Physical appearance has never not been a focus in my life. I did ballet, taekwondo, and a bunch of sports as a kid. I then worked as a kinesiologist and fitness coach at 8 different gyms in Toronto over the last decade before teaching fitness classes on zoom out of my living room when the pandemic hit.
I was 19 when I started my first group fitness coaching job. Like most early-twenty-somethings, I knew absolutely nothing and was desperate to fit in and be accepted. In conjunction with this, I was raised in a family with a very “make sure you’re polite and nice and good” narrative, which lent itself nicely to a tendency for people pleasing and perfectionism.
As a result, I had no experience or knowledge of looking inwards to find personal meaning and instead turned outwards towards others: what does this stranger want me to be? I can be that. What would make this group of people happy? I can do that. What does a fitness coach look like? I can transform into that.
Now the fitness industry, as readers of this blog know, is not the most inclusive space (to put it mildly). There is actually a common phrase among strength and conditioning coaches that “your body is your business card”. *Insert gagging noises here*
In my search for acceptance, I developed a relationship with my body and movement that existed solely for the approval of those around me. I am queer, and also white, AFAB, thin, able-bodied, and conventionally “attractive” by beauty standards. In this positionality, I was the picture of a stereotypical fem gym coach and fielded a lot of questions about “what my secret was” to looking the way I did.
I would laugh nervously, only mildly aware of the fact that about 95% of my bandwidth was occupied with thoughts of when and what my next workout would be, when and what I would eat, when and what people would think of me… always measuring, criticizing, poking, prodding.
“You know, everyone is different and what works for me might not work for you. What feels good for you and what is important to you right now?” I would reply.
Was the irony that I would always encourage others to listen to themselves while neglecting my own needs lost on me completely? You betcha!
Then — as the absurdity of life goes — the universe started sending me signals to change this pattern, hitting me over the head like an increasingly impatient and hungry cat ready for the breakfast you are not giving it fast enough.
One of these signals was this weird, gender-specific nag. I started to resent my own appearance and demeanour, and would watch men work out in the gym and feel this deep envy. Envy of how effortlessly they could build muscle, throw weights around, and the ease with which they could casually occupy space without making themselves smaller and apologetic for simply existing as women in society are conditioned to do.
I wanted that ease. I started to interrogate my own appearance and measured, controlled, obsessive relationship with movement. It started as a quiet, irritable thought with men in general that they got to have those things and I didn’t.
But why couldn’t I have those things? What would it look like for me to have that ease without the gym-bro-ness that didn’t feel like something I wanted? Why should these gym-men-people be the holding place of my frustration with the patriarchy? My lack of self-trust and ease is neither my fault nor theirs.
I began to pull at the thread of how my gender intersected with my movement… I would watch other people being and moving in all kinds of spaces, gently noticing what I admired and what this meant for me.
I admire the calmness of a fellow runner as we smile at each other passing by, also noting that I envy how he doesn’t have to wear a sports bra to strap down his boobs.
I admire the confidence and strength of a woman holding half-moon pose in a hot yoga class, also noticing her hairless legs and recognizing within myself that I am really tired of shaving and the impossible beauty standards demanded of women.
I admire the vulnerability and strength of a young male-identifying boxing newcomer. I also notice that they are immediately welcomed into the space. Coaches guide him without mansplaining, and I reflect on intersectionality and how someone else might be treated in that position. I also really like his androgynous haircut and note that my own long hair is work I don’t want.
Over the last few years I’ve gone through some external changes. I like to say that pre-pandemic I looked like Barbie, whereas my current presentation is definitely more of an Allen/Ken mix: chopping off chunks of my hair steadily over time, the addition of many tattoos, opting for “men’s” clothes over spandex and tight-fitting things.
I understand how physical changes can be most apparent to the outside world, but in truth my internal world is where the change has occurred. While I now identify as non-binary and trans, these arbitrary labels are a reflection of something deeper.
The more I allow my gender to be whatever it is that day, the more I allow my movement to be whatever it is that day, and vice versa. The more restrictive my gender, the more restrictive my movement. I feel authentic, grounded, free, joyful, radical self-acceptance, and appreciation for all of the absurdity and humanness around me.
What does today call for? Testosterone and a trail run? Sounds like an adventure.
Alex is a gender, career, and meaning-explorer who lives in Tkaronto. When they’re not studying social work, they can be found having heart-to-hearts with strangers in coffee shops. This photo is from a Ted Lasso themed workout during the lockdown.