I’ve now read dozens of accounts from formerly dysphoric women, but only on Tumblr and WordPress blogs. The trans-entranced mainstream journalists seem to have zero interest in reporting about the “ones who got away” and survived, reconciling with their female-ness to claim their place in the sisterhood of women.
I realize every day how incredibly fortunate I and my fellow baby boomers were to come of age when the Second Wave of feminism was cresting. One fundamental and deeply powerful message of that movement was that “woman” is a big, welcoming tent that all females can shelter under, no matter their physical or mental attributes. If you’re a double x, you’re in. The concept of “gender nonconformity” would have been seen as pure nonsense by me and my companions when I was 20. And of course, it is still an absurdity, an invention of post-modernist Gender & Queer Studies academics (who, sadly, replaced the in-touch-with-reality Women’s Studies professors who raised the consciousness of and liberated so many women in the mid-20th century).
Women who once rejected themselves as female but returned to our fold are the guides our young “gender nonconforming” girls need today. I am very grateful to my online sisters who have shared their stories. I consider them my teachers. If you are one of them, please consider submitting your own story to guest post here. I’d like this to be the start of a series. [To let me know you’d like to guest post, submit a comment to this article, and I will respond to you privately, without publishing your comment.]
Every woman who has experienced dissociation-from-female has a unique story to tell. While you may not relate to every aspect of Dot’s experiences in the guest post below, her repeated–and finally resolved–attempts to be other-than-woman is the universal crux of what too many of our young women are going through today.
She entitled her piece “Stories from the 80%,” to acknowledge the well-researched fact that the vast majority of young females who have gender dysphoria eventually outgrow it–or at least learn to cope.
Part 1: Tomboy
I’m 3. I’m screaming in a changing room because the dress I’m being made to wear is uncomfortable. Being girly means physical discomfort.
I’m 4. I’m popping the heads off all of my Barbies. Being girly means having pretty long hair, and I can’t relate to a toy that looks nothing like myself or any woman I know.
I’m 5. My mother disdains my love of bug-hunting and rough-and-tumble play with my mostly-male playmates. My carefree play-style requires her to painfully tame my long hair’s knots. I don’t understand why looking a certain way is supposed to be worth this pain. I cannot be decorative and adventurous at the same time. Being girly is antithetical to the exploration, curiosity, and physical play I love so much.
I’m 6. I’m refusing to use anything pink. Being girly means liking “feminine” colors. I don’t actually hate pink; I can barely see the color for what it is. I just know it is girly, and I am distinctly not girly.
I’m 7. I only enjoy the boy cartoon characters. They have fun and are funny. They get to move around more than the stiff princesses who I barely understand to be characters. They are elegantly moving statues used to dress up the set while the fun male characters have adventures and tell jokes. I am not girly. I’m like the male characters. I am physical, I am funny, and I have no interest in being beautiful. Maybe I am not a girl at all.
I’m 8. I am throwing a tantrum on the playground because my playmate wants to be Simba (the Lion King) this time. I always get to be Simba, so I relent and agree to play as Nala (the lioness)–this once. I feel profoundly awkward in the role. I tell her I refuse to play if I ever have to be Nala again. When I play as Simba, I scold my playmate for daring to sing “I just can’t wait to be queen” when I sing my number. That is not how the words go. Nala only becomes royalty by marriage. Ugh, girls are so stupid.
I’m 9, and my cousins are making me watch some obnoxious dance routine. I hate to watch them perform and don’t understand why they would do such a thing. I want to play video games, which they make fun of me for. My male playmates have largely abandoned me, pressured by each other into rejecting me. I’d never make my male playmates sit through stuff like this… so why am I lumped in with these cheerleading nitwits? Girliness appears to be a fundamental and natural part of girls. So I hate girls.
I’m 10. It’s already sunk in that my body is not for me to move around in without being harshly evaluated. I stop moving around and seek to shrink. My weight problems worsen, which only makes my shame greater. I further retreat into consuming and creating fantasy worlds that don’t require me to think about my body. I fail to see what this has to do with being a girl, mostly because I am not a girl.
