The Gender Binary, Patriarchy, and How Bodybuilding Gives me a Place to Express my Authentic Self

I have never been the girl my mother hoped I would be. From a very young age, she has given me unwanted gifts like full length, pink nighties with puff sleeves and lace, dolls to play house with, and birthday cards with sparkles and butterflies. (I still get the birthday cards with sparkles and butterflies.) I identify as female but not consistently as feminine. How I show up in the world has changed over the decades, and most of them are true and authentic forms of me. What has remained constant throughout the changes has been my desire to define myself, for myself. I find myself pushing against labels, wanting to push back and rebel whenever somebody tells me they know who I am.

In the alphabet soup of queer identity, there are multiple labels I could use to describe my experience of the world. I have been attracted to a wide variety of people with different types of bodies, anatomies, gender expressions and identities. I have shown up in fancy dresses, make-up and curls and also in hiking boots, flannel and army surplus pants. Sometimes, I want to cut all my hair off; sometimes, I want to let my mane flow freely and seductively in the wind.

It’s all me and it all connects to my bodybuilding.

Lifting weights gives me a practical tool for changing how I show up in the world. When I discovered bodybuilding as a tool for sculpting my physique to more closely fit how I see myself, I’m not going to say there was no vanity attached to those goals, but it was so much more than that. I wanted, I still want, to show up in the world with my muscles as an expression of gender. Baked into our gender norms, we have decided that a lean, muscular look is a masculine one. It is masculine to be strong, fierce and aggressive. I am sympathetic to the cisgender women who love to lift and who do not identify with those traits as masculine. However, for me, an element of that masculinity is part of my authentic expression of who I am and how I want to be perceived by others. Both the cisgendered female and the queer person like myself are pushing against patriarchy that says that masculine things are better or more desirable, except for when they are seen in females and other noncisgendered males.

Someone like myself pushes back against the gender binary, challenges the essence of patriarchy, and it is why we have been oppressed in Western societies for hundreds of years. We challenge the very essence of the gender hierarchy which places cisgendered males above all and in control. If gender is a spectrum or a fluid experience, how do we assign someone into the hierarchy? And this is the challenge that I face every time I work out in a public gym. This is the mindset that I have to push back against every time a man who thinks he should be better than me due to his masculinity feels threatened if I am stronger, if I have more muscular definition, or if I have more confidence doing the work. Each of those experiences for the man forces him to question his place in the hierarchy and he lashes out at me. Of course, it need not be every man, and it isn’t, and I’m grateful for the men who are genuine allies. I’m grateful for those who can see my successes and celebrate them with me without feeling inferior or questioning whether or not he must push back and maintain the hierarchy. But it only takes a few difficult experiences to make a space feel unwelcome.

So much homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia is generated out of desire to maintain the status quo. There’s a zero-sum outlook, just as Heather McGee points out with the racism baked into our policies, the belief that if we empower some people we must therefore somehow be taking away from others. My muscles are a part of who I am, an authentic expression of how I see myself–a complicated mix of masculine and feminine traits–and it both is and is not intended as a thumb in the eye of patriarchy. The long game would be for it to not matter at all–and we each get to define for ourselves how we show up and how we express our true natures to the world. But for now, it is also an expression of rebellion against the status quo, a refusal to be narrowly defined by others, a refusal to be only that little girl in pink who never really wanted to play with dolls in the first place.

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