The Temple Of Fitness

My military family raised me to be ready for anything. Working out with my dad prepared me to encounter my true self.
My father (standing, with saber) at his retirement ceremony.
My father (standing, with saber) at his retirement ceremony.

Some people had church — their fathers were pastors. My father was an officer in the Navy, so we had the gym. 

Physical readiness is required for anyone in the military. There are fitness tests, whether you’re pushing papers or slinging an M-16 at a checkpoint overseas. A sailor’s physical condition matters whether they’re in a combat zone or not. I still remember my father telling me, one night at dinner, that if they ran out of people at the front, eventually it would be his turn. That’s why we’re ready.

If you grew up in a military family, you understand being ready.

We were ready all the time, for everything. We were always 10 minutes early. We packed the day before air travel, and left with plenty of time to spare for security and tickets. I have no memories that include my parents forgetting to stow some needed piece of equipment, like a picnic knife or bottle opener. Always prepared.

My father taught me that readiness begins in the body. How will you defend yourself if you’re not strong? He left the house at 4 a.m. every morning with a travel mug of black coffee, heading to the gym at the Pentagon. This was after a hip injury ended his running. The injury meant he was tied to the gym’s machines, stationary bikes, and pool. It also meant that finally, I could keep up with him.

One of my earliest memories: I am in first grade. It is the balmy part of spring in Waldorf, Maryland. My father, impossibly tall, is putting on his grey running shoes. He is a marathoner. He has run over 100 races. He asks if I want to come with him. It’s an easy one today, he says. Just a mile or so.

Thrilled, I stand in front of the closet in the bedroom I share with my sister. I agonize over what to wear, change clothes a few times, and finally pick a bright magenta and teal sweatsuit. My sneakers are battered, but I put them on anyway. I imagine myself in a photo, posed next to my dad. We have never done anything like this before. I think: He will be so proud of me. We will go running together all the time.

Instead, he’s waiting on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips, wondering what took so long. “That’s what you’re wearing?”

He shrugs, and sets off in an easy lope that, as an adult, I recognize as the slowest possible stride you can maintain without just reverting to walking in long steps. I pad alongside him, puppyish. The block where I practice riding my bike — it still has training wheels, much to my shame — is longer than I thought, and in a few minutes I realize that the sweatsuit was a terrible idea. I’m humid and my face feels sticky. I have never run like this, without joy or playfulness, at a steady pace. My father, the metronome, ticks on ahead and I fall behind him.

He circles back. “If you can’t keep up, you need to go home,” he says.

I don’t remember if I had an answer. He picked up speed at the corner and disappeared, never once looking back. I walked home crying, tore off the sweatsuit, and threw it on the floor. I refused to wear it again, even only the top or the bottoms, separately. Even when all my other clothes were dirty. Finally, I outgrew it. My mother packed it in a plastic bag and donated it to the VA.

But after the hip injury, he couldn’t run away from me. Starting in high school, my father started taking me to the gym with him when he went on the weekends. He took me there on Take Your Child To Work Day, too. The Pentagon, as you might imagine, had an extremely nice, top-of-the-line facility in one of the buildings on its compound. It had just been remodeled.

The Pentagon’s gym used to be a simple, Soviet-style weight training room with a couple of treadmills, showers, and changing areas. The renovation transformed it into a glossy, futuristic training facility, like something from a sci-fi movie about athletes in space. A track, suspended over the main gym area, looped around the inside of the building. There were saunas and pressurized rooms, a rock climbing wall, and clean, new equipment that smelled of vinyl. I may be imagining these details, but it is more likely that I am not.

The Pentagon gym had a shallow pool which was not part of the renovation. Its water tasted like bleach and salt, and was dimly lit by greenish lamps at the end of each lane. My goggles fogged up. There was nothing to see, so it didn’t matter. I did laps for an hour, too chicken to try a flip turn.

This was when I was still young and new to my body. I had a few years to go before femaleness caught up to me. My period hadn’t started yet; my breasts were latent, not even in the bud stage. I was 5’10” already and very thin. Lean. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to ask me, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Both. Neither. Do I have to choose? I couldn’t ever give a straight answer, because I didn’t have one. The words I’m a girl stuck in my throat. I wasn’t a girl. And, at that point in my life, I didn’t have to be one. I could still be a child. I was comfortable with my otherness. All I cared about was becoming faster, stronger. I read fitness magazines and learned how to build muscles, how to use interval training to improve my sprints, and the importance of fasted cardio. 

