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June 28, 2018

Trans Issues, Body Image, and Identity

Trans Issues, Body Image, and Identity

In a post earlier this month, we discussed the prevalence of body image issues and eating disorders in the transgender community. Today we’re wrapping up our PRIDE month series with an interview that puts a human face to the issue of body image and identity in the trans community.

TEP: Tell us about yourself!

Sam: My name is Sam Dylan Finch! My pronouns are he/him. I’m a blogger, editor, and media strategist. And a whole bunch of other things — like a drag queen! — but that’s the gist.

TEP: Where were you raised? Where do you currently live?

Sam: I was born and raised in a small suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan. It was a difficult place to be queer and transgender, so when I had the opportunity to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, I took it. That’s where I live now, and I love it here.

TEP: How do you make a living?

Sam: My day job is working as an editor and writer at Upworthy! And it’s easily the best job I’ve ever had. I have the opportunity to tell empowering stories about how organizers, non-profits, and ordinary people are making a difference in their communities. I came into this job feeling really burnt out — honestly feeling like the world was a small and dark place — but being able to connect with people who are on the ground making change helped me find my passion for this work again. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to tell these stories that otherwise might go unseen.

TEP: We love your website, Let’s Queer Things Up! Can you tell us how it came about and where you are hoping it goes?

Sam: I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years, and “how it came about” depends on how far back you go! I’d been a blogger for a long time, even as a teenager, because struggling with my mental health as a really sheltered kid made it hard to find other people who understood what I was going through. I found it empowering to take the aspects of myself that no one saw and make them visible, and writing about all that was cathartic.

I decided to start blogging again in 2014 when I realized there was an incredible lack of resources for queer people with mental health struggles — especially personal stories that people could connect with. I already knew that blogging was such a powerful medium because many of the blogs I used to read as a teenager had gotten me through really difficult times in my life.

I had no idea when I started LQTU that it would become such a big thing, but I’m grateful that it did. I want to offer tools for resilience and stories of survival. I want to offer a little hope for people who, like me, might’ve believed at one point or another that they wouldn’t live to see 18, or 25, or whatever imaginary finish line they set in their minds.

I want queer and trans people to imagine a future for themselves, especially those of us with mental health struggles because too often we carry the belief that there isn’t a future for us, or at least, not one that’s worth sticking around for. I know this because I used to feel that way.

LQTU is ultimately a blog about the possibility. I can’t guarantee a future to anyone, and I’ll never promise someone that “it gets better.” But I can share my story and all of the unexpectedly amazing ways it has unfolded so that maybe, just maybe, someone chooses to stay, reaches out for support, or simply has a moment where they say, “I’m not alone in this.”

TEP: We know our lives are shaped by our identities. Could you tell us about how your identity has affected your life?

Sam: This is such a huge question! I think the easier question to answer is how it hasn’t affected my life.

Being queer — even if I didn’t have those exact words for it at the time — meant that, early on, I knew what it was like to feel like an outsider no matter where I was. Coming out as transgender meant navigating a world that was hostile, objectifying, violating, and poorly equipped to support my health and wholeness. Being genderqueer meant trying repeatedly to fit into boxes that were never made for me. Coming out as asexual meant backlash from people in my community who believed I wasn’t “queer enough.”

Living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD meant having to fight all of my life to get the proper support so that I could thrive, and not without first being told I was broken, being institutionalized and misdiagnosed, and being bombarded with powerful drugs that I never should have been given. Being a trauma survivor meant having to work a thousand times harder to finally experience real safety within myself and my world, and watching others like me take their own lives before they ever got the chance to experience that, too.

And living through all this means a deep understanding that I’m responsible to other folks who are marginalized, too — especially those who are oppressed in ways that place them at an even greater risk. It comes with the realization that I am small but not powerless. We can’t give up on each other. We’re all that we have.

TEP: Can you speak to your relationship with your body? Studies have shown the majority of us are unhappy with our bodies. Do you identify with this/find yourself struggling with body-image issues?

Sam: I think many transgender people have a unique relationship to their bodies. For me personally, it was hard to tease apart what was gender dysphoria, which could suggest that I needed to change my body, and what was insecurity informed by society, which meant that I probably needed to challenge my own thinking. Trans folks are in a tricky place where “the answer” to their distress isn’t always clear-cut. 

And of course, there’s no shortage of cisgender people to tell us that our dysphoria is unreasonable or neurotic, or that our decisions about our bodies — whether it’s hormones or surgery or whatever — are “extreme,” making it even harder to access what we need and feel good about our decisions. Not to mention, trans people are often reduced and objectified to be only their bodies, creating even more pressure for our bodies to look a very particular way.

