On Wednesday night at the launch party for Wolf Pack in Calgary, we invited Mason to share his very personal story about body image, gender, and masculinity. Mason works with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre’s WiseGuyz program, and if you know our origin story, we count WiseGuyz as one of our biggest inspirations and strongest supporters. It is very exciting to know that Mason has the opportunity to share his experiences with the young men who are a part of WiseGuyz.
Here is Mason’s body image story, in full.
Before I begin I’d like to give a content warning about this topic.
I explore themes of body negativity, surgery, self-hate, depression, suicide, and body dysmorphic disorder. If you need support after this session I will be around and I encourage you to discuss any feelings that come up within our community here or with people in your life that you trust. Your feelings are valid, important, and we all can help each other when we have the courage to speak out about our own personal experiences.
My name is Mason. It was a name given to me by my parents 6 years ago when I began transitioning from female to male. I love my name. It feels to me, like when you finally get something that truly belongs to you. My name is not a hand-me-down. It isn’t something I would “grow into.” It was mine from the second my mother and father said it to me. A mason, is someone who works in stone. They are artists who take something the earth has created, something jagged and formed by the elements, and transforms into something beautiful. My body is the rock given to me by nature, and I am the sculptor.
I was raised as my biological sex of female and transitioned to my current self. My childhood was dreadfully average. I grew up in the suburbs, attended Catholic school and was loved and cared for by my family. I was just a regular kid. The not-so-average part of my story lies between the societal norms of femininity and masculinity.
I did not fit within the gendered boxes of assumed personality traits and was completely myself throughout my childhood, much to the dismay of teachers, priests and grandparents.
I cannot speak for every trans person’s experience as mine is too textbook, too obvious to be representative of our colourful, and unique community. I dressed in clothes I felt good in, like plaid, pants and a 1996 Nick Carter mushroom cut. I played with toys that sparked my imagination, like Ninja Turtles and Biker Mice from Mars. I was clearly different from my soft spoken, petite, and feminine sister.
When I realized I was choosing clothes, toys and role models that were not “meant” for me, I felt a sick, churning anxiety that something about me was wrong. That what made me feel vibrant and genuine was actually false, frowned upon and embarrassing to those who cared about me.
As I became more conscious of the collective disapproval around my physical appearance, I moved away from these things. I grew out my hair which acted as a shield against offended women, asking me why “I wasn’t in the boys’ washroom”, I wore uncomfortable frilly clothing, which guarded against substitute teachers sending me to the office for impersonating myself. The brrr-ets and touches of pink allowed me to play basketball when rival coaches argued that our league didn’t allow “boys on the team.”
The farther I moved from my true self, the more I protected myself from the ignorant and inconsiderate. The goal to get through life without incident or cause for concern won over my desire to feel the excitement of doing things I loved. I remember when playing and dressing the way I liked became too shameful to be enjoyable. I remember every incidence of bullying and torment I faced for being different from what the other kids were promised of little girls.
I became depressed and suicidal ideation became an escape for a life that I could see no future in. I did not want to be someone’s girlfriend, wife or grandmother. I wanted to be a teacher, without having my last name preceded by Miss. I wanted to go back to the brilliant moments of childhood where I felt at peace and at ease with choosing what I wanted and what made me feel real.
I wanted to have a future that fit. I wanted a chance to be the person that miraculously was welcomed where society had no place. It was after years of gender purgatory that I realized I am, and have always been a boy. And that my only possibility of survival was to have my body reflect my mind.
I transitioned. I jumped through multiple hoops, including, but not limited to…
Seeing multiple psychologists. Some covered by Alberta Healthcare, some not. Some with waiting lists of 9 months, and no promise of a prescription for hormone therapy.
Changing my legal name, birth certificate, driver’s license, social insurance card, library card, passport, Costco card, university identification and much, much more. They were able to change my passport to my legal name, then a few years later, the government changed the F to an M so flying would be easier for me. I still had to sign a document stating I accepted “full responsibly for any issues caused by having my ID state I was male.” I signed the form whilst stroking my beard in thought.
Coming out to friends and family. Educating every single class of university that I was constantly misgendered in. Awkwardly navigating partial acceptance during the first shaking months of my re-introduction.
Weekly intramuscular injections of testosterone since 2011, with blood tests every 3 months
And finally, looking in the mirror and feeling hopeful. Knowing what it feels like to have someone to love me, care about me, for exactly who I am. Or most importantly, loving myself, caring about myself, for exactly who I am.
When Jake asked me to come to Wolf Pack to speak about body image, I wondered why he wanted someone so far from a typical male narrative to talk about their experience. You are probably wondering about this too. I know I still am, so you ask him about it after, I guess.
Our bodies and our capitalist society are forever connected in an ongoing abusive relationship. I must quote my all time favourite male role model, Wesley from the Princess Bride, to give my point the proper weight it deserves, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Many folks believe that ripped abs, getting a new haircut or a great tan will somehow make them better people. There’s a quest to fix the exterior of the car, and then, hopefully the engine will run better. Though this does increase the overall price of the vehicle, it does not help the car’s perform it’s task of transporting humans. Consumerism demands us to question our selves, and then offers the solution to our insecurities in whatever product they are selling that week. We must discover that our happiness will grow from practicing gratitude, building and maintaining healthy relationships, being generous, achieving our goals and being self-reliant.
