CW: This post contains brief mentions of eating disorders and self-harm.
I’ve spoken before about the complicated relationship that I have with my body, and how body image for me is a complex and intricate network that involves aspects of dysphoria, depression, disordered eating and self-harm. I’ve also mentioned in some of those posts the prominent role that exercise has played for me in managing all of it, and in trying to stay healthy – sometimes, even overdoing it.
A body is an interesting thing. For all the discourse around damaging normative standards of beauty and physicality, it’s still something that many, if not all, of us are hung up on. We might recognise that thin isn’t inherently better than fat, for example – but we’re conditioned deeply to believe that it is, even if we “should know better”.
My body has never been good for very much. When I was a young child, I was always the last one picked for sports. No matter how much I practiced, I was just never good enough. I didn’t have the instinct for sports, and it was a source of shame for me, because of the way society values physical prowess. And as someone who was seen as a boy, I experienced those expectations with even greater intensity.
Getting fat didn’t help with that at all. Already, I understood that my body just wasn’t “good enough” – it didn’t meet the standards it was supposed to. Being overweight exacerbated all of that. Once I started working out in the gym in the second half of my teenage years, all my effort was driven by a desire to meet those impossible standards. Fueled by the hatred and resentment I had for my own body. Of course, what I didn’t fully understand at the time was that underneath all of those feelings lay dysphoria too.
I was never comfortable in my skin. Not only was my body not capable – it wasn’t strong or fast or talented in that way – but it was ugly.Body hair was a shock when it started to grow. and I felt deeply uncomfortable with, and ashamed by, it. My body itself was the wrong shape – I thought it was just because I’d been overweight, but of course, there was more to it. I had bad skin and allergies and I never knew what it was like to feel well.
Clothes never fit well either. Tight on the hips, loose ’round the waist – hardly the textbook specimen of maleness. In retrospect, my adipose tissue knew where it was supposed to go before I did.
Intimacy, when it became a factor, just made everything worse. I won’t go into detail – there’s much more about this in my book, if it interests you – but everything just felt wrong. The things that I wanted were different to the things I knew I was supposed to want. The things I was supposed to do were things my body just didn’t want to do. It was all strange and confusing. But more than that, it was disparaging.
I reached a point where I’d just about given up on the notion that I might ever really be at peace with my body. I figured it was always just going to be an uneasy sort of truce where we’d each put up with each other, even though we clearly didn’t want to.
Stuff started to make a lot more sense once I realised that actually, I was trans. Once I started to transition, my body began to feel like my own for the first time ever. And I was so very grateful. The sensation was novel; it caught me off guard. To look in the mirror and be pleased? Unheard of, yet here it was happening.
There are two sides to that coin, though. We all know about the standards of feminine beauty to which all women are subject – we’re supposed to be curvy but also ridiculously thin, strong but soft, perfectly beautiful but not unnaturally so. For trans women, those standards can be even more imposing and inflexible.
But it doesn’t end there. Because we’re all told that even if we somehow meet those impossible standards, our bodies will still never be good enough, simply because they are trans bodies. We’re seen as freaks of nature, good for being objectified or sexualised, but not for much more than that. So many people think that the highest compliment you can pay to a trans person is to say “but you don’t look trans!” – as if being visibly trans is such an awful thing in the first instance.
Even in our interactions with the medical system, our agency over our bodies is appropriated to conform to someone else’s idea of what we should be. To see beauty in a trans body for what it is, rather than for what someone has arbitrarily determined it is supposed to be, is a radical act, even in 2017.
There’s always an ideal for us to chase.
Never. Good. Enough.
Fitness became important to me again in 2015. As I had begun my transition, I’d started to value my body, and for the first time I wanted to take care of it properly. Or, at least, as best as I could. I started working out at home – because I couldn’t get a gym membership while my ID was still being processed – and I was diligent about it. Every day, I’d do HIIT, or Zumba, or yoga, or some combination of the above on my living room floor, in front of the television. I tracked my workouts, I monitored my heart rate, and I kept at it.
Last year, when I was off the US for three months, I realised that my existing fitness routine was going to have to change. Jumping around a college dorm room simply isn’t practical or sustainable. And quitting wasn’t an option – for me, it almost never is.
That’s when I started to run. At first, it was a defense mechanism, in fact. I was thousands of miles from home, isolated from everything that was familiar to me, the program I was in was intensive and high-pressure, and there was junk food everywhere. I felt very alone and very lost. I was desperately scared that I’d decompensate, that the proverbial wheels would come off, and that I’d be unable to get myself back on track.
