We’ve all seen this, no doubt.
And maybe nodded appreciatively or laughed and shared it on Facebook. And probably a lot of us have thought “what a nice sentiment…for everyone else.”
We’ve all seen this, no doubt.
And maybe nodded appreciatively or laughed and shared it on Facebook. And probably a lot of us have thought “what a nice sentiment…for everyone else.”
This piece is about a year old (I write a lot that I sit on or discard or can’t figure out what to make of) but it feels as relevant as ever. And, interestingly, the idea of “body détente” came up in a recent journaling exercise I did, so I guess it is, as ever, an ongoing process.
I want more than a détente with my body, I want peace.
I often go back and forth on the idea of body love. On the one hand, it feels vital, life-saving, and profoundly radical. It is a political stance and action (praxis, if you will) that has the power to counter and subvert centuries-old systems of power. On the other…I’m just fucking tired of thinking about my body. And how it succeeds and fails to fit into someone else’s ideals. And actively practicing body love (or acceptance) takes a lot of energy. Continue reading “Embodiment: War, Détente, Peace”
So, enclothed cognition, what is it? Continue reading “Gendered Embodiment and Enclothed Cognition”
If you ask almost any woman what she would change about women’s clothes I promise you “pockets” would come up about 95% of the time (other answers: sizing consistency, for fuck’s sake; quality construction; larger sizes not just being a size 0 sized up). When I think about my closet I can name four items of clothing with pockets, and two of those are essentially useless cardigan pockets. The few pairs of pants I own don’t even have pockets!
This has been an ongoing irritation for years, and one I’ve lightly thought about in feminist terms, but it’s only recently that I realized how profoundly (the lack of) pockets affects embodiment in very gendered ways. Continue reading “The Gendered Nature of Being Unencumbered”
As I’ve talked about before, I spent much of my life unembodied, learning to distrust both my instincts and my abilities–an experience I think is very common especially (but not only) for women. Growing up both fat and female I internalized a lot of so-called truths about my body that I failed to question (hell, I didn’t know I could question them) and instead integrated them as my own truths. Truths such as women’s innate weakness*, body size as a stand-in for fitness** and worth*** and the idea that I was barred from certain joyful pursuits unless and until I achieved some mythical size that my has no hope of achieving.
Over the past year or so I have decided to test those culturally- (and self-) imposed limitations to see how many of them are actually real. Despite spending some time lifting and getting used to the idea of moving heavy things with merely my body, I still hung on to some ideas I just couldn’t shake. The idea that I’ll never do a full pushup, the idea that I am too weak and too heavy to do a handstand. This was grounded in two fundamental truths: women are inherently weaker when it comes to upper body strength and that I weigh too much to be able to hold my weight with just my arms.
Turns out these two fundamental truths are a load of limiting tripe. While it may be true that most women are inherently weaker than most men, who cares? (And, for a quick digression, how are we measuring this? One rep max? One rep max lifted after an equal number of years spent lifting, being taught good form and not having to fight years of socialization to pick up weights heavier than five pounds? Percentage of bodyweight lifted?**** Something, anything, that begins to attend to the profound cultural disadvantage women, as a group, have in building strength?) What matters is how strong my arms are and how much I trust them. Period. It doesn’t matter how strong they are compared to the dude in the squat rack curling away (seriously, stop that). Or how strong they are compared to the guy who’s never spent a day in the gym but hauls hay every day. Or even how strong they are compared to my yoga teacher with cut biceps and a six pack. What matters is how strong they are, how far I push them, and how I trust them.
Which brings me to my second limiting truth. I had this capital-t Truth that I was too weak and too heavy to do these amazing things I wanted to do: crow pose, handstands. But here’s the thing, forty pounds ago, when I was at a weight I feel more comfortable at, I was also too weak and too heavy to try. And probably, had I weighed forty pounds less (which some people do but my body sure as hell isn’t meant to) I would have still been too weak and too heavy to try. Not even to do, just to try. Because I bought into these myths wholeheartedly. Women are weak (why do we hear “most women are inherently weaker in upper body strength compared to most men” and rewrite it to “women are weak?”) and only teeny tiny women get to do the fun stuff.