I’m 11. My female classmates begin to show an interest in boys. They ask me which celebrities I find attractive, which I can’t answer. I do not care about celebrities. To me, they look like aliens. I like some classmates, but I mostly just want to play video games with them. I miss my male companions. I cannot articulate any of these feelings, and so I’m bullied as a presumed lesbian. Joke’s on them, though! I don’t even like girls as friends.
I’m 12. The family member who has been beating and molesting me for some years now tells me that I have a nice pussy. It was this pussy that allowed me to be his target. I don’t draw a connection between this and my nightly practice of lying in bed and dreaming of transformation. I want to be something with a penis and physical strength. I am fascinated with the Animorphs, which can turn into any animal they want. Surely I will grow up to become a shapeshifter, a cartoon character, an animal.
I’m 13. The fantasies are intensifying. They now include becoming a normal boy; attractive and assertive, gloriously my default self. Real boys are more interesting to me now. I want their attention, but not as object. I want to be engaged with as an equal. I reason that might not happen unless I am more like them. My fat, pubescent body is less compliant with that wish than it’s ever been, though, so I know I will look ridiculous even trying. I fantasize about slicing away chunks of my thighs and removing my breasts. Since I cannot be physically like the boys, I study them and pick up things I might have in common with them. I shift my tastes in video games, music, TV, and movies to be more violent. I mark myself proudly with shirts that advertise my male-friendly interests. I am one of the boys.
I’m 14, and at the peak of a period that I will later describe as dissociative. I am removed from my abuser, and basically without friends. The abuse has ended, but the coping mechanisms remain for years after. I am routinely suicidally depressed for years to come. I fail to see what any of this has to do with being a girl. Besides, I’m not really a girl.
I’m 15, and running into the arms of my first boyfriend. This is the first significant male attention in my life that is healthy. I try to be just like him. I am lucky, because this relationship is very nurturing. His home is the most stable I’ve ever witnessed up until this point. I might be a girl after all, but I’m a very unique and different type of girl.
Part 3: Not like the other girls
I’m 16. I finally begin to make friends again. Mostly male ones, since they seem to have come around to the idea again finally. They are just easier to get along with, you know? We have more in common, and I love the lack of drama. The drama that does happen is totally incidental. It has nothing to do with their maleness. They say I’m cool, because I’m not like the other girls.
I’m 17. Much to my surprise, I’ve begun to figure out that I can, in fact, be attractive to people after all. It’s a rare combination to be both a girl cute enough to be objectified, yet to be fluent enough in male culture to be one of the guys as well. I’m different, so I get to be both. You can tell how different and cool I am since I actively and joyfully participate in the constant cruel commentary, jokes, and sexual ranking of women. I impress them by being the cruelest and most foul-mouthed among them. We’re talking about women, not me, so who cares? I’m drunk on the perception of being powerful for the first time in my life. I’m the one girl among the boys.
I’m 18. I’m beginning to understand that my position as a girl among boys is very conditional. If I object when they joke about making them sandwiches, their teasing only intensifies. It occurs to me that if I can be made the butt of these particular sexist jokes, maybe I am subject to all of those words that “weren’t about me” after all. I look at myself in a mirror. I am not the cartoon character or a genderless blob that I see myself as. Regardless of how I see myself, others look at me and see a girl.
I’m 19. I now suspect that sexism does, indeed, include me as an intended target. I stop complying with sexist jokes. In asserting this basic boundary, I immediately lose the majority of my male friends. I find myself very lonely and suicidally depressed. Even as I meet a lot of perfectly nice acquaintances at college, I fail to make female friends. I understand, now, though, that if my interior reality can be so easy to miss to an onlooker, I too must be failing to see people trapped in the bodies of girls and women. I consciously begin a years-long mission to begin seeing women as people.
I’m 20. I’m beginning to binge on liberal feminism. It allows me to unpack my fear of feminine clothes and accessories. I learn the origins of high heels and pink and blue as gender markers, and their scariness melts away. I’m so grateful for this first foray into feminism. I am a girl, and people hate me specifically for it.
I’m 21. I’m learning how to dress and carry my body in ways that allow me to achieve the desired effect I want to have on strangers. I marvel at the way wearing a dress changes interactions. I finally understand femininity as a costume, and one that doesn’t necessarily have to be physically uncomfortable. This discovery allows me to humanize women in a way I couldn’t before. I now have some female friends, but my relationships with them are somewhat awkward. It is hard when I look into them and see the ways that they are damaged, because they reflect the ways I am damaged. I am a girl, and embracing it doesn’t automatically improve this condition.
