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Female Strength: A Reader’s Response

This is a guest post from Breset “Sterling” Walker, in response to the Female Strength Manifesto I wrote last week. It’s a good one!

It’s a good thing it’s five pm on a Friday, as it means everyone in the lab is way more focused on getting their business done and out the door than they are on me. Once again, I am reading The World’s Strongest Librarian at work, but instead of laughing, Josh’s last post has provoked mascara clumps under my eyes and my nose is running. I’m wiping it on the back of my hand, because I think getting up for some tissues is going to draw attention to me looking like a raccoon in a lab coat.

This is what it looks like when women actually cry, not doe-eyed and trembling at the train station as the orchestral score swells and the final panning shot fades to black, but blotchy, snotty, and not at all well-controlled.

I love training. I’m a woman, and I love the Big Kid weights, running around in circles, and hitting things, and it hasn’t been but the last ten months in my life that I thought this was okay or, get this, wasn’t something that I had to hide. Because as an American Woman I think this is unfeminine, and as an American Woman it took twenty-nine years to stop reflexively sticking in an equals sign between “unfeminine” and “unlovable.”

What we look like

As a passionate amateur portraitist I know we all have pretty much no idea what we look like: this is a fact of living our lives, year after year from the inside, instead of making current and objective judgments from a distance. We have these images of ourselves in our minds that are bizarre little golems cobbled together from experience, disappointment, and a metric ton of opinions that just aren’t relevant anymore. Like the drawer in the house that collects souvenir magnets from states visited, packages of birthday candles, and photos too poorly taken to be presented and too miscellaneous to file.

But for years as the person behind the camera, I thought I was more clear-eyed and honest with myself than all the well-intentioned, thoughtful, and ultimately vulnerable people who had modeled for me. I figured my experience meant I was Right. I thought my internal compass pointed North. I thought I knew what I was doing, even though what I was doing was making me miserable.

Who is this guy?

The photo of myself that I’d been using for an internal reference was this poorly taken shot of my college martial arts team. It was so long ago that it was taken on film, and when I opened the package from the developer I made an expression worthy of the RCA dog. Who the hell was this guy on the edge of the mat? And why was he wearing our team shirt? And the realization that I was actually looking at myself resolved in the same way that stepping on a tack does. First, just the shape of it was obvious followed by the urgent, but cold, realization of “oh. This is going to hurt in a second.”

So for the next ten years, I was of the opinion doing much of anything besides yoga with LuluLemon pants emblazoned with inspirational statements like “breathe” across the ass was going to masculinize me like illicit shots of vitamin T. Not at all coincidentally, during those same ten years I slowly expanded to take on the contours of my cubicle, until the day the guy I decided I was going to settle for broke up with me, and I could only fit in my fat pants.

That day, to put it simply, I went bat-s***.

Olympic lifts and the kettlebells

I threw out my fat pants in the Dumpster behind my building and wore cocktail dresses to work until I lost the weight to get back into my regular pants. While rehabilitating runner’s knee brought on by my original delusion that I could outrun what was making me miserable, I became a rabid devotee of the rational and encouraging concepts espoused at stumptuous.com and started strength training.

Being fundamentally a pugilist I took to boxing, and because I couldn’t yet knock the Wavemasters down, I got a lifting coach and developed explosive force with Olympic Lifts and Kettlebells. Then I could only wear my regular pants if I held them up with a binder clip, so I got smaller pants. I developed a deltoid dimple, and would poke at it sometimes in the mirror while I brushed my teeth.

Because this activity fell along the simple equation endorsed by the glossy magazines at the check-out counter: the miserable arithmetic of “smaller clothing size equals greater worth,” for a while I could comfortably keep up what I was doing. I also kept myself comfortable, while I was out of the gym, by lying about what I was doing while I was there.

Eventually, I could no longer turn the volume down on the cognitive dissonance. I wasn’t going to go down any more pant-sizes unless I was willing to lose hard-earned muscle, and I ran right into a crisis of faith as to where all this was going.

Alright, I looked less like a novelty pumpkin, but now I looked like I could carry a child out of a burning building, and as helpful a skill as that might be when civilization falls apart, I was lost as to where that fit in the spectrum of desirability. I needed to be told, and the teevee and the glossy magazines were mute on this point. I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me in them. I was in uncharted territory, and all it said at the edge where I’d fallen off the map was “here there be dragons.”

I knew I liked the deltoid dimple though. And I had a suspicion that I had kind of a cute Q angle, to be dorky about it. All I could be certain of was that this was the figure I had when I trained, but was it a good figure?