So I just never tried. But in the past few months I’ve decided fuck that noise. I may be at a disadvantage compared to some people smaller and stronger than me. I may never achieve exactly what I want to do, but I sure won’t if I don’t try.
And so I’ve tried. And tried. And today I held crow for longer than I’ve ever held it (a record-breaking six seconds which, let me tell you, is a LONG time when you’re holding your entire weight on your hands). And yesterday I held a handstand for 7 seconds. A HANDSTAND. Something I thought was relegated to memories of childhood.
I am still heavier and larger than everyone you see in yoga magazines. I am still fighting the limitations that make these poses hard, but it turns out 95% of those limitations are mental. And if I trust my body to hold me and keep doing it a little more each day, I can do some amazing things. (I can also, as I learned going for 10 seconds in crow, land right on my face. Turns out learning how to get up after falling is a big part of learning how to do.)
***Toxic fucking bollocks
****When measured this way women are actually a hell of a lot stronger than we’ve been taught to believe ourselves.
I’ve had this pet theory, for a while, that capitalism only works if we silence and eschew the animal parts of us. Think about it, sitting at a desk for 8 or 10 hours a day is completely counter to our animal instincts to be in motion. Doing menial tasks (making widgets, if we want to get all Karl Marx up in here) that don’t directly relate to the care and feeding of ourselves or our loved ones makes no sense until we introduce the fear of poverty (and thus hunger, lack of shelter, etc) if we don’t comply.
But instincts are hard to suppress. They’re literally the most base reaction we have. In fact, they’re there whether we heed them or not. That’s how powerful they are. So how does a system that relies on quashing our animal selves counter something so powerful? With shame, perhaps the most powerful motivator there is.
I was recently interviewed by a university student writing a paper on a particular issue in my field and the topic of shame came up. This student asked if shame can ever be a force for good. Absolutely, I said. Shame is one of the ways that we moderate unacceptable and dangerous behaviour. Shame is based on losing in-group status. Humans are immensely social creatures who need acceptance and community to survive. So the threat of losing your connections and community due to hurting another, for example, is a very positive use of shame, teaching people not to hurt others until they can internalize that lesson.
But the power of shame is rarely used for the benefit of the collective in our neoliberal, late capitalistic clusterfuck. Rather, it is used to shut down all of the signals that tell us that what is going on is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that most of us do work that is not only spiritually unfulfilling but is actively harmful for the earth and for humanity. It is unacceptable that most of us live in some form of economic insecurity. It is unacceptable that many of us don’t have access to fresh, nourishing food and instead rely on hyper-palatable, low-nutrient play food for the majority of our nutrition. It is unacceptable that one in three women* and one in two trans people will experience sexualized violence in our life times.
But you can’t start with the big violations and hope they’ll stick. You have to start with the small pieces of animalia that you can tame. We wear clothes because we are shamed for our nudity (I mean, there are practical reasons for clothes as well, but if I strolled down the street naked tomorrow no one would be objecting on the grounds that I wasn’t protected from the elements). We wear deodorant and perfume because it is unacceptable to smell like the animals that we are (this, by the way, is very culturally specific). We hide our emotions at work because we aren’t supposed to “make a scene” by reacting honestly to rude customers or over-bearing bosses like the animals we are.
And when we routinely over-ride our instincts we stop trusting them. Introducing the element of doubt is an incredible tool for controlling someone. This is an issue that impacts everyone, certainly, but it is also exceptionally gendered. Think of all the ways women (and other people socialized female) are taught to ignore our instincts: we are taught to distrust our hunger, routinely. Whether that’s through extreme calorie restriction, or the mind-games so many of us play as we try to negotiate down our hunger (“Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Maybe I can just have some celery and hope my stomach will stop growling. Maybe I could have some gum instead. Maybe I’m just thirsty!”).How many times have you been told that “we often mistake hunger for thirst”? Ten? A hundred? Coming up on a million? Have you ever stopped to consider how ridiculous of a statement that is? If you took it out of the context of women’s continued disavowal of hunger it makes literally no sense. You’d never tell someone that has to poop that they actually need to pee and have just mistaken the two. Or that someone who is complaining of being cold is actually dehydrated. If someone is hungry they’re hungry.
