The first time I shaved my entire body was like being born all over again. As a transgender woman, who had spent the past 28 years living as a man and loathing every follicle south of her nose, the relief that washed over me was accompanied with a profound sense of actualization: My body is mine, to inhabit, alter, and care for as I see fit. In that moment, I admitted to myself — truly, for the first time — that I was a woman. 

The anxiety I felt toward my body, even though it manifested for me in specific ways that it might not for others, is universal; we all have insecurities. While each one individually affects our lives in some barely perceptible way, their sum can overwhelm us. For my community — whose gender identities do not fit neatly into the traditional binary boxes — this issue of stress is both real and dangerous, with 40 percent of transgender adults currently reporting serious levels of psychological distress, compared to just five percent of the larger U.S. population. As a transgender or non-binary person, living in the world today is fraught with obstacles, from the mundane struggles of relearning how to dress ourselves to dealing with real and systemic socioeconomic oppression. Seventy-five percent of us have experienced workplace discrimination, and one in eight of us have even lost a job due to bias. Additionally, 23 percent of us have reported facing housing discrimination, one in eight of us have experienced homelessness, and more than 31 percent of us lack access to adequate medical care.

“In the midst of this onslaught of stressors, creating a self-care regimen can be instrumental to our survival.”

Autumn Trafficante

In the midst of this onslaught of stressors, creating a self-care regimen can be instrumental to our survival. “There are so many things [in our culture] that we’re constantly judging ourselves against… Self-care is taking a departure from those standards, asking, ‘What do I really want?’ and giving yourself the permission to address those needs,” says Steve Waugh, a mental health-focused nurse practitioner at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York City who advises trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ people on the paramount importance of establishing a positive relationship with oneself through routine. Indeed, research shows that routines, rituals, and habits help to combat anxiety. Yet in times of stress, self-care is the first thing to fall off your to-do list when you don’t have a schedule, Waugh points out. “When you put it on a schedule, there’s accountability. You’re accountable to you.”

Applying discipline and regularity to self-care reminds us of the iterative nature of our transitions, and helps us build vital stores of confidence and patience. For example, at first I hated doing makeup because, frankly, I was horrible at it. For months, my smokey eye looked more like an amateur expressionist painting than an expression of my female self. The same was true for shaving; it took me forever, and more often than not, I’d discover unwelcome missed patches and painful nicks that, as a beginner, were so discouraging. After countless emotionally draining attempts, I realized that I needed to allow myself some time to learn. All of this was new to me, and how could I expect to be an expert on the first day? For makeup, I booked a three-hour block of time on my calendar, every Saturday afternoon, just to play around with new looks and hone various techniques. For shaving, I booked two hours in the evening, twice a week, to create my own spa-like experience at home, with bath bombs, candles, and a whole host of masks and scrubs. These little moments with myself gave me not only the opportunity to get better at expressing my identity, but also the space to truly fall in love with the woman I was becoming.

The author, photographed by @barisbarlasphotography

Small everyday habits — like shaving or experimenting with makeup — may seem inconsequential, but they matter, and my transition taught me that the cumulative effect of those rituals can be a truly profound change. Who I am today is a testament to that. You can either use those moments to compare yourself to an imagined ideal, and feel hopelessly discouraged, languishing in the disparity between that and the reality in your mirror, or you can accept yourself as you are, right now, and love yourself for putting in the work. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), describes this approach in what she calls Radical Acceptance: “[It] rests on letting go of the illusion of control, and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” Or, as Waugh puts it, “Part of it is making peace with your presentation as it is, and not blaming it, but befriending it, because it’s something that requires nurturing and love. If we can say to our dysphoric selves, I feel your pain, but I love you… then your dysphoric self is no longer the enemy, or something worthy of judgment or disdain.” 

I was not perfect when I first started transitioning, and I am certainly not perfect now — after all, no one is, regardless of their origin. But I love that. I love this ever-evolving, imperfect woman who continues to thrive against the odds. I love that I, and so many others like me, have fought so hard to be who we are today. I love that every inch of myself is an expression of intention. I love that my identity shines through, so clearly, when for so many years it was clouded by rigid constructs that other people had defined. I love me. No matter if you are cis, trans, or somewhere in between, we cannot allow our true selves to be silenced in the service of the normal. It is our imperfection, our diversity, and our lack of sameness as humans that colors the canvas of this world so beautifully, and we must protect that sacred mosaic with a fervor and vigilance against the forces that fear us. So whether it’s learning a new skill like meditation, lifting weights, or cooking — or practicing the familiar in an effort to improve — revel in the mess and uncertainty of it all, and take care of yourself, because this world needs people like you and me. This world needs difference, and it needs representation of that difference from everyone. Perfection means the journey is over, but I honestly hope this magnificent, flawed ride of self-discovery never ends, because traveling through its unpredictable corridors has been the greatest honor of my life.

“This world needs difference, and it needs representation of that difference from everyone.”

Autumn Trafficante