Trans Masculine Folks And The Bodybuilding Dream

Sculpted arms. Toned abs. Sturdy legs. A chiselled physique. No, I am not talking about Hrithik Roshan. Although he IS the closest we Indians have to a ‘Greek god’, I am referring to bodybuilders i.e., athletes who work on their body.

TW: mention of gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, description of socially-idealized body imagery

Most trans men dream of having a flat chest. We are conscious about our physique to the point of constantly daydreaming about what it would be like to ‘look like a man’. While some of us (myself included) are busy daydreaming, a select few have put in the work to make that dream a reality.

Sculpted arms. Toned abs. Sturdy legs. A chiselled physique. No, I am not talking about Hrithik Roshan. Although he IS the closest we Indians have to a ‘Greek god’, I am referring to bodybuilders i.e., athletes who work on their body.

Yes, those beefcakes who participate in tournaments—showing off their bodies and muscles we didn’t know even existed. If I am making it sound trivial, it is not. Humour is how I cope sometimes when I am intimidated, by hunks or anyone else. And, boy, am I in awe of the likes of Praveen Nath and Aryan Pasha!

Chota Packet, Bada Dhamaka!

Praveen Nath recently made the headlines for winning the Mr. Kerala (2021) title in the trans category. He arrived on the scene by participating in a bodybuilding tournament, where Praveen bagged a title and forced people to take note of him—the newest, nay, freshest entrant in bodybuilding. He was the only bodybuilder participating in his category, but his victory was as monumental as anyone else’s. At 23 years old, and five-foot-some-inches, he might appear small, but he stands tall. Let me tell you why.

To be able to participate fairly, Praveen and his trainer, Vinu Mohanan, had to convince the concerned authorities from the Body Building Association of Kerala, to create a separate category for trans-men. Praveen wasn’t about to back down when they initially refused for he has endured years of systemic invisibilization.

The bodybuilder had studied up till the 12th standard in small-town Kerala, which is often advertised as progressive than the rest of the nation, but decided to apply for a transfer certificate while pursuing his bachelor’s degree. Why did he quit midway? No points for guessing: the teachers and students were transphobic.

What’s Working Out As A Trans Guy Like?

If an institute of intellectual training failed miserably at being trans-inclusive, can we really expect a house of physical development to do so? “I tried to workout in a couple of gyms in my hometown, but the staff and members were hostile. They would say negative things about LGBTQIA+ people,” rued Praveen.

Seeing cis-guys flaunting their perfect pecks can make one feel many things: excited, envious, dysphoric, daunted… the list goes on!

I spoke to a young trans guy like myself, who happens to be a techie living in a tier-1 city. “I want a muscular physique, but I avoid going to gyms. I have invested in some basic equipment and I prefer working out at home instead,” he confessed.

Those of us who can afford to pay for a gym membership hesitate to do so, precisely because we are intimidated, or worse: insulted.

“Mere Coach Amma Aayenge”

Working for Sahayathrika, a queer rights organisation, in Thrissur changed all that for Praveen, though. Not only did the organisation help him reconcile with his family members (a mother and two brothers), he also met his coach, a former bodybuilder, at a local gym there.

Having his “amma” back on his team gave him moral strength. Working out with Vinu thrice a day helped him build his physical strength. They obtained a special permission to workout during the lockdown as gyms were shut, so Praveen’s preparation wouldn’t suffer.

But, he was (and is) still missing something crucial: sponsorship and financial support.

“Money Makes The World Go Round”

Bodybuilding is an expensive sport. Staying in tip-top shape means that one has to regularly exercise and access gym equipment. It also means that one has to eat a protein-heavy diet, which doesn’t come cheap. Not to mention steroids, supplements and whatnot.

Aryan Pasha, the man who has been an inspiration for many in India—by being an out and proud, trans bodybuilder—has only competed in the men’s physique category thus far. “I like the competition! I was a skater before I became a bodybuilder so, you can say that training and competing are ingrained in me,” said Aryan, a 29-year-old, Delhi-based lawyer.

Despite winning multiple medals (two of them being a silver at Musclemania India, 2018 and a bronze at IBFF India, 2019) and being well on his way to participate in an international tournament, the bodybuilder has not been able to find a sponsor yet.

“Everyone wants a piece of my story, but nobody wants to fund me. I have stopped giving interviews to fitness platforms for the same reason. They want to use me to appear progressive, but they fail to put their money where their mouth is,” explained Aryan.

Train, Gain, But Be Ready For The Pain

He doesn’t want to discourage other trans-masculine folks from pursuing bodybuilding, but he wants us to know it’s expensive. “It’s not easy to sustain yourself as a trans bodybuilder, unless your finances are in place, and that’s the sad reality of it.”

Praveen admitted to getting inspired to bodybuild after landing on Aryan’s Instagram page. “I had a smoking and drinking problem. I was also gaining weight. I had also just broken up with my ex-girlfriend at the time. I knew I wanted to do something, but didn’t know where to start.”

Seeing Aryan’s workout videos and muscular photos pushed Praveen to work towards building a fitter physique. Aryan too, worked on himself using knowledge from the Internet. “Pretty much all you need to know is available on the Internet!” he claimed.

Nonetheless, the trans bodybuilder has decided to personally train another young and upcoming trans bodybuilder. “Coaches don’t know too much about trans bodies. Be it about us taking testosterone shots regularly, or getting specific surgeries, you have to account for these when training a trans guy,” Aryan pointed out.

One can only hope that young trans-men who see Aryan and Praveen living their truth, are inspired to do the same.

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Prithvi is a trans masculine person from Mumbai. He is a Research and Media Catalyst at the Godrej DEi Lab, working for diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces. Most recently, he was a Learning Catalyst with a public health NGO called Swasti. Apart from co-writing ‘Lailaa Manju’, his first film, he has also penned a Hindi graphic novel: ‘Sarayu Bana Sayana’. Previously, he was a fellow in the Ideosync UNESCO Information Fellowship’s Oct '20-March '21 cohort, and created a podcast—Transpeak. He has also worked as a journalist with mid-day and Youth Ki Awaaz. He has a master's degree in Psychology.

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