Part 4: Liberal feminism and its natural conclusions
I’m 22. I’m entering the workforce. Before, feminism was somewhat abstract. I am now beginning to acutely feel power dynamics and understand what they mean. My dress becomes more consistently feminine (why even bother with a day where I’m treated less well?) A boyfriend I love deeply pulls the rug out from under me by being very distant during a pregnancy scare. I begin to realize that even boyfriends who are very good to me can do this at any time I need them, at little risk to them. I stop having penetrative sex, never having enjoyed it in the first place. The guilt and shame over this failure as a woman follows me for years to come. Even though I’ve been a feminist for a while, I am just now beginning to understand how deeply patriarchy infiltrates my condition. It is a heavy weight. I am a woman, a person who is expected to take on bodily and emotional risk that others are not.
I’m 23. I’m diving further into liberal feminism. Through its language, I bond with other women for the first time. I begin to see that all of my adult female friends have stories similar to mine; nearly all of them were abused as children, have suffered dissociative tendencies, have been mistreated at work and in relationships. We have a lot to talk about. It is through these conversations that it occurs to me to call the abuse and molestation I endured abuse and molestation. Before now, I have not even integrated it. When I did think about it before, I utterly minimized it and made it out to myself like it was no big deal. Talk about dissociation! After years of effort, it is now much more natural to see the people living inside of women (even ones that do not seem relatable at first). I am a woman, so I have something in common with all bodies prone to our type of sexed trauma.
I’m 24. Through liberal feminism, I have been reading the works of anti-racist activists and writers for some years now. I have a firm grip on the social justice vocabulary, and have been actively trying to undo my racism as actively as I have been my internalized misogyny. And I’m now seeing a major upswell in a new topic that I am told must be central to my feminism: transgender issues. I instantly accept it, since it uses the same vocabulary and ideas presented to me by black feminists and womanists. My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, lest minority women be oppressed all over again. I am a woman, and I commit serious time and energy fighting for justice for my fellow women.
I am 25, and I wake up anxious sometimes. Nonbinary and transgender people that I love and respect tell stories about their childhoods that sound suspiciously like mine. I hear the word “cisgender” defined as “identifying with the sex assigned to you at birth.” Having never felt at home in my female body, having never felt an internal experience of femininity in my life, I begin to worry. I utterly fail the “if you woke up one day the opposite sex, how would you feel?” test. Even with my hard-won love of women, I would still happily transform into a man if it were painless, riskless, and complete. The idea of being a man with a deep voice, no expectation of being penetrated, and power narratives on my side is obviously appealing. But I do not desire to imperfectly and riskily change my body. I do not want to wear clothes that fit me poorly. I tell myself I am agender inside. I have always felt genderless and default, after all. I have never felt comfortable in my body for a variety of reasons, but the shift in feminist culture causes me to chafe and I fall back into familiar old feelings that could be called “gender dysphoria.” Should I be claiming this discomfort? Should I be addressing it with my clothing choices? I’m just pretending to be a woman, for the best outcomes I can hope for with this body.
I’m 26, and I am the breadwinner of my family. This success is exactly what I have wanted my whole life, but I’m feeling like a failed woman. I did not inspire my partner to take care of me financially (although it is his gentleness and kindness that I admire most in him). I know this is bullshit, but every day I still feel hideous and ashamed of this arrangement. I fail to see that my success is a form of gender nonconformity. I fail to see that my directness, my agency, my assertion in the humanity and dignity of women are all forms of gender nonconformity. I fail to see it because mainstream feminist discourse on gender is very alienating to people who do not care as much about fashion or presentation. Women are oppressed because they are feminine, and I am not truly feminine “inside”. I don’t even know what a woman is.
I’m 27, I’m 28, I’m 29, I’m 30. I am an adult. After years of occasionally and fruitlessly googling “what is a woman?” and permutations thereof, I accidentally stumble upon gender-critical discourse. I find the radical feminism that has been so ubiquitously deemed irrelevant and hateful by mainstream liberal feminism.