That old photo was feeling less and less relevant, but instead of feeling relived, I just felt lost. Was I ruining any chance of ever kissing boys again? Call me shallow, but that motivates me on a pretty fundamental level. I have millions of years of human evolution and a whole hormonal system devoted to that particular project, and I was concerned that I was letting it down.

Action figure?

Then waiting in line to use the mass spectrometer at work, one of the guys asked me if I’d been working out. Because I looked, he said to me and mostly to his feet, kinda like Linda Hamilton now. The way he said it made me think Sarah Connor had probably been a major influence in his transition to manhood. Oh. That’s the figure I have. An action figure.

That summer, during the much storied and iconic break between the 21st and 22nd grade, while awkwardly clutching a red plastic cup at a backyard barbecue, was the first time that I realized a guy came up with an excuse to talk to me.

I’m sure it had happened before, backyard barbecues are a socially entrenched mechanism for men to approach women (it sure as hell isn’t because inexpertly charring meat on a dusty Weber improves the taste), but this was the first time I didn’t think it would be weird for a man to do so. This time my internal narrative about how the world works didn’t have to invent some other motivation for him. Suddenly, it also explained why my lifting coach kept asking these open ended questions about what I was doing on Friday.

As much as we treasure the myth of the transformative power found in the love of a good man (or at least liquor-enabled make outs), almost thirty years of playing Square Peg/ Round Hole doesn’t just dry up and blow away. I kept falling back on the anxiety that I was only appealing to some sort of semi-fetishistic demographic. I figured the sorts of girls who got asked on real dates and eventually had white picket fences built for them don’t chip their fingernail polish while alternating hands doing one-armed kettlebell swings.

As the weather got warmer, and I felt bolder about wearing less, I got up the courage to try on a sundress from one of those sale racks they put out in the front of the store to draw you in. I’d like to blame the higgledy piggledy nature of a store going out of business, and that I was unused to wearing sundresses, because the mirror set in the door took me completely by surprise, just like the photo had.

For a longer-than-probably-appropriate moment, I thought someone else was trying to get into the dressing room. Although I didn’t do my RCA impression this time, it was the inverse of the tack experience. Like I had all these wrong ideas about myself finally just drain out, and my very first, unedited thought was “but, I’m so… small.” All my hard work was still there, the deltoid dimple, the Q angle, the smooth patches on my palms where I sand down my kettlebell calluses, but they weren’t the first, or even second, noticeable thing. Far from being stamped indelibly with my gym antics, I just looked like a barefoot girl in a sundress with her mouth slightly open.

Maybe few women have these moments of suddenly catching up to themselves. Maybe they have a better developed sense of object permanence than a toddler and don’t play peek-a-boo with their self-image. Maybe.

But probably not.

I know that I can check my form when I deadlift in two separate mirrors three times a week without actually knowing what I look like, and I have a hard time imaging I’m the only one. Because this has been such an important revelation in my own life, and because of my experience as a portrait photographer, I have started a series for my own passion. I am taking photos to show strong women as beautiful women for people who don’t yet realize that they are the same thing.

Strong Woman

Sterling

Sometimes this audience is just the models themselves. Even if each model is the only one who sees the photos, if I can help just one other woman give up an old internal image that is making her unhappy, I will have considered myself to have won. If I can show just one woman that she’s pretty enough that Fridays alone are optional, I will be too smug to be endured.

If you know women you think would be interested in working with me on this project who are near, or can get to, New York City, I would love to get in touch. The idea that female beauty is a singular, helpless, and angular ideal and that those of us who don’t conform are not beautiful is wrong and making people unhappy.

It’s time to empty out that drawer.

Thanks!

Sterling

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  • Louise August 24, 2010, 3:33 am

    Fantastic post Breset! I love strength training. I’m a cyclist and nothing makes me happier than being able to power up a hill and stay in the bunch with the guys – well, actually wearing my skinny jeans and seeing the new shape of my hamstrings is up there in the happy stakes. And funnily enough, I feel more feminine in “real life’ since I strated cycling. my skinny jeans are pretty close!

    • Sterling August 24, 2010, 11:06 am

      You bring up a great point, Louise! I’ve become so much more interested in fashion in just the last few months. Now when something doesn’t fit I know it’s either poorly manufactured or just not my style, not some sort of comment on my own figure anymore. Personally, I’m over the moon about the abundance of shoulder-baring styles.
      Oh! And Bulgarian Split Squats do wonders for increasing stability and comfort in really high heels. Just wonders.