I am a hypocrite. I seek out images of bodybuilders, movie stars, models and compare myself to them. I judge people I don’t even know (specifically male porn stars because there seems to be an epidemic of skipping leg day). I compare myself to my cisgender male friends, looking in photographs to see if my shoulders are broader, my hips smaller, that if I stand perfectly straight, maybe I’m an inch taller. I am recovering from body dysmorphic disorder, where intrusive thoughts about my previously feminine body would scream over my friends telling me how handsome I was, or the lectures my profs were giving. Six years ago, you could find me in the bathroom at home, trimming my eye lashes with scissors millimeters away from my corneas, in hopes that someone would look at me and think “male.” Or in anguish, longing to do something as simple as thank my bus driver, when I know if I did, I would reveal my high voice, hesitantly escaping my slouched and layered appearance. Or the thousands of dollars I have invested in “body beautification and reconciliation” where I hire tattoo artists to inject images of things or ideas I love in order to reclaim my body as my own. All of these things and more, I have done and continue to do to so I can feel at home with myself.
As I mentioned before, it took extreme medical intervention for me to even consider continuing to live in a body that I felt no connection to. When 12.9 billion dollars was spent in 2014 in America on cosmetic procedures, I know that I can reserve judgment from the women who feel their breasts are too small, aging women who feel their wrinkles were a sign of weakness, and the men who experience the same crushing societal pressure that women are facing. Dr. Blake Woodside of Toronto General Hospital testified that about 80% of individuals living with eating disorders are women. This shows that women are accessing external supports or medical professionals in order to seek solutions to their body negativity. Why is there such a difference in men and women seeking psychological or medical intervention? In my experience, conversations about men and the media’s impact on our own body image is not as prevalent as it is for women. This may be due to women being historically exploited and objectified in advertising, TV and film, with aggressive marketing coercing them to appeal to the male gaze. Men are now experiencing similar hyper sexualized marketing campaigns and increased exposure to the “ideal male body.” The difference between men and women in advertising is that we typically see portray women as objects, weak and susceptible to violence. Where as when men are sexualized, they appear brooding and dominant. These images evoke feelings of admiration, and encourage us to aspire towards a steroid-fueled, photoshopped fallacy. As Jean Kilboune examines in “Killing Us Softly 4,” a documentary and critical analysis of images of women in advertising, it would be ridiculous for a man to aspire to be a size zero. That size does not exist. Yet women are taught to aspire to be a size zero. They are taught to become nothing.
The pressure to dress, look and act a certain way is a universal stress that both woman and men are facing. The unrealistic and sexualized portrayal of each gender is damaging. Our unavoidable and non-consensual exposure to the media’s portrayal of us creates a disconnect between ourselves and our bodies, objectifies of women, breeds toxic masculinity, and reinforces status. This negatively impacts everyone in our society. Yet, women seem to be the ones speaking out, analyzing our societal values, and creating change. So what are men doing? Are we concerned that challenging oppressive forces will invalidate the work women’s rights groups have done? Will our stance against tyrannical mass media seem like a minor complaint compared to the extremely damaging reality that women face everyday? Is it stigma which prevents us from speaking about our feelings? Is toxic masculinity preventing us from sharing our negative thought patterns regarding our bodies? Are men suffering in silence, with no one to go to for fear of rejection and shame? Is this reflected in data from Statistics Canada showing that men are three times more likely to commit suicide then women? I do not have the answers, but I can suggest actions you can personally take in order to support yourselves and others. Please continue this conversation, and discuss with allies what actions feel best when you want to challenge societal standards and expectations.
Be aware that corporations are lying to you. They are preying on your insecurities in order to make you buy their product.
Stop yourself before making judgments and comments about other people’s bodies. At least out loud. When you’re about to comment internally, try to think of a positive trait about the person instead. The key point here is not to share your negative thoughts with friends, partners and most importantly, children.
Examine if your desire to change your appearance is from external pressure. For example, I love working out. I do not work out to please others (though it is a benefit.) I exercise to see what my amazing body is capable of. I’m going to paraphrase Socrates to make his ideas more politically correct. “It is a shame for a person to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which their body is capable.” This is what motivates me to push myself; it is the desire to find the power that lies dormant within me.
In short, (1) Businesses are trying to make you feel like garbage so you buy their garbage. (2) Stop unconsciously spreading their messages of self-hate to others, and (3) Your desire to change must be intrinsically motivated. These three recommendations were paraphrased suggestions from the book “Our Bodies Ourselves” from the Boston’s Women’s Health Collective. I wanted to share this namely to cite my sources, but also to further prove my point that the struggles men and women face are against the same oppressive forces we experience daily, and that a united resistance is not just pleasant, but completely necessary.
To go back to my original story of my transgender identity, I’d like to close with this thought. Gender non-conformity might not resonate with you. I understand my story is extreme and uncommon. But I hope that everyone here will get out of bed tomorrow, and do ONE THING. Just one thing that will bring you closer to being the person you truly desire to be. If you want to be a runner, go for a run. If you want bake and consume delicious cookies, look up a recipe. If you want to be a special person in someone’s life, reach out and do something special for that person. You do not need to do these things alone. Look around, you have a community that will support you and encourage you in achieving your goals. You have been made from nature, pick up your chisel and hammer, and become who you are destined to be.