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Kai-Isaiah Jamal

Kai-Isaiah Jamal: What the gym means to me as a trans man

When he first started transitioning, Kai-Isaiah Jamal spent more time in the gym working out how to be invisible than he did working out

Most days I call this body of mine one of the following; an argument, a conversation or silence. Some days it’s all three. My stomach dips into a well-honed (even if I do say so myself) v-shape. Across my stomach lays the word ‘home’, tattooed into some pretty solid-ish abs. Whatever this body be, it always will be a home. A home that rattles, creaks, one that aches for renovation. For a change, to be re-upholstered. A home that will be warm and loving one day, but just has so much work to do right now. 

I can’t remember the last day I wasn’t completely aware of my body, mainly because of the discomfort I feel existing in it. There are some moments though, usually after blowing some smoke, occasionally living my kunty dream on a dance floor and maybe five minutes after good sex that I forget I have one. It’s a feeling I am still waiting to find out how to articulate. It’s freedom, but more than freedom it is the silence and peace of not feeling like I’m in conflict. 

I like to take care of my body because of the ways I hate it. I know that doesn’t make sense completely but I think life only works with balance and the importance of that, for me, came in the form of accepting the worst things I think about myself by combating them with my own types of self-care. I can never eradicate all of those negative feelings, but I can motion them with some positives. Also, I’m vain, or insecure (or both), so I need to look good in order to feel good. Getting a good trim, buying new binders, packers and clothes as well as the occasional thirst trap Insta posts are all ways of affirming myself. Fitness is another way I want to hone my body, while also practising self-care rituals.

My first time entering a gym after coming out and visibly embracing my masculinity was the most humiliating thing ever

My first time entering a gym after coming out and visibly embracing my masculinity was the most humiliating thing ever. My only issue with the gym prior to this (when presenting as a girl) was seedy men watching me squat or watching my chest jiggle whilst running. For me that was manageable, the dissociation meant I frankly didn’t care. It didn’t feel like my body, it was foreign and not something that I felt connected to. This time, though, was different – this was sniggers and smirks, this was eyes tracing my body to make sense of it, this was fearing for my safety. 

I walked in a bare-faced baby boy with a bulging bunched chest from not being able to bind while exercising and a t-shirt that clung to it. My legs sprouting non-convincing hair and eyes that must have looked like a deer in the headlights, I spent more time working out how to be invisible than I did working out. Men with arms the width of my torso would find a way to make eye contact, to remind me of whose space this was, my inadequacy, to highlight my mawga* chicken legs. I felt it. The intimidation was real. I quickly left the gym and swore to myself I wouldn’t be back. Instead, I exercised in private. I did bedroom circuits. I ran a fair amount, even took litre bottles of fizzy drinks and used them as weights. I wasn’t doing what I wanted, I wasn’t getting hench but I was getting toned.

When I decided top surgery was something that I wanted to and could do, I knew in order to get the best results, it was time to hit the gym again. A big part of dealing with my dysphoria was and is changing the form of my body, but more than anything it was preparing my body for the change, almost like pre-recovery. When I’m in the gym now, I chuckle at the days of home gymming. Now I am extremely lucky to have a gym space provided by Nike – as part of a partnership aiming to work on inclusive gym spaces, we have a private, small and intimate gym that I get to share with my chosen father Naeem and a trainer that I didn’t think existed. Most Tuesdays we come to our happy place, Megan Thee Stallion blares from the speakers and we activate; Team Get Hench mode. 

Naeem and I have the privilege of training with Joslyn Thompson Rule; not only has she dissolved my fears and stereotypes about personal trainers, she pushes us, understands our bodies and takes the time to really prepare us for top surgery – by improving both our fitness and our overall well-being. Our first day of meeting Jos was to establish what we wanted from training, what results we wanted to see and some background to our lifestyles. Both myself and Naeem found ourselves wanting to enjoy our body without dysphoria and also to masculinise our shape, which will help with passing/presenting. Before this, I would sit and watch the likes of Laith Ashley and Ajay Holbrook in awe of their bodies but also feeling the pressure of having to look like that in order to pass. My genes ain’t that, my dad’s waist is smaller than mine! But also I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted or if it was an expectation of what my body should look like – whether my ultimate goal should be having a body that is unrecognisably ‘trans’. 

The pressure of hyper-masculinity and sexualisation of black men means that you base a huge part of your own perception of yourself on how attractive you are to others

But pressure around “masculinising” my body image isn’t only linked to my transness. Growing up in a time that fetishises the black man’s body (a time we’re still in today) meant that, if I didn’t look like D’Angelo in “How Does it Feel”, I didn’t feel sexy. Morris Chestnut, Tyrese Gibson and Mekhi Phifer were the stars of most films I watched and they were FINE! But none of them looked like me. So growing up and into my masculinity, I didn’t think a slim body could attain that level of desirability, especially a non-cis one. The pressure of hyper-masculinity and sexualisation of black men means that you base a huge part of your own perception of yourself on how attractive you are to others, which is a dangerous way to find the beauty within your body.

In the near future, mine and Naeem’ aim is to create a gym space where trans men and masc-centred people can come together and get them gains as well as having a kiki! To give varying narratives to trans bodies, to give access to all trans bodies and to have a mixture of training and socialising in the hope that we can collectively learn to or continue to love and care for our bodies before, during and after the changes that will occur. We want a space that fat, black, brown, small, athletic, fluffy, passable, non-passable, beyond the binary bodies are celebrated and respected, a space where we can work out without the pressures that are attached to the gym spaces that we are not welcome in, where we feel unsafe, or scrutinised. 

I can see now that a lot of the process of training and finding new ways to look after my body has been about realising, more than just the gains, the mental wellbeing that comes with training, the importance of recovery and how we prepare our mind, body and soul for the journey of transitioning physically. I feel so lucky to have been given a safe space like the gym where I work out and my only wish is to expand that accessibility to all who find it triggering and traumatic to be at the gym. Looking after yourself can be hard as a trans person, I want to make that feel easier and healthier, with less definitive reductive ’goals’. For now, I am ready for a topless summer, there’s no stopping my new 2.0 comfortable, repurposed, redefined body. Here’s to loving this home.