VR Helped Me Visualize Gender Dysphoria

The experimental VR experience Body of Mine argues that the future of virtual reality lies in exploring ourselves—and others’ stories.
Screenshot from 'Body of Mine' virtual reality game featuring a character making their way towards the light inside of a...
Courtesy of Body of Mine

I've spent a lot of time in VR. Some of it is impressive; some, not so much. But at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, I got the chance to try a virtual experience called Body of Mine that opened my eyes to what this tech can really do. I didn’t explore “the metaverse.” Instead, I got to explore myself.

Body of Mine is an experimental storytelling experience. It’s interactive, but not a “game,” per se. Instead, the VR environment puts the viewer in the body of someone with a different gender than their own. I’m a masc-presenting cis man, and so the artists who built it put me into a feminine woman.

Matching Up

The artists slipped an HTC Vive headset over my head and strapped several motion trackers to my body. My ankles, wrists, upper arms, and waist each had a tracker that corresponded to the 3D model of a woman’s body, inside the virtual world. 

It took a little while to set up, but once it was ready, I was looking through her eyes. My arms were her arms. Her legs were my legs. My breasts were … wait, hang on.

The artists encouraged me to explore and touch different parts of “my” body by looking down at myself and into a mirror that was positioned directly across from me. The illusion wasn’t quite perfect, but it broke through a psychological barrier that few pieces of media ever have. When I play video games with an avatar of a different gender, I might feel like the character I control is “me.” But here, I inhabited this body in a way that even other VR games don’t really pull off.

Raising my hands to touch “my” arms felt natural. I’m not sure if that’s because my motion was tracked more granularly or because the artists prepared me for what I was going to see. But it also felt a bit jarring. I was inside this body, but it wasn’t mine. I know my body pretty well. I have fairly sturdy arms. I have a fair amount of body hair. I don’t have breasts. I had none of this in common with this woman’s body.

When I touched certain parts of my body—such as my arms, legs, belly, and head—the model would start to glow in that spot. Then, an audio clip would play. Body of Mine’s team interviewed around 20 trans people to let their words and stories guide this experience, and you hear their voices while you explore.

“We wanted to dive into the actual sensation of gender dysphoria and the physical manifestations of that,” said Cameron Kostopoulos, Body of Mine’s creator. “In order to do that, we wanted to have you relate to your own body, and then through that relate to these trans stories.”

Body After Body
Courtesy of Body of Mine

After a few clips, the experience changes. The body you start out exploring disappears in a brilliant and enchanting effect that dissolves parts of your body bit by bit. Then, in the mirror, I start to see more bodies appear, one after the other. 

I wasn’t just seeing what it’s like to live in one, relatively slim feminine body. I became a shorter man. A curvier woman. A man with a beer belly. There were a couple of models that were gender-ambiguous. These weren’t real people who could tell me how they prefer to be described, whether they’re cis, trans, nonbinary, or identify in another way. The models couldn’t tell me their pronouns because they were me.

Body of Mine invited me to question how I might fill in those blanks. If I had this particular body, would I consider myself nonbinary? Would I ask people to use “she/her” for me? Or, despite what my external body looked like, would I still be how I perceive myself? I’ve always identified as male and used he/him pronouns. Would I still want to if my body were much more feminine?

This tension—between how I perceive a body based on its shape versus how I view the me underneath—is a huge element of gender dysphoria, which refers to the psychological distress you might feel if the sex assigned at birth does not match your gender identity. For some people, it takes a great deal of work to align their body with the way they feel underneath. Body of Mine helped me feel how jarring that disconnect could be.

One of the most dissonant parts of the experience, for me, was when I was briefly in the body of a woman who had a long arm tattoo on her right arm. In real life, I have a smaller tattoo on my left forearm. My tattoo is personal and meaningful. It’s very dear to me. As I looked at my new arm, it was gone. A piece of myself that I treasure had been taken from me.

The tattoo on “my” right arm, meanwhile, was pretty. I liked the design. No doubt, if I had the tattoo in real life, someone else might come along and compliment it. I might even like it on someone else. But it wasn’t me. No matter how much I might like it, I didn’t put it on my body, and it felt wrong for it to be there.

Unfortunately, you can’t currently download the Body of Mine experience, even if you did happen to have a half-dozen HTC trackers. But it offers an interesting glimpse into what VR can do.

Right now, most VR games and apps look outward, putting users in wildly different environments. That’s neat, but it’s also what movies, TV, and video games have been doing for decades. Humans are very good at immersing themselves in fantasy worlds. Even watching a movie, we can feel the real world melt away.

VR, on the other hand, has the potential to let users be something or someone else. And that’s an experience other media can’t replicate. In fact, it might still be a long time before VR really can. Tracking our bodies is hard—Meta is still figuring out how to give us legs—but there’s space for a whole realm of creative storytelling that goes beyond just watching and listening. That’s more exciting than a cartoon Zoom call without feet.