This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2019

How circus arts helped me deal with body shame

On aging, gender presentation, and—of course—trapeze

Dana Baitz


Photo: Paul Hillier

After reaching my late-40s, becoming more visibly trans, having a child, and losing most of my employment prospects, I finally became comfortable with myself. A lot of that comfort and acceptance came from a new love affair—with, oddly enough, trapeze.

In grad school, my girlfriend went to the gym.  I followed suit, because everything a new girlfriend does seems totally perfect. Of course, change rooms—or any single-sex space—are dangerous places for trans people…  Would the gym’s policies protect me?  Did I look pretty enough that day to avoid raising eyebrows?  It took me over a decade to truly internalize the fact that change rooms don’t have a dress code.

When you transition, the usual expectation is that you begin to pass as your preferred gender.  But most don’t, fully. And I didn’t, fully. I finished grad school with a PhD, a wife, a son, and a bundle of optimism.  But being visibly trans in a competitive field meant zero job offers for any positions that would have utilized my credentials.  So, I had a future to invent, and no more patience for the conventional.

At first, transitioning made me feel like I should stay in the shadows, keep a low profile.  I felt as though transitioning placed a huge demand on others that I should repay by accepting any old kind of gender expression.  I compensated for my distinct appearance by dressing down. The simpler and humbler my outfit, the more supplicant my request for acceptance felt.

So, it was years before I replaced my funky old gym clothes with anything new, anything that could signal self-respect and put me on even footing with others.  Even today, I still worry that I’ll be accused of vanity when I dare to dress up my appearance. Or deign to present my trapeze work in front of an audience. (Yes, trapeze.  More about that in a moment.)

The self-conscious makes sense, of course.  Trans bodies have been a spectacle from the days of Barnum & Bailey Circuses, through 20th century medical research, and on through reality TV shows.  So, I expect my body to be perceived as more provocative and salacious than cis bodies. “Be careful not to show any cleavage. Any midriff. Keep the inseams long, and the fit loose,” goes the voice in my head, translating the furtive glances that I try to ignore.  I often wonder what it would be like to have a body that didn’t command attention.

What do you give a fidgety and quirky girl for Christmas?  Circus classes, of course. After a year of nervous avoidance, I signed up for the eight classes my partner had bought for me.  And promptly fell in love with static trapeze. (Static trapeze is not the swinging kind many people associate with circus. Static trapeze is exactly that—it’s static; it’s not meant to move much.)

For the first few months, really years, every muscle in my body ached.  But the endorphins were intoxicating, somehow soothing.  It’s no wonder that there’s a growing “social circus” movement that aims to boost individuals in marginalized communities through circus training.  Circus just feels good.  One tiny success at a time, one new friendly face at a time, life gets better.

My coaches quickly became role models.  The women I met were stronger and more graceful than any I had met before.  Suddenly, my earlier modest efforts at the gym seemed puny. Almost cute in their tiny proportions.  In circus class, I saw how much more was physically and mentally possible. The powerful women in circus shattered any stereotypes of what women should look like and be capable of.  My first coach was the strongest woman I had ever interacted with at that point, and she showed me a new way that women could be.

By my mid-forties, the joys of new tricks, new routines, and new friends took over, and I upped my circus training from once to twice a week.  My decade of academic cognitive gymnastics was being followed up by new physical challenges. Training more often was making me stronger and getting stronger allowed me to do more and more exciting things.

That’s when my progress started to change my everyday appearance and my gender expression.

Aerial acrobatics involve a lot of unusual positions: hanging upside down, spinning around…  My snazzy mid-length hair was getting in the way. So, I cut it shorter. And shorter. Tucking, to keep genitals out of the way, became routine. When you’re sweaty and out of breath, say goodbye to a lot of makeup and careful voice modulation.

Being more active was also making my breasts smaller and my muscles and veins more visible. My subcutaneous fat levels decreased, which read as more masculine. My increasing muscle mass raised my testosterone levels.

My body was becoming more masculine in most people’s eyes.  More obviously “different.”

My earlier attempts to keep up feminine appearances were faltering. I became an even more visible pastiche of masculine and feminine signifiers. Trapeze made me an increasingly confusing—yet confident—subject of gender incongruities. That’s exactly the kind of ambiguity I had been conditioned to resist. How do you express who you are when your body is shouting some opposite message, taking on the “wrong” shapes?  My increasingly conspicuous appearance forced me to focus on my positive aerial work, and not worry about how others might see me. I had my eyes on cross-back handstands and single arm inversions. I was having a blast. So, I kept going.