It’s hard to overestimate how much radical feminism is considered taboo. All I knew about Dworkin and Steinem was that I hate them. Because they are bad. I don’t want to poison myself with hatred! It’s to the point where I had never even read a single thing by any person aligned with radical feminism before. After years of calling myself a feminist. I was trying to have a feminism without history, without context, and most bizarrely without an understanding of the root of women’s oppression.
Now I am beginning to see things differently, and recognize my body as the site of my oppression. Mainstream feminism has totally abandoned this concept, and it’s left countless young women like me without any tools to integrate their experiences as theirs. This leaves them totally vulnerable to the tidy explanation that “you aren’t actually a girl.”
But there is a moral imperative to resist this.
When females who do not fit the mold abandon the ship of woman, we also abandon young people who need to see themselves in others. Peers and adults who are able to integrate their non-conforming experiences as appropriate to their own body, and as a vital part of the experience of women, are crucial role models for girls and adolescents.
If woman is a category only occupied and defined by those who appear to embrace the gender stereotypes of women, we are doomed. It is non-compliance within the category of woman that reminds us that women are fully human, not just natural targets for subjugation.
Femininity as we inherited it (prettiness, submission, sacrifice, vulnerability, and a million arbitrary culture-specific colors/fashions/toys) was made up by people with penises specifically to subjugate people with vaginas. Specifically to render us compliant, decorative, and groomed for exploitation.
Of course you didn’t comply with it. Even if it has some fun stuff, it is completely natural to associate even the fun, harmless girl-stuff with the painful. It’s no wonder many of us reject it categorically.
However, if we flip the script and decide that femininity is defined by things by, for, and related to people with vaginas, femininity simply means human. There is nothing a person with a vagina can do that is outside of a true definition of femininity/womanhood.
The only reason it wouldn’t be that way is if we assume women are truly and naturally restricted and incapable of the full range of human traits, behaviors, feelings.
No amount of liberal feminism came close to providing the relief I felt by coming to understand this. By knowing that I do not have to occupy the male-created narrative of femininity even a little to be 100% justified in my body, no matter what shit I wear. By realizing that discomfort in the female body is the design of patriarchy, not my individual unique nature. By learning that not every language even has gendered pronouns, and to imagine that reality. By appreciating how truly neutral all fashions and colors are. To come to grips with the fact that gender is just a story to explain the shitty position of women, not some essence to be found deep within myself to justify some part of me that demands an explanation.
This sounds obvious, even trite. But if you do not see the profundity in it nonetheless, you have probably not appreciated the depths of the oppression of women as a sex class.
The parts of me that do not comply with the gender stereotypes assigned to me (which were defined by dead men specifically to subjugate me, regardless of the fact that other women are often strict enforcers of them) are not “masculine”.
I am not a “tired husband” because I come home from work late and just want to relax on the couch.
I am not in “boymode” when I opt to wear pants and practical shoes.
I do not need to express every aspect of my gender non-conformity in the forms of fashion, pronouns, or hairstyles in order to be meaningfully dismantling sex roles.
I do not need to justify the gender-compliant fashion choices I do make by deciding that dresses and makeup are the very height of agency and rebellion. Trying to make my own daily life easier does not need to be justified or explained away by the idea of doing it “for myself.”
I do not need to pick apart every aspect of who I am, what I like, or what I do and decide where it lies on a spectrum from masculine to feminine.
I am all of these things, and so all of them are appropriate for women. All of these things are within the realm of suitable behavior, thoughts, and feelings for a person with a vagina to have. They are all a part of a complicated and complete single self, not a fragmented collage of things that do not belong together. No aspect of myself needs to be explained away. It all makes perfect sense, and none of it contradicts my nature as a person with my body.
Let’s stop trying to patch a broken system we all intuitively rebelled against with a million convoluted chutes and ladders. Let’s consider scrapping it altogether. Let’s start by rejecting the notion of a feminine/masculine spectrum altogether, rather than attempting to do away with the biological reality that made us targets to begin with.
Let’s start by integrating ALL of our experiences, behaviors, and personalities into our own self-images, rather than seeking to embody an image that “fits” better. We’ve all been tricked into believing “woman” is a far more narrow category than it is. We can all fit into it. We can dictate its shape. It’s ours.
