Fitness for Bodies That Don’t Fit the Mainstream

Five years ago, Asher Freeman tried to find a personal trainer knowledgeable about the fitness needs of queer and transgender people. The search came up empty. So Freeman, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, took college courses in exercise science and became certified as a personal trainer.

“It was really my own experience that made me realize the need for fitness professionals serving those of us whose bodies do not fit into the mainstream fitness industry’s narrow definition of health,” said Freeman, who prefers not to use labels like Mr. or Ms. “My drive to do this work is not just based in my own identity and experience. It’s based in a realization that most of us — trans people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so many others — have bodies that never get to be celebrated in mainstream fitness spaces.”

Last fall, Freeman started The Nonnormative Body Club in Philadelphia, offering personal and group training along with workshops on transgender health topics such as chest binding and preparation and recovery for top surgery, which involves double mastectomy to remove both breasts, a major surgical procedure that can cause pain or numbness and can result in weak muscles. All the services are offered on a sliding scale.

Freeman said the trans wellness programs are meant to mitigate the harm that can be caused by chest binding and top surgery. The top surgery workshop provides an eight-week guidance program offering pre-surgery tips. For example, two months before the surgery, Freeman suggests doing core strengthening exercises on a regular basis, since a strong core helps with the post-surgery recovery. Once the surgery is done, Freeman suggests light walks at first to keep in shape, and stretching exercises to build strength in the chest and shoulder area.

Freeman interned at Sweet Momentum, a gym in Portland, Ore., that calls itself “ kinder, more compassionate, and accessible for people of all different fitness levels, genders, body types, and ages.” There, Freeman started chest-binding workshops, then brought those classes to Philadelphia in the fall, where they drew interest from people as far away as Canada and Colorado seeking their services.

Kyle Fairall, executive director of Queerflex, a gym in Edmonton, Alberta, that caters to L.G.B.T.Q. members and who goes by the pronouns they and them, said they contacted Freeman after finding their Instagram account showing a post on the chest binding and top surgery workshop.

“I got Asher and one of my trainers to start collaborating on how we can figure out how to deliver Asher’s binding health and top surgery recovery here in Edmonton via an online webinar,” Fairall said. “And we also wanted to show the queer and trans folk here that we are not alone. There are so many people out there who may have struggled to find queer and trans-affirming fitness and health care. There are people out there doing this work.”

Sequoya Hayes, director of community outreach and engagement for Youth Seen, which provides services to L.G.B.T.Q. youth in the Denver area, said she was interested in Freeman’s work because her organization wants to build a collection of nationwide resources so clients can have access to services not provided in Denver.

“Representation is key when it comes to the physical well-being — nutritional, emotional and mental health — of our community,” said Hayes, who goes by the pronouns she and her. “It’s all-hands-on-deck at this point to find these much needed resources.”

Blake Flessas, 29, of Philadelphia, recently attended one of Freeman’s chest binding workshops, which is held in a studio called Bodyrock Bootcamp and Executive Training. Finding a personal trainer that Flessas, who goes by the pronouns they and them, could identify with was crucial.

“It was important to me that Asher is the one doing this work because to somebody who has never had this life experience, it would feel more difficult for them to understand the level of anxiety and mental health that goes into choosing whether or not to bind,” Flessas said. It helped “to have somebody know that we are not going to stop binding just because it is painful.”

Freeman explained that chest binding, done to flatten unwanted breasts, can cause muscular imbalances and anatomical issues that cause tension and pain.

“A cisgender doctor or personal trainer might tell you to just stop binding, but that is not realistic,” Freeman said. “There are other options like strengthening, stretching, breathing exercises and self-myofascial release can lessen the pain of chest binding.”

Research has documented that gay and transgender patients experience disparities in health care, and many transgender people note problems they have had receiving medical care, posting in forums such as Twitter under the hashtag #transhealthfail. Freeman said some feel that mainstream doctors are not trained to address their health issues. But training in transgender issues is increasing. According to an Association of American Medical Colleges survey, the inclusion of transgender issues into medical schools’ curriculums rose to 66 percent in 2016-17, from 49 percent in 2013-14.

In the workshop, Freeman demonstrates exercises to do at each stage in the prep and the recovery process, and they discuss what can happen in the body during the recovery process.

Participants have an opportunity to practice the exercises, and learn how to care for post-surgery scars. Freeman said one of the most valuable parts of the workshop is for participants to learn from each other’s experiences, and Freeman, who has had top surgery, shares what they learned in the pre- and post-recovery periods.

“I’ve personally learned a ton of valuable information from these conversations that have helped shape the curriculum,” Freeman said.

Freeman recently started the top surgery workshop with Brian Flynn, a massage therapist, 29, from Philadelphia, who had the surgery May 10.

“As a trans person, a big part of my early life was experiencing a deep disconnection from my body, an enormous distancing,” said Flynn, who uses the pronouns he and they. “A big part of my journey is forming a deep relationship with my body. For a trans person to love and support their own body is a revolutionary act. To be able to have fitness professionals who can identify with this process is huge.”

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