my quilt, myself: body image, body policing, and our selves

trigger warning: this post contains content related to self-harm, violence, and rape and uses an ableist slur in reference. 

i don’t really find myself looking in the mirror all that often, but the other day i was talking to someone about dealing with self-abuse recovery and i idly wanted to catalog for my mind what the sources of my various scars were.  i know someone who photographed all her scars and told the stories about them, but i just wanted a personal “scar catalog” if you will. i spent a good 30 minutes, drawing a picture in my diary and coloring in where my scars were…most of my scars, it turns out, are not the ones i made, but the ones other people made for me with reasons sinister, benign, or outright depraved. it actually helped me feel a lot less bad about myself because i can’t really blame self-injury for anything worse than a couple of dime-sized nasties and a well-hidden three-inch slash. the story i told myself that most of my scars were my own fault was just that: a story.

i’ve been doing a lot better about not self-harming to the point that i don’t have to live in a house without any non-serrated blades and i don’t have to live in fear of what happens if i get to a place where i’m not somehow mentally stimulated, which is often where the troubling thoughts roll in, i lose control,  and the cutting starts. i know how to focus on other things. i still know exactly where the box cutter is, just like a recovering alcoholic knows exactly where to buy their favorite brand of whiskey…but much like the recovering alcoholic, i generally don’t feel the pull and when i start feeling it, i know how to fight it. the power over the need, the compulsion to self-harm was terrifying at first but now it increasingly feels like second nature. and i’m proud to tell you i haven’t cut in six weeks as of yesterday.

i used to joke that i was made out of spare parts. i don’t know who my “biological” father or mother are, and between a pretty significant skin graft to create genitalia and all the places i’ve been burned, cut up, and stitched up, i look like a quilt, a girl made out of the things lying around.  i have enough scars in enough weird places that i can’t go through one of those nasty TSA body scanners without ending up getting strip-searched, because some “security expert” decided that scar tissue is somehow a threat to the security of American airspace.

i feel like the threat in scar tissue is the threat of the unknown and the different. it produces revulsion from some and interest from others, and having scars in strange places is intensely interesting to someone whose job is to enforce normalcy and keep out bodies that don’t match expectations through shame, fear, and outright hate and/or incompetence…which is exactly what the TSA does. they seek to define things as “other” and humiliate and waylay them…it’s a lovely metaphor for how able-bodieds behave around disabled bodies, by pushing us into edge categories like the undefined other, a concept defined by Clapton and Fitzgerald in The History of Disability: a History of Otherness, which boils down much of the fear of disabled people to the idea that we are somehow being punished by God and that the person who declares us insufficient is just going along with the concept that because of our bodies we deserve it and that they are doing the will of society, the will of God, what have you. this is often what people who murder their disabled children cite: that God wanted us to be dead, that we somehow deserved what we had coming. my mother tried, not coincidentally on both of her disabled female children. i guess God couldn’t have wanted us dead too much or it would have worked. much like the man who raped me and told me no one would ever fuck me again once he was done burning me inside and out, i guess he was wrong, too. but in those cases, like all the others, i still live with the literal and metaphorical scars on my vessel and in my mind alike.

it leads to it being really hard to love this damaged vessel i live in. for all i am a chirpy riot grrl who believes all these things about how society shouldn’t be telling me what i’m supposed to do with my body, i’m sort of a hypocrite: i don’t look in the mirror because i’m afraid i’ll hate what i see. i struggle with appearance stuff, mostly around mundane stuff like acne but also because i sometimes fear what people perceive.  i also look radically different since i got back on hormones and quit trying to be white and i’m terrified that maybe i’m just trying to remake myself because i hate myself. and, well, i do hate myself, in that way that you hate that ex who loves you when she’s drunk but punches you when she’s sober. i have an uneasy peace with myself, and partially because i’m trying to figure out who and what Erica is, i actually have somewhat backed off that hate. i think it’s like when you know that ex is moving out sometime soon you start to feel a little bit better about her. i’m learning to be comfortable with this quilt, with its flaws, limitations, and differences… but there’s one little problem and that’s body policing.

i always feel like my body, my quilt can never be sufficient in any context where it’s known i’m trans. this is actually my dire fear about coming out more generally… i know that all the things ignored when people assume that i’m cis will suddenly be used to assail my gender. my broad, sturdy shoulders, my height, my big hands, and yes, the fact that i am not skinny will all will be thrown at me. i love my hands; they’re strong and pretty and give me an amazing ability to catch things. i love how tall i am, because growing up without exposure to other trans people gave me no complex about being tall and i was always admired and looked up to for being tall, so much so that my last year of high school, when i wasn’t the tallest girl in school anymore, i started wearing elevator shoes, a habit i continue to this day. and yeah, i love being curvy because that’s what feels right to my mind and my body is shaped in a manner once respected in women before being thin at all costs became how we were “supposed” to behave, and yeah…i like being able to carry things with the place of one hand taken by my hip, too. i don’t want another body, i just want to not be hated for the one i have. i don’t want to be degendered because my body is somehow insufficient for a trans woman when it was just fine when you thought i was cis. being trans shouldn’t mean that you have to be held to higher standards…i mean, after all, isn’t this where gatekeeping and cis people passing judgment on the worth of our lives and whether we should be allowed medical access comes from?

because once it’s known you’re trans, everything changes. people suddenly have dominion over your body and people pass judgment on the tiniest details that nobody cared about before. there are people who engage in appearance-based hate inside and outside the trans community, from Andrea James’ inexplicable habit of engaging in size/appearance-shaming to Cathy Brennan’s constant stream of sizeist/ableist/transphobic bullshit and you’ve got that last hurdle i just can’t jump: that now that i am trying to learn not to hate my body, i really don’t enjoy that it is only found to be “not good enough” and wanting when someone knows that i’m trans. all those “terrible flaws” never came up when you were assuming in error that i must be cis…i mean, seriously, the worst thing i get called in public is “retard”.  in other words, the special bonus body policing that comes both from people outside the community who hate us and people inside the community who have some interesting phobias lead to the reality that the only safe way to avoid being shamed is to let the assumption continue that i’m cis. but…i don’t want to keep pretending to be cis, but i also don’t want to be shamed when i’m trying to believe i am anything other than a monster who deserves what the world has handed her, and frankly i don’t ever want to start thinking that again because by believing that i believed i would never be worth anything better than pity. believing that didn’t make me a monster, but it made me a weak, aimless zombie who wasn’t even all that good of a person. it let my self-loathing be taken out on other people, something that i will never be able to apologize enough for. it let people think that i was ashamed of being trans when now i know i am anything but, but most of all…it let people believe they had a right to control me, and i believed that’s all i deserved. i believed i was meant to be ruled, i was meant to follow orders, and no more. that person was pitiable, but for the record…i neither want nor deserve your pity.

see, i don’t want pity, i want humanity. i want to accept that i may well be monstrous but though that monstrousness is part of me, i am not a monster. i want to live up to the promise of that scared little girl who pretty much sold her soul to be allowed to transition and was sternly told she should never tell anyone what she was (using those exact words, “what you are”) but the “man who will marry her someday.” i want to live up to the promise of that scared little girl walking across a scary bridge every day, summer and winter, so she could go to a better school where she wouldn’t be put on a failure track because she was disabled. and most of all, i don’t want to screw it up for the person i’m becoming, because at this point i’m living this life for her and not for other people or conditional and/or tentative approval that’s never coming. i am me-in-progress, wrapped in this quilt, and though this quilt isn’t perfect, this quilt is mine and it’s the only one i have.


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