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I've Lived as a Fat Person in Two Genders

Will I find more peace with my size as a man than I ever could as a woman?

by Tracy Manrell
Mar 2 2020, 3:30pm

Illustration by Emily Bernstein

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The following is an excerpt from BIG: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies, edited by Christina Myers. Republished with permission from Caitlin Press.

I was assigned female at birth. And, despite it never feeling right, I largely lived that assignment for 48 years. I was a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, lesbian, wife, and mama. Most sweetly, a mama. When I was 49, I began the process of change. By my 52nd birthday, I was socially, hormonally and legally male. A soft, queer, non-binary, transmasculine human deeply connected to women, to women’s issues, and to my feminist outlook on the world—with a beard.

I have lived my life in two genders. And, in both of them, fat.

My relationship with my body has always been complicated. My childhood body had a visceral reaction to dresses, girl toys, the color pink, and other social constructs and behavioral expectations because it was perceived as being female. I was tall, and by age eleven my feet were so large that adult-sized women’s shoes didn’t fit me any longer. I was relieved and excited to “have to” buy boy’s shoes yet shamed by them, and my desire for them, at the same time. I was athletic but far from “girl-sized.” In grade three, my teacher called me a bull elephant. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew it was bad. I knew I was bad. In the class photos, I’m always the one standing at the back with the biggest boys, right beside the teacher. Awkward, uncertain, anxious, sometimes angry, and often feeling I didn’t fit in. I recall wishing many times that I was small and could disappear, tucked among the little smiling girls down in front.

At puberty the real dysphoria began. The body I was assigned began to betray me in new ways. When I menstruated before any of my friends, the panic rose. I tried to hide my chest in oversized Peanuts cartoon sweatshirts. The teasing about my boyish presentation became so painful and shame-filled that I grew my hair. I pored over the Sears catalogue for clothes that were intended for girls yet didn’t compromise my integrity and sense of self. Clothes that didn’t require me to suppress the urge to rip them from my body, frantic with distress. I began to eat.

I ate when I was angry. I ate when I was sad. I ate to distract myself from reliving painful memories. I ate to avoid fears and worries. I ate for comfort. I ate to disconnect. I ate to calm my companions: loneliness and anxiety. I once stole money for food because my need to eat was greater than my shame for being a thief. I snuck food from our kitchen and hid it under my bed. I shoved candy wrappers down the furnace vents to hide my tracks and somehow didn’t burn down the house. I repeatedly re-enacted a TV ad from the 1970s wherein a Viking grabs a chocolate bar from a treasure chest, shoves half of it into his mouth, swallows and shouts with a joy, strength, and power I wished I had.

My body and my relationship with food have taken up a lot of physical and mental space for much of my life.

The ebb and flow of a life disconnected from a body can be like treading water. You stay afloat but don’t move from your position much. Your head is up, looking around, engaging. But below the neck things are otherworldly, slower moving, detached.

I recognize and am thankful that, despite the fractious relationship I have had with it, my given body has brought great joy to me and to others in my life. In that female body I grew up active—running in the wind, biking with a freedom that no other activity brought to me, swimming outside in the rain. In that body I worked my first jobs, volunteered in a hospital, and excelled in team sports. I negotiated my way through and graduated from high school. My body has kept me going through depression and anxiety so deep that life sometimes didn’t feel worth living. In that body I made my way through college. I supported my best friend as he died of AIDS. I launched my career, often wearing clothes that ate me alive, believing that my life success depended on them.

As I became fat, my body became more political, stirred the conservative pot within my family of origin and made me stronger. I came out as lesbian. I found deep, lasting love and committed myself to life with a woman who has made my heart sing for 25 years now. My hands were the first to touch our children as they entered the world. By design, the first words our children heard earthside were mine, welcoming them. My female body could comfort my wife and our children for years even when it often didn’t—couldn’t—comfort me.

And all along the sense that something was wrong and missing was ever present. I was getting older and didn’t want to look back with regret. I was terrified and yet had to make a choice. Commit myself to being more present and accepting of the body I was assigned and the size it had become. Or allow the questions about who I really was to be spoken aloud and see where that took me.

My first injection of testosterone brought euphoria to battle my long-standing dysphoria. I didn’t expect that so quickly. But, then again, I wasn’t sure what to expect, really. With each subsequent injection the joy grew, the questions and fears thinned and the noise in my head about the wrongness of my body started to quiet.