We are taught to ignore our gut in favour of politeness. I tell my clients constantly, “your gut is smart. Trust it.” How often do we override that niggling feeling because we want to be “nice” (one of the most toxic words in the English language if you ask me)? On the bus, with that creepy guy who won’t get out of our space. Walking home with that dude who’s been behind us for too many blocks and turns. On a date with a cute guy or girl who keeps pushing minor boundaries? With the roommate situation we knew immediately wouldn’t work out?**
We are also taught to ignore our basic comfort, from the clothes that we wear (ever notice how many women change into sweats or pjs the second they walk in the door while their male partners are perfectly comfortable in their un-restrictive pants and shirts?), to the shoes we teeter in, to the absurd and painful lengths we go to remove the body hair that is our god-damn birthright as animals.
I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately, including going back to therapy after almost a year break. And what I realized today is that almost all of the work I’ve been doing is allowing myself to get back to my animal self. It has been about trusting my gut, honouring my instincts, trusting my body, and seeking embodiment.
I recently had a dating situation where someone did a couple things that threw up yellow flags. Not red flags. They weren’t “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” infractions. They were “psst, hey, Will Robinson, maybe make a note of this, it’s a little hinky.” One yellow flag is something to mind but not a deal-breaker. But in quick succession there were three or four yellow flags on the field and I was suddenly flooded with anxiety. Not because I felt unsafe, but because I was at war with my gut. My gut was telling me “you know about boundaries. You literally teach workshops on boundaries. You tell your clients every day to trust their gut. You can’t talk the talk if you won’t walk the walk.”
I had a really clear signal from my gut that there were too many yellow flags on the pitch but I was fighting it because I didn’t want to “overreact” or “be rude.” Despite being in possession of the world’s best early alert system I was fighting something I champion because I’ve spent my life being subtly and overtly trained to ignore it for fear of shame–god forbid a woman “overreact” be “hysterical” or “a bitch” to a man who is over-reaching his bounds.
This personal work has also included embracing my hunger without questioning it or trying to barter it down, and listening to my body’s signals that it needs movement or rest.
Recognizing when we are safe or not, when we are hungry or not, and whether we are tired or not are literally our birthright as animals (ever seen a cat that’s feeling any of those? They don’t fuck around. They get their needs met whatever it takes), and yet we are taught from a very young age that all of those instincts are wrong (let Creepy Uncle Jerry kiss you, you don’t need seconds, go to bed even though you’re not tired). And so our work as adult humans is, in many ways, to get back to our animal selves.
*This is a contentious statistic for a whole lot of reasons I’m not going to go into here, related to disclosure, shame, measurement, etc. This statistic comes from Stats Can in 1993, the last time they did a Violence Against Women survey. The commonly cited American statistic comes from RAINN and is one in five. My instinct is that that is a low estimate.
**Oh do I have stories. And for every bad roommate story I have a matching story of ignoring my gut instinct.
The last time I talked about gender and embodiment it was in regards to weight-lifting and I touched, briefly, upon some research that found that one way predators determine who to target is by their gait. Now, I want to go into this with two huge, major, blaring siren caveats: 1) Most sexual assault is perpetrated by someone known to the victim/survivor and 2) No matter where you are or what you are doing or what you are wearing or not wearing, the blame and responsibility for this heinous act is on the perpetrator. Always. Full stop.