Dissociative tendencies: Young women and “otherkin”
One of the roots of so much of “I’m not a girl” issues, I think, is dissociation. At least for me.
Not long ago I was curious about the therian/otherkin phenomenon. I sought out some reading material and videos with an open heart. My heart, once open, proceeded to break. I saw video after video of kids that looked almost exactly like I did at 15.
I recognized within them a loneliness, a perceived otherness, that they sought an explanation for. I saw the very same lack of understanding of their physical body that I exhibited at that age. I heard them speak of their animal counterparts within coming out to protect them. I saw teenagers who were probably abused.
As a child, I also pretended to be a dog or cat, even when alone. I often bit other children, well past normal biting age. When playing “house,” I would always disappoint my younger playmates by abdicating my presumed role as mommy and refusing to play unless I could be a pet of some kind. I identified exclusively with male characters, yes, but all of them were also animals. Since male animal characters were allowed to look more animal-like, I believe that my concepts of gender neutrality/maleness/animalness were all very intertwined.
My tendencies evolved as I aged and were very much exacerbated by the abuse I would face as an adolescent. When alone, I would bark, meow, growl, and exhibit other inappropriate behaviors well into my teenage years. I knew not to behave like this around people but I longed to meet others like me. In the videos of otherkin and therians, I saw kids who were just like me who did happen to have had their quirks externally validated (by each other). This is not a cruel or purposeful thing, but in validating our behavior in others, we validate ourselves. Once a small community is formed, feedback loops are formed. These behaviors go beyond validation and into identity cultivation.
I think that there is a certain type of young person with more difficulty, than average, seeing themselves in a meaningful sense. And this is a form of dissociation. Of course, they see people in the real world, and do not see them as cartoons. They know that cartoons and movies are not real. But when it comes to understanding themselves, they have greater difficulty imagining the self that others see. This is very common among “nerdy” types. There are even memes about this phenomenon:
I think this is the result of minds which tend to think very symbolically. I remember very specifically imagining how cool I was wearing a backwards hat as a kid, or later imagining myself as looking like a sexy catgirl when I wore a head-band with cat-ears. The reality of the matter was that I looked like a dumpy teenager with dirty cat-ears, not a lithe anime character I wanted to embody in those moments.
I have no explanation as to why some people think this symbolically when it comes to themselves. I have suspicions (trauma mixed with some sort of personality subset is my best guess). What I do know is that this type of person, in most circumstances, does not benefit from having their self-projections cultivated. Nor from having at their fingertips an infinite supply of validation for anything they could desire validation for. It leaves this type of person very vulnerable.
Their vulnerability is made even worse by the fact that they are generally quite intelligent and therefore able to rationalize anything to themselves. They, like most people, imagine themselves fairly immune from influence. I can promise you that at least one teenager with this sort of personality will show these words to their friends and laugh at the “condescending” suggestion that they are vulnerable to influence. Maybe it is condescending, but there is no non-condescending way to express such a reality. I can’t say that I, as a young person, would have read this essay or taken it seriously, either, though.
Invalidation will only bolster their fixation, giving it the aura of credibility manifesting in defiance. Above all, they need time to work these things out without too much outside interference, and perhaps gentle but firm guidance to the reality that their self-perception and will is not something that others can or should be beholden to.
They do not lack empathy (and in fact can be quite concerned with justice and the feelings of others), but they lack some perspective-taking.
I still have my sex-dysphoric and otherkin-type tendencies and feelings, but they have abated considerably. They no longer bother me at all now that I understand them as coping mechanisms largely developed in response to serious abuse in my young life. They were tools I built for myself out of self-preservation, which is its own sort of beautiful. Just like the therian kid has a wolf-self to protect him, I made these constructs to protect me. Free from toxic validation, I was able to have the time and space to integrate them as part of my complex and whole self, rather than as my truest inner identity.
As an adult, I’m very grateful I was able to develop healthy, constructive creative outlets for them (not to mention a self-awareness that prevents me from ruining my life with inappropriate behavior). My adulthood would certainly not be as good as it is had my fantasy been indulged to the point where I could insist others (outside of the internet) see me as I would have preferred to be seen.
