I used to work out to near-exhaustion. I'd make the circuit around free weights and machines, alternating between upper- and lower-body exercises until it hurt to move—and then I'd do it all again the next day. In idle moments around my apartment, I'd do bicep curls. I was always short, slim, and delicately built, but I compared myself to men twice my size who could lift me one-handed.
I pushed myself, going after every muscle group I could think of, adding bulk and definition to my waist and arms. This was an odd turn for someone who got their start as a tiny, asthmatic nerd who absolutely detested PE. But I was making real, visible progress—people in my life commented on my newfound shape, and the sense of control I felt was intoxicating and came with a manic sort of bravado that was easily confused with confidence.
But it was never enough. It didn't matter how much my muscles grew, that I was cramping, or that none of those workouts left me feeling invigorated or energized. I'm a trans woman, and before that, I was a trans girl who didn't know it. 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. I was surrounded by masculine ideals that I never wanted and could never fulfill, and felt forced to hide my femininity. My exercise routine was a war I was trying to win, and the other side of that war was… myself, the girl I couldn't let myself be.
Especially as a Hispanic trans girl, masculinity was a prison, with little room for slightly built, bookish types like me. In my community, to be a man was to be loud, handy, and combative, and I grew up feeling inadequate. But when I started lifting weights, it felt like a promise to myself that I'd become the "man" I was "supposed" to be. I wasn't driven by a desire to be able to lift heavier objects or attain a more handsome physique. I was trying to bury who I was beneath muscle and sweat.
Of course, no amount of exercise could make the "man" in the mirror less of a stranger. Some exercises 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—masculine, strong, and in control—but that feeling was confusing and empty because it wasn't me wearing them in the mirror. Being praised for the results of my workouts felt alienating, even painful, the same as every other masculine activity I ever took up, but I was in denial.
And then I wasn't.
When I figured out my gender, the lightbulb moment was more of a stadium spotlight. Months of questioning, examining, and talking to friends who had walked this path culminated in a joyful, terrifying flash of recognition. Almost everything I'd failed to understand about myself became clear, and I could finally embrace who I was.
I put decades of detailed mental style notes to use and emerged into my new feminine fashion faster than anyone imagined: Part early 2000s pop star, part that one teacher you had a huge crush on (but would never confess to). 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.
No amount of exercise could make the 'man' in the mirror less of a stranger.
Now, I still spend time doing squats, push-ups, and sit-ups to tone my body. As a trans woman, I have to wrangle an uncooperative body into compliance, and this workout routine is one of my tools for doing that. But now, I can look at my abs getting stronger each week, and I can finally feel the unbridled joy that always should have brought me. I can enjoy push-ups and squats without any shame about my curves. Finally, my exercise isn't trying to build 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—and 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. After more than two decades of feeling completely out-of-sorts, it's time for me to feel beautiful.