It was always easy to rationalize why I should avoid talking openly about being trans.  Sure, passing means not advertising the fact that you transitioned, and it’s pretty hard to blend in when you’re broadcasting your unique medical history.
But the truth is that I avoided talk about being trans because I still expected to face all the rejection and stigma that I was met with when I first came out.  The anxiety and judgement that others showed me was planted deep in me. But as I became less and less passable, my transition became an elephant in the room. No amount of makeup could cover up that elephant. I decided to let the air out of my lungs.

The more openly I commented, joked, and complained about trans issues, the happier and more relaxed we all felt.  Maybe it’s because the circus community has a long and beloved history of embracing its freaks and geeks. Maybe it’s because intense athletic work is a whole lot easier when we can talk about, see, and feel our bodies as they really are: #nofilter. Did I ever feel a bit sidelined or left out?  Definitely. Were there differences that separated cis from trans people? Sure. But being more “out” created more closeness among my circus peers than it did awkwardness or ostracism. We could all remonstrate together about the appalling anti-trans legislation being passed in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, for example.

“Happier and more relaxed” is not at all how I would have described my years of academia and job hunting.  Those years, when I was passing, I had a closet I could take refuge in.

Now, being visibly trans, I don’t have access to a closet.  There’s no coming out to do when you’re always already identifiable. No option of not disclosing your difference. But I’m becoming myself, accepting myself, in a way that I never foresaw.  My lats push against my clothes (especially any from before my circus days) and my breasts don’t fill the cups I used to wear. Many of the circus women around me raise the same “complaints” (probably a little proudly) at times. Pursuing our own rarefied kind of happiness has drawn all of us away from mainstream ideals of femininity.  It’s in that flight from normalcy that I started to feel free. By moving me away from the kind of woman I thought I was, or should be, circus helped me become a person who actually accepted and liked herself.

The #unshopped and unedited person I was on the trapeze filtered through to my everyday presentation.  My scholarly-chic cardigans were replaced by tank tops and sneakers. Instead of adhering to the protocols of professionalism and toxic femininity, I expressed a more happy and outgoing personality.  Being more open felt good to me. It just didn’t feel good to everyone.

The unspoken rule that trans people are expected to try to pass as their preferred gender still exists. No amount of personal enlightenment changes the fact that trans people are expected to want to look cisgendered.  To pass. To keep cisgender as the pinnacle of physical attractiveness and propriety. To keep social power structures intact.  So, the corollary is that not looking cis, not passing, is to be experienced with shame and embarrassment. As though trans women should be ashamed of any signs of our transition and downplay our medical interventions and “masculine” characteristics.  That we shouldn’t be happy with our appearances or voices. I was done with that.

It was time to learn a reverse meathook.  This trick involves holding your entire body weight with one hand, wrapping that hand behind your back, and keeping your body balanced horizontally under the trapeze while holding this shape.  It looks hard. It feels impossible. I thought the trick might take me a month or two to learn. Working on it, I fainted more than once under the strain of exerting as much muscular force as I could.  But at age 47, after about 10 months of working on it, I finally succeeded in executing a reverse meathook. It’s something I’m honestly a little surprised I became capable of.

The gracefulness of “aerial dance” is not something that anybody ever taught me as a boy. I didn’t learn to move fluidly or as a whole. Now, honing my aerial performance skills, it’s like I’m learning to move for the first time. As though my adolescent enculturation was deferred until after my transition.

I wish I could say it didn’t take the enormous efforts of aerial training to eliminate my body shame.  But doing trapeze certainly helped. Not only was I finished with deferring to others’ standards of how to look, I was also done with feeling that my body was “wrong” in any way.  That I should disguise myself or make excuses for my body. I was done with letting anxiety about everyone else’s gender expectations determine my wardrobe. Trans people have no less of a right to self-acceptance and self-expression than do cis people.  It’s one thing to build acceptance of gender transitions; it’s a whole other step to start changing our ideas of who gets to be out, open, exemplary. Because quite often, trans bodies (maybe especially trans women’s bodies) are regarded as lewd just for their very existence.  I finally had the psychological might to fight back against that.

Of course, no amount of self-awareness and confidence can change the actions of people around you.  In fact, sometimes being yourself just gets you pushed even faster into the weirdo corner of the room, while the popular cis kids keep their party going.  It happens all the time.  (Change rooms may have no dress codes, but people’s reactions sure are dependent on how you look that day…) And when that happens, best to own your corner of the room.

Maybe hanging off a trapeze was my way of ducking out of the race to nab a respectable and intellectually challenging academic job.  Maybe it was me thumbing my nose at the whole prospect of fitting into institutional labour structures. Both are true to an extent. But more than anything, aerial was less a rejection of broader social and economic structures than it was a freeing of myself.  A way to be less apprehensive, to feel supported, to make my body my own, to occupy a complex and beautifully confusing set of gender signifiers. Maybe to escape gender altogether.

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