The Army Taught Me That I Can Change My Body (And It Will Still Be Mine)

feature image via Shutterstock

The first spring after I arrived home from Iraq I was in a long argument with a dear friend. This fight had been building for weeks and it finally managed to get ugly over a phone call. We worked together for an organization and the fight was over minor stuff, mainly about how the organization was treating LGBT people. It just hadn’t been processed right over the past year, the sort of thing that happens when two fairly polite individuals don’t take time to point out or apologize for small grievances. It happens.

But still, it got ugly. He ended the call by saying something like, “I don’t think you actually have as full an understanding of this situation as you think you do, and you know what, I don’t believe you’re actually a woman trapped in a man’s body!”

We hadn’t been arguing about anything relating to my being trans, but that just got thrown in. Sometimes when people don’t agree with me, this happens. I have a habit of talking politics (sometimes even with folks who don’t believe all the same things I do) and when some folks want to point out how deeply foolish I really am – how poorly I perceive the world – they’ll throw it a reference to the “woman trapped in a man’s body” thing.


But here’s the thing: I have never used that term to describe myself. I’ve used a lot of different narratives to try to understand and to talk about my transness – everything from Bruce Banner’s irradiated metamorphosis to the Hulk to Cinderella being magiced into a princess to that scene in the ’80s Transformers movie where the devil planet Unicron creates Galvatron from the ruined Megatron to New Testament language about how in Christ I am a new creation. I’ve thrown a lot of metaphors out there, but never that one.

There’s also, I believe, this assumption that all trans people, especially trans women, hate our bodies and are oddly and perhaps dysfunctionally disconnected from our physical forms. That plays into this idea seen in so many dramatic Hollywood shock reveals that trans bodies are inherently horrifying.


But here’s the deal: I both like and am my body. I am a girl, ergo I have a girl’s body. It’s neat. You know what I think helped me to be comfortable with my body more than anything else?

The US Army.

Back when I enlisted as a teenager, I was an unhappy chick. I was in the neighborhood of thirty pounds overweight, lonely, and quietly miserable. Going off to Basic at Ft. Jackson sounded like an absolute impossibility. When I arrived at Basic, I was a mess. By the skin of my teeth I passed the intro physical fitness test, but I kept falling out of runs and not being able to do enough push ups or pulls ups. One day outside of the mini-PX where we were sent to buy washcloths, soap and cough drops, two of the drill sergeants grabbed me and tore me apart for about fifteen minutes over my weight, my slowness and my supposed love of McDonald’s (a place, so we’re clear, that I’ve always thought was gross). During that extended process of my standing stock still as my entire character was hammered away by the drills, I happened to have a thought: I need a body that can run faster.

Then I realized that I could simply take this body that I already have and am, and make it a body that runs faster.

In knowing my body as a thing that belongs to me, that is mine to change or upgrade or mark or piece or whatever, I felt very free. Before I started passing my Army Physical Fitness Tests I wasn’t a soldier trapped in the body of a civilian, I was just a crummy runner. By doing the right work, I have the ability to change my body to be what I wanted it to be.


It isn’t always easy. Both my transition in the military and to living out as woman were both marked occasionally by middle aged men screaming at me. And sometimes there are limits, limits where it is an effort to find a workaround. Still, it’s my body and I can do with it what I please. I can make it run faster, I can make it look prettier. Because it’s mine, because it’s me, I get to choose.

And that’s awesome.

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Vivian Taylor is an Episcopalian writer, activist, avid Sung Compline promoter, and proud (if occasionally troubled) North Carolinian currently living in Boston, MA. She served in the War in Iraq from 2009-2010 and has run several statewide LGBTQ rights campaigns in places like North Carolina, Michigan, and others. She writes about being a peacenik veteran, an Anglican Nihilist, and the paradox of our coexistent onesness with being and solitude.

Vivian has written 4 articles for us.


  1. This is such a wonderful, confident piece. It made me feel pretty body positive just reading it – thank you!

  2. “By doing the right work, I have the ability to change my body to be what I wanted it to be.” I LOVE THIS. Thank you!

