Dysphoria, and an attempt for more inclusive metaphors


Well, I just found out the etymology of dysphoria: δύσφορος, a combination of dys — difficult — and the verb pherein — to bear. I’ve got to hand it to whomever thought to port this word to english and adapt it to the gender-variant sphere. Gender dysphoria is exactly what it says on the etymological tin.

My psych is a wonderful person but, try as she may, there are some things that she just doesn’t have the experiential backing to understand. Dysphoria is one of them. She’s trying, though, which is why I want to write a post that describes dysphoria, as many metaphors as I think it’ll take.

Metaphors, yes, because I’m not sure there’s any other way to describe dysphoria in anything close to a universal way. As much as my artsy-fartsy self loves complex metaphors and euphony, there’s no way I’d take this approach if there were some more grounded, objective way to describe dysphoria. I mean, face it: the asinine (man|woman) stuck in a (woman|man)’s body trope would not exist if there were a more reliable way of conveying non-normative experiences.

Then again, it’d be weird if there were some more objective way to describe dysphoria and the overall experiences of agender, trans*, and genderqueer peeps. There are facts and general observations, of course: our disproportionately large suicide rates, the cotton ceiling, the amount of job discrimination we face, etc; but many people just dismiss the facts offhand out of disgust — hi, dudebros and radfems! — or shift the blame off themselves or the kyriarchal society and onto us because they assume that the trans*/genderqueer/agender “lifestyle” is masochistically self-elected. Both of these positions come from positions of (ocassionally willing) ignorance.

I don’t think that metaphors are a better or worse way to relate lived experiences than facts and observations, but they are a different approach. They’re also more representative, depending on how they’re crafted; there aren’t many statistics for genderqueer and gender-transgressive people.

So, if you’re still interested, go and read this piece, The Difference Between Dysphoria and Negative Body Image by Amy Dentata, and then come back. I can wait until you’re done.

Now that you’re done with Amy’s post (and have hopefully subscribed to her blag), go read this peace, Dysphoria, by Fizz at Lab Coats and Lingerie and come back.

Dysphoria, like gender, is a multi-headed beast of a thing. It varies from identity to identity and, like a virulent strain of staph, can evolve. Because of this immense variability, it’s asinine to assume that <x> is the root cause of any one dysphoric event. From my own experience over the last few days some causes of dysphoria for me have been:

  • An “ally” triggering me by invalidating my history of abuse
  • An acute awareness of how my crotch was resting on a bed while reading Snow Crash
  • Feeling my breasts and not being able to determine whether they were too small or large for confort
  • Being addressed as “young woman” by a cis family member

And I worked through the dysphoric feelings, respectively, by:

  • Listening to empowering Flobots songs[1]
  • Considering, once more, how amazing an orchiectomy would be
  • Doing nothing and letting time pass
  • Diving myself into the work I was doing

Now try to stick those aforementioned situations in the asinine construct of I’m a (man|woman) stuck in a (woman|man)’s body. Try to stick these situations into the phrase I thought I was just an SOL (gay dude|lesbian). Hell, try to stick those situations into my “favourite” gross over-simplification: I like (men|women), but in a gay way.[2]

These very basic metaphors, cis people, aren’t meant to be comprehensive — and sometimes they’re not even comprehensible at all! But save for launching you into an in-depth study of the phenomenon of gender, sometimes we have to stoop down to your lowest common denominator.

This is especially true if you hold some power over us. It was painful to lie about my gender to the man who prescribed my hormones, who saw it fit to test how gender-variant I was before allowing me to undergo exogenous endocrine intervention, but there was no way to proceed but bowing down to erasing, destructive, uncomfortable memes. So I said that I’d felt this way forever, that I was a shudder woman trapped in a man’s body, that I’d never liked boyish things, and all of the other bullshit in the DSM, hating myself for saying this and hating the kyriarchal establishment for forcing me into this situation.

So here are my metaphors. I want them to be varied enough to include everyone and sufficiently descriptive so as not to be meaningless. Just remember that it’s hard enough to talk about dysphoria between two gender-variant people; be cognizant of the fact that no matter how many metaphors, explanations, and testimonies you’re given, you’ll never truly reach the full depth of this feeling.

  • You’re playing a monstrosity of a video game, where all of the keys on your keyboard have a specific function. It takes most players years to figure out what each button does, through trial and error. You’re not so lucky, though; your controls remap themselves randomly. “w” means go up one minute, put on Kourier uniform the next, and, two hours later, pirouette. You’ll never know the full extent of the re-mapping until you try each key again and figure out how they’ve changed.

    Thing is… you’re not allowed to leave the game. So play with the knowledge that, at any second, something could trigger another remapping and without any guarantee that this process will ever stop. That disconnect between realities — yours versus the game’s — is akin to dysphoria.

  • Now think of a computer undergoing a kernel panic. Somewhere deep inside the thousands or millions of lines of code something has gone terribly, terribly wrong and there’s nothing to be done but have all of the computer’s bits tear themselves apart. You can diagnose what happened only after the fact. This destructive imperative which rises from your core and overpowers you fully is akin to dysphoria.

  • Now be invisible — forever, that is. There is no novelty to it because you’re almost completely segregated from the “visible” world. There are other invisible people around you; you know this because you can bump into them, link hands together, and try not to lose them if that’s what you want to do.

    Bump into someone visible, though, and you get, at best, ignored and brushed off as a ghost or imagination; at worst, you get hurt — invisible isn’t untouchable, after all, and not everyone is fast enough to get away from a punch or a swipe. The erasure of your identity; the unspoken, catholic assertion that you are not to signal to the world that you exist; the feeling of walking through a minefield made of privileged (here: cis and/or “passing”) people and hoping that you won’t mistep…

This is akin to dysphoria.


  1. Good Soldier, Anne Braden, If I, Panacea for the Poison are my favourite songs.  ↩
  2. This singular page is both safe for work and contains no triggers to the best of my knowledge. The comic as a whole is wildly NSFW and has trigger warnings for transphobic hate crimes, child sexual and emotional abuse, homophobic language, and dubcon sex.  ↩

7 thoughts on “Dysphoria, and an attempt for more inclusive metaphors

    • I dunno. I’m getting more and more convinced that dysphoria can be caused by the most random shit ever.

      unless leg_cell[ Random.rand(0..10000000000) ].ishappy?
          dysphoria
      end
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