Exercise was an outlet for my feelings. Exercise was an anti-depressant. Exercise was a support structure. I overdid it – and I’ll admit to that. If I was frustrated or annoyed, I took it out on the road, or the treadmill. If I’d eaten badly, I used exercise to purge. I was in the gym multiple times a day. Two or three hours, maybe even more.
My feet, virgin to running, quickly became blistered. I bought better socks, and I kept going. My knee started to ache. I bought a brace, and I kept going. When I couldn’t run any more, I moved to the elliptical. Still for hours at a time. And as soon as I was recovered, I laced up the running shoes again.
It wasn’t all unhealthy. In life, things are seldom black and white, as you undoubtedly know. But certainly, I was using exercise – and running – as a crutch. I was deathly scared of picking up a serious injury because if I became unable to exercise, I had no idea how I’d continue to compensate for everything that was happening.
Sooner or later, while all of this was happening, I noticed something though. When it came to running, I was getting better at it. And that was something I was unused to. I was able to run further, longer and faster every time I put on my shoes. Previously in my life, I’d always continued to be hopeless at physical pursuits, even when I worked hard at them.But somehow this was different.
The irony is not lost on me that I’ve become more physically capable in the absence of testosterone. Of course, that’s not a blanket statement. Before, I could lift a washing machine, and now I’ll struggle with a dining room chair. But I’m faster than I’ve ever been. I have endurance and I have stamina.
Seeing my body actually improve at something was a very novel experience. And it challenged some of the assumptions that I’d made about myself and that had been made about me. I remember when I bought my running shoes in the US – the first pair that I’d actually bought for the purpose of running in – and I’d said to the sales clerk, “I’m just running for fitness and health. I don’t really care about being good at it”. It was true at the time. I never expected to get better at it to any significant degree, or to want to. But both were happening.
Once I returned to South Africa, I started to do races. I started to think about personal records. I started to train with a purpose. I actively wanted to get better at what I was doing. It was still an outlet – in fact, even now if something untoward happens that flusters or frustrates me, it’s my instinctive response to try to run it out. But it’s become a lot bigger than that for me.
Because of all those hurtful things that I have believed about my body throughout my three-and-a-bit-decades, I have something to prove. To society, but also to myself. My body is not inferior or incapable. It might not conform to arbitrary standards, but that does not diminish the value of it. It’s a female body, and it’s a trans body, but
it can still be beautiful it is beautiful.
My body is not broken. My body isn’t not-good-enough. Yeah, I have a lot of muscle. I’m strong. I’m lean. I have cellulite. My breasts are tiny. I have big feet. I have scars. My body is unique; she is not like any other body in the world. But that doesn’t make her lesser.
Don’t misunderstand me. These battles are not won – I struggle still to love myself. I can’t always see the objective truth about my body, even if I desperately long to. Some days it still looks ugly and wrong. Too much fat, too bulky, all the wrong proportions. Not feminine enough. The list goes on indefinitely.
This is baggage that I carry with me. The eating disorder, the self-harm, the dysphoria – they are part of my history and they remain part of my present. I have to keep fighting. I will slip sometimes, I’m certain – but my hope is that those lapses will become less frequent.
The first time I ran 21 kilometres was in Seattle, in September. I went out on a Saturday morning for a long run. I ran 10 kilometres, and I still felt good, so instead of turning back, I carried on. By 16 km, I was tired, but a voice in my head said “just 5km to go”. Remember I told you that I’m bad at quitting? I was finished by the end of that training run, dragging my heels the last 3km. But that day I proved to myself that my broken, ugly trans body could do something that had some objective merit.
I ran my first official half-marathon in October. 2 hours, 18 minutes. I ran another on the very next weekend, just to prove that I could do them back-to-back.
My next one was 3 weeks later. 2 hours, 10 minutes.
I was getting better, measurably better. And it was addictive. I don’t have any natural aptitude for this, let me be clear – I’m not a talented runner. I have dreadful heel-strike, and I’m an awful over-pronator, and I have to work really hard on my form. I’m not good at running because of some innate capacity – it’s all just hard work and perseverance. But that hard work is making be better.
In spite of all the things that were supposed to be wrong with me.
I love the endorphins, I want to look better, and I want to get stronger. But some part of my motivation is just about proving that I can. That my body is worth celebrating. That she’s beautiful and capable and wonderful, and that she continues to be despite all of the abuse that she has endured.
I was never a runner, but I spent many years of my life running nonetheless. For all that time, I was running from.
But those days are gone. Now… I spend my time running to.