I had acupuncture for the first time. My osteopath (I can’t help but laugh at the idea of having an osteopath) was in the Marines, apparently. He was lovely and laughed at my jokes before cracking my back and sticking pins in my flesh. At one point he asked me to list any medications I take and side effects. When I told him I take oestrogen he asked, “any side effects?” and I laughed and said, “no, just, you know, being a woman or whatever”.
I’ve had pain in my wrists. Repetitive stress, the osteopath later confirms. Maybe it’s excessive scrolling through the viewers on my latest Instagram story when I’m supposed to be watching that crime series everyone loves or perhaps it’s the way I write these newsletters flat on my back in bad, laptop against my bent knees, typing away for too long at angles that are…ergonomically challenged. Either way, my wrists have been fucked for a couple of weeks and I’m annoyed because I had to lay off upper body strength training while I work out the best treatment.
Exercise has really been the main joy in my life this winter. I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this but here we are. What is it about moving weights around in a harshly lit room that’s suddenly become so appealing? Well, there’s the development of a routine that provides me with structure during short days and hours alone with my thoughts as I attempt to write my book and there’s the fact that training encourages me to think of food as less of a tremendous stress and chore (especially fucking lunch – the most burdensome of meals when you work from home) and more as fuel for workouts.
But it’s also the sense of conquest and victory over something. I can’t believe I go to the gym. I, who was forced to participate in games and P.E. (my minor public school was so sporty these were two different subjects) for five years, against my will, with a group of thirty boys who enjoyed nothing more than conceptually fusing my lack of strength, stamina, and coordination in pretty much all team sports and athletics with my glaring effeminacy and faggotry. I can’t remember where exactly but a few years ago I read that P.E. is the only subject in school where the teachers only actually teach the pupils who are already good at it. This accords with my experience. I remember teachers shouting at me, laughing at me, shaking their head at me but never once actually trying to show me that some degree of fitness can be built by anyone, as can strength. You were either strong or you weren’t. I wasn’t. I was weak.
Overcoming this perception about myself and my limitations was one of the hardest things about starting a ‘fitness journey’ and I couldn’t have done it without trainers who have built my confidence with technique. I’ve had two – one was a woman I worked with before the pandemic who assured me that lots of cis women she trained shared my aesthetic fears about strength training: becoming ‘bulky’, ‘hench’, ‘unfeminine’. (No woman with an endocrine system driven by oestrogen will become ‘bulky’ from lifting weights alone). My current trainer is a trans person, which is a real blessing as they can understand a wider context in which the gym is a weirdly political space for me. Right now, for example, the UK is quite literally tearing itself apart over whether I should, theoretically, be able to enter the women’s changing room when I arrive at the gym. I tend not to go in by the way. I believe I have every right to, of course, but I have internalised the moral panic to such an extent that the convenience of changing and showering at a gym is not worth the price I would pay in all-consuming anxiety for the validation of exercising that right. I instead use a local gym and arrive in my kit, showering at home and using lockers on the main floor. After all, I partly come to the gym to escape a horrid and historical preoccupation with performing ‘passable’ femininity, so not having to fret about performing it in such an intensely gendered space allows the rest of the experience to feel more relaxed and fun.
Ironically, what l have also come to love so much about weight lifting is that it is a bit unfeminine at least in the traditional sense. Socially acceptable femininity – the kind I feel pressured to display when I appear on TV in my work for example – is about softness, accommodation, prettiness and, above all, smallness. By smallness I do of course mean the tyranny of thinness as the only acceptable body type in our culture, but I also mean a smallness in the amount of conceptual space you take up. I mean not being considered too much to handle. For a trans woman this can be convincing yourself that to be emaciated is the only way to be feminine but also that to be gently spoken, calm, lashes fluttering in objectively uncomfortable clothing is to be palatably a woman enough for cis people. The most acceptable form of femininity for me to safely navigate the public realm has always been the same yielding, narrow, kind prescribed for women generally: the kind that’s most appealing to men. I recently stopped going to a local shop for a pint of milk in the morning because the man who works there hit on me in the sleaziest way possible at 8.30am. When he did that I smiled at him and made my voice gentler – by instinct I tend to fawn over those who make me feel nervous until I can retreat. Whenever I am in public I am constantly gauging my own performance of femininity and how it is being received by the world, especially its men. I gasped the other day when I read this quotation from Margaret Atwood:
Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
That’s it. That’s really it and there are just fleeting moments where, in the euphoria of putting my body under stress and achieving my goals, that inner voyeur disappears. Funnily enough, entering a male-majority free weights area in the gym, loading the barbells and briefly not thinking about how to use my femininity simultaneously as a weapon and as a shield as I do constantly in public space - to experience my body’s strength and power in a different, large way, without the trappings of feminine adornment – tastes like freedom.
Excellent as usual.
Look after your wrists!!!
Oof, wow, this is such great writing. Lots of resonating here too! Thank you Shon.