The Wrong Ideal

I was going to make a bunch of red X's everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

I was going to make a bunch of red X’s everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

Let me tell you exactly what is wrong with me.

That sentence is sitting there, and staring it is like standing at one of those weird five-way intersections in a city that isn’t laid out in a grid, dense buildings convulsing around streets that run towards each other at odd angles. There are a few options, a few paths you can take, and those paths might cross and get you to the same place even if you choose this one or that one or that one. It’s all the same, but the ways to get there are not.

I’m 28 now, and I can truncate my life into little sections and big ones. The theme that stands out among at least two thirds of these sections is the inability to fully appreciate myself, and I am endlessly apologizing and explaining and fucking up and comforting and writing and reading and watching and discussing and bottling up and breaking down and rising up because of it. There has been an evolution from the self-erasure of anorexia to the self-betrayal of bulimia mixed into the erasure that preceded it to the hollow sorting out of the damages left behind.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

So it’s hard to choose what to tell you is wrong with me, but there has been and continues to be a lot. And I’ll admit it here because this is one of few venues I have in which I’m not either enjoying the respite of being a blank, anonymous face to people I don’t know or dredging through the overexposure of myself to the few people I trust and love–it’s another purgatory. My audience is faceless and mostly nameless and, in my mind, hypothetical as much as it is real. This isn’t as brave, although it is possibly as questionable, as standing out in the middle of the street and screaming my shortcomings and my fears and my struggles, but writing in a publicly-accessible format is my best current attempt at extending myself enough to be voluntarily vulnerable. So let’s get to the catharsis, because that’s the juice you should be rewarded with if you’ve actually managed to read the block of text preceding the next paragraph.

Here is what is wrong with me–with my body. My legs are not elegant and long enough and they’re not thick and muscular enough. My ass is either not perky enough or it’s not large enough, or maybe both, or maybe it’s not small enough. My chest is probably too small although it’s too wide (because of the colar bones, you see, although for a while those were en vogue), I have too much body fat but I also may have too little and my pectoral muscles are making the whole thing a lot more awkward so I should make sure I either build those up or I get rid of them entirely. My back is far too muscular, although I could have a better lat taper and actually, I could stand to build a better trap/rear delt setup and my shoulders are certainly, absolutely too big but they’re also not really capped in appearance so, I don’t know, I should probably fix both of those things. My torso is ridiculously short and my waist-to-hip ratio horrendously poor; science says it is a miracle that I’ve ever managed to be found attractive by a member of my species in my life. My arms are definitely too large in proportion to the rest of me and they’re throwing the rest of my proportions into an uglier tailspin, two great jointed pillars drifting along in time with the rest of my body as I move from one point to another.

Once again, you're going to have to throw in some x's on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

Once again, you’re going to have to throw in some x’s on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

I cannot tell you how ridiculous it is to type that paragraph–how much indignation rises as I summarize the contradictions I now spend a fair amount of time trying to sort out for myself–contradictions that arose from what was originally a sincere attempt to subvert one set of ideals. Here’s the lesson for today–you cannot subvert one set of ideals by implanting another next to it. It doesn’t work. It’s why saying “strong is the new skinny” is bullshit and so is “real women have curves” and so is “all bass no treble” and whatever the fuck else we’re coming up with today to box everyone into meeting one ideal and saying “fuck you mate, you’re screwed” to those who don’t. Nothing human is ever ideal. To those of us predisposed to thinking things are black and white polarized boxes of good and bad, ideals are fantastic and we try to fit into them so people will call us “good” and we will be loved and fucked and respected and obeyed and saved. Because that is what makes sense. Failing an ideal means loss, dismissal, contempt, repulsion. I self-enslave over ideals because, in part, our very culture loves ideals. Because I grew up in a house steeped in judgment and dated men who built their identities out of the judgment of others–I loved and sought love from a those who took comfort in the predictability of the ideal.

I’m not blaming anybody here. My history is really not the point. What’s most striking to me is how much the act of reflecting on the convolution of two particular ideals–the female physical ideal championed by white Western culture and the female physical ideal coveted by the lifting and strength world–leaves me shaking my head in absolute disbelief. You don’t fix generations of body image issues by introducing new ideals. Sure, the new ideals are going to exist and the trends are going to come and go–I swear the flapper flat-chested elongated body of the 1920’s which is itself a nod to the far older Mannerist trend is going to rear its head out of a decades-old grave one of these days–but if we’re going to address the reparation of how we’ve talked about women’s bodies, trying to take the body that strength training might build and elevate it as the answer to all our eating disordered, body dysmorphic, image-obsessed issues amounts to shooting ourselves in our feet. It looks like a good answer, but when we embrace it we end up preventing ourselves from moving forward. You’ve read this before, but I’ll write it again: we’re not going to fix skinny worship by supplanting it with a singular worship of another type. Singular is not inclusive; whatever ideal you choose as the next skinny, you are right back to a focus that is as misdirected as it is narrow-minded. 

