Back Under The Bar Postpartum — And Post-Transition

It was an act of defiance to transition, and another to birth children. Now what?

by Krys Malcolm Belc

The gym is a place I have loved — or at least I thought it was love that kept bringing me back — for as long as I can remember, but after my second birth in November, I found myself under the pull-up rig, looking up, and asking myself “What is the point of exercise?”

As a child and adolescent, I came to know my body through sports. The body was supposed to be tough, resilient; the body was supposed to be on display for the adults and the other children in our suburban New Jersey community, to perform under any circumstances, to push through pain. The solution to failure was more: If you got winded during a soccer game, you got assigned some sprints. If you missed a key free throw, you stood at the line after practice failing and failing until you stopped failing. The potential of the body, as I understood it, was endless forward progress. If your team lost this season, you’d win next because the body could always get stronger, get faster, get better. Like my five younger siblings, I started organized sports in preschool and moved through them in my early life — basketball, soccer, softball, taekwondo, Brazilian jiujitsu, rugby. Contact sports were best. I felt — I still feel — others’ hesitation at approaching, at touching, my queer and trans body, and these sports shrank the distance between me and, well, everyone.

Like many mediocre athletes who enter adulthood sports-obsessed but without the skills to keep competing, I gravitated toward “fitness.” I taught myself not to hate running, bought a bicycle, tried out yoga classes, and finally, just before I became a parent, walked into a CrossFit-style gym.

Which was why, seven weeks postpartum, I stood under that pull-up rig, people moving around me, my coach standing off to the side watching the small group of us gathered during the noon hour, and for the first time in months, I jumped up and grabbed the bar.

In a “toes-to-bar,” you grip the bar like you’re going to do a pull-up, instead flicking your toes up to touch the bar. Before I had my baby, it was one of the few things at the gym I felt I could do better than most people. I had a strong core, which I’d inexplicably chosen to destroy. Repeating the toes-to-bar action again and again requires coordination, sturdy abs, and tough hands — none of which I had that afternoon. My coach had seen me through 11 years of transition — out of competitive sports and into young adulthood, into parenthood, through pregnancy and the postpartum period, through hormonal transition with testosterone, and into a second pregnancy and birth nine years after the first. They helped me decide on a scaled-back version of the workout, something that was possible for my first-week-back-after-birth body.

When it was time to start the workout, the people around me, the fit people, the unbroken people, moved in a blur of sweat and muscle, throwing weights around and easily hanging from the pull-up rig. I used to be like them. Between hesitant movements, I put my hands on my knees, the universal sign of giving up. I waited for the moment when you are in it, when you no longer hear the music or your own thoughts, to come. It never did.

After the workout, the coach approached me. They put out their hand for a high five, and as I touched it like I had a thousand times before, I realized they were the first person to come near me since I gave birth, other than my partner, my baby, and my midwife, who had briefly examined me days before. They asked how I was, and I said fine, the word I found myself repeating to everyone, about everything, fine fine fine. It seemed the only choices were fine or good. And hadn’t I been both fine and good the last time they had seen me come back from having a baby? In 2013, I came back at four weeks, laughing and chatting with the other folks at the gym, remarking on how I felt a thousand pounds lighter during the warm-up run. The me of today thinks I was foolish, immature, reckless, to throw my body back into exercise so soon, so carelessly. But that doesn’t change the memory of feeling like a fucking rock star.

If I had my own sustaining childhood moment of queer recognition, would I have more easily believed in the futurity of my body?

This time, though, I must have looked utterly defeated, after the pathetic toes-to-bar workout, standing there with chalky hands, flushed and sad. The coach, who was always smiling when they were in the gym, looked at me seriously. “It’s still in you,” they said, like an inspirational movie sports coach. I knew if I looked into their face I would cry. So I looked down at my sneakers, grateful for this person who had seen my body change for nearly a third of my life, for trying to motivate me when I was at my lowest. If I wasn’t loving the gym in the moment, their comment made me hope that maybe it would come back.

But when I got home, I wondered what the it was that I wanted to come back. Was it toughness? Was it skill, the ability to jump on a high box, to do a string of pull-ups? Certainly I would learn to do those things again. But I worried that my interpretation of it, that the reason I had decided to leave my 7-week-old at home for an hour and a half, to squeeze my lactating boobs into a sports bra, to tentatively start testing my pelvic floor, to be public in this body that had barely left my house, was using fitness solely to get, to be, better. My love for the gym was conditional, was based on progress alone.

