She Was a Tomboy With Body-Image Issues—Changing Genders Didn’t Help

She Was a Tomboy With Body-Image Issues—Changing Genders Didn’t Help
Emily Li is a detransitioner living in Mississauga, Ont. (Courtesy of Emily Li)
Tara MacIsaac

As Emily Li described her childhood, she used the words “awkward” and “nerd” frequently. She was a “tomboy,” she said. She had developmental delays—trouble talking, hearing, writing, moving her body. When puberty hit, the troubles doubled.

It wasn’t just that her peers began dating—though that did kick the level of “awkward” up a notch, and she didn’t have any luck with her crushes. It was also then that her premenstrual dysphoric disorder took hold—a condition that wasn’t diagnosed and treated until later in her life. It used to send her into deep depression and rage.

She said she was prone to “psychotic episodes” of rage, during which she would often destroy things. She got support for various mental health issues only intermittently throughout her youth.

But when she decided to become a boy at the age of 13, the psychiatrists she spoke with didn’t explore these issues, she said. They encouraged her to transition and suggested she start hormonal treatments.

Ms. Li, now 25 and a few years into detransitioning, told The Epoch Times she had good years and bad years in her childhood. The good years coincided with having teachers and other adults in her life helping her overcome her awkwardness and disabilities.

Her years living as a male were not happy overall, she said. Looking back, she realizes she struggled a lot with her feminine body image. This is a common issue among the surge of girls seeking gender transitioning in recent years, according to the UK’s Cass Review.

Dr. Hilary Cass led an independent review of gender identity development services (Gids) for the UK’s National Health Service, and her highly publicized review published April 10 recommended a halt to many medical interventions for youth.

Dr. Cass said girls are now seeking gender transition in greater numbers than boys, just as girls in society at large are increasingly experiencing various mental health issues, including body image problems.

Peer and socio-cultural influences are increasingly promoting “beliefs about the mutability of gender,” her report said.

“Thus, it is more likely that bodily discomfort, mental distress or perceived differences from peers may be interpreted through this cultural lens,” Dr. Cass wrote. “Normal adolescent discomfort” is often portrayed as a sign of being transgender, she said.

Ms. Li was also influenced by peers who transitioned, the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at her school, and other LGBT youth organizations, as well as online influencers.

She did, however, have parents and other adults in her life who encouraged her to wait on medical transitioning.

The teachers in her Catholic school told her it was likely a phase, and that God created only man and woman; that He doesn’t make mistakes. This approach is increasingly taboo in Canada, with teachers often mandated by school policy to encourage gender transitioning.


Ms. Li grew up in what she called an “average suburban” family in Mississauga, Ont. She has an older brother, and he was her main playmate, along with a boy on their street, before she started school.

“I was very tomboy,” she said. “I was always playing with my brother doing the guy-ish stuff.” She found she had little in common with the girls in her school, who were into ballet and “girly things.” She preferred computer games and Lego.

Emily Li is pictured as a child with her older brother. (Courtesy of Emily Li)
Emily Li is pictured as a child with her older brother. (Courtesy of Emily Li)

In Grade 2, she was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She was more “wild” like the boys, she said. She was put in a special needs class, where she found it difficult to connect with the other students.

She struggled through the following years, though she did begin to thrive in Grade 4. She was seeing a psychiatrist to help her focus and also catch up with her developmental delays. She no longer needed to be in the special needs class, and she became known as the “piano girl” at her school because of her budding musical talent.

But Grade 7 was tough. That’s when her peers first became interested in dating.

“A lot of people didn’t want to date me. They said I was too tomboyish; I was too wild. So that was difficult because I had a couple of crushes and it didn’t go so well,” Ms. Li said.

She had another tomboy friend, named Denise. She and Denise had a crush on the same boy for a while. But then Denise decided to change genders and become Chris.

“I’m more tomboy than Denise,” Ms. Li said, recalling her thinking at the time. “And then that’s when I realized, I’m like well, I can’t go dating a boy because they think I’m too much. What if I became a boy and start dating girls?”

