Gender dysphoria is a nightmarish state that’s really difficult to describe, but in this post, I’m going to do my best to describe it. It has to do with the sense that who you really are is being distorted into something different and wrong.
Many (but not all) transgender folks experience profound gender dysphoria.
There’s a scene from a movie that sticks in my mind more powerfully than almost any movie scene I’ve ever watched. It’s from the movie Spy Kids, which I saw at age 14.
It’s a strange and whimsical movie full of strange and whimsical circumstances. But the only thing you need to know to understand the scene I’m about to describe is that there’s a family of spies (two kids and their mom and dad) who stop people from doing bad things.
Here’s the scene. The villain captures the dad spy, and uses his technology to physically transform the poor dad into a 3D rendition of a weird little non-human creature the youngest spy had doodled.
The dad was then trapped in this strange rubbery form that didn’t look a thing like him. His body couldn’t move in the ways he was used to moving, and he couldn’t even speak. He was unrecognizable. It was grotesque.
I remember this scene so well because I had never related more to a character in a movie than I did to the dad in that scene.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was experiencing gender dysphoria. It’s a condition that many transgender people experience that involves the disturbing sense that the person you are is being distorted beyond recognition.
There are many different ways people experience gender dysphoria. Body dysphoria and social dysphoria are the two big categories that cover those experiences.
You could describe body dysphoria as the kind of existential horror that comes from your mind being in a body that distorts you beyond recognition.
If you have body dysphoria, you likely experience a powerful sort of revulsion about certain aspects of your body that feel off. It’s not a lack of body positivity. Things are really, really wrong.
Something might be there that shouldn’t be there, or something isn’t there that should be. If something is there that shouldn’t be, you’re likely to have a sense of carrying around a heavy burden that has attached itself permanently to your physical form (unless you get it surgically removed). If something isn’t there that should be, you might have this extreme sense of longing, like a painful thirst you don’t know how to quench.
I’ve heard others describe body dysphoria as feeling like you’re trapped in an awful and uncomfortable costume that you can’t take off, because the costume is your body. This accurately describes my experience, too.
There are countless ways body dysphoria can manifest. The thing that makes them all body dysphoria is that they have to do specifically with the feeling that your gender is misrepresented by your body.
Social dysphoria is a little more tricky to describe, but it’s often just as awful of an experience—if not worse. It has to do with seeing this distortion play out in how you interact with society.
If you’re experiencing social dysphoria, you likely feel a profound sense of isolation, despair, and disturbance when you’re around people who don’t recognize your gender identity. For me, the experience can be so emotionally powerful that it often upsets my stomach and makes me too dizzy to walk.
Many trans folks experience social dysphoria when we get misgendered—whether it’s done on purpose or on accident.
There’s a blurry line between them
Social dysphoria and body dysphoria seem to have pretty obvious differences, but when you look at how they play into each other, you can see that they’re not entirely distinct.
For example, when someone calls me “she,” I usually get hit with a wave of social dysphoria, because I’m not a “she,” and it disturbs me that so many people see a woman instead of the genderless person that I really am.
But the wave of social dysphoria doesn’t typically just hit me and then die down. It can set me off into a spiral of body dysphoria.
I’ll start wondering what’s making people see a woman instead of the real me. Is an aspect of my body betraying me and making people see something different than the person that I really am? Is it my face? Is it my voice? Is it my skin? Is there something I have to change about my body in order to get people to see me as real? Is it even possible for me to change it? What do I have to do to stop being distorted beyond recognition? What do I have to do to be seen as my actual self?
Social dysphoria often leads to scrutinizing whether your physical attributes are expressing the wrong gender, which often leads to more body dysphoria.
Which means that using someone’s correct pronouns, language that doesn’t misgender them, and their correct name can help help with social dysphoria, and might even play a part in helping prevent bouts of body dysphoria.
Everything I’ve described so far feels like a huge oversimplification, but it’s a start.
Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria
There are transgender people who don’t experience gender dysphoria. Instead, if they pursue any components of medical transition, it’s because they’re moving in the direction of gender euphoria, which is the very positive opposite of gender dysphoria.
Gender euphoria is what you experience the more accurately and profoundly you’re expressing your true self. It’s a beautiful part of the human experience, and probably eventually deserves its own post.
We’re still learning about gender euphoria and why some transgender people do and some don’t experience dysphoria.
Personally, I admire the transgender people I’ve met who don’t experience gender dysphoria, because it seems to me that they’ve evolved beyond the associating body parts and how people treat them with the “wrong gender.” That’s pretty badass. I’m certainly not there yet.
(Related: truscum are people who wrongly insist that you must have gender dysphoria to be trans.)
Gender dysphoria can wax and wane
For many transgender people (like me), gender dysphoria is constantly looming in the background, ready to rear up at any given moment and turn life into a waking nightmare.
There are some things we can do to keep it at bay, such as dressing in the clothes that help us feel like ourselves, pursuing surgeries or hormone therapies that help align our bodies with who we really are, and spending time around people who see us for our real selves.
But sometimes, the only thing you can do is try to hang in there through the creepy horror film that is your life.
For many of us, it’s a hard and dangerous journey to do the things we think will make it go away, and most of us don’t expect to ever be able to fully make it go away. We just do what we can to make it better.
I’ve had plenty of bad experiences in my time as a human, and I have to say, gender dysphoria is close to the top of the list.
If you’re a transgender ally, one of the best things you can do to help trans folks deal with dysphoria is to become conscious of ways you might be unknowingly misgendering people. The more you can learn to acknowledge everyone’s real gender—whether or not their body looks the way you think someone of that gender is “supposed to”—the more you can affirm that it’s really possible for them to live as themselves in this world.