CrossFit, Lifting, and Non-Binary Gender

When I first transitioned back in 2009/2010, my transition was very much from one side of the binary to the other. Even as I was aware of and happy for people who were living outside of the gender binary, I still saw myself fitting into it.

As a result, I spent a long time trying very hard to achieve some degree of “approved” femininity. This meant that despite loving weightlifting and craving a community around it, I stayed away from gyms and coaches, both for fear of harassment and also because I wanted to program my own workouts to avoid adding too much bulk to my already wide shoulders. I constantly struggled with both loving feeling my body get stronger, but also how dysphoric putting on extra muscle made me feel. But when events aligned and I sucked it up and finally joined a CrossFit gym, I found myself actually loving my body (maybe for the first time ever), and as I started to feel comfortable — just as myself — among the wonderful community at the gym, I started to not care so much about where I fit into femininity (or masculinity). Movement has always felt joyful to me, but the more I let myself enjoy it and celebrate it, the more I realized that the breakdown of male vs. female wasn’t even a factor in this aspect of my life. And then I realized that applied to every part of my life.

The realization itself actually very much reminded me of when I first thought about transitioning: the anxiousness of navigating something new, mixed with the fear of leaving behind something that had defined me for so long, all still undercut by the giddy anticipation of instinctively knowing, “This is me. This is right.”

My relationship with my body, with my gender, and with fitness have all informed each other for as long as I can remember, and even more so over the past five or six years, but now, I feel like they’re indelibly linked. For me, both lifting and CrossFit are transformative activities, both literally and metaphorically: they’ve allowed me to feel agency, control, and ownership over how my body looks and feels, even when I’ve not been super happy with it; they’ve allowed me to not only grow and change every day, but to exceed what I thought I was capable of; and maybe most importantly, they have helped me gain the self-confidence to recognize, accept, and love myself and my body and to define where I fit (or feel comfortable not fitting) into the world.

A picture comparing Allie's back and shoulder muscle development from 2014 to 2018
2014 to 2018 comparison photos
Allie's 2018 Measurements, bicep, chest, waist, hips, thigh, calf
Current measurements

My First CrossFit Open

I just finished my first CrossFit Open! I almost wasn’t going to do it, because I could still do the workouts and not shell out $20 for registration, but someone at the gym mentioned that a good reason to do it early on, even if you weren’t quite sure if you were ready, was to at least have a score on the board to compare yourself to next year, which I thought was really good advice. It seemed likely that I would regret not having a benchmark to compare myself to a year down the road.

Now that it’s over, I can say that it was totally worth it, both in the sense of just doing the workouts and also being able to track yourself on a worldwide leaderboard. My gym does a “Friday Night Lights”-style workout on Friday evenings, which was a blast; I entered an RX score for every workout; and I’m really pleased with my overall performance! I was getting a lot of the RX movements a week or two before each workout, or in the case of HSPU, during the workout, and then managed to get 10 more! It was just a great experience all together, the workouts themselves, the camaraderie, and watching other people get firsts, personal bests, and otherwise exceed what they thought they were capable of. Which to me seems to be one of the defining traits of CrossFit – doing more than you ever thought you could!

I considered re-testing a few workouts (18.2 in particular, for a heavier clean), because I knew I could do better, but once I got a score in for each workout, I figured my time this year is better spent working on developing the skills and engine I need to do better in the 2019 Open. Next year is the year I’ll be more committed to making sure I bring my best possible performance to each workout.

I’ve got a year to improve, so my work is cut out for me:

  • Get handstand walks
  • Get bar muscle-ups
  • Get ring muscle-ups
  • Improve all other technical skills (HSPU, C2B, T2B, dubs, etc.)
  • BUILD A BIGGER ENGINE

But for now, I’m happy with my 2018 Open results, and looking forward to the 2019 Open!

CrossFit Open Result
CF Open Worldwide Rank and Percentile
CrossFit Open Worldwide Rank
CrossFit Open Worldwide Rank
CrossFit Open Result
CrossFit Open Region Rank
CF Open Result
CrossFit Open Gym Rank

Finally Trying Out CrossFit

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I moved earlier this year, and with it, lost my nice basement lifting space. At my new place, I walk by a small CrossFit box every day, so I figured, “Why not? I’ve been thinking about trying CrossFit forever, it’s convenient, and I need a place to lift.” Also, one of the coaches lists “transgender justice and advocacy” as one of his interests, so it just felt like everything was lining up.

The gym also has this statement on its website, which I think is great and should be something that all gyms (or service-oriented business) should have:

“We’re a community that strives to be supportive of all people, regardless of your background — you’re welcome regardless of your skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic background.”

Granted, the gym is a $160-200/month expense, so that’s already prohibitive to many people, but the thought is nice, and sometimes even just using the word “gender identity” means so much and can make someone immediately feel safer. The gym even has two single-stall bathrooms with gender-inclusive signage, so I feel like I’ve really lucked out.

