I Won’t Let This Happen to You: Teaching my social psych students things about gender that would have saved me at their age.
Just prepped a gender unit for my Social Psych class that, had I been on the receiving end of it as an undergrad, might have saved me about…let’s see, 12 years of disordered eating so bad it gave me a heart murmur and about as many years of physical discomfort, detachment from parts my body, and unstable self-esteem. I was uncomfortable and preoccupied for a really long time without being able to articulate why. I’m really glad that now, I can give some undergrads the tools that might have saved me all that misery.
I know nonbinary identities are often seen as super frivolous and like, vague enough to be visibly unrecognizable but… As soon as I had the tools for self-recognition in my hands, I got a lot more mentally and physically healthy, as well as more self-accepting. And that improvement happened really quickly.
I wanted to have a thinner and more androgynous body since I was a high schooler, and my pursuit of that body caused me to lose my period for a while as a teenager, and it gave me a heart murmur during my post-doc in 2014. For years I knew I wanted to look less hippy and curvy but I couldn’t quite place why. Seeing my body as a pretty conventionally desirable womanly body didn’t help. Mainstream body positivity that was all about feeling sexy and gloriously feminine helped me to see other women’s bodies as beautiful and perfect as they were, but when I tried to project that acceptance and celebration of curves back on myself, it always fell flat.
But once I realized I could just, be not- a-woman in the body I already had, I was able to dress how I wanted without feeling the urge to restrict or shrink myself. After years of wearing loose, stretchy dresses and leggings and nothing else, I magically began to feel comfortable in pants again. I let myself buy the business casual menswear/menswear inspired looks I had always coveted but long considered myself too buxom for. The change was sudden and total.
I also became able to eat and recognize hunger signals and food cravings. I didn’t feel the obligation to eat as rarely as possible, and only when I was absolutely ravenous and my stomach looked flat enough. I became less preoccupied with my appearance and less socially anxious. It became easier to leave the house and enter unfamiliar situations. My posture got better. I learned to speak in a more naturally comfortable, diaphragmatic voice. With deafening self-consciousness no longer clouding my attention, I became less mentally and emotionally fatigued, and became capable of accomplishing far more (having enough calories certainly helped with that too).
Coming into my own identity also helped with other physical and even sexual problems. For years as a young, sexually active adult, I knew that there were moments and sex acts that made me feel an uncanny sense of discomfort and sadness, without being able to articulate why. Since I was “a woman” and those activities were supposed to be ones that women enjoyed, I endured them for a long time, pushing past the deep and confusing unhappiness until it was over, feeling detached and numb, but also clenched up tight from the visceral unpleasantness of it all. Sometimes I cried, but mostly I slammed my eyes shut and let it pass.
Once I embraced a nonbinary identity, I felt free to just let certain acts go. I felt free to use my body how I wanted to use it, during sex, and to avoid everything else. I became more capable of articulating what I wanted and what felt good. Because I had freed myself from any pressure to do things I didn’t want, I became more present. Consensual sex stopped reminding me of traumatic, nonconsensual experiences, because the two things no longer had anything in common. I felt in control and safe.
It almost doesn’t matter that I will probably allllllways be seen as and treated as a woman by other people. I know who the fuck I am now, and why I used to be miserable, and how to avoid feeling like that again. Which gives me the brain space to be miserable about politics and ignorance instead, but you know, at least that’s a better use of my time.
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If you want the materials I prepped for my Social Psychology class’ gender unit, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It covers intersexuality, trans and nonbinary identities, gender role socialization, the biology of sex and gender in the animal kingdom, and pronouns in an introductory way that does not over-simplify, and is appropriate for undergraduates, older teenagers, and workshops.