What many people in our society fail to realize is that everything in a gym is gendered. From the weight rooms to the yoga studios, shadowing each moving body is the invisible avatar of their ideals. These ghostly goals echo conceptions of the traditionally masculine and feminine. Svelte women in colorful spandex peer down from the walls at the rows of treadmills, while the weight room is plastered with images of bulging pectorals and gleaming muscles. The lightest weights are pink.
Fitness is my life, but neither idol speaks to me. I lift heavy, surprisingly so for my size. I train to change the parameters of my physique to better embody my gender identity. I want broader shoulders to offset the feminine width of my hips. I want to carry muscle weight in my arms, not my butt or legs. It’s the illusion of masculinity, painted atop the bones of a woman, that sings to me.
At first sight, I’m uncategorizable. In still images I’m ambiguous, but biology perhaps outweighs presentation enough that most people lean female. In person, the physicality of my movements tips the scale toward male. I’m happy that way, but there’s nowhere it’s more problematic than in locker rooms. Cropped hair and baggy clothes that earn me odd glances on the floor are actively unsettling in a space where women make themselves vulnerable. There’s an understandable safety concern when a woman changing in a locker room thinks a man has just walked in. I get it. The reactions hurt, but I won’t pretend not to sympathize.
Over time, I’ve developed particular habits for entering. My face must be visible. Short of the defining ones, it’s my most feminine feature. I throw extra clothing on over my tank top to soften the ridges of muscles on my arms and shoulders. It feels strange to hide what I work so hard to hone, but I draw the line at causing actual alarm. Alarm implies the fear of violence — and I not only understand, but I ultimately need to be concerned about violence against me as well.
I rarely take my headphones off. Not in the locker rooms, during my sets, not while walking in and out. If they wouldn’t electrocute me, I’d wear them right into the shower.
I don’t need to hear the whispers to know what people are saying. “Is that a boy or a girl?” “What is that?”
Tuning out is a decision that cuts both ways. I also don’t hear when people are impressed with how much weight I throw around. But that’s okay. To care about their approval would allow in the disapproval of others. I choose not to give anyone’s opinion of me merit. The gym is my temple, and I’m not there for nobody’s gaze but my own.
At the same time, I am proud of my physique. I’m strong and sleek and may never be as large as I want to be. I train enough clients to know that generally, women work out to be smaller and men train to get bigger. I buck the trend. My idols win bodybuilding awards. And they don’t care if some scrawny guy thinks they’re too muscular to be female.
As for me, I know that not everyone will like or accept me at first sight — but damn if they aren’t going to remember me.
About the author: Yvonne Mo is a New York City based personal trainer with certifications/licenses in: NSCA Trainer; ACSM Group Exercise Instructor; Precision Nutrition Certified; Shotokai-ryu Karate Black Belt Instructor; USA Track and Field Level 1 Coach; Pre/Post Natal Certified; ViPR Certified; TRX Certified; Power Plate Level 1 Certified; AKC Certified; National Federation of Professional Trainers; Endurance Trainer Certification; and American Heart Association CPR Adult/Child Certified. Mo has found her calling in helping others reach their fitness goals regardless of how small or large it may be. She is consistent on being on top of the newest fitness research and exercise techniques in order to best serve her clients. Check out Yvonne Mo at the MovewithMo website here or follow her on Facebook here.
This is a great, great article.
I'm a powerlifter, and find that the gym is the most blessedly gender neutral space for me, but part of that is really my gym. It also helps I guess that I physically present female, although attitude and how I lift and walk and talk are generally male, depends on my mood.
I like people, and the majority of the people at my gym are regulars; I know my crowd, and they know me. The guys treat me like another guy unless I'm somehow signaling otherwise. The women either flirt or ask me for tips or treat me like a woman or all of the above, depending. No one but maybe one trainer knows how I identify consciously, I think they get it subconsciously, though.
The locker room situation sucks. I'd like to use the men's locker room when I feel like it but like you I feel like it's not worth pushing it.
I also get that not talking to people is easier than doing it, and would be harder depending on how you present. At the same time, I also feel like in a lot of cases the risk has been totally worth it. How I relate to people is how I know that I'm passing, and in the gym, I'm consistently, accurately passing.
Like you said, it's our temple. S**t's got to be aligned and working for us there. It's critical.