Lifting in a gym, with coaches and other people around, was a huge hurdle for me, given my self-consciousness and anxiety about being a trans woman in a gym space. Fortunately, everything has gone really well, and it’s definitely one of the bigger positive milestones of the year for me! I definitely think a smaller, less intense, and less competition-focused CrossFit gym is the right fit for me — I’ve really enjoyed having other people around to work out with and talk fitness with; I find that I push myself harder with other people around; and it’s a lot easier to just show up and follow the programming than to program workouts for myself, though in exchange, I’ve lost some of the ability to focus on squats, deadlifts, and Oly lifts to the degree that I want.

Photo of Allie at the bottom of a snatch

Since joining, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I have pretty OK technique on the Olympic lifts, and also that the weight that I can move is pretty respectable! So, it’s something I’m very proud of, but I also feel like I will be able to really refine my technique with active coaching and feedback, which is something I struggled to do on my own (especially on the snatch). I also feel more free to push myself at a gym, since I don’t have that lingering fear of injuring myself alone in my basement.

On the cardio side of things (metabolic conditioning, or ‘metcon’ as CrossFit calls it) I’m awful and have no capacity for it, but on the plus side, I feel like I’m making newbie gains, which is always gratifying.

Overall, joining a gym has been an incredibly positive change for me, and has had just as much of a positive impact on my life as when I started exercising on my own!

 

Being a Trans Athlete

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When I first transitioned, I was super active in the trans community online, and fairly open about it in-person, but then I hit a point of exhaustion, and stopped talking about it so much. I shared the fact with fewer people and in general, just didn’t bring it up in conversation. And that rest, that break from constantly examining my identity and my place in the world was what I needed. I needed to just exist for a few years and find other parts of myself beyond my trans identity, and to see what else had changed about me during the period of my transition, either because of it, or irregardless of it.

About two years ago, I realized I was unhappy with my body, not from a dysphoria sense, but from just the realization that for the first time in my life, I was kind of “out of shape.” I was always active and outdoors-y as a kid, so structured exercise was never really required. But now, college and grad school had taken their toll and while I was still skinny, I had so little strength and so little, just, general work capacity. So I got some dumbbells and worked out in my bedroom for six months. I saw a ton of improvements, so I got a barbell, some plates, and a squat rack and set up a gym in my basement and started lifting. And then I got really hooked.

Since I started lifting, I’ve realized my identity as an athlete has become inextricably linked to my trans identity. I often come back to the Jessi Kneeland quote that:

“[Weightlifting] makes me braver, less afraid of failure, and more able to embrace the process of anything worth pursuing…lifting weights has consistently helped me to break down labels and boundaries in my identity and to reinvent myself every day… Yesterday I was someone who couldn’t do that. Today I’m someone who can.” 

Coming out as trans and transitioning six years ago may still be the hardest and bravest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but weightlifting has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my transition.

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Being into fitness and weightlifting while also being trans is difficult, because I still struggle with intensely hating my body in many ways. But weightlifting makes me love pieces of my body, individually. I love my quads, seeing my back muscles move, and even how visibly defined my arm and shoulder muscles are now. However, I still often hate my body as a sum of its parts, especially when I’m around other people. But when I’m alone and lifting and focused in the moment and can abandon all pretenses of self-consciousness, I find I can love my body. I can love the mind-body connection I have; love feeling my body move; savor feeling it strain as I feel out my physical limits. It’s absolutely addictive and I can’t imagine going back to not having this positive relationship with my body to help balance out the negative. Just like with the mental discipline and appreciation for hard work and incremental progress that comes with weightlifting, the longer I lift, the more that mind-body-connection-comfort seeps over into other areas of my life. As a trans athlete (and I would imagine even for cis athletes who struggle with similar feelings of discomfort in their bodies), fitness and weightlifting present a route to feeling comfortable in my body that I never would have thought possible a few years ago.

There’s definitely some contradictory elements to the process — while I want to be more muscular, being more muscular for me also means appearing more traditionally masculine, with broad shoulders and skinny hips, which is uncomfortable for me, despite my deeply-held belief that muscular ladies are amazing. I wish I could say I had transcended that discomfort, but I still think about it every day.

Besides feeling better about my body overall, as important as that is, the end goal of weightlifting for me is probably (hopefully) competition and joining the community that grows around it. That said, especially in a competitive environment, I worry that people may assume I have (or accuse me of having) an unfair advantage, or that I’m only strong or muscular because I used to have male testosterone levels, but I’ve been on hormones for six years, and only lifting for about two years. When I transitioned, I was a stick, and weighed only 115 pounds. Now I weigh 140 pounds and with the exception of pull-ups, I am overall much healthier, stronger, fitter, and more capable now than I was before I transitioned and started hormones.