So out of all of this, here is my suggestion: if you struggle with a sense of how much you don’t measure up at a physical level, make a list of everything that’s wrong with you. The absurdity of the contradictions that will stare back at you should you cross-check your list with several sets of ideals beloved by this culture or that subculture is kind of great. Doing this exercise might not solve all of your problems, but it will have you peeking out of your box a little bit more.

The Extremist’s Guide to (Bad) Relationships

A little drawing I did several years ago--I think it was 2010. Who knows. I'm old.

A little drawing I did several years ago–I think it was 2010. Who knows. I’m old.

I’ve had a few really contentious relationships in my life. A few have been with other people, but the worst one has been with myself. One major component of the latter has been how I relate to standards–I become aware of what “the best” is in the activity upon which I’m focused and then I do the perfectionist thing and don’t remotely value or acknowledge the existence of any steps between “hi, I’m new” and “I have a world record in this.” If the activity doesn’t have world records, I will not rest until I figure out what the equivalent to a world record for that thing might be. And then I’ll hold myself to that standard. And then I’ll always feel like shit about myself because I do not exist on a level commensurate with that standard, even when I’ve made massive steps between “hi, I’m new” and “I was new to this about two and a half years ago but I don’t have any world records yet.” That two-and-a-half-year time period is in reference to my time powerlifting, by the way.

One part of my life that presented a near-complete escape from this constant sense of inadequacy was my involvement in visual art (I refer to it in the past tense because I haven’t been able to generate enough momentum to actually propel myself back to a point of making work, but I’ll get there. In the meantime, art is past tense and I think about it as such). I have always found solace in the fact that there is really no such thing as “the best” art. Whatever art historic scholarly crap you want to throw at me on this one, I don’t care, I will argue with the backing of a solid number of similar-minded art-appreciators that no one is or has ever been the single winner at art. It is this fantastic pastime, a mist-draped sea upon which an overwhelming number of people sail their own little boats and revel in the particular way each of those boats parts the water. I have reveled in my own work and I continue to do so, looking at paintings I did several years ago and never tiring of how completely “mine” they are. As overused as this sentiment might be, no one can paint those paintings the same way I can. No one can generate the exact imagery and the exact sentiments and moods that I have generated in the work that I have done. And they are physical totems, almost a collection of homages to myself, little beacons of the times I honored and treasured my own hand and mind enough to make something out of lifeless materials. It is an intensely freeing feeling not only to make art but to know that it now physically exists; it anchors you to acts of confidence and self-assurance

This is a really old etching I did. I kind of wouldn't mind figuring out where I stashed the edition I printed of this.

This is a really old etching I did. I kind of wouldn’t mind figuring out where I stashed the edition I printed of this.

At least, that’s what it has done for me, anyway. Who knows about the other people on the other boats. For me, art got me pretty far down the academic trail, but I kind of screwed up its sacredness when I got on the final steps towards making it a career. That process is something I won’t go into here, but suffice to say that I am estranged from art now because I tried to make it do something it can’t and shouldn’t do for me. Another relationship turned contentious, I guess.

I used to write in this blog with the intention of discussing my powerlifting journey as it relates to and illuminates other parts of my life, essentially making powerlifting my “savior,” the thing that was going to be the cure-all for all my not-cureds. It doesn’t work that way, and it has never worked that way. Sometimes lifting teaches me a shit ton about the problems I’ve had and have outside of the gym, and sometimes other things in my life teach me about the problems I have with my lifting. The latter is currently in effect, for I have recently been piecing together why I never remotely felt about my art the way I feel about my lifting. Lifting, for me, can be a stressor, not just physically, but very much mentally. I cannot be aware of those standards set by those practitioners of powerlifting who are at the very top of their sport and be at ease with my own efforts. I mean, I guess I probably COULD, but I have no idea how. I’m working on it. Awareness is the first, massively frustrating step to change. You see the problems, the false logic and the irrationality and you don’t know what to do about it–yet. My experience with art has made it easier for me to see how some ways that I relate to my lifting are not healthy or positive or productive. This cognizance has already helped me neutralize some of the perfectionism in recent weeks.

A move to a new city, a new job, a new schedule, and a lot of things to tie up in between have left me scrambling to address aspects of my life that would benefit from being addressed, and one of those things is figuring out how to do art again. Once I resume making work, I will be able to see the limits of perfectionism far better than I have been able to in quite some time. I like extremes and being the best and trying to the be the best and hammering myself until I have to take a deload and all of that hardcore bro bullshit, but sometimes obsessively focusing on the highest standard isn’t the most productive way to approach a relationship. If it was, Kyle would totally leave me for how often I don’t do my laundry. Seriously.

image1

Another little drawing I did circa 2010–I forgot about this one. My computer’s image folders are like going through old drunk photos on facebook.