Which is all to say… I absolutely struggle with my body image. Thankfully, this has changed drastically since accessing hormones and surgery, but getting to that place took an enormous amount of work, and I encountered a lot of struggles along the way that I suspect a lot of cis people wouldn’t imagine or understand.

TEP: What do you love the most about your body? What do you love the most about yourself?

Sam: I love my chest most of all. I finally had top surgery in January of this year, so the chest that I have is incredibly meaningful and beautiful to me. Symbolically, it reminds me of what I have lived and survived as a trans person, and the courage it’s taken to pursue my truth in the face of tremendous obstacles.

I also think it’s incredible when our bodies change so quickly and we have to “acquaint” ourselves with them all over again. It’s a part of my body that I had to get to know for the first time, as though it were brand new because in many ways it was. I had to massage my scars, I had to change my bandages, I had to rebuild my muscles, I had to learn how to move my arms, and every mental map I had of my body needed to be rewritten.

How many of us are lucky enough to get to know our bodies that way, on such an intimate level? How many of us slow down enough to actually inhabit ourselves fully? How many of us are able to remember the first time we came to know a part of our body that we didn’t know before?

So for me, I love my chest most of all — not just because I chose it, but because, in a way, it’s taught me how to be more connected to my body as a whole. Top surgery taught me to be more curious and in awe of my body, to take care of it… and in that way, be less critical of it.

As for what I love most about myself… my optimism. I used to think it was silly to be hopeful, especially given the very difficult world that we live in, but I think hope is precious. If it can motivate us to do good things in the world, it can become a source of power.

TEP: Do you have any advice for those struggling with eating disorders or body image issues?

Sam: Because everyone’s journey is so unique, it’s hard to think of advice that would resonate with everyone. So I’ll say what I wish other folks had told me when I was in the midst of disordered eating and self-hatred, with total respect for the spectrum of experiences and feelings that come with struggles like these.

We have this one life. That’s it. The life you’re living and the moment that you’re in, right now, is the only one you have. We all know this logically, but it’s easy to lose sight of it. There’s this false promise that something in the future — the diet, the job, the relationship — is going to complete us if we just do all the right things, and then we can start living our lives.

But your life is happening right now, right this minute. And if you keep chasing shiny promises, you’re going to miss it entirely.

I know we hear a lot of affirmations like “you are enough.” I do love that sentiment and I believe it. I didn’t always, though. We’re not all there yet, emotionally. So instead, try asking yourself, “What if I were enough? What would I be doing differently right now if I just assumed that I was already good enough?”

Then go out and do those things. I didn’t think I was a “good enough” writer, but I started a blog anyway, and it changed my life completely. More than likely, the problem isn’t that you aren’t enough — it’s that you’re scared. Show up anyway. Be the most alive version of yourself that you can be, because that future you’re waiting on isn’t guaranteed to any of us.

Assume that you’re enough right now. Try it for a week and see how it feels. Start your novel, wear the bikini, apply for the job, get honest about your feelings. It will be scary and overwhelming, but you will be okay. And when you get to the other side of whatever you’re struggling with, you’ll see that not taking those chances — living only half the life you could’ve been living — is a lot scarier than any disaster you imagined would come from eating that slice of cake or whatever it was.

I honestly wish someone had just said to me, “Sam, no one on their deathbed is lamenting a slice of cake. Stop wasting your damn time. Your life is too precious for this kind of bullshit.”

It helps immensely to have a therapist in your corner that can cheer you on as you do this, too, and to help you navigate the deep emotional stuff that inevitably comes up when we do this hard work (because yes — it is very, very hard work).

Become your fiercest protector and your deepest ally. When you do that, nothing and no one on earth can take that away from you. And you don’t have to wait until tomorrow to do this. You can start right now, little by little, a day at a time.

TEP: What is one thing you wish people knew?

Sam: It is never too late to change your whole life. Ever.

TEP: We know you are a phenomenal writer, what’s your favorite piece you wrote?

Sam: There are all sorts of things that I’ve written that I’m very attached to. I’d say most recently, this article about reaching out when you’re struggling holds a special place in my heart. Sometimes we want to ask for help but we don’t know where to start. If just one person reads this article and is able to get the support they need, I know it was worth it.

TEP: What is your favorite quote, poem, or book?

Sam: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” — Mary Anne Radmacher

I’ve had to rely on that quiet voice many, many times. It’s the reason I’m still here. Never underestimate the tiny part of yourself that’s still fighting to survive.

TEP: Favorite food?

Sam: I love Ethiopian food. I could eat it every day for the rest of my life honestly.

Get help. Find hope.