  • Shane Arthur August 24, 2010, 6:50 am

    Looks aside, that’s super-sexy, skilled writing!
    Regards,
    Shane

  • Sara August 24, 2010, 7:22 am

    I was a kung-fu devotee for years, and never felt like I looked more like my “real self” than when I could drop and knock out a few dozen boy pushups. I wish I was there now, just a New Yorker with atrophied limbs fit for a hipster. Lots of walking, not enough time to train, but I support/salute your project! Awesome!

  • Jodi Kaplan August 24, 2010, 8:33 am

    A good body is the body that makes you feel good when you’re in it – not the one in a magazine or a catalog. Does anybody else think the Vicki’s Secret models look like long-stemmed mushrooms?

  • Todd August 24, 2010, 9:02 am

    Outstanding post, Sterling. I don’t know if my wife will ever come to this realization. It certainly has been a great experience watching her transform the way that she has through strength training.

  • Heather August 24, 2010, 10:34 am

    Sterling, if I were a guy, I’d so ask you out! If I were closer to NYC, I’d take you up on your modeling offer. But I am neither a guy nor live close enough, so I’ll just say this—this was a way awesome post. Did you also do a deadlift over on Josh’s other blog, Stregthrules.com? If so, that’s a rockin’ vid! Glad to know there’s another chick out there who digs lookin’ like a female super hero! Speaking from recent personal experience, btw, as far as the semi-fetishistic guys go–don’t knock it ’til ya try ’em, Sister, they might be weird, but they sure are fun! 😉

    Josh, you should have her over more often!

    Sterling, I’ll buy you a drink sometime, or maybe we could just go shoe shopping!

    Heather, the Muscledomme librarian

  • Sarah Bush August 24, 2010, 10:37 am

    LOVED this post Sterling. I related to so many things you said and I’m a tall and square shouldered, been called “sir” in my youth (followed up by an “oh, excuse me” once they really look at me, but still) and I still work out. I’ve definitely had that experience of not recognizing myself in the mirror as well–thanks for sharing your experience and articulating so well what so many women feel.

  • Sterling August 24, 2010, 11:15 am

    Thanks so much for all the encouragement, folks! The readers of the World’s Strongest Librarian are an impressively thoughtful and articulate bunch. This is such a great community to have found. =)

  • Cat August 24, 2010, 1:13 pm

    Hi Sterling,
    I sell women’s clothing in a consignment shop and have really seen that MOST of us have no idea what we look like. Years ago a personal trainer told me that we loose weight all over our bodies so the silhouette will remain the same (until you get to over 100 pounds of weight loss). I guess that is why I still see my size 2 body as a size 8. When I read Josh’s post it’ occurred to me that strength training is the only way to change that silhouette. Those deltoid dimples give us a clue that something is different. Personally, I like my biceps.
    I constantly remind my customers that we are not our dress size…whether it’s big or small. But the satisfaction of seeing hard work pay off and knowing it is benefiting our health and longevity–not to mention our love life and confidence–is a joy so many American women are afraid to pursue. You articulated a really important contradiction in our society here. Hopefully, more girls and women will throw caution to the wind and join their fathers, brothers, boyfriends and husbands at the gym. It would benefit all of us on so many levels. You go girl!

  • jean sampson August 24, 2010, 3:20 pm

    As a woman who going to see 70 in 6 years (YIKES), I am supposed to be losing muscle—there is even a scientific name for muscle loss in old age (sarcopenia or something like that). It happens to everyone unless they work out hard. Well, at my last mamogram, the tech called me in to see my pix and showed me how much muscle I had. She said they hardly ever see this much muscle on women—didn’t even say “old” women. It is probably those 100 boy push-ups I do several times a week, along with a lot of other stuff. So working out does pay off in more ways than just looks—-got good bones, too!

    Thanks for a wonderful and beautifully written post, Sterling!

    • Sterling August 25, 2010, 12:55 pm

      Thank you so much, Jean, for giving me insight into who I want to be when I grow up!
      As a medical researcher, I wish more folks approached aging like you do. Approached it in a dark alley with a length of bike chain, I mean.

  • Josue M August 24, 2010, 9:58 pm

    Sterling, I’d make out with you. Sober, too. How much do you deadlift, and for how many reps? I have a client who weighs about 125 lbs and doesn’t want to lift heavy, and here I was having so much fun getting her strong.

  • Bethy August 26, 2010, 4:13 pm

    The only issue that comes to mind – personally, that is – is how STRANGE it is since I’ve been doing heavy weight training again, consistently.

