about the big picture has been bothering me and I have only just finally figured it out.

Inherent in the entire gender dysphoria (as opposed to euphoria) problem was the realization that, while trying to fit into a male role in society, as directed, I kept realizing that I wasn’t doing a good job.  It’s sort of like if a human being is raised amongst some lion cubs and trying to fit in. Even with the best intentions in the world, and even if we downplay my physical issues, I didn’t think like a lion. So the whole idea of gnawing on raw meat, or hunting, or stalking prey, etc. … none of this would come naturally to me. If I were in that position then I’d probably give myself a “D” or an “F” at being a lion, or an “E” for “Effort.”  If trying hard were all that mattered (and in life, it doesn’t) then I’d deserve whatever is to the right of “A+.”  The thing is, I’d be (at best) a poor imitation of a lion.

I grew up in a weird cultural context where letting on was physically dangerous, so out of sheer necessity, I pretended to be a guy with tremendous dedication, and I did so-so as a result. I’d give myself a “D” or an “F” at functioning as a male in society, or an “E” for “Effort.”  If trying hard were all that mattered (and in life, it doesn’t) then I’d deserve whatever is to the right of “A+.” I was (at best) a poor imitation of a guy.

Perhaps the strongest, smartest and most competent t-girl I know once broke down in front of me and cried about the pain of all the self-loathing and embarrassment she has endured.

I forget precisely how she phrased it, but the way she said it made me realize that it’s not so much what others said or did, though of course their feedback was a fundamental factor. The problem wasn’t with the messenger but with the reality. Often, mean people were precise in their reservations or concerns or mockery or teasing. Yes, these children or adults were mean-spirited, but they were also astute: I functioned poorly as a male, and they saw it and said so.  And, I knew that about myself.  And in a similar way, my t-girl friend knew that about herself all these years while she was supposed to be functioning as a male by the standard of her sub-culture at the time.

Now let’s fast-forward to the day in the fairy tale when the ugly duckling finds out that, hey, it’s perfectly normal that you did a lousy job of being a duckling because going by fundamentals (how your brain is wired) you’ve never really been a duckling in the first place. You’re a swan, see, and that’s your true nature, and isn’t that much nicer by your own standards and the basic principles of reality-based behavior anyway?

Well, yes. That’s why some transgender people cry with happiness when they learn there’s an actual reality-based phenomenon of being transgender, and the issue is certainly in their heads, but it’s a brain-wiring thing, not their imagination or a mental health problem. Wow, what a relief.

Problem is, that discovery doesn’t undo all the years of damage done by feeling (and, objectively, being) inadequate to something that was held as the standard of value for someone who was thought to be a guy: behaving a guy.

Someone insightful described me, not that long ago, as being hampered by self-loathing or self-hatred. I forgot precisely how she phrased it but I remember it was admirably precise, as this person invariably is. I felt deeply hurt by her observation but the reason why is because she was precisely accurate. I grew up feeling inferior. I felt inferior as a child, a teenager and an adult. I was supposed to be a guy and I failed at it in a thousand ways. And I knew it. And it really, really, really bothered me. I wanted nothing more than to be macho enough.

One vacation, I went camping with a dozen or so guys. I was 14. So were most of them, give or take a year in either direction. Perhaps if this were California, the way to be macho might have involved something a lot more psychedelic than nicotine, but this being South Africa, cigarettes were the bad-ass standard of the day. Smoking was considered macho. So, as part of coming across as macho, I smoked cigarettes, starting that day at the camp when I was 14. And, since I felt inferior, I overdid it. I smoked three packs of cigarettes, that very first day. And, I didn’t just puff. I learned how to channel the smoke into my mouth and out my nose, sort of like a dragon might look (not that I’ve ever seen one; I’m guessing here). So, there I was, chopping wood or whatever and trying to look macho with my cigarette in the corner of my mouth. And, it worked. I felt macho. I looked macho. Someone in the group even made an observation to that effect (to which my emotional internal reaction was, ironically, a very non-macho delight).  Anyway, after another hour or so, I felt miserably sick. I curled up in a corner of the tent and tried to sleep.

The guys bicycled away to go swimming in some or other waterhole, a few miles away. For reasons I don’t recall, most of them had already-wet clothing hanging on a clothesline in the camp. And, while they were gone, it started raining. While lying in the tent, I heard that.

