Wednesday, 24 August 2011

On Dysphoria - Part 1

Occasionally, my otherwise diverse blogroll (what, you don't call my collection of politics, queer politics, queer culture and feminist politics diverse?) comes together in a strange synchronicity of posts around a particular subject. Today, that happened to be around dysphoria.

Dysphoria is a terribly technical word, which is used in a couple of ways in relation to trans* people. The internet tells me that it specifically means "an unease or dissatisfaction with circumstances" and "gender dysphoria" is one of the medical terms applied to people I prefer to think of as magically gendered. There is also a term - dysmorphia - for a psychological condition in which a person dislikes or is concerned about one or more of their physical features. In some cases, I've seen people refer to 'gender dysmorphia' when talking about trans* people's discomfort with parts of their anatomy but generally dysphoria is used instead, possibly because there is a specific identified underlying cause.

In less medically precise circles (and in my own usage), 'dysphoria' is an umbrella term which covers the wide-ranging issues - anxiety, depression, body issues, general squick - around being trans and walking around with a body which doesn't quite seem to fit. There are both internal and external aspects to this. Internally, there is the sense of my body not being appropriate for the things I want to do with it and the discomfort of the mismatch with my own mental image of my self. Externally, there are all the issues caused by interacting with the world, and the way that people generally interpret the gender cues of my body and mannerisms (let's face it, I'm effeminate as hell). Basically - one set of issues make me uncomfortable when I'm on my own, the other makes me uncomfortable with other people. Sometimes (frequently) I just can't win.

But I still feel a bit strange identifying my reactions as 'dysphoria'. Possibly it is due to the pathologising effect of the word - as if it's not enough that I feel uncomfortable, but that discomfort must also be categorised and remembered and filed away for proof that I am trans enough. Maybe if I get enough dysphoria points I can send away for free hormones? Or a badge?

F was certainly fast enough in being able to point out the areas in which my reactions are consistently gender-related discomfort (though while applying the term to my experiences, she tends to use the less ominous 'body squick' herself). Maybe it's a result of how slowly and unsteadily I acquired my dysphoria that I tend to only really notice it in hindsight.

For all the potential problems around the concept of 'dysphoria' - the pathologisation of my reactions and the way that they can be used as a yardstick against ridiculous standards - the term is helpful in explaining my reactions to myself, at least. I come across discussions online about levels of dysphoria, methods of dealing with it, ways to play it up to make a medical professional actually pay attention...but not very much about the experience of it, the way it changes shape over time or the way people's relationship with it as a concept. It is framed as a reaction - a way of interacting with a body and with the world. If I am going to use it as an explanation though I would rather consider it as a thing in-itself, which has come into the world and affects my relationships and which I can get to know and interact with in a multitude of ways.

I think that it is only by treating the 'reaction' as an entity in itself that it becomes something which can be studied, the origins examined and - hopefully - a level of comfort with it can be reached.

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