Since that post I’ve been thinking about the gendered ways that we walk. I’ve been thinking, in particular, about the impact of the hip-sway that women are thought/taught to do (it’s not really something I ever mastered but I have felt pressure to do it and have dabbled). It’s not something that comes naturally to me and in my dabbling I’ve found it really slows my gait. It also hurts. I’ve got pretty tight IT bands and the back-forth sway does them no favours.
And then there’s the forever-argued about high heels. I think women (and men! and anyone outside the binary!) should wear whatever the fuck they want. But I am suspicious as hell of a shoe that seems dream-designed to hamstring women. A shoe that first completely throws off the natural body mechanics and balance, which makes you thrust your tush out and your tits up. That does horrifying things to your feet. That necessitates tiny little steps (pair them with a pencil skirt and you’re going nowhere fast). That leaves you unable to run without immense danger to your ankles and feet and with a much slower pace. That can leave you with wrecked ligaments, a bad back, sore hips. And why? We say it’s because we feel sexy in them, no? Or maybe they make us feel powerful (though that usually seems to be more about being sexy-powerful rather than striding in and kicking ass powerful). But why? I don’t/won’t/can’t argue that they don’t make you feel how they make you feel. But I am curious why they make you feel that way.
Even flat shoes designed for women tend to offer minimal support–think ballet flats and any matter of mules/slip-on shoes. Shoes marketed to women tend to be dainty, unsupportive, and flimsily constructed. Whereas shoes marketed to men take up space. Offer support. Could let you run at a moment’s notice. Don’t up the risk for breaking your ankle.
The reason this came to the fore is that I had to take a pretty sketchy walk the other night. Sketchy because it was a dark, rainy night and I had to go through a poorly lit, very isolated area hidden from view and benefitting from the cover of highway sounds. I was aware through this walk that I was in a pretty vulnerable position should the statistically improbable happen. And then something happened that’s never happened before. I naturally slid into a very different gait from my own. One that felt empowered and strong. One that, I could feel, screamed “don’t fuck with me”.
And so I worked my way through my body, feeling what was different from my usual gait and why it made me feel safer. First, I noticed I sunk down a little bit. Almost imperceptibly lower but lower. Like that very first half inch as you start to squat. Which brought my centre of gravity down just a bit. And my knees bent just a touch. My stride widened–my feet are usually parallel, facing forward, and very close together width-wise. My feet turned out a little and I walked in a way that took up more lateral space. Let me say that again, I walked in a way that took up more space. Rather than be pulled in (to look thinner, natch), my abs were engaged, ready for action if need be. My shoulders were down in a natural position which let my chest cave ever so slightly. This is very different from my usual posture which has shoulders back and down and chest out, tummy sucked in (I’ve been complimented on my “excellent posture” in the past but I imagine if I were someone read male the comments would not be so complimentary). And my arms were hanging in a loose, wide stance–picture the wrestler with highly developed shoulders who can’t pull their arms in tight to their body.
All of this combined to give me a slight swagger. And to walk like oh so many young men I’ve seen. Naturally taking up space. Being assertive about their right to exist unmolested in the world.
As I watched my shadow I noticed how much space I took up. How the main lateral movement happening in my body was in my shoulders. I compared this, as I got to a better-lit, more populated area, with my normal walk. Feet straight and close together, shoulders back and down with chest up, the main lateral movement coming from my hips. And I played around a bit, going back to my “don’t fuck with me” walk through my regular walk to an exaggerated hip-swinging walk. And I felt the change. The change in both how much space I took up and how I took up space. The change in how safe I felt. The change in how embodied I felt. And I realized how my “don’t fuck with me” walk hides or minimizes a lot of the features that mark me as a woman from a distance–the slightly sunken chest hides my breasts, the engaged rather than pulled in abs minimizes the hour-glass-y-ness of my figure, the wider feet minimize the hip sway, the big shoulders and wide arms take up space in a way most women aren’t taught to.