In her graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel tracks her own journey through a lifetime of fitness. “I have hared off after almost every new fitness fad to come down the pike for the past six decades,” she writes. “Why have I spent so many hours of my life — very possibly as many as are actually recommended — exercising?!” I see myself in the images Bechdel draws of herself biking up lush Vermont hills, looking at Charles Atlas in a magazine, finding community — and somewhere to be during a lonely time — in a karate studio. She is, like me, an anxious queer creative always hunting down both a reason and a way to keep moving.

There’s a scene in one of Bechdel’s earlier books, Fun Home, in which she sees a visibly queer person for the first time. The woman wears “men’s clothes” and has short hair. Bechdel writes, “Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home — someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight — I recognized her with a surge of joy.” Seeing the woman, she writes, “sustained her through years.” It is one of the few literary scenes I can find immediately, pulling her works off the shelf as often as I do. If I had my own sustaining childhood moment of queer recognition, would I have more easily believed in the futurity of my body?

The only openly queer person in my early life, my aunt Mary, died when I was very young. She was my father’s older sister, the second of seven children in his family, and she was tough, good at sports, like me. She wore mannish jeans and there was something about her that always felt peripheral, like she had not penetrated the inner circle of my father’s orbit. I see her sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table drinking tea, and I can’t remember ever touching her. My parents didn’t give me many details, but I know that many things in her life were difficult. When I told my father I was queer, his response was automatic: “It’s a hard life.” Mary died in her 30s.

I can’t die now; I’m pregnant, I remember thinking the day I turned 35. I sat in an Adirondack chair waving bugs out of my face. We were far from the life in Philadelphia where I was pushing my heavily pregnant body to keep running, to keep doing burpees and clean and jerks and ring rows. I’d barely moved all day. We had rented a cabin in the woods five hours northwest of home, and my middle schooler kept walking around the property waving his phone to try to catch some signal. Sitting and watching my kids toss sticks into a fire, helping them make Nutella s’mores, setting up for yet another family card game, my body crossed an invisible threshold, into the part of life I had never been brave enough to imagine.

Maybe Mary isn’t the reason I always saw 35 as an age I could never grow to be, but maybe she is. I’m not sure when the belief I would not see 35, which I held as my darkest secret for many years, began. It feels like it was always with me. I think it’s common for trans people to ruminate on the oldest age they can ever be. Of course, we have elders, but then there are the ways the world is built to isolate, to other us.

The problem with the story of my life, of my body, is that the world tells me my story is supposed to be linear, and there isn’t any way to make it make sense in that way.

“Stories about trans people, when we hear them at all, often end with such shining symbolism, meant to indicate that the man or woman in question has succeeded, in the transition, in the grand task of finally being themselves,” wrote Thomas Page McBee, in his memoir Amateur, about training to box in a charity match at Madison Square Garden where he would be the first trans person to box in the venue. The problem with the story of my life, of my body, is that the world tells me my story is supposed to be linear, and there isn’t any way to make it make sense in that way. I am supposed to be making progress, and every time I struggle, I feel like a failure.

I can’t die now; I’m pregnant turned into I can’t die now; I have a newborn. I can’t die now; I’m still nursing and the baby relies on me. I can’t die now because Anna can’t raise four kids on her own. Every time I had a good day or a string of good days, I would go to the gym and feel worse about myself the moment the workout clock ran down. I was supposed to be in the after, and I was horribly stuck.

The me moving past 35 was, in some ways, “post-transition.” After all, it’s been years since anyone had called me “she” or my birth name, and I had a man’s voice and a silly little moustache. Every week, I come closer to being part of the group I call the “cool art dads” on the playground at my kids’ school. I can now go days, even weeks, without transness being relevant to my daily life, especially if I stay off news sites and focus on the wonderfully trans-affirming life I am lucky to have at home.

But on my 35th birthday, I had been off testosterone for 18 months and counting, and I was getting closer and closer to having a baby, an event I knew from experience would change the story of my life and body in ways I could not anticipate, let alone control.

Showing up at a gym, for anyone with a nonnormative body, is an act of faith and courage.

Writing in The New York Times, Charlotte Cowles explores the impact of a “body neutrality” mindset on her own return to postpartum exercise. She writes, “Shrugging off pressure to whip myself back into pre-pregnancy shape allowed me to spend my free time doing what I actually wanted: stroll around the park with my baby.” In this way, she’s able to move away from the desire to triumph in front of a mirror, to achieve “get her body back.” The postpartum period requires her to step sideways off the path of betterment, to find a new reason to move, something not related to the way her body looked before or to the way it looks now.