This was the era of female bodybuilding, the Miss Olympia competition, and American Gladiators. My dad gave me a poster of these formidable looking women, and I tacked it on my wall. They didn’t look human—their outfits were reminiscent of the comic book goddesses I loved, Wonder Woman and the Insect Queen. Their bleached teeth glittered. They wore bikinis and their breasts were eaten up by their pectorals. It was impossible to imagine them crying, or being afraid to walk to their car alone at night. It was never my aim to wear the suit of thick muscles these women did. But I envied their strength, and the freedom it gave them. They were more powerful than a man, even a very strong one. They had nothing to be afraid of.

My dad described these women as iron babes

I got a book about swimming and worked at perfecting my form. Even wearing a women’s swimsuit, I was called “sir.”

The swimming book suggested working on my cardiovascular endurance, so I ran in my neighborhood before school, 3 to 5 miles every day. I loved the way my feet hammered the sidewalk, making me feel like I was forged from iron. In PE, I did push-ups the regular way, never on my knees. I thought about the way my body could move through the water. 

The nearby community center had an Olympic-sized pool. I got my first job there, as a lifeguard. I worked out in the community center gym before my shift and swam laps after it, when the pool was closed. I could swim from one end to the other underwater, holding my breath. I fantasized about joining a swim team. In my fantasy, my parents sat on the cold aluminum bleachers, their applause swallowed up by the water in my ears. In reality, sports were not a possibility for me, because the practices and matches conflicted with our family’s schedule. I trained on my own. I found new ways to challenge myself.

For lifeguard drills, we practiced rescuing cinder blocks wrapped in duct tape from the deep end. It was supposed to simulate the dead weight of a drowned 350-pound person. Once we’d dragged the block to the surface, we had to tread water for a minute or more, hoisting the prop overhead. Head and neck out of the water. Arms straight. I held the record for this. I would stare at the clock’s long red minute hand, not caring that my arms and legs were burning. Pain is weakness leaving the body. I thought that, then. I still believed discipline was the pathway to love. 

The girls around me were starting to soften, wear bras. They’d stroke each others’ legs to admire their hairlessness, how close and smooth the shave was. They talked about boys. How many bases he got to. Who was a slut. I stayed separate from this. When I ran, or moved my body, I knew that what I looked like didn’t matter. I was a verb — not a noun, like them.

A modeling agent scouted me based on my height, but it didn’t go anywhere. I did not know how to pose like a girl. And I had those shoulders. I was long but not willowy. I was starting to look like my dad. 

To me, queer was shorthand for the wilderness outside the dominant genders. Weird was another word for it. I was queer because I didn’t belong in my culture’s narrowly defined heterosexual roles. I didn’t want to be straight, and straight people didn’t want me on their team. I couldn’t even pretend convincingly. In dresses or makeup, I looked more boyish than ever. 

My body was made not for decoration but for performance. But I wasn’t a guy, either. I didn’t covet masculinity or the horrible, strangling privilege that came with it. Boy, or girl? I didn’t belong in either locker room.

Trans is not short for transformation or even transition. Trans indicates the distance we travel from one point of gender expression to another, through the unmarked territory between male and female and all the other colors and shapes our identities take. I found that the further I got from the binary, the happier I was. I liked myself when I was other. Outside gender, I could be free. 

At school, they called me a dyke and a faggot because I kissed girls and dated girls and I would fight you if you got in my face. 

I played intramural football and basketball with a dozen guys my age, mostly black, all accepting of me. I went to my senior prom in a tuxedo; my date was a beautiful girl whose name I don’t remember. I buzzed my hair off. I attempted to kill myself twice. 

I kept running, lifting. Working. I stayed in the water as much as possible. I felt like there was a shadow in me, the true shape of myself. It kept surfacing even though I tried to push it down, back down into the depths.

Then, right after my high school graduation, my father was transferred to the Naval hospital in San Diego. The gym there was even nicer. I got a job in the civilian Human Resources office. My dad and I carpooled in the morning — two travel mugs of coffee, slipping out the door like lanky ghosts. Those morning commutes are some of my favorite memories of my father. I don’t remember if we bothered trying to talk to each other or if we just listened to NPR. In the gym, we went through our separate routines and said have a good day to each other on our way to the showers. 