And I realized how the “don’t fuck with me” walk leaves me ready for what happens. A slight shift, bring my hands up and I’m in a boxing stance. The wider legs with slightly turned out feet readies me for lateral movement if needed. The shorter, faster strides mean my legs are never too far apart, which helps me keep my balance in the face of a stumble or attack. The engaged abs let me move laterally or throw a punch as needed.
And then I started to get angry. Angry that boys and men are allowed and encouraged to develop this “don’t fuck with me walk” as their default, while women are taught to do the absolute opposite. We wear shoes and skirts that limit our movement. We carry big purses (or even worse, clutches) that leave our hands full and/or our balance compromised. We walk and stand and sit in ways that minimize the space that we take up. We walk in ways that hamper our ability to shift quickly into action. We walk and stand and sit in ways that minimize our ability to feel the power of our bodies, and to defend them if needed.
Academia is weird. On the one hand, you’re taught to cite every. single. thing. You are constantly citing the thinkers and theorists and researchers who went before you. You’re not really allowed to come up with an original thought of your own unless you can show how 18 different theorists influenced your work. Yet, at the same time, there is a premium put on expertise. On being the sole expert in this particular area. On using language that denotes your expertise and elevation from the huddled masses (e.g. the heterosexist subjugation of the Other can be understood by applying a Baktinian analysis in which the grotesque is understood as a matrix wherein the abject intersects and transcends the embodied plane. Note: this was essentially a MadLib of po-mo jargon but I bet you I could whip up a compelling paper to argue precisely this thesis).
And then when you get into feminist academe it’s even weirder. On the one hand, we talk about intersectionality and privilege and access. On the other, we use inaccessible language and carefully elide the role that privilege has played in getting us to where we are. And we play this weird game where we centre women’s voices and experiences but don’t make our research accessible to those women; we centre the voices of the marginalized but use language those without access to academia often don’t have; we use women’s experiences in pursuit of liberation but don’t stop to ask whose liberation we’re fighting for.
And then you look at the blogging world of feminists and you see a similar picture–the big names tend to be white, able-bodied women of considerable means. And they (we, though I’m not a big name, I am a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman) tend to suck on matters of intersectionality. We suck on race and trans issues and poverty and ability and citizenship/immigration issues. And we suck at citing those who have taught us how to think better, who have taught us to challenge ourselves and each other to do the work, to transcend our sites of privilege and access to work in solidarity with others. I have read too many pieces by women of colour pointing out yet another blog post by a white woman who is using their ideas, their words, without credit.
I think we need to start citing our work. It can be hard, since so much of our educations come from late night conversations with friends over wine that are challenging and funny and hard; and reading the comments (good and bad) on feminist blogs; and chatting while painting signs before a march; and blogs and books and podcasts and songs. But we need to be accountable to ourselves and to each other. To our communities and the communities with which we hope to work in solidarity. We need to lift each other up, point out the brilliant and hard work our movement kin are doing, and sing their praises. This can’t be a game about ego or clicks or page views. It needs to be about the work.
I can’t always tell you how I came to a certain idea or theory. Sometimes it’s an amalgamation of 15 different ideas and articles and books. Sometimes it’s something that is just a felt truth to me. Sometimes it is a long winding thread that started in undergrad and has continued through work and activism and grad school and writing and reading and thinking and who can I possibly cite then? But I can tell you who helped me to think about things in the way that I do. Who helped shape my politics and challenged me and pushed me. So I will. Here is a not-at-all complete list of the big works for me.
Postmodernist discourses are often exclusionary even when, having been accused of lacking concrete relevance, they call attention to and appropriate the experience of “difference” and “otherness” in order to provide themselves with oppositional political meaning, legitimacy, and immediacy. Very few African-American intellectuals have talked or written about postmodernism. Recently at a dinner party, I talked about trying to grapple with the significance of postmodernism for contemporary black experience. It was one of those social gatherings where only one other black person was present. The setting quickly became a field of contestation. I was told by the other black person that I was wasting my time, that “this stuff does not relate in any way to what’s happening with black people.” Speaking in the presence of a group of white onlookers, staring at us as though this encounter was staged for their benefit, we engaged in a passionate discussion about black experience. Apparently, no one sympathized with my insistence that racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory. The idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture must be continually interrogated.
