The hundreds of men who have entered this year’s Ultimate Men’s Health Guy Search all have a story of personal transformation to share.
But Aydian Dowling, who is currently perched atop the Guy Search leaderboard, has a transformation tale that’s a bit unlike any other contestant’s.
The 27-year-old from Eugene, Oregon is vying to become the first transgender man to be on the cover of Men’s Health—a feat that would have seemed unthinkable 25, 10, and even 2 years ago. But in 2015, Bruce Jenner is undergoing a male-to-female transition, Amazon’s trans-centric series Transparent is the reigning Golden Globes winner for best comedy, and trans actors have prominent roles in major movies and TV shows, like Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black.
Dowling is hoping to make a similar wave. “Having a trans person on the cover would tell people that no matter who you are, you can be the man you want to be,” he says. “It’s fully possible if you put the time and effort and balance it takes to find the man in you.”
It took 21 years for Dowling to find that man. Dowling was born female, and says “there were definitely signs” that he identified as male at an early age. “I just wanted to act a certain way,” he says, “but I was told that was not how girls act.”
At 13, Dowling developed a crush on a girl, and at 16, had come out as a lesbian to friends and family. By 21, he was dressing in masculine clothes, but it wasn’t until his then-girlfriend asked the pivotal question—“Have you ever wanted to be a boy?”—that Dowling gave any thought to being transgender.
“I didn’t want to be trans,” says Dowling. “I was scared, and I thought being a lesbian was hard enough.” But one night, as he stared at his pink bedroom walls and the pile of men’s clothes crowding his floor, he reached his tipping point.
“If you removed the color from my walls, you’d think you were in a boy’s room. So that’s when I broke down. I was sick of not living my life just because this is the one I was given. Becoming myself is what made me more confident.” (That’s valuable for anyone. Use these 9 Easy and Effective Ways To Be More Confident.)
In October 2009, Dowling began his first dose of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and since then, has injected 0.5 cc’s of testosterone in his muscles every week. The changes were radical at first—“I never knew how hairy men were!” he says—but they never struck him as odd, or foreign. “It just felt like I had finally finished growing up. I simply grew up as a female, and transitioned to a male.”
Dowling had his breasts removed in a procedure called top surgery in 2012, but hasn’t yet changed his bottom—and may never.
“I identify as a male—I don’t have a vagina,” Dowling says. “People don’t have a problem when you call your penis ‘Mr. Winky,’ but when I call what I have a penis, some have a problem with that.”
Dowling openly addresses the anatomy question—along with hundreds of other trans topics—on his popular YouTube channel, ALionsFears. He also created the Beefheads Fitness channel “because there was no one on YouTube making fitness videos for trans people,” he says. “Most females train to build a female body, and most men train to get a more masculine body. So when you’re a biological female trying to gain a masculine physique, you’re going to train a little differently. I wanted to provide a space where we can encourage each other at the gym, even if we might not know what we’re doing.”
Dowling’s ripped body demonstrates his commitment to fitness, through which “I really learned to love myself,” he says. “I work out 5 days a week, I go on hikes with my wife, and I test myself to see how much my body can accomplish. It’s usually way more than I ever thought I could.”
He also trains two trans friends in Eugene, and donates portions of the profits from his clothing company, Point 5cc, to trans men who need financial assistance for their own top surgeries. Such endeavors make Dowling a role model to many, which he finds “flattering, but crazy.”
“I feel like I have people I look up to, so to think that people look up to me makes me want to be even better,” he says.
Though he’s earned adoration and accolades in the trans community, Dowling uses another metric to measure his achievements.
“My confidence is my success,” he says, and the same goes for all men. “Success is any time you have a moment of feeling happy. Success is this interview. Success is any kind of barrier you break down in your life.”
Editor’s note: During the application process, we will be featuring several contestants on MensHealth.com. These are not recommendations or endorsements of the contestants. The winner of the reader vote isn't guaranteed to win the contest, but will be in the top 10 finalists.