How a Cringey Home Workout Program Helped Me Embrace My Gender Identity

When author Alex McElroy moved home right before the pandemic, they never expected to become obsessed with Beachbody—or that it would help them navigate their transition.

In January 2020, I moved to rural New Jersey to live with my mom. I was getting divorced, fleeing a relationship, completing my first novel, and learning how to be trans after coming out as non-binary the previous summer. Nervous and ashamed about moving home as an adult, I assured myself this setup was temporary. Then March arrived and, for reasons already familiar, the arrangement was extended.

This is how, at age 31, I found myself indefinitely encamped at the dining room table of my childhood, working through revisions on my debut novel and needling for more vegetarian meals (a request in conflict with my mom’s avowed carnivorism). It had been 14 years since we last lived under the same roof. My presence, although welcome, was an interruption to the pleasantly predictable life my she had built with a clingy Labradoodle and two cats. A sulky interloper, I found myself voicing regrets at every meal, interrupting movies and TV shows as I tried to process the previous year of upheavals.

Beyond those specific circumstances, home—the place where I had developed an eating disorder and body dysmorphia as a teenager—had never been a comforting place for me. Now, despite all the work I’d done to recover, I found myself slipping into the same old disordered habits, posing disappointedly before mirrors and compulsively weighing myself. But this time, with a new challenge: trying to present femme in an environment where I’d been assumed male all my life.

Those first two “normal” months, I kept a routine: drank the same breakfast smoothie every morning, wrote from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., took a walk, read until dinner. I fed the cats and drove Killian, the ’doodle, to Doggy Day Camp. I went to therapy twice a week along with exactly one session of a local trans-inclusive support group before it dissolved due to low attendance. And I got up early every morning and drove to a small, grimy gym decorated with woodblock quotes like, “Iron will never betray you.”

Since high school, exercise has been a vital part of my gender presentation. I lifted weights to add muscles to my biceps and shoulders; I played pick-up basketball to hang with the boys. But now, working out intensified my gender dysphoria. At this gym, I felt inescapably male—resigned to the men’s locker room to change, receiving conspiratorial nods from other men, fearfully aware of the alluring shores of the closet. At the same time, working out was an escape I needed to fend off an ever-deepening and dangerous depression. When the pandemic hit, and the gym ceased to be an option, my mom suggested I try her Beachbody® account as a substitute.

As a concept, “beach body” is obviously problematic, a not-so-subtle suggestion that some physiques are innately better than others and therefore more appropriate for public existence. But the workout platform was the right price (free) and available on-demand in my living room, so I shelved my skepticism for the moment to prioritize my mental health.

Over the past half-dozen years, I’d fallen into the habit of performing the same weight-lifting routine at the gym and YouTube yoga at home. My workouts weren’t exactly low-intensity, but they were comfortable and safe…because I knew exactly what I was doing. Beachbody was the opposite: high intensity interval training (HIIT) with short, demanding sessions—light on rest, heavy on jumping.

 

Having that solitary time and space helped me develop a habit of self-worth.

 

After sampling the expletive-heavy class The Work and another called Yoga Booty Ballet, I found a groove with Shaun T.’s Focus T25 program, which promised I could accomplish anything (yep, anything!) if I gave him my best 25 minutes every day. Each session opens with a clip of Shaun exercising in the near-dark to cheesy electronica before cutting to the studio, where a group four fitness buffs await.

Those 25 minutes were filled with moves more complicated than I’d expected. There was the “side hop uppercut” (self-explanatory) and “squat thrust hop” (squat down, thrust into a hop as you come up), and “Heisman crossword + clap” (where do I even begin?). My childhood photos trembled on the walls as I followed along with routines that left my body feeling tender and heavy. I soon became obsessed with the secondary instructors leading me toward The Best Shape of My Life: Tanya (the steadfast modifier) got fit with T25 after becoming a mother; Derrick (no real backstory) dropped 40 pounds. Scott, who rarely had time to workout but could always squeeze in 25 minutes. (It probably helped that he is married to Shaun.)

Being alternatively encouraged and chastised by someone exceedingly hot turned out to be highly motivating, and by week three, my form and stamina had improved. My mental health was shifting, too. When I first moved home, I was the most depressed I have ever been in my life: Back then, I believed that I had abandoned everything I had built for myself in order to become a person I didn’t yet understand how to be, one who could apply makeup and style my hair and look hot in a dress. I’m still working all that out.

But I was learning to appreciate a different kind of success: returning to the workout every day and accepting that this was where everything stood in the moment. Along the way, my hair grew to my shoulders, my nails remained painted, and I tried on dresses I hadn’t worn in a year. I liked my new routines; I liked Beachbody. Little by little, I also learned to like myself.

Being trans in the relative safety of my own home is supremely easier than being trans in public, which, for many, all too often means being denied housing, health care, safety, and loving relationships. Privacy during an especially vulnerable era of my life—along with the self-acceptance unexpectedly fostered by a retro at-home workout franchise—helped me build the confidence I needed to reenter the real world.

For 25 minutes every morning, before my mom woke up, before the dog needed to go out, before digging back into my book, I could exist without anyone watching. After 30 years of repressing myself because I worried friends, partners, and family might reject me if I came out, I was prioritizing how I felt over what others might think about me. Having that solitary time and space helped me develop a habit of self-worth. It gave me the strength to wear a winged swoop of eyeliner wherever I go and also to recover from slights and stares from strangers. To move forward with my life.

Seven months after arriving in New Jersey, I made the leap to Brooklyn, where I quickly swapped T25 for Yoga With Kassandra, both to spare my downstairs neighbors a half-hour of daily thudding and because I felt increasingly uncomfortable with Beachbody’s mid-level marketing business structure. Since then, I’ve launched a reading series, published my novel, and caught and overcome COVID-19. I also started dating a woman who tells me I look amazing when I wear a new dress.

These days, we run together: humid, dehydrating, thigh-chafing jaunts through the park, in a sea of sweat-drenched strangers and clusters of dogs, passing lovers and friends lounging on the grass. Nobody shouts or demands we give them everything we’ve got. The goal isn’t total transformation or beating personal bests. Which is fine. Because the thing is: I don’t need that anymore.