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The good news is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) joined the NCAA and recently released guidelines that recommend that transgender athletes be able to participate in the Olympics without surgery, and that athletes transitioning from female to male can compete without restriction, and athletes who transition from male to female:

“must undergo hormone therapy and demonstrate that the total level of male testosterone in the blood has been below 10 nanomols per litre for at least a year prior to competing.” 

Looking more closely at those numbers, the IOC is allowing for a wide range of variance in measuring testosterone in female athletes, which makes sense. For reference, a testosterone level of 10 nanomoles/L is roughly equal to a level of 290 ng/dL. According to Mayo Clinic, the reference range for the testosterone level of a cisgender woman 19 or older is 8-60 ng/dL. As last measured, my testosterone level was 49 ng/dL. This puts the upper limit of the IOC’s range significantly higher than the reference range, which I assume is because many cisgender female athletes have testosterone levels that are significantly higher than 60ng/dL, due to genetics, diet, resistance training, and any number of other factors. Ironically, it’s actually quite possible that some trans women athletes on hormone replacement therapy could potentially be at a disadvantage against some cisgender women athletes when it comes to testosterone levels.

Even though I certainly don’t intend to try to compete in the Olympics, the IOC decision is particularly important to me, as the IWF and USA Weightlifting have said they will use whatever standard the IOC puts forth for transgender athletes. And while I lift because of all of the personal reasons I’ve talked about, and would continue to lift even if I could never compete, competition (at some level) is absolutely something I want to do, and was something that seemed unlikely to happen until recently, so having the opportunity is very exciting (and scary)!

Nerds and Sports

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I grew up as a Star Wars-loving, science-fiction-addicted geek/nerd type who was picked on by jock/popular types and who bought into that narrative, so of course, I grew up hating organized sports. I still did hiking and biking and outdoors-y activities at my parent’s behest, but now I sometimes feel like I missed out on a lot of what competitive and organized sports can offer besides just physical activity — the development of discipline, an outlet for competitive behavior and expression, learning teamwork and social skills, etc.

I don’t feel that I missed out on those lessons themselves just because I didn’t play sports, but I do feel that I missed out on an avenue for a physically-involved manifestation of them, which I think might have worked pretty well for me. When I have kids, I’ll probably want them to be involved with some kind of sport, or at the very least, have a fair chance at trying to enjoy them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that sports is the only place (or even that it’s necessarily the best place) to learn these things, or that all athletes take these sort of values away from their experiences, or that the activities I did in place of sports didn’t teach me many of these same things, but sports do represent another place, and everyone learns and develops differently — shouldn’t all kids have as many options and opportunities to develop as possible? I feel confident that there are other people out there, who, like me, grew up as a geek, but who would have really benefited from and enjoyed participating in sports, but who chose not to because of bullying, harassment, or a heightened fear of embarrassment, or just the assumption by coaches and teachers (and themselves) that they would fail at them.

I’m 28 years old now, and weightlifting is still teaching me a lot about mental discipline, the value of incremental progress, and setting and sticking to long-term goals, all of which are things I’ve struggled with for most of my life. Now, a good amount of that may be just a new-found maturity, but when I look at young athletes like @katrintanja or @mattiecakesssss who really have their stuff together (though they may also just be extremely exceptional individuals), I can’t help but shake the feeling that I would’ve taken something valuable away from participating in sports throughout my youth.

It makes me really sad that some kids potentially miss out on organized sports growing up, just because of some arbitrary stereotypes. Being a geek or nerd and being athletic are not things that are diametrically opposed. In fact, there’s a substantial amount of similarity and overlap. I am nerdy about my love of weightlifting and its athletes. Even for ‘non-nerds’, collecting baseball cards or playing in a fantasy football league are pretty indistinguishable from say, Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. Video games (not even counting sports video games) also offer a lot of parallels to sports: character management, leveling, and min-maxing are pretty akin to diet, training, and programming; and other skills definitely have more direct analogues: teamwork and strategy, reflexes and skill, and so on.

While I definitely think the line between geek or nerd and athlete has blurred a lot since I was younger, I would love to see even more overlap — in both directions — more athletic kids who felt comfortable having and expressing really geeky or nerdy interests, and more geeky and nerdy kids who didn’t feel like they were going to fail at something athletic just because they have glasses and like reading and science fiction. Sure, some geeks or nerds still may not be interested in sports and some sporty kids may not be interested in nerdery, and that’s perfectly fine, but in the end, being an athlete and being a geek or nerd both come down to being passionate about something! All it means is that you love something, practice it, learn all you can about it, compete for enjoyment and to exercise your mastery of a skillset! In the end, it’s all just to express your love of the game!

Note: Please leave a comment if you feel any of this is way off base, or was substantially different from your experience! Or just if you have something to share, like if you were into both nerdy things and sports!