Gender dysphoria is one of the most common ways to describe what it’s like to be trans. It’s the idea that trans people are ‘born in the wrong body’ – that we know who we’re meant to be because our body just doesn’t feel right.
In stories about dysphoria, the trans woman’s discomfort around their genitals, their facial hair, and their lack of chest is what makes them realise who they really are. One reason for the popularity of this idea is that it’s relatively straightforward – but like all simple stories, there’s a lot it leaves out.
While that’s certainly one trans experience, it’s far from universal. Not every trans person has gender dysphoria, and those who do experience it may not think of it as a core part of their identity. Many trans people also have concerns about defining transness via a medical disorder, and orienting trans identities around trauma. After all, what happens if you’re already expected to hate your body?
The message that fat people should be ashamed of our bodies, hate them and strive to shrink them, is so normalised it can be hard to recognise.
Fatphobia is woven into the fabric of our society – we see it everyday in media that dehumanises fat people, the ‘health and wellbeing’ industries that exploit our insecurities, and the medical system which so often fails us.
Triztan, a fat 32-year-old gender-fluid trans person, first came into contact with this as a child. They explained that their mother “started projecting" her weight issues onto them at the age of around six years old. By the time they were 10, this had escalated to being put on “quite extreme diets … like juicing diets.”
They are far from alone in this experience. While regularly published data on this is hard to find, there are studies that suggest as many as 80% of girls have dieted by the age of 10.
It was not pain that made me realise that I was trans, but joy. The first time I tried on a skirt was revolutionary.
Looking back, I had gender dysphoria long before I knew what transness meant. For much of my life my body has felt deeply wrong to me – and when puberty hit this feeling only intensified.
As my voice deepened and shoulders broadened I felt trapped in a suit of flesh which grew more uncomfortable and alien by the day. Looking back at pictures of themself as a chubby teenager, Cammy reflects that they had an “extremely biased body image 'cos I thought I was huge. Chronic pain starting at puberty probably also contributed.”
While Cammy feels they now have a much healthier relationship with their body they’re keen to point out that, “it definitely took a long time to deconstruct that mentality, as well as much of the ableism that went along with it too.”
For me, this discomfort in my body didn’t make me realise I was trans. As a fat person I’d internalised that I should be disgusted by my body; the idea that I could ever feel comfortable in my skin was laughable to me. It was not pain that made me realise that I was trans, but joy. The first time I tried on a skirt was revolutionary. The silken swish of fabric as I moved my hips in unfamiliar ways gave me an utterly foreign feeling.
That was my first taste of gender euphoria – the sensation of being comfortable in, and taking joy in, my trans body. Until that point I had only really considered my body as a source of shame and psychological discomfort, so that moment – when I realised it could also be joyful – changed everything. From that first instance of gender euphoria came others, and as I followed the trail of joyful breadcrumbs, I began to find an identity and a style which I truly felt myself in.
Of course finding gender euphoria isn’t always straightforward, particularly when navigating a society (and a fashion industry) which often excludes fat people. Musing on their experiences growing up during the height of emo subculture, Triztan says: “I think I always was quite envious of my skinny friends where they could be quite boyish.” In some ways they’re still struggling with this. As someone who finds joy in being well-dressed, they think “it's harder to find clothes that fit you in a way that make you look androgynous when you're fatter.”
Cammy also struggles to find joy in their gender at times, saying that “my dysphoria gets weird with the fluidity… simultaneously feeling awful for looking too femme and too masc, between chest and thighs for the former and belly and arms for the latter.” For them, the labels of pup and bear, and the style which goes with them, have been hugely important in finding identities and gender presentation which feel right to them.
Unfortunately the LGBTQ+ community is not always a safe space for fat trans people. Alongside the fatphobia, which remains an issue for many fat queer people, there are specific barriers that trans people have to deal with. Triztan feels that passing as anything other than your assigned gender is a lot harder to do as a fat trans person, saying that they “get read as female pretty much universally.”
Personally, I have found that fat trans people are held to different standards to our thin peers. In trans spaces I have been criticised for dressing in ways which show off my body, while others are applauded for doing the same. Cammy finds that even in queer spaces, compared to thinner trans people “less people seem to see me as being trans… especially compared to the typical androgynous hairless thin person that people see as the poster child of non-binary identity.”
In the face of all this, I believe in fat queer joy as a radical act. There is power in refusing to bend before a culture which does not want you to exist. Fat trans people refusing to be ashamed of who they are live in defiance of so many gender and beauty norms, and I have so much respect for all of us who navigate this space. As Triztan puts it, “the world really wants you to feel unattractive and it takes a lot of steel to reject that.”
On its own, taking joy in my fat trans body isn’t a solution. As Da’Shaun Harrison puts it in Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, “self-love, even a radical one, cannot and will not disrupt or bring an end to systemic violence.” It doesn’t protect fat people trying to access gender affirming healthcare from discrimination, it can’t bring about equality in employment, or address the hatred so many direct towards trans fats. So no, following joy to feel more comfortable in my fat trans body is not enough – but maybe it’s a start.