I’m one of those weirdos who loves running.
Yes, running can be painful, and hard, and you don’t get that mystical “runner’s high” people talk about often enough. But starting to run in college was the first step towards finding a home in my body and changing my approach to body image.
When I was younger, I had asthma. I also wore glasses, and always felt like I took up more space than I should – a common side effect of being socialized as female. Additionally, I perceived my older sister to be prettier and more popular than me, and she was one of the stars of our high school’s track team. Desperate not to live in her shadow, I avoided sports in favor of activities like theater and Model U.N. Those activities were important to me, but they didn’t address the discomfort I felt inhabiting my body. Like most people socialized as female, I was constantly concerned that I wasn’t thin enough or pretty enough.
In college, I started running – mostly because I still believed toxic ideas about thinness being desirable.
Even though I started running because I hoped to transform my body to look like society said it should, something different happened. I started caring more about how far I could run without stopping, or how quickly I could complete a mile. I started getting excited about what my body could do. I started genuinely enjoying exercise instead of seeing it as a way to become thinner.
By junior year, I started weightlifting with one of my guy friends, who taught me proper technique and gave me the confidence I needed to claim space in weight rooms, which are typically dominated by men. It was liberating. Every time I increased the weight I lifted I felt more confident in myself and at ease in my body, just like when I pushed myself on a run.
And yet most of the time I still avoided looking at my body. I never had mirrors in my room, and I kept my head down when I encountered them in bathrooms. Even as I claimed some capacity to love my body through my workouts I still felt estranged from what I saw whenever I saw my reflection.
Last year, I found the words for another part of what I was feeling: I am nonbinary. More specifically, I am genderfluid.
My struggles with my body image weren’t just that our society has absurd standards of beauty for women (although that is certainly true) but also that I’m not a woman, or not only a woman all the time. I reject those standards as a feminist, but I also reject the way society projects a female identity onto me.
When a friend asked me how I felt after I came out to her about my gender fluidity, my honest answer was that I felt like I recognized myself more in the mirror.
When I let the gender that had been assigned to me fall away, it felt like I could actually start to see myself for the first time. And just like finishing a race or setting a new personal best for a lift, that recognition was liberating.
Unfortunately, other people often don’t recognize my identity. While the friends I’ve come out to and my partner have been supportive, most people still perceive and refer to me as female, and correcting them can be a challenge for all kinds of reasons.
Nothing kills my tentative sense of goodwill towards my body faster than being misgendered on days when I’m feeling masculine and trying to present that way.
Androgyny is often depicted as something only thin, white, flat-chested people can embody. This standard makes the ongoing pursuit of weight loss feel like an inevitable part of trying to attain a more gender-neutral appearance. I know that obsession is toxic and unhealthy, but I still struggle to release it.
And while all of my experience working out over the past few years has taught me that there are ways I can healthily alter my body through exercise, nothing prepared me for the fact that I have different goals for what I want to accomplish based on whether I am feeling more masculine or feminine.
The physical attributes I want to highlight and emphasize fluctuate as my identity does, and more often than not I feel that I fall short.
I know some of the ways to try and address the problem: depend less on other people’s perceptions for my sense of self, seek out and create the representation I want, figure out a fitness regimen that makes me feel powerful no matter what. But humans are social, and it’s hard to let go of caring about how we fit or don’t fit into a group. Nonbinary representation is still rare.
And even though I have fitness activities that I love, I’m still working on how to translate that love into my body.