I was almost 18. My breasts had arrived and men looked at me differently. I took less pleasure in exercising where I could be seen. If I ran in the morning, around our neighborhood, I risked being yelled at. Chased. Grabbed. The gym was static, but it was well lit and safe. 

At the hospital, someone who saw us together asked if I was my dad’s girlfriend. Whenever I went somewhere alone, strange men commented on my body. They told me what they’d like to do with my body. They told me what I was good for. I looked feminine enough, I guess. I felt like I was piloting a sex toy — this beautiful, rubbery body with my brain inside of it. I walked and talked from deep inside myself, not understanding why nobody saw the weird, androgynous creature inside my shell. 

Later, I learned about gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, which are beautiful words that describe the horrible feeling of not being at home in your own body. Or your own body not being, in some way, a right extension of your personhood. 

That is different from wishing you were taller, or less fat, or had a defined waist and less cellulite. Everyone, to some degree, wishes they could alter their appearance. That is not the problem I have. My body dysmorphia makes that desire to transform myself an imperative — if you don’t change this, now, you will die. My body dysmorphia means that this woman-body I live in feels like an itchy costume. There are days when it is difficult to leave the house or even look in the mirror. I do not wish to be seen. I don’t like my corporeality. It is painful to feel other people’s eyes on me. 

At the same time, my gender dysphoria means that I feel pain because my body does not match the way I see myself. I do not want to be masculine, or live in a male body. Nor do I identify as female — I have a woman’s body, but I am not a woman. In a perfect world, I don’t have to choose boy or girl. I am neither: I’m an athlete. A body in motion. 

Short of surgery and hormonal treatment, I will always look feminine. The tools at my disposal — exercise, diet, special clothes, a good barber — only take me so far. I have a soft face, full lips, delicate hands, and an hourglass figure. My body hair is light. Erasing these things would take me back in time, to the brief period of prepubescence when I was physically myself. There is no such thing as perfect androgyny, and as I’ve aged, I’ve found ways to modify and bind and dress myself to dampen the sense of wrongness I feel in the body I’ve been given.

Many people do this. Their reasons are sometimes the same as mine.

I practice gratitude for my health, and I try to accept the way I look, the way I might be grateful for the gift of an ugly winter coat as the weather is turning cold. It doesn’t suit me, but the alternative? To freeze.

I found ways to be more comfortable in this body of mine. I negotiate with my body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria on a daily basis. Getting to a place of acceptance usually necessitates being less comfortable first. But what’s discomfort? After all, haven’t I spent the last two decades trying to build the body I wanted to live in? How many pull-ups have I done? How many squats? How many days without carbohydrates? 

In the last 20 years, I’ve run a distance greater than or equal to the Earth’s equator. If this was a fairy tale, I would have earned my wish long ago. And yet. I am 33 and still myself. If anything, every year I look less like the self I imagined I could become. Time is pulling me away from the bright, untouched body I used to call home.

I’m losing my androgyny. But I still get called “sir.”

My father retired from the Navy in 2006, shortly after I graduated from college. There is a photo of us somewhere, sharing a cigar on the campus lawn. My diploma, in its dummy folder, lies in the grass. My father and I wear matching expressions of dissatisfaction. That year, he stopped working out. I haven’t been to the gym with him since. When I ask what he’s doing for fitness, he shrugs. He walks a lot, he says. He might get a weight set. He does push-ups when he remembers. He tells me he’s getting fat.

There is no way he’s getting fat, I say. 

And he’s not. What he means is, I don’t need to be ready. When we meet up in Portland, he compliments my fitness. My strength is apparent, and I have new definition in my abdominal and back muscles. I’m trim now, built more like a boxer than someone who runs. 

“You should get back in the pool,” he said to me once. “You were a great swimmer. You had a movie star stroke.” 

Of all the things I was ready for — that was not one of them. I was not prepared for him to praise any little thing about me. I didn’t expect to have a father who noticed

But isn’t that the first part of love? Because once they’ve noticed, maybe they’ll start to see you — the you that is sleek, strong, and beautiful. Whole and perfect. Your true self and its name. The self that you built to be a container for all that love.