This is probably a good time in the story to point out that, even at that young age, I was pretty clear on the premise that my standard for friendship was poor, and most of these guys were basically jerks. Yet, even while knowing all this, and as miserable as I felt, I also had empathy with them, so I dragged my miserable-feeling self upright and went about the entire camp site, gathering all the clothes of a dozen teenage boys and putting the clothes in a corner of my tent before crawling back to a fetal position and feeling miserable.

While lying there, in addition to being acutely aware of the burning in my mouth and throat, I also became aware of one more thing: the rain had stopped. Being 14, I knew that damp clothes in a pile gets mildew. I knew mildew was bad. And, I had no idea of how fast mildew took to form.  Minutes? Hours? Days? Weeks?  Anyway, there I lay, worrying about all these guys’ clothes getting mildew.  So, I dragged my miserable-feeling self upright and went about the entire camp site, hanging up on the clotheslines all the damp clothes of a dozen teenage boys before crawling back to a fetal position in a corner of my tent and feeling miserable.

While lying there, I became aware of one more thing: the rain had started again. So, up I got and brought all the clothes in again and laid down again.

Then, while lying there, I became aware of that the rain had stopped again. So, up I got and hung up all the clothes again.

If you’re not impressed by how miserable I felt, imagine the aftermath of smoking three packs of cigarettes in the span of very few hours, at age 14, and the smoke coming out your nose and this being the first day you smoked.

As I think back at the events of that day, I would conclude that what I did in spite of feeling so very miserable was a very caring, nurturing, considerate thing to do — the sort of behavior that’s about as far away from macho as one could imagine. Oh, the irony….

Anyway, it started raining again. I didn’t notice. I was asleep. I finally woke up when the guys came back and loudly complained at how miserable and non-caring a friend I was, because there I was at the camp, and their clothes were up on the clothesline, and they were away, and it had rained, and I’d lacked the common decency to even care enough to bring their clothes in from the clothesline, so now their clothes were soaked and they were mad at me. I didn’t defend myself. I think I felt too miserable to care.

Anyway, add another few thousand examples to that, and it makes for year after year after year of a life lived while feeling inferior as a guy, when a major standard of merit was: behaving like a guy.

In all honesty, was it a fair assessment that self-loathing was fundamental to my psychological make-up? Yes, it was. Deeply ingrained, at that.  No wonder so many transgender people kill themselves off. Whatever meanness and criticism society aims at them occasionally, they’re doing to themselves continuously.

No wonder I was always overcompensating. I was the class clown. I got “A”s in everything. Then I took extra subjects and got “A”s in that too. I learned sleight-of-hand tricks. I joined the debating team and won contests. I learned judo. I learned karate. I started my own businesses even as a teenager. Whatever I did, I tried to do superlatively. I learned things most kids, or even adults, don’t have a clue about.  Granted, I probably started out with an above-average intelligence. But that’s hardly the key ingredient. I was driven.

And that’s all before coming out.

After that, great, now I know I’m not a mental case, as I’d assumed I was all these years. Being transgender is not a mental health anomaly, it’s a genetic anomaly. That’s wonderful news. But, that doesn’t reverse the many layers and layers of psychological damage.

Viktor Frankl was the most amazing man. He was Jewish and he didn’t just survive physically while being in the Nazi camp, but he also survived with a remarkable level of psychological health in spite of everything that was done to him.

That leads me to conclude that psychological damage isn’t something that gets done to a person. It’s fundamentally something the person does to himself, or in my case, herself. And damage there was. Day after day of berating myself for being inferior did indeed have a negative effect. The cumulative effect is probably pretty darn bad, much as I tend to be cheerful, and I have a lot for which to be thankful.

Anyway, so I’m basically a girl and have always been, and now I know it. And yet, in a way, I’m right back to where I was: feeling inferior. By the standard of being a woman, I feel inferior. It’s difficult to get beyond the aesthetics. I hate having all this body hair. I hate having hair grow out of my face. I hate being flat-chested. I hate having narrow hips and a small butt. I hate being so muscular. I hate having negligible eye-lashes. I hate my voice. I hate the shape of my browline and forehead. I hate the shape of my chin and jaw. I hate my male-looking skin. I hate how I walk and move.

I compensate. I wax my body and facial hair into oblivion. It hurts SO much, but I don’t care. I wear fake boobs. I take feminizing hormones. I try to lose weight, including muscle. I get fake eyelashes glued on. I retrain my voice. I learn how to hold my head so that the angles de-emphasize my male-looking facial features. I learn what lighting and shadows to avoid. I do skin care with a passion. I am constantly exercising, and relearning how to walk and move.

