It’s not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and to make your happiness a priority. It’s necessary.
Before September 2018, I hadn’t been to a gym in about fifteen months. Even when I did go on a regular basis, I only ran on the treadmill. In September I moved from London to Portsmouth, where I have two gyms within walking distance from my house. Having out-trained my home equipment, I decided to sign up for the university gym.
On my first day, too scared to go into the male changing room, I dropped my backpack in the female one in a mad rush and stepped onto the gym floor with trepidation. The room was almost empty, which made the mirrors stand out all the more. Mirrors on every single wall, haunting me, showing me how small and puny and female I look from every possible angle. A painful reminder of what I’m not, of what I should have been.
In addition, that day I was supposed to start a different training routine with new, unfamiliar exercises. As a result, I was shaking throughout the workout and left on the verge of tears. Dysphoria is a bitch, am I right?
One of the reasons why I want to become a personal trainer is to help other trans folks overcome this. Personally, I had to change gym and find ways to build my confidence. Here are six tips that have worked well for me:
#1 – Go gym-scouting
Even though it’s super easy to get a gym membership online these days, I recommend visiting the gym beforehand. This way you can find out if they have lockers on the gym floor, familiarise yourself with the equipment and where it’s located before your first training session, and, if you feel up to it, even speak to a member of staff and gauge whether the gym is queer friendly or not.
I was already familiar with the university gym from my “cardio-centred years”. Incidentally, it was also where my fitness instructing course was held, so I had the opportunity to get extensive experience with their resistance training equipment as well. Nevertheless, that’s where I had the less than pleasant workout described above.
The other gym nearby, which turned out to be my final choice, was a PureGym facility I’d only been to on one occasion two years before. A week before my first actual workout, I purchased an off-peak membership and visited on Sunday. On Monday morning, I already knew where to find free weights, benches, and power racks, so I wasted no time and felt no embarrassment or unease.
Lesson learnt (the hard way) – even a familiar place can add to your discomfort. For this reason, scouting is always a smart idea.
#2 – Make Yourself Comfortable
For the reasons I mentioned, make sure to eliminate all potential stress sources during your workouts, especially for the first one or two weeks at a new gym. For example, if you’re used to working out at a certain time, do your best to stick to that. If it isn’t feasible, remember that you may feel weaker or more awkward during your training for a couple of weeks or so, until your body adapts to the new timetable.
When I joined the university gym, I had to move my 6am session to 11am, forced by the gym opening times. However, I was already demanding a lot from my mind, so expecting my body to adjust well to the change turned out to be preposterous. Cue decreased performance and lowered self-confidence. When one says, “a recipe for disaster”…
Eventually, I chose PureGym because it’s a 24-hour gym, so I wouldn’t have to account for any timetable but my own. Working out first thing in the morning is one of my favourite habits, and maintaining it really helped ease my tension overtime. For you, however, the time of your workouts may not be an issue at all. If that’s the case, find out your own non-negotiables. They will be valuable weapons to fight off dysphoria and any other negative feeling you may experience.
#3 – Don’t Use the Changing Rooms
If you’re not taking hormones yet, like me, you may be scared, uncomfortable, or even forbidden to use your real gender changing room. In some cases, that can still happen even if you are taking hormones.
If using the changing room for your birth gender isn’t an option, either, you can look for a gym that has lockers on the gym floor. They’re usually free for anyone to use, though you may want to buy a padlock to keep your belongings safe.
It means you have to wear your workout clothes on the way to the gym and you can’t take a shower until you’re back home, but I find that the advantages definitely outweigh the inconvenience.
#4 – Bring a Friend
Research shows that workout buddies improve performance (click), but at times they can also play a vital role in ensuring we complete a full session. For a trans individual, it’s better if your friend is aware that you’re trans and it can be very convenient if they are of your birth gender.
During my recent holiday in America, I had access to a small gym with no external lockers. My partner and I went together, and she kept our possessions locked up in the female changing room. Thanks to her, I didn’t have to set foot in there a single time. Be considerate, though. I always left the house in full workout gear, so I wouldn’t need to load her with much other than a hoody and a small bag. Moreover, although we didn’t even do the same workout, knowing she was in the same room as me took some discomfort off my back and allowed me to focus only on my training.
#5 – Dress to Impress (Yourself)
Wearing a binder while working out can damage your ribs and compromise your chances of a future top surgery. In this situation, clothes that make you smile when you see your reflection are a great tool to minimise dysphoria.
My workout wardrobe consists of a pair of green sweatpants, a Punisher T-shirt, and a green tank top, all designed for men. The sweatpants are neither too form-fitting nor too loose, so they don’t cling to my legs like leggings and don’t impede my movements when I’m lifting. The T-shirt and tank top make me feel like a boss. They’re all made of cotton because it’s a high quality, comfortable fabric.
Watching other people used to make me self-conscious about my own looks. After a few workouts at the same gym, though, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and found that observing others made me feel happier with my choice of attire. Most girls wear snug leggings and a tank top, a crop top, or another tight-fitting type of shirt. Seeing them made me realise how different I look. I get dysphoria when dwelling on how different I look from cis guys, so this shift in my mindset has been a precious victory.
#6 – Eyes on the Prize
Maintaining laser focus on your goal is the most effective state of mind you want to be in. Everybody else is in the exact same place, too. At the gym, no one is disputing your gender, no one is assessing what you look like or what exercises you’re doing, and no one is going to give you a hard time. If anything, the gym can be a very friendly and welcoming environment regardless of your fitness career. Everyone was once a beginner or an intermediate exerciser; many of them still are. Everyone pursues some kind of fitness goal and sometimes lacks the motivation to work out. Many people feel uncomfortable in a gym environment even if they aren’t trans. For these reasons, when other users realise you’re constantly showing up and putting in the work, they will come to respect you, even if they might never talk to you.
Ultimately, you don’t go to the gym to be a guy or a girl. You go to exercise, to increase strength or muscle mass, to improve your body image, to get fitter, or to chase whatever your objective might be. So does everybody else. If you keep in mind this common intention, you’ll be more likely to see what brings us all fitness people together, no matter our gender, instead of what sets you apart in a negative way.
However, there’s a reason this is my last tip. Achieving this state of mind may be the hardest feat to accomplish, so set yourself up for success by following the previous five tips. Give yourself time to get to know and adjust to your gym environment before you try #6. It might just be the one that delivers dysphoria the final blow.
Good luck and stay safe!
In Future Episodes:
The beginning of the year is a time of change and resolutions. The next article will explore goal setting and achievement.
Do you have any strategies to feel comfortable and safe at the gym?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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