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Denial is a potent drug. Even worse are the drugs you take when you’re in it.

As a child, I was aware of the sensation of being in the wrong body, and the dissonance of being seen and thought of as a boy. Even before I was old enough to learn about anatomy at school I saw the parts that lay between my legs as a foreign body and would try to push it all back into myself where intuition told me it belonged. Since my earliest recollections, I have always felt disappointed at the way I ‘came out’, as if my brain’s neurological map of our body didn’t match the landscape it was supposed to describe. It was uncanny and impossible to deny: whoever’s body this was, it wasn’t mine, and I had no way to put that into words for the adults around me, and no reason to believe they would care or understand.

I forced myself to believe I was a boy—because that’s what everyone around me insisted, especially when they ‘corrected’ my girlish mannerisms and behavior. But I also started stealing hair clips, scrunchies, eyeshadow, lipstick, nail files, and hairbrushes to make myself feel beautiful in front of the green-varnished pine vanity in my bedroom. I got good at pretending to be sick so I could stay home from school and watch hours of movies like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Ace Ventura, and Mrs Doubtfire, where, for better or worse,  I learned about trans people. The music video for Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful was the first time I’d seen body dysmorphia depicted or spoken about in the media, and I immediately related to the young girl fixating on her reflection in the mirror. Seeing the older trans woman putting on makeup and feminine clothing alone in her room, isolated and ashamed like I was, made me feel naked like the whole world knew what I was. She felt like a premonition of what my life would be like decades from now: sad and alone, still repressed, still hiding.

My first attempt to change my body was at age 12 consuming, of all things, unholy quantities of balsamic vinegar. It’s not clear to me which came first, the balsamic vinegar or the eating disorder, but like the chicken and egg dilemma, it’s most likely that the two were wrapped up in each other as a problem of evolution. As a young and closeted girl with body image issues, I was susceptible to bad ideas. I remember learning about Princess Diana when my family was discussing her bulimia and rumored use of balsamic vinegar to stay thin, young, and beautiful. They spoke about how her teeth must have been rotten from all that acid—both the vinegar and the bile. My aunt turned to me and said ‘Don’t get any ideas’ with a wink, and everyone laughed. Being clocked like that left me with the belief that starving myself would be non-negotiable on my path to womanhood.

After that, I moved on to an obsession with hormonal sex changes in high school when my hair began falling out. In the bath and shower, and all over my pillow, bed, and floors was a mesh of my twisted strands that up until recently had been platinum blonde, wavy, and happily stuck to my head. Before puberty, I was seen as a girl half the time, so when I saw it turning brown and falling off like petals from a flower, it felt like I was dying. In a real way, I was. The girl I’d glimpsed in my childhood vanity mirror was fading, and the person being rebuilt in her place by testosterone-driven puberty was someone I couldn’t recognize. Throughout my teen years, along with body hair and masculinization of my features, I also experienced a slew of secondary symptoms: severe eczema, allergies, brain fog, and fatigue. My body was inescapably sick, but my biggest concern was how ugly I was. I was going to have to live looking like a boy unless I did something drastic about it.

Internet searches told me to get prescriptions for finasteride or minoxidil, but as a teenager, these medications felt intimidatingly out of reach. Nevertheless, I pleaded to be taken to a dermatologist, and when my panic attacks about my hair loss and deteriorating skin didn’t decrease, my mother eventually gave in. But when we got to his office, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for what I needed. I was spoken about as if I wasn’t there, and when the doctor did eventually bring up hair-loss drugs he did so with regret. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but you are too young for me to give you these prescriptions. The side effects can be a lot to deal with for a young man.’ I knew what they were: breast growth, softer skin, and less facial and body hair from a lowered testosterone. The loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, and liver issues fell into the background when all I could hear was my ticket out. My mother’s horror was clear and I was too embarrassed to come clean about how this kind of feminization was exactly what I wanted; a body to match what was going on inside. So I just nodded as he prescribed me anti-fungal shampoo and an eating plan.