When I think of pieces that shaped how I think and how I do politics this is top of the list. It is a relatively short essay and has taught me so much. And continues to teach me so much. The concept of “yearning” was fundamental to my understanding of the sense of oppression and bleakness even the most privileged in our society feel and how it can be a point of mutual understanding and a place from which to build empathy. The danger of postmodern critique around essentialism and identity politics to those who have had to forge their own identities in the face of hundreds of years of racism telling them who they are and how they are challenged me and continues to challenge me to do better, to think better in the face of my own white privilege. If you read one thing from this list, I hope it’s this.
Colonize This: Young Women of Colour on Today’s Feminism
I had the immense privilege and luck to have a mentor, J, who taught me more about doing the work and living in a good way than I could have ever learned in my degree. She used curiosity and humour to challenge me and teach me as I was a budding feminist thinker. And she gave me truly excellent books to read. This is one of them.
Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity
This was the other. It really opened up my world and expanded how I can be and understand and perform my gender.
All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.
The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls–Colette Dowling
This is not a perfect book. It has major omissions around the impacts of class and race on women’s embodiment. But it was fundamental in starting my thinking about trauma and embodiment and gender.
Fit and Feminist
Caitlin is a beacon in the fog of bullshit that is fitness on the internet. She writes intelligently and honestly about gender and fitness and was a big inspiration for my own foray into blogging.
And then I am lucky and honoured to have a whole host of people in my life–friends, family, teachers, mentors–who challenge and support and teach me. Who listen to me muddle through complex ideas in halting, meandering, repetitive words. Who push me to think harder and better, to not forget the importance of laughter and joy, to think outside of myself.
These are just a few in hundreds or thousands of citations I could list. I am going to try to be more mindful in my writing of naming and honouring those whose words and work inspire my own.
For most of my life I hewed to the traditional narrative of women’s fitness: cardio yourself thin, lift teeny tiny pink weights, and, above all else, motivate yourself through self-hatred. Cause if there’s one thing that experience (and science!) has shown, it’s that you can hate yourself thin. Oh, wait, no, it’s that fat-shaming is toxic as hell and not only does psychological harm but actually leads to emotional eating episodes that likely contribute to a positive energy balance (which is to say, weight gain).
In those days my goals were all about “less”: weigh less, take up less space, hate my body less (ironic, no?), eat less. The only “more” goals were in pursuit of that “less”: do more cardio, restrict more. Uh, that’s about it, I guess. It’s a pretty depressing state of affairs, no? And I thought about it all. the. time. Constantly thinking about my last scale weight; if I can afford to eat that second mini mandarin orange (seriously); if my 8 pound tricep kickbacks would finally get rid of my floopy arms/”bat wings” (let’s be straight for a minute, bats are awesome. We should all be so lucky to have bat wings. And bio sonar!). And I consumed unethical, bullshitty media to get my dose of self-hatred and woo-filled tips: Self, Women’s Health, Fitness, Glamour, Cosmo, Dr. Oz (I KNOW!).
And then I found feminism. And those shitty magazines were suddenly a lot less appealing. And as I cut them out of my life I started to see just how much self-hatred they had been inculcating. And while my exercise was still rooted in self-hatred I had flashes of embodiment. Moments where it felt right. Where I felt, for the first time in my life, like maybe I too could be some form of athlete.
And then I met the love of my life: a pretty green road bike that introduced me to movement for the sake of movement; to that sense that all is right with the world so long as I’m on my bike; to the knowledge that my body could be instrumental rather than decorative. I was easily riding 60-100k a week for the pure joy of feeling my body do what it was meant to do. And as my body became something I cared for (if not yet loved) the food piece started to come together too. I found intuitive eating and realized that I needed to eat mostly body-nourishing things (which, for my body, tend to be mostly whole foods, with a focus on lean protein and lots of produce) to fuel my rides, and a few times a week soul-nourishing foods (in one word: chocolate). And I no longer really cared about being “less”.
