I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with exercise. Truth be told, exercise verged on self-harm for me for a long time, and it took some major personal revelations for me to see it.
It was never enough. It didn’t matter how my musculature expanded, or how some of those exercises were ill-advised for someone with the overly flexible joints I’ve always had, or what kind of cramps I brought home, or that none of those workouts left me feeling invigorated or energized. My exercise routine was a war I was trying to win, and the other side of that war was…myself.
I’m a trans woman, and before that, I was a trans girl who didn’t know it yet. The doctors told my parents I was a boy, and my parents told me I was a boy, and for most of my life, I believed them. They and the rest of this world imposed masculine ideals on me that I never wanted and could never fulfill, and forced me to hide the femininity I craved. Especially as a Hispanic trans girl, masculinity was a prison, with little room for slightly-built bookish types like me. I grew up with that inadequacy at the forefront of my mind. When I started lifting weights, it was with a promise that I’d become the “man” I was “supposed” to be. I was not trying to be able to lift heavier household objects, or attain some more handsome physique. I was trying to bury myself beneath muscle and sweat. I took up that exhausting regimen to beat out of myself the parts of me that made me feel inadequate.
No amount of exercise made the “man” in the mirror less of a stranger. Some of them made me feel worse, because I couldn’t admit to myself that every dumbbell side bend took away a little more of the curvature in my waist that I secretly loved, and every deltoid raise added bulk to my shoulders that I secretly hated. My masculine workout clothes were some of the first clothes I remember feeling good in, but that feeling was confusing and empty, because it wasn’t me wearing them in the mirror. Being praised for my workouts felt hollow, alienating, even painful, the same as every other masculine activity I ever took up, but I persisted in denial.
And then I didn’t.
When I figured out my gender, the lightbulb moment was more of a stadium spotlight. Almost everything I’d yet failed to understand about myself became clear and shameless, and I could finally embrace it. I put decades of detailed mental style notes to use and emerged into my new feminine fashion faster than anyone imagined. I started growing my hair out. I started laser hair removal on my face. I made phone calls about hormone replacement therapy. And I took up a new workout regimen.
Now, I spend a little time once a week doing squats, push-ups, and sit-ups to tone and shape this body. It is the burden of every trans woman to have to wrangle an uncooperative body into compliance, and this workout routine is one of my efforts. I can now look on how my abs show a little more each week with the unbridled joy it always should have brought me. I can enjoy how push-ups and squats continue to augment my feminine curves without any dread or shame about what that means. I don’t have to sit in slowly building horror and conflict at what I am doing to myself. At long last, my exercise is finally not for shoring up a self-concept that was never really mine, but for me.
Lifting weights until my joints hurt was never going to make me strong enough to see that. Not being able to heft the 50-pound box of cat litter I buy every three months quite as adroitly as I used to is a price worth paying for a body that finally feels like it’s mine.
And after more than two decades of feeling utterly out of sorts, it’s time for me to feel beautiful.