Inside trans bodybuilding

An annual competition gives empowerment new meaning

An annual competition gives empowerment new meaning
Shawn Stinson, center, backstage at the FTM World Fitness Competition in Atlanta, Oct. 2, 2015.

The backstage area of the 2015 FTM Fitness Conference in Atlanta smells like tanning spray and cooking oil. The bodybuilding competition is running 90 minutes late, and the seven competitors, both pre-op and post-op, are finding ways to kill time. Some do push-ups and talk about what they’re going to eat after the event, while others go over posing tips. One bodybuilder urges another not to cringe as he applies spray to the other man’s back. “Don’t be a girl! Stop!”

Earlier that morning, competitors got in a light workout at the Ramada gym before weigh-in and judging. The leader of the group is Shawn Stinson, the defending FTM Fit Con bodybuilding champion. Since his win last year, Stinson, a 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran turned DJ turned personal trainer, has arguably become the face of the FTM (female to male) bodybuilding movement in America, helping legitimize and define what it means to be a trans bodybuilder.

Now in its second run, FTM Fit Con’s bodybuilding competition is the only one of its kind for transgender athletes in the U.S. This year’s event comes at a time when issues involving the transgender community have bubbled to national prominence. There has been the very public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, which culminated in the cover of Vanity Fair, her own show on E! and her accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at July’s ESPY ceremony. Also in July, Janae Marie Kroc, a world champion powerlifter and decorated bodybuilder, acknowledged that she’s trans and is currently living as both genders. Aydian Dowling, a trans male bodybuilder, was a semifinalist in the Men’s Health Ultimate Guy competition.

Shawn Stinson works out in an Atlanta gym before the competition, upper left. A tattoo on the chest of competitor Preston Martin, right. Backstage at the FTM World Fitness Competition in Atlanta, below. (Click to enlarge images)

“It used to be that in order to find out about trans people, you had to watch Jerry Springer,” says Neo Sandja, the founder of the FTM Fitness Conference. Now “it doesn’t matter if it’s wrestling, the Olympics, MMA or bodybuilding — you will find trans athletes.”

Sandja, who is running around the Ramada in hope of getting things back on schedule, pauses to reflect on what the event means to trans athletes. “The people who show up to this competition have a statement: I don’t care what the world defines as a man or a ‘real’ man. I come here to show that I’m proud to be trans and I’m proud of my scars. I don’t want to hide them.”


Three days before the competition, covered in red and black from his Superman tank top to his Chicago Bulls hat, Stinson looks different from everybody else in the gym. His broad shoulders and back are bumpy and rigid, and he moves methodically from station to station. Minutes into a light bench workout with 60-pound dumbells, his lats and traps begin to glisten. He plows through sets of 10, nodding to the music on his earphones.

The Stinson that the trans bodybuilding world sees today — a magazine cover boy, confident, relaxed and outgoing — is a long way from the depressive, withdrawn child he once was. His mother worked multiple jobs to support him, but they still had to live with Stinson’s grandparents. Looking back on his childhood in Peoria, Illinois, he remembers how she would give him toys after her shift at the Holiday Inn.

“She never brought home any girly toys,” he says after his workout. “She kind of knew I was different.”

Before becoming a personal trainer and bodybuilder, Shawn Stinson was a Marine and a DJ. (Click to enlarge images)

As Stinson started to develop, he realized that a younger male cousin had it “so much easier” than he did. Stinson wanted to be high-fived instead of being called adorable. He wanted cologne instead of perfume at Christmas.

“I was raised as a girl, and I have pictures I’m not happy with,” he says. “Even though I look happy in those pictures, I just remember looking at those pictures and knowing how I wasn’t happy as a child.”

He had his top surgery done in 2007 and he started hormone therapy later. That was four years ago, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Now, with diamond studs in each ear and a little goatee, Stinson, a gym rat with a strict diet, says he has the metabolic age of a 14-year-old boy. Before the weigh-in, other competitors at the Ramada marvel at him. No one says it out loud, but he’s the clear favorite to win. He knows his place in the trans bodybuilding movement, and he also understands that this initial push for broader cultural recognition depends in part on his success.

“This is once in a lifetime. We’re changing lives so that people get fit and helping transgender men transition,” says Stinson. “The time is now.”

Neo Sandja, the founder of FTM Fitness World Competition, waits backstage with competitors. (Click to enlarge images)


When Neo Sandja left his friends at an Atlanta bar one night in 2010, he believed he was saying goodbye to them for good. He had made up his mind to take his own life.

“I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” he says, “but I knew I wasn’t going home.”

The week before, Sandja, 30, had been stressed over how to tell his father back home in the Congo that he was transgender. He couldn’t eat or sleep, and in the lead-up to writing the coming-out email, he became almost delusional. He was depressed and knew that his father, who was supporting him financially, would not take the news well. He was right: When he broke the news, his father would hear nothing of it.

“‘You’re going to butcher your body,’” Sandja remembers him writing in an email. “‘If you decide to do this, you will be dead to me. If people ask me about you, I will tell them you’re dead.’”

Sandja's eyes were blurry from a long night of drinking. Walking on the side of the road in the pitch black, he saw a car speeding toward him. This was his chance, he thought. For him, nothing he did could change his father’s feelings toward him — and he didn’t want to live in a world in which his father didn’t accept him.

He jumped in front of the car. It was a split second, he says, that lasted forever. The car screeched. “I thought for a second that I was probably dead,” Sandja says.

