"I was pretending to fit in that box of what a girl is supposed to be," says Ashton Colby
Credit: Courtesy Ashton Colby

Before coming out as a transgender man, Ashton Colby was a fixture on the beauty pageant circuit.

“I started doing pageants when I was 16,” Colby, now 23, tells PEOPLE. “I was struggling with my self-esteem at the time, and I wanted to break out of my shell. I thought pageants would fill the void in myself.”

Colby hoped participating in pageants would appease his friends and family as well.

“I though if I did the pageant thing – which [represents] the ideal femininity – and was successful at that, then I would be happy because everyone around me was telling me, ‘It’s going to be good for you,’ ” he continues. “I just kind of went along with it. I was really unhappy though, deep down, doing all of them.”

Colby hit a breaking point when he competed in the prestigious Miss Ohio pageant (the winner of which goes on to compete in Miss USA).

“Right after the pageant ended, I was in the lobby with my dad and I started crying, and I think people thought I was upset because I didn’t win the pageant, but I was actually anxious and upset because I knew that I didn’t want to continue to do [pageants],” he says. “I knew that if I pursued it any more I was going to have to really commit to it, but it didn’t feel right for me.”

Shortly after the Miss Ohio pageant, Colby discovered transgender men on YouTube, and realized that he, too, was transgender. Not knowing how to process these feelings, he spiraled into a state of deep depression.

“I had been thinking, ‘I need to transition or I can’t picture my life going forward from this point on,’ ” he said.

Colby was a freshman at the University of Dayton at the time, and asked his father to come pick him up from school. He spent 10 days in the hospital seeking treatment for his depression. Upon his release in February 2012, he came out as transgender.

RELATED VIDEO: Caitlyn Jenner’s Message to Transgender Youth: ‘We Are All Beautiful’

“Some people were surprised and kind of confused, and thought maybe I was going through a phase,” Colby says of his friends and family’s reactions to his decision to transition. “I had people really close to me that told me I would regret doing it, and felt I was throwing away a potential pageant career.”

Colby says he always had the support of his father and grandmother, and with their blessing he began transitioning.

“I got my hair cut short for the first time – I had always had really long hair and highlights,” he says. “I got a therapist, and they helped me to get on testosterone injections. I started to buy more clothes that I really wanted to wear, and gave away some of my dresses. That was really freeing for me. I knew I was on the right path.”

About a year later in March 2013, Colby had surgery to remove his breasts.

Now his pageant days seem like a distant memory.

“I am very happy that I don’t have to do that anymore,” he says. “I was pretending to fit in that box of what a girl is supposed to be. It was really a show for me.”

Colby, who hopes to work as a transgender advocate full-time after completing his public affairs degree at The Ohio State University, says he is now happier than ever.

“This life that I have now is more than I could ever even have dreamed my life could be,” he says. “[Transitioning] was such an act of self-love for me. I did it because I wanted to live. I know that this exactly who I am supposed to be.”