Unlike many cisgender boys in puberty, I was charmed by my cracking voice. In fact, it made me laugh more than once. My previously good singing voice became truly awful, and I’m still waiting to see if I ever get it back. The hair on my legs grew well in some spots but hardly at all in others. Knee bangs. I impatiently awaited my first chin hairs and within a year was relieved to be in the group that can grow a full beard. I’m lucky; it’s not a guarantee. But the hair on my chest was among the best changes. It was these early, furry beginnings that allowed me to look at parts of my body with genuine wonderment and joy, perhaps for the first time. For the first time, I could see my true self.

When I had read about trans people “seeing themselves for the first time,” I was always confused. Although I tended to resist looking at myself unless necessary, I knew what I looked like. Both my size and my femininity were always hard to see, but I knew what my body looked like. I was taken aback, then, when my beard began to grow and I caught a glimpse of a familiar, warm masculine person in the mirror one day. Not all me yet also as much me as I had ever been. For the first time, I wanted to look, and it was very emotional. I saw the gentle trans man, not the woman. I saw the beard, not the fat. I saw joy, freedom, and I felt I could fly.

I had always imagined myself as a big Grizzly Adams type with a dark, bushy, and slightly wild beard, broad shoulders and a firm yet soft belly. The bigness of my female body was painful, shameful, and ugly. But a soft, barrel-chested male version of me was a warm and kind, if private, thought. I imagined a red flannel shirt, Levi’s, plaid boxers and wool socks. Ironic, really, as I had grown up with clean-shaven, disciplined men with military haircuts in suits with ties. I didn’t relate to much in those men. They weren’t approachable and they rarely showed emotion. They scared and intimidated me. This made the male presence inside of me terrifying. How could I be a man? I didn’t want to be what I thought a man was. This added to my fear, shame, and self-hate. But the truth that I was much more male than female was eating away at me, and I had to find peace.

Over time I began to see and trust that within me was a male presence unlike the men I had grown up watching. The male inside me questioned the existing definitions of masculinity. Inside me was the kind of soft, sensitive person I rarely saw in the masculinized world around me. And realizing I was a good, kind, and clearly feminine man slowly made the process less scary.

As my body changed, I began to search out people like me on social media. The need for affirmation and to “find our people” is universal. Although I always observed that life as a big man seemed different than life for big women, I was struck on a new level just how different these worlds are.

Women and men have different definitions of a fat body, I observe. Women are much harder on themselves. A woman sees herself as fat when carrying an extra ten or even five pounds. A man with those same extra pounds (and more) sees it as muscle or brawn on their bodies.

Big women talk about and fight for size acceptance, for their place at the table, battle messages that they are unattractive, unstable, unlovable, uncontrolled, unfuckable. They have to convince themselves that, despite the messaging in almost every corner of life, they have self-worth and their size does not define anything about them.

Many men, on the other hand, seem to perceive themselves as sexy and attractive at weights that distress women, both emotionally and socially. So universal is the messaging that boys and men have inherent value and sexual prowess, and are desirable to women, that most seem to grow up with these beliefs, size be damned. And women extend this same leeway to big men, too. In fact, I began to notice that an objectively “fat” man is referred to by men and women alike as a beast, a bear, brawny, burly, big boy, sexy daddy. Their size may be seen as a bonus, not a source of shame, rejection, or self-hate as it often is for women.

This is a new world in which I am moving. And exploring it still leaves me puzzled and questioning myself at times. Am I able to see and experience joy in myself now because I am externally becoming the person I have always been inside? Is it because my body is finally aligning with my mind and heart? Or am I able to see and experience joy in myself because, despite my years of shouting just the opposite, I have internalized society’s messages that big men are different—better—than big women? Can I tolerate my fat easier as a man because big bros are strong, sexy beasts? Will I find more peace with my size as a man than I ever could as a woman?

Don’t get me wrong. I am a parent to a cisgender male and know he has his social and physical vulnerabilities, as do his male peers. But they are different. Very different. I have lived life in both genders, both as a fat person. For me, it is easier being a fat man than being a fat woman.

BIG: Stories about Life in Plus-Sized Bodies (Caitlin Press) is a collection of personal and intimate experiences of plus-size women, non-binary and trans people in a society obsessed with thinness. These stories offer a closer look at what it means to navigate a world designed to fit bodies of a certain size—sometimes literally. BIG invites readers to question and reframe our collective fixation on body size.

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