Instead, the car stopped about an inch short of hitting him. He remembers the people and the lights around him at the time, but everything was mute. Days before the second FTM Fitness Conference, Sandja remains in disbelief over that night.

“The car was literally right there,” he says. “I got scared for a second because it was a police car. I thought, ‘I’m not dead, but I’m going to jail.’”

Now he can laugh about it in the basement of his home in Decatur, Georgia, but it took him years to get to this point.

Last year, after a long string of Facebook messages among Sandja and others interested in trans fitness, the idea for FTM Fit Con came into being. But planning the event was overwhelming, and up until a day before the first competition, Sandja questioned whether he could pull it off. Then he received a note from another trans man. The writer had been ready to kill himself until he stumbled on Sandja’s blog about fitness and transitioning. That was when Sandja realized that the competition was about more than bodybuilding; it was about helping people develop new identities.

Rese Weaver, from Atlanta, works out in the hotel gym before judging, left, and poses during the competition. (Click to enlarge images)


It’s two days before the FTM Fitness Conference, and Rese Weaver is starving. His food intake has been limited by diet and nerves, and he still needs to get in a quick last-minute workout to cut weight. Walking into a local gym, Weaver is greeted by a trainer holding a half-eaten Jimmy John’s sandwich. He agrees to let us in, crushing bites between replies. To Weaver, a sandwich has never looked as good as it does now.

“It was just staring at me in the face,” he says after changing his clothes.

In an oversize shirt that covers his chest, he heads to a bench. Even with a spotter, he struggles to lift 60-pound free weights over his head. Weaver, whose purple and green hair stands out in the sterile space, doesn’t admit defeat, but he knows he can do better. He says he faces constant reminders of his hurdles, whether it’s the depression he has fought off or the identity issues he still occasionally faces.

“When you transition, you really don’t know yourself anymore,” he says. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I still don’t know who I am.”

Weaver never considered himself a woman. Growing up, he says, people thought he was suffering from mental health issues for thinking that he was a man, so he buried those thoughts. When he was a teenager, he struggled with eating disorders and substance abuse. As he got older, he also began binge eating. He became unrecognizable, ballooning to more than 220 pounds in a very short period.

“I didn’t care at all about living,” he says.

Then he stumbled across YouTube videos featuring people who underwent gender reassignment operations, and he recognized himself in them. In the spring of 2014, Weaver, then just 21, began hormone therapy. Over the course of a year, he has dropped to 160 pounds.

Rese Weaver backstage at the FTM World Fitness Competition. (Click to enlarge images)

At the gym, he points to the tattoos on his arms as his daily reminders of where he came from and where he’s going. One of them reads, “Hot Sauce,” which refers to his 4-year-old son, De’montae. Grinning from ear to ear, Weaver talks about the sign De’montae made him for the competition, which reads, “Go Popcorn!” “He’s the reason I do bodybuilding,” Weaver says. “When I work out in the morning, he’s like, ‘Can I join?’”

“When I first started doing bodybuilding, there were not trans activities or sports out there,” he says. “A couple years back, trans people were just hiding, like lesbians and gays. We’re just now getting to where we’re allowed to be somewhat accepted.”

Rese Weaver, Shawn Stinson, and Preston Martin pose during the judging, top. Tyler Tuccio from Watertown, New Jersey; shadows of competitors during the event, bottom left. (Click to enlarge images)


Backstage, the bodybuilders are struggling with nerves. On this early October evening, the ballroom at the Ramada is just about full, with close to 100 people waiting.

Even though he’s the consensus favorite, Stinson is all business in his approach. He goes through poses, not talking to anybody during preparation. Weaver is still smiling but is growing more anxious. He’s the first to be announced. As one of the judges reminds the audience, most of these bodybuilders are “doing something they’ve never done before, against all their fears.”

“I want people to see that we can do it in our different bodies,” Sandja says before the competition. “We are not afraid to show our new bodies, to show the scars.”

Weaver skips out to the opening beats of a club song, urging the crowd to get on their feet. Wearing a black bottom and a camouflage top, he dances and mouths lyrics between planned poses. Anxiety has vanished. As the song wraps up, he points to the crowd and walks offstage to an ovation.

“This year was about testing the waters and seeing what’s out there,” says Weaver, who ends up finishing fourth. “But next year, I’m coming back lean as hell. I’m coming for blood.”

Shawn Stinson wins first place for the second year in a row, left. Dominic Chilko, from Minnesota, won third place. (Click to enlarge images)

Days before the competition, Stinson wouldn’t reveal what music he was planning to play during his routine. Walking out in a black posing briefs, the crowd hears the opening bars of “Legend” by Drake, and Stinson goes right into his routine — tight and coordinated. No movement is wasted, no facial expression spontaneous. The months of training that went into a 90-second routine are paying off.

Less than an hour after saluting the crowd, it’s official: Stinson is once again FTM Fit Con’s bodybuilding champion.

While he’s thrilled to repeat last year’s victory, he wants to help push the movement forward. He wants to compete in a conventional bodybuilding competition and bring trans athletes more into the mainstream. “People don’t understand that we aren’t monsters,” Stinson says. “If we would have it any other way to be born the way we are, I promise you, we’d all do it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“I am up for the challenge.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Shawn Stinson had top surgery while in the Army. Stinson served in the Marine Corps and had top surgery two years after leaving the service.

Join the Conversation

  • 0
  • 0
  • 0
  • 0