She cut her hair really short and started wearing boys’ clothes. She wasn’t very curvy, she said, so that’s all she had to do to look like a boy. People around her were shocked, including her parents. The only adults at that time who encouraged her to transition genders were psychiatrists; others treated it as a phase.

A teacher in Grade 8 helped her take a step back from it all. She let her stay inside during recess to play piano and encouraged her to join the choir.

“I was away from all the craziness of Grade 8, girls and boys. And I was just able to focus on piano,” Ms. Li said. The teacher encouraged her to grow out her hair again. “That teacher was really patient. And she was very kind. She helped me just by [teaching me] to go through with my strengths.”

In Grade 9, however, Ms. was introduced to a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at school. GSAs are common in schools across Canada. Her friend Denise (now Chris) was there.

GSA, Advocacy Groups

The GSA had a lot of posters up around the school,  Ms. Li said, advertising musical performances (a selling point for her as a musician) and other events. A school counsellor working with the group referred her to Youth Beyond Barriers (YBB), a program separate from the school that provides “confidential services for youth ages 12-17 who identify as 2SLGBTQ+,” according to its website.

“I got to be a part of a lot of events and it was pretty big. I remember at one point I got to meet [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau in person. I shook his hand,” Ms. Li said. “I was like, this is great. I get to meet with the top people and take photos with them, interact with them.”

She met other celebrities, including Gary Levy from the show “Big Brother Canada.” She met famous transgender YouTubers.

Throughout her teens and early 20s, she struggled to keep a job and had financial trouble. Her parents supported her financially.

“My dad was doing his best to support me through the journey. ... He didn’t really support the transgender stuff, but he supported the fact that I was still his child, and I needed care.”

Ms. Li tried masculine jobs, like manual labour, but found herself ill-suited for them. She found when teaching piano, a lot of her young students were scared of her.

“I looked very strange,” she said. “I was rarely ever happy.”

Emily Li lived as a man named Eric before detransitioning. (Courtesy of Emily Li)
Emily Li lived as a man named Eric before detransitioning. (Courtesy of Emily Li)

She had postponed taking hormones, mostly because the adults in her life told her to wait at least until she was in her 20s to make sure it’s what she wants. “I had an idea that they probably had good intentions,” she said, and so she listened.

But the transgender people in online spaces often spoke of the need for hormones and other medical steps to make a true transition. So, Ms. Li, who went by the name Eric, started on testosterone at the age of 21.

She started dating a woman, and looking back on it, Ms. Li realizes it was more about her body image issues than attraction.

“I wanted to date somebody that I wanted to look like in terms of my figure,” Ms. Li said. “That’s why I was attracted to her. I was like, wow, I wish my body looked like that.”

This woman’s mother objected to Ms. Li. It wasn’t because she was transgender, however, as she thought Ms. Li was a man. It was the fact that Ms. Li was an atheist at the time. So, Ms. Li started reconnecting with faith.

Her Way Back

Ms. Li eventually found faith again, and that was the beginning of her path to detransitioning. She asked God “What do you want me to be? I will be what you want.”

A car accident around that time also encouraged her on that path. It brought her to a hospital, where she ended up getting connected with mental health help.

That’s when she was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoria disorder and manic depression. She got therapy to help with her episodes of rage and learned to verbalize her feelings. She realized her gender dysphoria was connected with these other conditions, and as she got treatment for them, she began her return to womanhood.

Ms. Li has become more comfortable in her body, and she’s not only able to hold down one job now, but a few. She’s a school concierge, a piano teacher, and she is studying to be a personal support worker.

She published a book last year titled “Master It: A Quick and Easy Way to Get You Mastering Piano Today,” and she is working on an autobiography.

“I’m much better now. Like, if you see how I live, it’s almost lavish,” she said. She spoke with pride about the pianos she has been able to buy with her own money after years of struggling to keep a job.

She spoke with enthusiasm for the future, with plans on top of plans. She wants to be a wife and mother and help people broadly, not only as a personal support worker but also by establishing programs to help the community—such as helping homeless people get on better footing.

“I feel like I’m successful and I’m gonna get more successful in the future and I'll be able to help,” she said.