Over the years my dysphoria got worse, which led to more desperate attempts to put a stop to it and claim my body as my own. I moved from balsamic vinegar to green tea to spearmint tea, at which point my doomer gender-scrolling took me to online communities of other people who were looking for unorthodox substances to address their body dysmorphia. These communities ended up being both havens and perils, where the difference between self-care and self-harm disappeared into the bloodstream. Most members of these forums dedicated to DIY body feminization and breast growth were cis women and trans women, with crossdressers and crossdreamers thrown in too.

I was a lurker for the most part, but I scoured the boards daily for posts about using things like bovine ovaries and Thai breast growth herbs to see if their results were convincing enough to try. There were also posts about heart attacks, Deep Vein Thrombosis, and cancer. Sometimes popular members would stop posting altogether and we’d ask what happened to them, knowing full well the possibility that they’d passed away. There was the person who passed away from a Pulmonary Embolism (a blood clot that drifted into the heart), which was caused by an ‘unorthodox medley’ of DIY herbal medicines, according to their doctor.

So I wrote. I wrote diary entry after diary entry detailing every possible approach to my ‘stealth’ transition without once naming my condition as transgender. I had notes titled ‘Herbs for hair growth’ and ‘Herbs for dysphoria’, under which I split ingredients into ‘Completely safe’, ‘Safe in moderation’, and ‘Safe in heavy moderation’ to convince me that nothing could harm me while I fixed my broken body. I read countless medical papers and studies that deemed nearly every ingredient as under-researched and toxic, especially for the doses I began consuming, cycling through black cohosh, pueraria mirifica, red clover, dong quai, chaste tree, and white peony like I was chaining and rolling. I checked my reflection hourly for changes. Every single day, panacea and poison. My mind told me I was finally becoming myself, while my body showed signs of unraveling.

Then there was the nosebleed just ten minutes after a potent mixture of red clover, chaste tree, and spearmint chased with black cohosh and saw palmetto pills. Google told me that was a sign of liver damage. Nothing that a change to the recipe wouldn’t fix. A week later I was waking up dizzy and with a persistent thumping ache in my sides and back. Another change to the tincture. A month later, at an academic conference, where I had been sipping my herbal brew in a travel mug on my desk, I slurred my way through a presentation and was asked to head home because of how pale and sickly I looked. The outside world was beginning to notice my inner reality, just not in the way I’d been hoping. The myth I’d weaved for myself about what herbal medicines could do to me was tearing apart. I wasn’t becoming beautiful, I was dying.

On herbs, my hairline still receded, just slower than it would have. My nipples occasionally budded the way they did during puberty but invariably deflated again. Even at the dangerous doses I was pumping into my system, the plant-derived products I was using were never as effective as I wanted them to be. The reduction in masculinization from using these herbs felt as though they were buying me time, but in reality, I was wasting my years of youth on yet another lie. I only accepted that I was going to need Hormone Replacement Therapy for my survival in my late 20s. That revelation happened during the COVID-19 lockdown, when, sequestered in my apartment, the mask I had worn since childhood stopped having any purpose.

I came out and gained oestradiol and now, progesterone, but I also lost family and friends. The real remedy (under medical supervision) was always right there and it gave me exactly what I wanted: my hairline back; full, round breasts; feminine hips and ass; access to the full spectrum of my emotions; my mind, as she should have been; and a will to live. It also took away my brain fog, depression, skin issues, and allergies. Those were completely unexpected benefits.

The allure of using herbal remedies to address my gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia was rooted in the belief that they would prevent and maybe even reverse some of the worst effects testosterone had had on my body—without having to come out as transgender. It was a half-assed attempt to transition without transitioning; live without living. I was afraid of everything I thought I’d lose. I did lose those things, but I also got back the little girl I lost in the green vanity mirror.

This resonates
Not for me

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