Working Out Made My Dysphoria Worse. Then, I Started To Reclaim The Gym
This piece is part of Bustle’s All Levels Welcome, a column about making fitness culture as accessible and inclusive as possible.
The gym is often a space that gives me a space that makes me feel good in my body, but in the last few months, dysphoria had been overtaking my workout life. My trans body exists in an in-between space all the time, and I like it that way — most of the time. But things get more complicated in the gym. There is no category for me in the highly gendered space of the gym, and for a while, being a personal trainer and working out was making my dysphoria so much worse.
But as a teenager, the weight room always gave me a sense of purpose. My lifting coach in high school would call me out in front of the class for working harder than the boys, and while I hated that my friends were being shamed, I loved being seen as worthy. I was able to create the body I wanted for myself, that puberty had taken from me.
So even before I came out as non-binary in 2017, I loved the defiance of being a "girl who lifts heavy" in long hair, low cut tanks, and last night's eyeliner. And I still love that defiance, for all the parts of me that are deeply femme. But now, I am both everything and nothing in the gym. I am not a woman lifting, but I am certainly not a man lifting. That lack of category feels good some days. Other days, the horrid trap of comparing my arms to men's is sheer torture. Because that's where my arm dysphoria kicks in.
Of course, not all trans and non-binary people experience dysphoria, which is the deep sense of discomfort that sometimes comes with your gendered body. And until recently, I thought I was one of them. But part of learning to love yourself well often involves syncing yourself with your body more deeply. And in that process, I've been creating space for myself to fully embrace all the ways that I'm trans, and that includes some pretty intense chest and arm dysphoria. The gym was instrumental in letting me learn this about myself, because of the way it highlighted my dysphoria with an intensity that made me acknowledge it, embrace it, and figure out how to help myself.
After moving far from my hometown, I found a gym that excited me to no end. Gritty, multiple squat racks, a deadlifting platform. A sled to push and pull around, and big tires outside to flip. And a lot of very big, very muscley dudebros with arms that seemed to scream that mine were not big enough, not boyish enough. Comparing myself to these men made me think that no matter how hard I work, my experiences in my body will never be real. I will never be enough.
Because of this dysphoria, intense depression spirals, complete with apathetic hopelessness, started replacing an ebullient eagerness to get to the gym every day. My favorite workouts became terrible burdens. I couldn't look in mirrors or touch my own body. I found myself self-harming more and my confidence plummeted. Which especially stunk, because the gym has always been my home away from home, my meditation space and my sanctuary.
And it's not just me. Gyms often intensely police gender norms, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, which found that men tend to avoid equipment they think will be perceived as too feminine, while women often have trouble taking up space in places like the weight room. And a 2017 study published in the Journal of Internet Medical Research found that even social media images of #fitspiration are highly gendered in their body expectations and shaming.
I wanted to reclaim the gym for myself, even though the gym, as an institution, doesn't support people whose bodies are actively marginalized, like my powerlifting trans body. I realized what I've known for years: my arms, my hands, are actually my favorite parts of my body. And I don't want something I love (the gym) to make me love something else I love (my arms) any less.
So now? Now, I've mercilessly taken scissors to all my gym t-shirts, to emphasize my favorite parts of my body. I only look at my own reflection during my workouts, no one else's. I laser-focus on me, because ultimately, I am the reason I am in the gym. And while I'm working out, I want to see as much of the definition and size that I've worked so hard for, that I'm so proud of. I'm allowed to be both dysphoric and euphoric about my arms. The gym taught me both lessons. Because the gym might not be made for me, or perhaps for you, but that doesn't mean you can't use it to kickstart your own sense of self-love.