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.
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.
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.
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