Hating the Cusp

“Well, it’s kind of like I’m looking over the edge of a cliff a few seconds before going over that edge–that’s where I am right now.” My therapist’s eyes turned a little sharper than they had been thus far during our session. She shifted in her seat and drew her breath. “Have you been thinking about hurting yourself?” Alarmed that my description of the imagery that had been rising unbidden in my mind for the last few days was causing my therapist to break out the “do we need to bring in reinforcements?” checklist, I reassured her that no thoughts of self-harm had crossed my mind for quite some time.

But looking down the side of a cliff I’m about to jump off of is what things do feel like right now–I am so close to the major changes that are about to happen in my life that it’s like the time you would spend breathing a few breaths before jumping off the ledge. Those breaths will only give you a small window of time in which to get your bearings before everything goes nuts. Its the period before the big event–the night before the test, the seconds before the race starts, the breakfast before you lift in a meet–that I cannot stand. I have historically done some pretty stupid stuff during this period–wandering around target for an hour with a shopping cart I’m not filling, calling people I haven’t talked to in months or years on the phone, driving 45 minutes away from town to sit in the parking lot of a farm equipment company shuttered for the night. I hate the cusp. I hate it.

Right before deadlifting 350 x 2. I have been known to freeze up during this period--see every single meet video from my lifting career.

Right before deadlifting 350 x 2. I have been known to freeze up during the period before I go down to grab the bar–see every single meet video from my lifting career.

I haven’t written in this blog for several months now because I have been at a loss for what I really want to say here. I tend to treat this space on the internet as more of a place for my editorialization than as a diary, but I write more freely when I write in a diary so that is what I’ve finally chosen to do. Indeed, most of the time, I can’t figure out what to say about training, and because this blog is about my lifting, nothing gets written at all. But my lifting isn’t what’s hard, it’s not what REALLY challenges me, it is just the constant in a stream of changes. The thing about my lifting is that it forces me to confront what is going on in my “real” life; what’s going on there impacts what happens in the gym. Most of the time, this impact is limited to how I feel about myself: if I feel self-doubt, if my self-esteem is running low, the gym doesn’t go so well. Sometimes, larger events in my life trickle into my training. In a little under three weeks, I will start a new job. In one week, I will move to another city. Both of these events are landmarks on a path I didn’t think I’d be taking over the last year–a career change, giving up a major facet of my life that has been there since childhood, trying to understand myself and my identity when ways I had defined myself for years fell away.

I am not complaining. I am deeply lucky to have been given the opportunity to start a new career with financial stability in a good-size city in which I have more friends than I have had in a long time in one place. I am deeply lucky to have the support and patience of my fiancé, who has watched me stumble through this past year and held me when I couldn’t even manage to stumble. I make sure to think about what I do have right now, because it’s an excellent way to ward off the “scrambly moving freak-outs,” as I fondly term how I tend to react to moving.

Indeed, the stress of all this change coupled with an aggressive caloric deficit have impacted my training. My energy is not often on point, and sometimes it’s so below par that it’s a miracle I get through my work sets. While my numbers have steadily increased for months even as my weight drops, my gut tells me that I’m going to have to tread very carefully over the next two weeks when I do train. As much as I hate to admit defeat, the move and the career shift is creeping into my training. Continuing to pretend that nothing’s wrong when I have felt the impact of stress both in and out of the gym is stupid. Its a lot more stupid than pushing an empty cart around Target for an hour.

So the only thing I'm doing right these days is bringing my weight down. Former anorexic chick to the rescue!

So the only thing I’m doing right these days is bringing my weight down. Former anorexic chick to the rescue!

I’m not making excuses for why I’m not training, because I am training. No matter how poorly the training has gone some days recently or how stressed I am about things outside of it, I believe in what I’m doing so I find ways to do as much as I can within the limits of my current psyche and situation. It’s better than calling it off for a few weeks. It’s not perfect, but it is better. I tend to blog about my training in periods when it’s not ideal, when barriers prevent my carrying it out as well as I would like to carry it out. I have been very lucky for months now with my training and I have enough rep PRs as well as some new one rep maxes to show for it. I bow now to moderation and survival. Right after I drive for an hour to the nearest John Deere for no reason, anyway.

The John Deere's natural habitat. Those lines on the ground are related to complex mating rituals. Also, yay Iowa, I like all your open space.

The John Deere’s natural habitat. Those lines on the ground are related to its complex mating rituals. Also, yay Iowa, I like all your open space.

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