Step 1: Myofascial release
The end of your relationship starts as a nagging pain in the crease below your shoulder blade: a pinch, almost-itch that you sometimes think you could snap out with one good whip of your arm. The trainer for your roller derby team pushes her thumb into the edges of the bone, squeezes the base of your neck until it aches then not aches. You need to open up more. Shoulders back, she tells you. But when you do, your breasts stick out, exactly the way you haven’t let them the last fifteen years since they first made their appearance. Two inexplicable domes. So you let your shoulders cave forward and your men’s crewneck folds over them. The pain continues. Your trainer shows you how to roll a lacrosse ball on a spot beneath your collar bone, right in front of your armpit. She nods at your breasts, says, Just wrap them up.
Step 2: Static stretch
In your girlfriend’s kitchen, you do the stretches the trainer laid out for you: forearm on the door frame, elbow at a ninety degree angle, upper arm ninety degrees from your torso. Step forward and twist out slightly, feel the fibers of your chest sigh with relief. You stretch as you watch your girlfriend prepare dinner, digging through the pantry, examining vials of spices and bags of grains. You tell you’re her that this whole good posture thing makes you feel uncomfortable. That it creates a vulnerability you’ve tried to avoid. Oh, okay, she says, nodding her head and furrowing her brow. As usual, she doesn’t understand. Before you, she only had boyfriends. Before you, she’d never stopped when entering a public restroom, never pondered the stick figure on the sign. You’re pretty sure she still doesn’t, even though she has witnessed your hesitation countless times, has even seen other women yell at you for invading their space: What are you doing in here, boy? She tells you, It’ll feel more natural with time. She kisses you on the cheek and tells you she’s making whole wheat rotini with kale and walnuts.
Step 3: Muscle activation
Eventually, you graduate to using elastic bands to work the muscles that open your shoulders. Elbows at your sides, twist hands out, pivoting at your waist. A thin line along the back of your shoulders burns. It becomes harder to slump forward, and your breasts rebel, pressing away, away, away, through the fabric of your shirt. Always there. The night of the derby league end-of-season prom, you use elastic bandages the same length and width of your exercise bands to bind your chest. For the first time, you can look in the mirror and see yourself stand a bit taller. You put on your pinstripe suit and wingtips, tie your new pink silk tie with a half-Windsor and brush your hair so it swoops across your forehead, the way your girlfriend likes it. She wears a black polka dot dress with a sweetheart neckline that makes her look like a model from the 1940s. When she kisses you hello, she puts her hand on your collarbone. Stops. Purses her lip with confusion as she runs her fingers down the flat expanse of your front. She asks, Does this mean you want to be a boy? You tell her of course not, remove the bandage and replace it with your standard issue grey Champion sports bra. The bandage leaves pink herringbone treads on the skin along your ribcage. At the party, when they’re passing out awards and she receives the plaque for Best Jammer, you remember how she once told you her grandmother never let her play sports growing up because it would make her shoulders too broad. You flip the thought over like an ancient coin in your head: how her understanding of women’s bodies has changed, how it hasn’t.
Step 4: Integrative movement
It’s not like you want to chop them off, you tell her—although, in truth, you sort of do. They’re not like your vagina. That you have no problem with, tucked away as it is. You argue in public for the first time when she brings you as a guest to her gym so you can do the routine your trainer gave you: squat, pull the band with handles until your elbows come past your back and you can feel your shoulder blades squeeze together. Like you could catch a pencil between them, your trainer explained. It’s a silly fight, from the outside: she wants you to bring your stuff into the women’s locker room; you’d rather carry it with you from area to area. But it will just get in the way, she says. One of the staff members interrupts, ever helpful, says—looking you directly in the eye—Ma’am, it’s really no problem. We can lend you a lock. The word reverberates in your head: Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am. A word you only get called over the phone, when no one can see you. In that moment, you feel that something has gone horribly wrong. Later, at home when you try to explain, she asks, I don’t understand what the big deal is. Do you want people to think you’re some weird pervert every time you enter a public restroom? When you first started dating, you worried she didn’t fully understand you were not a boy; if you showed up one day wearing Clinique Happy instead of Old Spice, she’d dump you. These days, your worry has changed: that you will have to explain yourself forever to her as girl/not-girl; that you still don’t belong in these bathrooms just because of these two mounds of flesh; that you are becoming someone different now that you stand tall; that she is.
Kat Setzer is a personal trainer and roller derby enthusiast living in Boston. Her fiction has appeared in a variety of now-defunct tiny literary journals, including Sotto Voce and Fresh Boiled Peanuts. Her nonfiction, thankfully, has found more solid foundations in publications such as Bust magazine, i09, and Derby Life. Follow her on Twitter here.