Gender, Embodiment, and Walking

heelsThe 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.

Progress Goals

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.

 

 

Gender, Embodiment, and Weight Lifting

[Content note: sexualized violence and objectification of women]

barbell-375482_640

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.