Mind-Body Health

Moving Beyond the Gender Binary to Reconnect with Self

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The world is still incredibly rooted in the gender binary, and it’s a revolutionary act to exist as yourself, wholly, in a world that so desperately tries to define you. Whether you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth or not, or whether you identify within the binary, outside of it, or have renounced its existence completely, you have experienced gender trauma. Here are some ways you can explore gender and how it shapes the world around you.

Your first breath in this life is meant to be an inhale of endless possibilities. And it's often said that you enter this world free—with no outside expectations or judgments attached to you.

Unfortunately, if you take a closer look, you'll see that you're born into this world already cloaked with labels, layers, and assumptions for how you are meant to arrive. You are sent subtle messages throughout your life telling you how to be in every way—from your physical presentation to how you respond in social situations. If you move even slightly outside of these predetermined lanes, you are shamed or disciplined in some way, and the more this happens, the more you disconnect. You can claim that there are endless choices but when you're only given two ways of existing, do you have any choice to begin with?

Gender Trauma

I’m a trans nonbinary person, grounded and rooted in this existence despite the world around me trying to stifle me and invalidate me. I came into this world assigned female at birth (AFAB). For most of my life, I didn't have the awareness or knowledge to understand how discomfort was manifesting inside of me or where it was coming from. All I knew was that I was expected to show up in a very specific way; the messages I received were along the lines of:

  • Smile
  • Don't be too loud
  • Be sweet
  • Don't cause waves
  • Go with the flow
  • Shrink
  • Recede

Through these messages, I stopped asking what my needs were, and I fell into people-pleasing behavior. For so long I didn't permit myself to even think about what my ideal life would look like, pushing my desires aside to uplift the happiness of those around me. The fear was that if I did not exist in this way, all the people who said they cared about me would suddenly stop. There was this implication that I needed to make myself small for the comfort of others because I was made to believe that their comfort mattered more than my humanity. Turns out they were wrong.

Truthfully, I don't even think they recognized what messages were being sent and how they were shaping my existence. I don’t think that many people realize what a large impact gender has on the world. The stereotypes and gender roles being reinforced every day often go unnoticed and remain intact and unchallenged.

My First Gender Trauma Memory

My earliest memory of gender actively affecting my life was in the first grade. I remember picture day like it was yesterday. Every other day I wore pants and baggy t-shirts, but on that day, I was told I had to wear a dress. It was a pretty white dress with yellow flowers all over it, but I vehemently protested, crying and pleading not to have to wear that. "It’s just for one day. Just for the picture. When you get home you can change.”

Now let me pause and say that my parents are some of the most supportive people in my life, but they, like all of us, were conditioned with this idea that girls need to wear dresses on picture day to look nice, and so they put me in that dress and sent me to school. I can’t tell you much about the rest of the day, but I do know that I choked back tears (probably unsuccessfully) on that bus ride to school wondering why. What made me so different from the kids I hung out with who were all allowed to wear pants on that day?

This is also my first memory of gender trauma on a much subtler level; the first moment I remember burying my need in the name of making sure other people were happy. This type of trauma is embedded so deeply it manifests in the way you are able to process and express your emotions, the way you communicate, and even the way you listen.

Gender stereotyping is quite literally everywhere, and possibly most harmful is the stuff you can’t visibly see. You will experience gender trauma differently simply because no two people experience their gender the same. Whether you are cisgender, transgender, nonbinary, or genderqueer, you have been forced into a box like this probably more than once, and if you don’t start to dissect gender in your own life, you will continue to reinforce these harmful ideas.

Whether you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth or not, or whether you identify within the binary, outside of it, or have renounced its existence completely, you have experienced gender trauma. You have been forced to fit into one box or another probably more than once. Through this constant molding and shapeshifting, you are covering yourself with layer upon layer of expectation from the external world. Somewhere along the line, you may lose yourself, and by the time you're able to explore who you are with intention, there is so much to sort through it's hard to know where to begin.

Ask Yourself How Gender Shapes the World

If gender is not something you often consider, I encourage you to think of all the ways gender shapes the world. Starting with your outer expression, like hair length, body hair, nail polish, makeup, pieces of clothing, or shoes, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do you assign gender to each of these, and why?
  • Why is it that certain people are told they need to get rid of their body hair?
  • Why is it that being muscular or having larger features is somehow a sign that you're more masculine, while painting your nails is tied to being more feminine?

