This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
I went vegan after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. The friend who gave me her copy warned that it might compel me to do extreme things in order to distance myself from the horror contained within. She wasn't wrong.
I gave veganism up, though, because something else in my life had to take priority. At that point I was six months into physical transition from female to male. I measure the months from the day in April 2013 when I had my first intramuscular shot of testosterone (T). To get to the point of starting hormones I'd waited years, stated my case to many doctors, and navigated an odyssey of soul searching.
However, the physical transformation induced by switching from an estrogen to a testosterone system progressed, like regular puberty, at a glacial pace. I secretly wished for an Incredible Hulk-esque mutation. Not that I wanted the Hulk's physique—Bruce Banner's maybe. Just enough muscle to do proper chin-ups.
By October, my voice was deepening and body hair burgeoning. This was all thoroughly exciting. It meant I was already "passing" as male 99 percent of the time in public. So, to the outside world, everything appeared to be progressing handsomely.
However, contrary to popular assumption, passing wasn't my primary concern. One flaw in the idea of passing is that it assumes one's goal in transition is to be read correctly by others. It prioritises the objective and stereotyped experience of gender.
In fact, what mattered most to me was congruence between my mind and body. I didn't care about being sir-ed at the supermarket checkout as much as I did about embodying and enjoying my gender, from potentially receding hairline to increasingly hairy toes. In this regard, I felt better but not whole.
Male physicality means different things to different people. There is no correct template. Admittedly, the changes I willed to come faster were utterly conventional. For starters, strength and lean muscle were key. Size—the kind that bursts out of a tank top—was not. Another priority was banishing anything remotely resembling a soft curve. I sought the V-shape.
Six months on T and three months a vegan, I was waking up to the reality that testosterone alone would not give me the body I wanted, and being a part-time bike courier meant I was actually getting smaller. The same goes for cisgender (i.e. not trans) guys who never hit the gym. They don't wake one day after puberty with the physique of Tom Daley. Us trans guys have the added hurdle of undoing the work of female puberty. That means more fat to lose and less muscle to start with.
I resolved to grasp my body by its love handles and give my new hormones a helping hand. But while I'd found my motivation, I lacked a plan, not knowing how to train or eat (I didn't know this part mattered so much) according to my goals.
The solution came in the form of an American guy I'd watched vlog his own transition on YouTube. His channel was gone but the transmasculine community is small so he wasn't hard to look up. A personal trainer with over five years experience of transforming his own body from female to male, he has honed his own V-shape. He could be my mentor, my Mr Miyagi.
Once I made clear my commitment to work closely with him, he created a tailored diet and exercise programme. He also asked me for a picture of my ideal, achievable physique. He knew what was going through my mind—feeling dysphoric about my body, frustrated with a slow hormonal puberty—because very similar thoughts had passed through his.
We are members of a global, semi-stealth brotherhood. We look out for each other and may or may not have a secret handshake.
I valued his pragmatic approach, never having to fear feeling embarrassed or inadequate. I've even learned to love the selfie because, as he once said, "these things help me realise on dysphoric days that I'm not standing still."
We overcame the physical distance between us—him in the US, me in London— by me sending weekly training journals, photos and waist and shoulder measurements. By now, you may have predicted why I retreated to the ranks of meat-eaters and I know this is going to infuriate any vegans reading. Look yeah, I'm sorry. I know there are vegan jiu jitsu fighters who could lock me in a crushing hold until I swore never to eat chicken again. I can only aspire to be as nutritionally, physically, and ethically on-point as them.
But I was not going to argue with my trainer's plan. When he said lean meat, fish, egg whites, and whey protein powder, I said, "How much?" This diet supported a gym routine of progressive overload weight lifting and high intensity cardio. Now, almost one year in, I'm happier, fitter and stronger but—disclaimer—it didn't make my transition faster. I regularly have to remind myself that I'm still just over one year into a five-year hormonal puberty.
Besides lifting heavier, I am achieving that mind/body congruence. I understand my own body better than ever, not as a trans body specifically but as a body like any other—an organic machine with great potential but that requires nutritious fuel and ample rest.
At first, the short daily fasts built into my diet were a horrifying prospect. I was the kind of person who felt faint without breakfast. But having someone hold me to my commitment saw me through. After the initial psychological hurdle, I stayed on track thanks to a mix of short and long-term goals. Every month or so, my guy changed things up with training and eating, so I never got bored or despondent.
Now, a 14 to 18 hour fast feels as normal as Rice Krispies did when I was eight. I soon realised that I found it a lot easier to eat nothing for a modest amount of time than to be grazing or eating light all the time, never feeling properly sated.
Although I fast daily (calling it a fast feels slightly dramatic) nothing is off limits in moderation. You can hate me for saying it, but cake tastes better if it's a genuine treat. Sometimes, my routine involves a re-feed day, when training is heavy and I need extra fuel. For a six hour window, once a week, I can what I like. It seemed like a fantastic prospect but the reality was a disappointment.
I never thought I'd find it hard to indulge, especially after training so hard, but another consequence of this commitment was that I became more sensitive to what I eat. Occasional feasts leave me feeling like I've spent too long in the summer heat. I get a headache and want to go home to bowl of steamed broccoli.
In general, I'm more aware of how different foods affect my energy and digestion. I prefer to know my ingredients and keep them simple. So, I cook from scratch. It isn't gourmet by it works for me.
Several months into this new exercise and eating routine, I set a date for top surgery—the operation that would give me a flat, male contoured chest. Approaching this milestone more than doubled my motivation. I chose to travel to the US to have it done with a well-known surgeon in Florida. My trainer went to the same surgeon a few years back. Like I said, it's a small world.
In the months leading up, we worked on specific muscle groups in my shoulders, chest and back. In the weeks before, we focused on fat burning. It was all aimed at being in optimal shape for surgery and recovery.
The operation was three months ago and I'm slowly ramping up my sorely missed training routine again. I've got a way to go to get that V-shape but I'm enjoying getting there. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that this personal fitness project has been as much about developing a healthy mind as a healthy body. It kept me busy and focused while T worked its magic behind the scenes. Training has helped me live in the present.
I say this mostly to those starting or in the early days of transition and who can relate to the body image I held for all those years in my mind's eye, only half glancing at it. I'm talking to my boys and my bois who lift and strain and sweat, yet never seem to grow.
Set your mind to long-term and keep a record. Not to obsess, but so that you can look back in two or three years time and see how far you've come. You'll amaze yourself.
Lastly, don't stop at finding the courage to come out. Claiming a gender identity isn't the end of figuring yourself out and the next steps will require bravery and stamina, both mental and physical. It's no mean feat to feel at home in your own skin over the months and years that make a lifetime. Anyone can tell you that.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on July 16, 2014.