  3. This is great! I’m not trans* and unfortunately I don’t have the pleasure of having trans* friends either, so I look to autostraddle to help me understand more about the trans* community. This article was like windex to a window. I get this. I attribute a lot of my self confidence/awareness to my time in the army. Granted, my drill sergeants never out right told me “Hey! You’re a lesbian! Be that! Right now!” But in time I did realize all the things I never thought I was or could be I became because it was in my power to change. And that’s a big lesson to learn for anybody.

  4. “Both my transition in the military and to living out as woman were both marked occasionally by middle aged men screaming at me.”

    Somehow, the sentiment of middle-aged men screaming at us whenever we don’t follow the “expected” social narrative (or being anything but a middle-aged white hetero cisman) seems to be a universal experience.

  5. this was so fantastic! i recently picked up distance running, and i love love love what you wrote about taking the body you have and making it a body that runs faster. learning that i could run and move faster and for longer than i ever thought i could has been a wonderful and empowering experience. it’s a slow process, but i can feel it changing how i think about every part of my life. and you captured how freeing that thought is so beautifully!

    ahhh, i’m gushing. i just love this piece. i’m so glad you shared it with us.

  6. Great to hear a positive piece about the military. I had something of the same experience — joining the Army made me understand that the limits I set for my body’s capabilities are almost always 100% wrong. Someone told me once that your mom thinks you can do 25% of your body’s actual potential, you think you can do 50%, and your drills think you can 75%. Finding that last 25% is my goal!

  7. Thank you! This piece really hit home. As someone who is dysphoric about parts of my body due to being trans, exercise and weight training has helped me understand how I can change my body and how to cope with feeling shitty about it sometimes. It gives me hope that maybe one day I won’t be so dysphoric.

  8. This article is great and the message is so important. We have more power than we think over our bodies, and we can choose how it express who we are inside.

    It’s interesting though that when this concept is applied to trans people no one bats an eye, but when you apply this to fat people, everyone loses their minds.

    • Can you clarify what you mean by your last sentence? I’m reading it as you saying, “Fat people should recognize that they can change their bodies, and it’s ‘interesting’ that people get so upset about it when people point that out.” Is that what you mean?

  9. This is so interesting! Thank you for writing and I hope to see more from you -I love your style!

  10. This is brilliant, and may I say you are a lovely woman. I’ve been considering the armed forces myself, and reading this article actually makes me feel a little better about my decision to do so.

  11. I love this, partly because you sound really positive and generally awesome, and partly because your ideas about the body sound similar to mine. It’s great to hear someone else express a perspective similar to mine, especially because I’ve discussed this with people in the past who couldn’t quite see where I was coming from. It’s really nice to know it’s not just me, and I think hearing other people’s stories has definitely helped me understand and shape how I think of myself as a person and as a physical being.

    Thank you for sharing!!

  12. A wonderful story, Vivian! I was a soldier also and remember the difficulty I had trying to run in boots along with hearing the guys laughing about how I ran like a girl.

    I relate to what you are saying because I never despised my body, I just didn’t understand it. I mean I know of transwomen who tried to mutilate themselves and I never really came close to that kind of extremity. Having said that, being post-op now, I feel aligned with me.

  13. Just came upon this in the featured archives.

    “I wasn’t a soldier trapped in the body of a civilian, I was just a crummy runner.”

    Love this. I’m cis, and I’m overweight and have fought with EDs. Any time we can reframe the conversation about our bodies — changing them from immutable, unchangeable emotional burdens we are saddled with to, well, bodies: that is to say, the different parts of our physical being that make up the whole, tools, miracles of natural engineering that allow us to do what we want to do — the more that I can look at my body in the way you’re talking about, the healthier I am.

    Also, “I am a girl, ergo I have a girl’s body” — thank you for that. We need voices like yours speaking up in our world, fighting back against the idea that gender is or looks a certain way. It’s not your job to shoulder that mantle, but I’m glad you’re comfortable putting your healthy voice out there!

  14. Vivian, you are awesome !!!
    And that is just my view too, have just started hormones and am sure as hell that I am keeping what’s mine and simply upgrading everything.
    Keep on writing as I save all.

  15. This was just what I needed to be reminded of today. I have been dealing with some health issues for a few years now that I know are stress related (…and lifestyle related…) I am a big believer in and promoter of positive manifestation–but when it comes to applying it to my own life and behaviors I get extremely nihilistic. But as I always say, “my body, my right” …if I want to feel healthier–I know what I need to do!

    Thank you, Vivian for sharing!

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