And then my health went to hell (as I’ve mentioned previously) and I gained forty pounds in a short time. And all of my old “less” stuff started coming up again. Weigh less, eat less, take up less space, and please, for the love of god, hate my body less. But this time I knew these messages were bullshit. I knew this was crazybrain responding to change and anxiety and loss of control. And this time I had powerlifting.
And the thing about powerlifting is that you can’t have even an inkling of “less” going on. You can’t be trying to shrink into yourself because your quads are in the process of becoming quadzillas. You can’t be focused on smaller and smaller numbers because lifting is all about more. More weight, more power, more capacity. You can’t be eating less and less because you won’t have the power to deadlift.
And so, slowly, subtly, my crazybrain shut up. Less became more. Exercise became movement–a joyful practice of trying and building and failing and flowing and dancing and lifting. And my goals became process goals rather than outcome goals. I am much more motivated by the prospect of doing a full ROM push-up than wearing an arbitrary clothing size. I seek the empowerment and embodiment of pushing my own weight off the floor rather than hitting some “ideal” weight. And, ironically enough, I’m now able to focus on (slow, sustainable, sane) weight loss without triggering ol’ CrazyBrain McGee because I’m motivated by the fact that push-ups are easier if you’re lifting less mass, that crow is more easily attained without these extra 40 pounds.
Just thinking about how much willpower was required to get me into the gym or to eat the salad I didn’t actually want in the bad old days is exhausting. Considering how much valuable mental time and space was taken up by negotiations and calculations and recriminations is heartbreaking. Thinking of the things I’ve been able to do the last few years, I have no doubt I couldn’t have done them with so much processing power given over to things that just don’t matter. Thinking of how many women (and, increasingly, men) are similarly giving so much of their time and energy to self-hatred and the pursuit of “less” makes me want to cry. We have so much work to do in this world, big stuff like ending systemic racism and small stuff like perfecting roasted potatoes, and none of that can be done if we are spending all of our time on the hamster wheel of self-hatred.
[Content note: sexualized violence and objectification of women]
I want to talk about embodiment and how it differs by gender. Embodiment is a bit of a nebulous concept, but basically it means a deep knowing of your body and its capabilities, and a feeling of groundedness rather than disassociation. It’s that knowing that tells my brother when he looks at a rock five feet away that he can do a two-foot jump and make it safely. It’s that trust that allows baseball players to dive for a ball and trust their body knows how to land. It’s that feeling that lets you throw a punch and know how it’s going to land.If you’ve ever been on a rocky beach, a beach strewn with boulders to get down to the water, and seen young men stride confidently, maybe even jump from one to the next, while their female companions tentatively step, test, then shift their full weight, maybe taking the hand of their boyfriend or friend, that’s the gendered difference in embodiment. Of course, not all men are embodied and not all women are disembodied. But research shows that a lot more men are embodied than women, and that men and women talk about their bodies in very different ways. This is likely because we live in a culture that prizes men as the subjects and relegates women to object status. How do you find embodiment as an object? It is likely because boys are taught from a young age that being boisterously in their bodies is their birthright, while girls are taught to lock it down. To be sweet and quiet. To play with dolls and tea sets while their brothers run around with toy guns and throw balls and frisbees. It is likely because boys are taught to throw while girls are assumed to…throw like a girl. It is likely because the worst epithets aimed at men are those that compare them to women.
It is likely because women live under the threat of intimate violence every damn day of their lives. Because we are taught to walk in pairs. Because we are taught that the wrong skirt means we are culpable for our own violation. Because god-damned skinny jeans mean we were “asking for it”. Because some men will not back off until another man claims ownership of us. Because we are told that taking up space puts us in danger. And so we shrink into ourselves. We shrink away from the gaze and the words and the threats and the violence. We disassemble that mind-body connection in pursuit of enough peace to get through the day.