    I keep finding myself peeking in mirrors. At home, out and around, reflections in glass. :/ And from the inside I can’t tell how much is pride or vanity or surprise… but I *can* tell you there’s a whole lot of bewilderment going on in here, and I don’t know what to do with it.

  • nic August 31, 2010, 6:32 am

    What an amazing post and comments.
    I have only recently started strength training, but even in just six weeks I find that it is changing the way I feel about myself. I am enjoying the process of learning and training, and am looking forward to seeing who I’ll be once I have been doing it six months.

  • David September 2, 2010, 8:56 am

    Thanks so much for your post, Sterling. I’m currently in the process of 2 things–
    1) becoming your male equivalent on my journey away from being the “skinny fat guy,” and
    2) looking for your equivalent in the Nashville area.

    So, you know, this Friday, if you’re not busy…

  • Julie Goodale September 4, 2010, 9:31 am

    Fabulous, Sterling! Thanks for writing this. I loved this and Josh’s original post so much that I quote & link to both in my most recent post on Fitness for Survivors (http://fitnessforsurvivors.blogspot.com/2010/09/strong-girls-be-one.html). I write about fitness issues for cancer survivors.
    I’m always advocating strength for women. It’s hugely important for all women, but especially for any woman who’s had surgery or treatment for breast cancer.
    I’m still often surprised at people’s negative ideas of women & strength. Just keep working to change that.

    And if you’re still looking for folks for your project, give me a shout. I’d love to get involved.

  • Kirsten October 11, 2010, 10:37 am

    This Article Made Me Cry. I Actually Gave Up Power Lifting( My 205 Dead lift and My 115 bench that I had painstakingly worked to achieve) Because My Mom Told Me I Was Too Big, That it wasn’t attractive. Thank you for helping me deal with these emotions and to realize that Yes, for once, my mother was wrong.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 11, 2010, 10:50 am

      You can get it back. Why don’t we race to a 600 lb deadlift?:)

  • TW December 20, 2010, 5:51 pm

    Just saw this blog and had to put in my 2 cents! I’ve always been into muscular/strong women, but found myself in a real minority of guys. I’m not even so much concerned about what my male friends find attractive in women as I am the “side effects” that tends to have on the women they have relationships or friendships with! There are quite a few genetically gifted women out there with perfect body types to build a good amount of muscle that looks absolutely beautiful on them — yet they hold back, because of previous boyfriends or male friends who tell them it’s not attractive on a woman.

    I used to date a gal that was one of these types … naturally VERY strong and able to build muscle mass pretty easily. But instead, when I met her, she was literally starving herself, because it was the only way she could keep her weight down to what “other people” told her was ideal. (She still weighed over 140 at 5’6″ when she was mostly “skin and bones”, as she had a large bone structure.) It took quite a while to convince her I’d actually LIKE to see her build up those muscles, get as big as possible, and see what she could do! So finally, she started eating normal meals again and went to the gym once in a while. She really started filling back out quickly and looked GREAT! One day, I remember she got on our old bathroom scale and it made a loud creaking noise that got my attention. (Back in her 140ish lb. days, if she weighed herself on that thing, you’d hear nothing but the little noise of the dial spinning around. But this was the sound of putting some real weight on it!) I looked down at it and saw 195 in the window! Looking back up at her, I saw she had a small gin on her face. I said, “Wow! Nice!” and she replied, “Actually, I think this scale is off about about 5lbs. – so I finally hit 200!” She didn’t really look THAT big, though she was thick and really solid.

    It was pretty amazing, since I was 5’9″ and only weighed about 185 myself. She started doing little workouts around the house with me as the weight, and would show some of them off to our friends. One of my favorites, that always impressed other people was when she’d have me stand in front of her with my back to her. She’d hold out her hands, palms up, and have me place my hands palms-down on top of hers, with my arms locked at my side. Then she’d push and lift me off the ground, a good foot or so off the floor! One of my buddies who weighs 245 dared her to give it a shot with him one time. She said “Sure!” I was expecting her to fail, but she got a real determined look on her face, let out a little grunt, and arms shaking a little bit, lifted him right up like she did with me!

    I got lots of piggyback rides from her too, including up and down our stairs, while holding heavy objects to make it a little more of a workout for her. I’m sure most people would have considered it “weird”, but I never got tired of watching those leg muscles in shorts, rippling with each step and feeling her power like that!

    The sad part is, I doubt I’ll ever meet another woman who is either capable or willing to do that stuff…. Why does that have to be so rare??