"It would be so affirming to just know that the man that I set out to be is somebody that people think is a good man," says Aydian Dowling. The 27-year-old with an enviable six-pack, a killer smile -- and two prominent surgical scars on his chest -- is currently the clear front-runner for the title of Men's Health magazine's "Ultimate Guy," a man "who is fit and fearless; a doer who gives back and leads by example" to become the cover star of the November issue. Dowling, by the way, is a trans man. It's not what you're born with. It's what you become.
Dowling has been chronicling his transition on YouTube over the past several years, and has been engaging in open, frank conversation about what his experience has been like — from how to work out safely after top surgery and how both he and his wife have evolved in how they identify sexually. "I am a biological female body identifying as a transgender male who is attracted to women," he says. "I identify as a trans man." He's not claiming to speak to everyone's experience, but he's doing a bang-up job of sharing his own, and in a culture in which there's still so much ignorance around trans people, that's important. That's huge. He also runs Point 5cc, a "stealth clothing company" for the trans community, and works helping transgender men in his town of Eugene, Oregon, with their physical training.
Dowling already gained a big measure of fame earlier this year when he posed for a cover story in FTM magazine re-creating a famed photo of Adam Levine wearing nothing but a steely gaze and a well-placed pair of a woman's hands. "Some areas of my body used to remind me of everything I’m not," he said at the time. "Now they represent everything I am." But while it's fantastic and inspiring to see Dowling emerging as a star in a venue like FTM, the self-described "All-In-One Source for Female to Male Culture," it's a different and huge step to see him kicking butt and taking names in a magazine like Men's Health, one that proudly offers a "Hottest Women of the Week" feature and recently ran a "13 Things You Should Be Doing to Her Clitoris" tutorial. Dowling says, "We exist and we should be represented in some way in the mainstream." His place on the leaderboard is already a huge acknowledgment of a broader understanding of what it means to be a man, and coming from men themselves, many of whom are straight, it's a gesture of both inclusion and acceptance. In much the same way that we are beginning to grasp that a marriage doesn't need to be called "gay marriage" to be legitimate and real, the success of Dowling in the competition says that we're figuring out that being an "ultimate guy" can be defined in so many more ways that one specific body part. It's part of a message that the magazine has explored with smarts and sensitivity in the past — last year it crowned Noah Galloway, a veteran who lost an arm and leg in Iraq, as their ultimate guy, and asked, "Are you focused on what you've lost, or what you've got?" That is a question worth considering, from many different vantage points. It boils down to — are we to define ourselves by who we are not, or who we are? Are we our parts, or our sum?
As NPR's "All Things Considered" noted Sunday, if the judges crown Dowling their ultimate guy, he'll be the first trans man on the magazine's cover. But true achievement is measured not in symbolic gestures but in courage and determination and hard work -- in being, as Men's Health commands, "fearless." And as one of his fans says on the voting page, "Don't vote for Aydian because he's trans — vote because he's everything the contest is asking for."