As a trans woman, the gym and locker rooms can be terrifying. Here's how I overcame some of my fears.

selfie of summer tao
Summer Tao was nervous to head to the gym as a trans woman.Summer Tao
  • My gender transition was going smoothly until I wanted to go to the gym.

  • I felt like I didn't fit into a gendered space, the locker room, where skin exposure was normal.

  • With a lot of planning and support from my girlfriend, I was able to overcome some of my fears.

When I embarked on my gender transition, I knew I had a mountain to summit. I was prepared for the barriers around trans healthcare and wrangling with government bureaucracy. I even mapped out the consequences of unveiling my new self to my family.

I didn't think exercise would be especially difficult after my transition, but it turns out that the gym was one of those challenges on the long journey to liberty.

After three months of working out in gyms as a transgender woman, I learned how to feel comfortable and manage potential danger.

I realized I needed to hit the gym after transitioning 

In 2020, when I was 25, I got sick of living in some guy's skin and began a gender transition. Armed with a supportive social circle and a wealth of online resources, I began the step-by-step process of sculpting my new self.

The transition soothed some of my body-image issues, but I was still grappling with an eating disorder that was a holdover from the days I starved myself for a more "feminine" body. Plus, the estrogen I take decreased my muscle tone. I couldn't lift the same weight as I used to; opening jars became problematic.

Two years after starting my transition, I decided that exercise in pursuit of heart, lung, and muscular health would be helpful — healthful, even. I was getting sick of being mocked by jars of pasta sauce.

The gym seemed so welcoming until I thought about how I would fit in

It should have been easy: Just go to the gym. My girlfriend had become a regular and raved at length about the improvements to her mental and physical well-being. I could've just gone with her, but it wasn't that simple.

As a trans person, gyms made me nervous in the same way that being in any public space as my authentic self can make me nervous. It makes me feel uncomfortably seen, whether or not anyone is looking. Being part of a marginalized group, I often live with the threat of confrontation.

Gyms intensify that fear because they're one of the few places where nudity is common. Exposed skin, form-fitting clothes, and changing rooms? All that amplified my fears of being targeted and insecurity about my body. Even though I'm easily read as a woman, the gym locker room still raised my hairs. I can't imagine what it's like for people who aren't read as the gender they are.

Meanwhile, my brain was letting me know all the things that were wrong with me. It told me that I'm not feminine enough for this changing room — even though I knew that "femininity" is not a requirement to enter the women's changing room. Plus, my eating disorder duly informed me that I was too skinny for the gym and that being surrounded by aspirational images of "better" bodies would be risky.

With my girlfriend's support, I chased down every anxiety and challenged it

My girlfriend was kind enough to scout out gyms in our part of South Africa and explained their layouts to me so that I could decide for myself if they were safe. She held my hand through my anxieties with her trademark compassion.

When the day came to finally step foot in a gym for the first time in 2022, she accompanied me as my first gym buddy.

I asked her about changing-room etiquette, and she assured me that I didn't have to change if I didn't want to. She also told me I could change in a stall if I didn't want to be seen. She took me through every aspect of locker-room etiquette while assuring me of my right to change however I wanted. I ultimately decided to change privately until the time comes when I can feel secure changing in sight. It'll happen one day.

Having done my research and knowing the place was queer-friendly, I felt secure in my gym's locker room. Each successive visit lifted my anxieties. Each unremarkable stopover reinforced my normalcy. Eventually, the planning and thoughtfulness paid off, and I was just another face.

My girlfriend also taught me how to use each machine safely. She explained her cardio routine and lowered its level of difficulty for a first-timer. During my first uphill stint on the treadmill, I could see her glancing over at me, making sure I was comfortable and that my face didn't become one with the floor.

When I pushed too hard on a challenging elliptical machine, she babysat me while I steadied my heart — bringing fluids and towels for the dazed girl who saw dazzling spots in her vision.

It wasn't so bad once I got used to it.

When I started my transition, I thought I'd be going from a guy to a girl, but I went from a guy to a political issue

Hateful rhetoric, harassment, and the persistent threat of physical violence are all ways to deny me and other trans people the right to live normally. Barring us from public restrooms, school-safety procedures, and locker rooms stifles us from public life and plants the fear of being seen in our minds.

So I give myself some grace for the fact that some of my nagging anxieties are still there. But now I stare them down with the love and support of my girlfriend and friends.

Today, an elliptical set to high resistance worries me more than harassment. Every time I go to the gym now, I pass through the turnstiles and head straight to the locker room I'm meant to be in. I greet the other women as I walk by. I'm just here to get changed, OK?

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