And even in the pursuits that should embody us, like exercise (more on this later) we are taught to keep ourselves small. We are told that women lift 8-15 pounds. We are told that women can’t do pull-ups and can only do push-ups from our knees and never taught how to graduate to full push-ups because why would a woman need to be strong enough to push a person off of her? We are taught to do “the “partial pushup” because it only requires a partial amount of effort, and consequently imparts a partial amount of strength development.” (Follow the link for source material.) We are told that we should spend our time doing cardio or pilates, not throwing around iron and sandbags. We are told that strong women get bulky and that bulky women are unfeminine (both points being grade-A bullshit). We are shown fitspo that purports to be about female strength but is really just another way to highlight tits and ass and extreme leanness.
And so we learn how to cardio ourselves into oblivion, but don’t see the results we’re told we should see. We lift and lift and lift but don’t get any stronger because stalling out at 15 pounds means you’re lifting less than some people’s backpacks. And because we aren’t taught to lift heavy, we don’t actually know what working hard in the weight room feels like.
I started lifting heavy about a year and a half ago and it was a revelation. I got under the bar, faced my fears, and started to trust my body. It is empowering to squat 115 pounds after doing bodyweight squats all your life. It is empowering as hell to deadlift 135 pounds (and it makes moving a fuck of a lot easier!). And it requires a hell of a lot of trust and connection with your body to do it right. How do you activate your posterior chain if you’ve never truly felt your body before? My graduate research (forthcoming) showed that women survivors of intimate partner violence who engage in empowerment-oriented exercise (defined, for my study, as strength-training, martial arts, and yoga) had higher levels of embodiment than those who engage in aerobic-based exercise (running, walking, zumba, etc). Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. You can easily throw on a podcast or bumpin’ playlist, head out and suddenly realize you’ve run three kilometres without being all that present to it. But there’s no way in hell you can clean a 40 pound sandbag off the floor without being connected to your body, without being grounded in your body, without trusting your body to do what it needs to do every step of the way. There’s no way you can spar and not be in your body. There’s no way you can “find the edge” in dancer pose and not be aware of your body.
Which isn’t to denigrate cardio-based exercise. It’s great. It’s good for your heart and clears your mind and if it makes you feel good, do it. But I think we should question why women are taught to do hours of cardio and lift light and long rather than lifting heavy and increasing their capacity. I think we should also look at how much time it takes to do an hour of cardio plus three sets of 20 reps of a million stupid isolated movements (how many different tricep exercises can we do in order to combat the “batwings” every magazine shames us for?). I used to spend easily an hour and a half at the gym. Sometimes two hours. Now I’m in and out in forty minutes and I’ve worked a hell of a lot harder. Because I simply couldn’t sustain that level of intensity for two hours. Of those forty minutes I’m probably only actively lifting for about 15, because working hard needs recovery.
And I can feel the difference. I can feel it in how I walk, with confidence and ease. I can feel it in how my shoulders naturally settle back and down. I can feel it in how I no longer cower when strange men yell at me, I gut-check and then proceed in the safest way, with the confidence in my body to step-to if needed (though, like many women, I’ve never been taught how to fight or take a punch properly, though I do know how to throw a punch after taking a boxing class). I don’t think I could win in a fight at this point (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in my future), but I trust my body to make it hard as hell for the other person to win. I trust that just having an embodied presence makes predators less likely to target me.
And I want to be clear: I am not stating that women who are less embodied, who don’t or can’t lift weights, are in any way responsible for being victimized or being vulnerable. Rather, I am calling to account a society that depends on female weakness, that valourizes it, that fetishizes it. And I am suggesting that while we do the big, society-level work, we can also do the individual, personal-level work. We can empower and embody ourselves by throwing away Self Magazine and getting under the bar.
P.S. Doing a Creative Commons search for “barbell” garners you more Prince Alberts than you’ll know what to do with. Learned that one the hard way.