No other animal desires to be another animal. That experience is uniquely human. Coming to this was similar to my understanding that the ability to wish to be male when one is not male is an experience unique to those of us who are female.
I know that a lot of trans folk will find this comparison offensive, but it’s hard for me to overstate how much I related to animals and cartoons over people for huge chunks of my life. As an adolescent, these feelings about being not-human were very similar to my deep and serious feelings of being not-female. When otherkin-type kids say that they feel body-map dissonances similar to those described by trans folks, I believe them. I continue to feel both as well (fortunately, at greatly reduced rates and with no accompanying distress).
Internalized misogyny and the trap of the white feminist demon
A lot of very smart young female people get into liberal feminism, and think within a very brief amount of time that they have unpacked their internalized misogyny, but they still feel bad so obviously their pain requires more of an explanation than mere sexism.
In leftist circles nowadays, sexism is seen as one of the more frivolous oppressions, paling in comparison to race, class, and sexual minority struggles. I suspect this image of white feminists as privileged, perhaps even above white men, is popular because it is specifically the white man’s stereotypical view of white women. I urge you to question it, to fight it. White women of course have white privilege, which should always be scrutinized and unlearned. But none of this makes sexed trauma less real and serious.
“White feminism” is a useful description for a bundle of behaviors, values, and assumptions that have historically harmed women of color… when feminists of color use it. It has more recently been co-opted as a scapegoat by white liberal feminists, trans activists, and men. The White Feminist in popular discourse has basically become a silencing tactic, and a means to diminish the perspectives of anyone who doesn’t agree with a specific brand of liberal feminism. It’s important to be able to, as a white woman, accept the criticisms from women of color without caving to the temptation to dissociate.
Many young white women know they cannot un-white themselves, so they often proceed to un-woman themselves to avoid being the most privileged person at the feminist table. This is unfortunate, because they usually came to the table because they needed to in the face of their oppression. Since they are young and often traumatized, they are even more ill-equipped to integrate privilege into their self-concept than the average white person. Their legitimate problems along with their typical white fragility combine to make them want to dissociate. I theorize this is behind some of the uptick in non-binary and trans identities among young females (along with people claiming mental illnesses as part of their identities).
I honestly do not think young white women would be reaching so hard to claim other oppression-based identities if they understood and appreciated the gravity of the sex oppression they face. I suspect they suffer from the white man’s narrative that white women, particularly white feminists, are frivolous and just making too big a deal out of this whole patriarchy thing. This is just another facet of internalized misogyny, and it serves not only to de-center feminism from understanding itself as a movement concerned with sex-based oppression, but also to allow the would-be young white feminist to defer taking responsibility for understanding themselves as a person capable of racial oppression.
Many of their self-descriptions basically provide a laundry list of identifiers to make up for their bad one. It’s as if they say “I may be white and forming an understanding of feminism, but I’m not one of those nasty ever-so-privileged White Feminists. I’m just a poor little mentally ill, pansexual, non-binary, demiboy. Please accept the unthreatening posture these identifiers represent as a means to soften any racial privilege I might exude.”
It wasn’t until after years of exploring feminism that I was able to identify my sexual abuse as sexual abuse. And it was only after years of exploring feminism that I was able to make female friends. I believe you cannot understand a great deal of misogyny’s depths until you spend a good deal of time working outside of the home, or see yourself in the context of romantic relationships. These things take serious time and a lot of experiences to even begin unpacking. If you are thinking about transitioning or are calling yourself some other opt-out identity, do not rule out internalized misogyny. Do not rule out your own limited perspective on what a woman can or should be. Do not rule out your own oppression as less valid.
Ruling out internalized misogyny is a mistake for any person. To rule out internalized misogyny is to underestimate patriarchy. And trying to modify your own identity into a position of less privilege is just about the lamest and least responsible thing you can do.
And for crying out loud, do not “identify” as something other than yourself as a way to dodge your own racial, class, or other privilege. It’s a serious bummer to have to say that, and I know it will be met with indignation and fervent denial, but I’ve personally witnessed this happening among peers. It’s only human to be motivated by a desire for approval and belonging (especially among female-socialized people), so don’t be hard on yourself if you find this inside of you. Make peace with it. Own it. And heal.