All of these things help. But, I’m acutely aware of the need to do these things, and what life would be like if I didn’t.

As to my the shape of my body ‘down there,’ let’s not even go into details. I’ll just say I could speak insightfully for probably an hour on the subject of ‘the surgery’ (without having experienced it, but just based on what I’ve learned so far). It’s not an idle interest.

So, let’s re-cap. I used to try to live like a guy. I was a fairly OK fit physically and aesthetically yet I was a total misfit mentally and psychologically. Nowadays I live as a girl and I’m a lousy fit with that physically and aesthetically yet, for what it’s worth, I’m a perfect fit with that, mentally and psychologically. Given the choice, I’m much happier nowadays. But it’s still no picnic.

Most people around me try to be nice, and some of them genuinely are. But with many people, I always feel like they’re trying to humor me, almost like they’re playing along as in: “help this person keep pretending he’s female so we don’t hurt his feelings.” I hate that SO much.

Sometimes people are more candid, and they just check out of the interaction and never come back. That certainly sends a message, and it’s not a nice one.

One gentleman is maybe 25 years older than I am, and we developed a close and unusual sort of friendship and sort of gravitated to a father-and-child dynamic. We eventually agreed it felt so mutual that we formalized it and he started signing his emails to me “Love, Dad.”  And he was supportive and loving and wonderful and many things that my biological father or stepfather never were. All was well and good until I came out to him, as being a t-girl. With admirable integrity and candor, he confessed to me that any time spent in my company in public is now excruciatingly embarrassing to him, and his emails no longer end with either “Love” or “Dad.”  Wow, does THAT send a strong message. I hate that.

Then, there are the folks who pointedly insist on still using male pronouns around me even after I nicely and patiently explain the issues, several times. I move such people out of my life but not always quickly enough.

Then, there are a great many well-meaning people who have bought into my pretend-to-be-a-guy act for many years, and are basically having a hard time making the switch to my new name and female pronouns. When they’re talking to me, it’s not that apparent since “me” and “you” are gender-neutral, but when they’re talking about me, such as when there’s a third party present, they use male pronouns, as in “please go look up his policy” or “his car won’t start.”  And, I can’t blame them, but I do hate that too.

If being desired by guys is supposed to make me feel better, wow, has that backfired. I’d put on pretty make-up and a sexy, clingy short dress and my 6″ stilettos and yes, thank you, I do look like a hot chick even though I’m then effectively 6’6″ tall. And if I had a dollar for every guy who has expressed interest in being with me sexually, I’d probably have hundreds of dollars, perhaps even more. And almost every one of them is totally pre-occupied with my male-shaped privates.They want to put their mouths on it, or they’d like me to do them with it. And I hate all of that perhaps more than everything else combined.

This being a blog sometimes read by teenagers, I try hard to only hint at things that are adult content and it’s a fine line to walk, so I’ll just say that on a bad day, some people express the acronym “FML” and then explain why they feel that way. I think this blog post has done just that.

And yet, I’m generally cheerful and upbeat. But, when I re-read this post, I’m almost unable to reconcile the past with these happy emotions.

Well, wait a minute. I’m healthy. I have enough food in the refrigerator and a roof over my head. I have a great relationship with my romantic partner (and yes, she’s female and sees me as such). I finally have a good relationship with my mom. And, I have many wonderful friends, male and female, from before I transitioned and after. I live in my favorite country in the whole world. The BMW 3-series I drive might be 25 years old and the door opens by me yanking on a wire, but it’s reliable and lovely and I can maintain it and understand it. I have one successful-enough business in a career that I love and at which I’m skilled. I have other businesses that I enjoy working on too. I’m not addicted to anything more harmful than coffee. And much of my reflection in the mirror, I actually do like. I like how I’ve been able to live a life of good moral character even though my finances have been unraveling and life has been hard. I like how I’m able to connect with people. I like that I think in terms of justice and yet I have empathy. I like how I can figure out problems, and the many problems that I have figured out.

Even with my checkered gender-related past and my dubious looks and all the psychological damage I’ve inflicted on myself … I’m basically happy to be alive, and happy to be me.

And so really, in the final analysis, life is good. Very good, in fact.

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