You may have been told to limit the way you exist for so long that most of the time you are making choices subconsciously for the comfort of those around you instead of questioning what will allow you to be happy, empowered, and affirmed. When you take this to a subtler level, you can see it in the words you use to compliment someone, what you study in school, the different jobs being deemed "more suited” for specific binary genders, and all the ways in which you treat people.

Still to this day, I am interacted with differently when I am perceived feminine vs. when I am perceived masculine. Usually, people operate within the binary of male or female, which in and of itself erases entire communities of people who exist beyond the binary. So again, I urge you to question why. Why is it that you cling so tightly to these boxes?

My Journey with Gender

The journey through gender is a journey of peeling back all the things this world has told you about who you are before you had the chance to decide for yourself. It is a journey of returning home to your heart and the true essence that resides within you. When I started to explore gender, there was definite fear and some uncertainty but beyond that there was liberation. At a certain point, this level of freedom is not an option, it's a necessity.

I navigated this life in discomfort for so long that it became my norm; it wasn’t until I started practicing yoga that I found signs of relief. I clumsily stumbled into the practice through P90X and a required college PE course. What I thought was going to be the easy way out turned into a life-altering experience. This was the first time I gave myself permission to turn inward and ask myself what I wanted, what I needed. The more opportunity I offered myself to stand in my truth and hold space for myself, the less it mattered what the world outside was trying to tell me. This practice was giving me the tools I needed to let go of the idea that I am here living my life for anyone but me. When I started finding power in my voice, my entire world started taking on a new form. I was suddenly shaping a life that I was excited about. When I began exploring yoga, I was still years away from investigating my gender in a meaningful way. However, this practice set the foundation I needed to be able to ask the necessary questions when I was ready.

It was about five years after finding the practice of yoga that I started to inquire about my gender. At that time, I found myself surrounded by a vibrant queer community. Coming from a relatively conservative background, I wasn’t used to seeing people express themselves in any way that was outside of the norm that is expected in this binary world. The way I saw so many people living fully expressed in their authentic selves was a type of liberation I had never experienced before. The freedom and courage I saw were unparalleled. Of course, it’s not all glitter and rainbows but one thing was abundantly clear, no matter the struggle or hardship, the members of that queer community knew exactly who they were and stood in that truth loudly and unapologetically. It was the most inspiring time of my life.

I had always felt like something was wrong or off or different about me, and I couldn’t figure it out. Even after connecting deeply to myself through yoga, something was missing—some lingering discomfort that I just couldn’t quite put words to. When I found this community, I started to feel at peace, finding a sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. I found strength and empowerment through the community that ultimately allowed me to explore my gender. When the world was so intently trying to erase me or invalidate me, I was held, I was safe. I am held, I am safe. In the moments that I lose that sense of belonging, I return to my community and my practice. I lean on these tools that opened the doors for me to explore and they continue to support me to this day.

Explore Your Gender

The world is still incredibly rooted in the gender binary, and my identity is denied, called into question, and invalidated consistently. Working through gender trauma is an everyday practice because of the world we live in. As you open the door and investigate gender in your life, I invite you to explore, try one new way of expressing your gender every day or once a week. Surrender the binary and open space for all beings to exist exactly as they are, including yourself.

Contrary to what you're taught to believe, you don't have to have all the answers and you definitely don’t have to do it alone. These explorations and these journeys toward reconnecting to Self are ever-growing and ever-changing; there is no one way to do it and that is truly the best part. It's important to remember to be gentle with yourself. The absolute courage it takes just to begin the inquiry is not to be taken lightly. This journey toward Self is not always easy or full of bliss; there is turbulence and murky waters to be navigated.

As you take steps in finding this connection, keep asking questions and keep defining and redefining your existence. With a foundation in your truth, even as you navigate through muddy water, the liberation that comes from this connection is deeply expansive. It is a revolutionary act to exist as yourself, wholly, in a world that so desperately tries to define you. It is the inhale of possibility you've been waiting for since birth.

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