'It became clear I was a man in a woman's body'
Ben Melzer talks to Jonathan Wells about his journey from girl, to being on the cover of 'Men's Health'
Male fitness model Ben Melzer is keen that everyone knows that he is "not just a pretty face". He may laugh when he says it, but there is a serious undertone when he insists that he really "does have something to say".
And on Monday it will become clear what that may be when Melzer will feature on the April cover of a new issue of Men's Health magazine. At first look, there is nothing unusual about his naked buff chest and six-pack appearing on a magazine famous for its personification of raw masculinity. Until you realise 29-year-old Ben was a woman, until six years ago.
"I really hope that I can change attitudes," says Melzer, who is the first transsexual model to grace the main cover of Men's Health. Last month, he was chosen for the German version of the magazine by readers in an online poll.
"When you are born this way, you have no choice. So many people are hiding who they truly are, so I really wanted to give the trans community visibility. Show that we're just normal people."
Born Yvonne, Ben was brought up in a large house in a remote village outside Dusseldorf. The youngest of two children, Melzer was raised by his parents Ralf and Margret who have run the family owned interior design company for more than 20 years - for which Melzer now works.
With a brother who was four years older, his parents had different approaches to raising their daughter.
"My mother was easy going, but my father was very, very strict," says the model. "He was very much the alpha male, a real leader of the pack, while mum was very soft and feminine."
But while there was a clear delineation of genders between his parents, the lines were always blurred for Melzer. "I knew that I wasn't the same as other children," Melzer remembers. "I used to call myself 'Max' from the age of three. My favourite colour was blue, and I loved football. One of my friends from kindergarten says that she always thought of me as 'the boy with the girl's name'.
"My mother thought it was a phase," he continues. "She wanted me to be happy, so she indulged me. My father wanted me to be more feminine. He'd make deals - allowing me to buy a pair of boys' shoes, but only if I wore a certain girls' top.
"But my childhood was not bad - it was happy," Melzer continues. "I had a lot of friends, male and female. I was loud, I was funny and I never felt alone. Admittedly, it was hard sometimes in certain situations.
"I remember going swimming once when I was 13 and, even though I felt like I was a boy, I still wore a bikini. And it felt completely wrong. I thought people were staring at me so I eventually stopped going swimming.
"During puberty, when my female body began to develop, I was so confused I tried to hide my femininity beneath baggy clothes."
As his sexuality developed things got even more complicated.
"I felt attracted to girls, but was not attracted to lesbians. I was not attracted to men. I was attracted to heterosexual women but I knew that I was straight."
It wasn't until Ben got to the age of 18 that he really started investigating the possibility that he was transgender and began exploring the transition process. "The more I learnt, the more everything became clear. I was a man in a woman's body."
Discovering that he might one day feel comfortable in his own skin was affirming and exciting, Melzer admits.
However, before taking any further steps, he spoke to his parents.
"My mother cried. She was worried about all the operations. My father, however, he just hoped I would see a psychologist who would tell me that I didn't actually feel that way. He was just worried - even if it was for different reasons."
His older brother was supportive because, Melzer says, "I was never a typical girl. I always wanted boys' clothes. I always had short hair. I always acted like a boy. So, together with my parents, we began researching the transition process."
Still worried about other people's reactions, it wasn't until five years later that Melzer committed to going ahead. He contacted a psychologist who specialised in trans cases, and was eventually referred to a doctor who would prescribe him testosterone shots every 11 weeks - something he will have to continue for the rest of his life.
Over two years, Yvonne slowly became Ben. In 2011, Melzer underwent a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and, in 2012, had full gender reassignment surgery to create a functioning penis. Watching his body transform was an emotional experience.
"It was like a second puberty, but harder. Your body hair begins to thicken, but your skin gets bad - like a teenager - and your voice deepens, but it hurts in your throat.
"There is oestrogen raging against testosterone in your body, and I had aggressive mood swings and hot flushes. It was difficult, but it felt good to see my body changing. I was so happy. It was what I had always wanted."
Melzer asked his parents to choose his name: "In my opinion, parents should always name their child, so I went to them and asked if I had been born a boy, what would you have called me?
"Mum said Benjamin was a nice name, that she'd liked that at the time, so did my father, so that is how I became Ben."
The transition even gave Melzer the confidence to take on a more active role within the company. When he was Yvonne, Melzer was office administrator. As Ben, he became a salesman.
It was never Melzer's intention to get the "perfect" male body as displayed on Men's Health, but more a consequence of his mastectomy which left excess skin.
"Your chest points downwards," explains Melzer, "and sometimes your nipples aren't in the correct position. So it is your own responsibility to exercise, work out your pectoral muscles.
"After my final surgery, I began going to the gym. And I trained hard. Fitness has always been an important part of my life but now it took on a whole new level of importance. After working out constantly for two years, I entered the Men's Health cover competition - and won the wild-card slot to the final."
Recognition by the magazine he had read for years spurred him on to become a spokesman for the transgender community.
"It's easier now for others to accept. Before they saw a boy who was a girl, and they had no idea how to treat that person. But now they see a man, who looks like a man and acts like a man, and can easily talk about his past.
"So that's why I'm doing all this," says Melzer, "because there was nobody there when I needed my questions answering. There was no hero to look up to.
"But, when I ended my transition, I thought to myself, 'Why can't you be that hero for somebody?' So that's what I'm aiming for. If I can reach just one person, I will be more than happy." © The Daily Telegraph
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