What would it be like to feel neutral about my own body? The problem with body neutrality in my life is that it feels impossible to neutralize the trans body. I have reveled in the freedom to control my body’s destiny, to access fertility care and transition care, but the body I’ve ended up with is not like other postpartum bodies. I look around the gym and see bodies that have their own stories, but none are like mine. It was an act of defiance to transition, and another to birth children.

I exercised to exert control over the body and to medicate, in some way, my lifelong anxiety, but I also exercised audaciously. In the face of a concerted national movement to end bodies like mine, I felt defiant running around Philadelphia in a sports bra and shorts at 40 weeks pregnant, lifting a barbell in front of an open garage door. Could I keep feeling like I was persisting against the odds, even if I never made another step toward a fitter body?

Showing up at a gym, for anyone with a nonnormative body, is an act of faith and courage. McBee writes about the feelings that well up in him in his boxing gym’s locker room: “There I was most aware of my scars and private parts, the distinct ways I failed to pass, if anyone really looked ... Ultimately, a tragic sort of grace kept me safe: My body was unimaginable.” McBee, angry, defiantly bares all for a few moments, letting his towel drop before pulling on his shorts, but the men in the locker room don’t notice or don’t say anything if they do.

McBee calls the him of his thirties, the man who shows up at the boxing gym, “a beginner.” He is learning what it means not to decide to transition but what to do with the body and life you have after you have the surgery, take the hormones, change your name. I had done the thing, and now I needed to live it. The problem I have found with so many trans stories–the stories we get in media, not the stories you hear if you know us–is that transition is the only experience we ever get to have. We don’t get old, we don’t get sick, we don’t get pregnant, and we don’t go back to working out after a birth and a difficult recovery.

There is the part of me that wants to be fully seen for what I’ve been through: the fertility treatments, the transitions, the pregnancies and births, all of the things that this body has come out on the other side of. And then there is the me who just wants to be normal here, to be quietly fit.

Like McBee, I have felt the push and pull of a tragically unimaginable body. Last week, during the hardest part of a long workout, I took off my sweaty T-shirt, showing off much of the whole picture: the squishy, misshapen belly, the wide hips, full boobs barely held in by my sports bra. The dark hair on my abdomen and my chest has thinned and lightened in the two years I was off hormones. I am so soft. There is the part of me that wants to be fully seen for what I’ve been through: the fertility treatments, the transitions, the pregnancies and births, all of the things that this body has come out on the other side of. And then there is the me who just wants to be normal here, to be quietly fit. After all, isn’t that what my body is, just another amalgamation of bones and organs and flesh in transition, moving through life, away from the body it was yesterday and toward the one it will be tomorrow?

Bechdel writes about confronting, at the end of her 50s, an end to the “eternal striving” at the core of her lifetime of exercise: “Until now, my bouts of regular, moderate-to-intense cardiovascular exercise have afforded me the illusion that I might somehow stave off death.” This means she must confront her “self-improvement problem” and go on a journey to reconceptualize exercise and its meaning having begun “the descent” into life as an older adult. Reckoning with what she wants the descent to be like requires figuring out how she got here.

I find myself at 35 at my own premature moment of confronting. After all, this is my descent, after all the build-up tension heading toward this age I thought I could not pass. After my coach nearly made me cry in the gym, I realized I had to figure out a way to reclaim exercise for myself as something other than striving, self-improvement, betterment. I had to accept the body I brought out the door with me that day. Otherwise, I should just quit.

Before this time of reckoning, I believed there was no point to moving my body if it was not moving toward something. A higher squat number, bigger muscles, the quiet turning of heads toward me as I did burpees faster than anyone else in the gym. What if preserving the life I had was enough? In those early weeks, I thought again and again, in an inescapable loop, about the moments after my daughter was born when my midwife had worked fervently to remove the retained placenta from my body. That searing, unimaginable pain, the way I tried to focus on getting through so someone would hand my baby back to me. A lot of it is hazy, but I do remember what I kept saying: “Am I going to be OK?” “Yes,” they said.

In those irrational moments, I had wanted my body to keep going above all. The midwife was right. I made it. And when it was over, and I had to begin the work of the life I would lead in the after.

For now, that looks like a cool, sunny Sunday morning, a workout after a cup of coffee. The whole day with my wife and four kids laid out in front of me if I could just make it through the hour. A barbell, the rig, and me, carving out time and space to do something that can, if I can forget the numbers and the mirrors, be a profound act of self-love. To move, with weights I can handle, at a pace I can sustain, with a desire to preserve the body for as long as it keeps moving around on this earth. I am not a child on a basketball court, not a young adult scoring a try on the college rugby pitch. I am not lifting half of what I used to. I am not getting better. I’m just trying to last.