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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The Cult of Quadzilla

Let’s stop dancing around the fact that this blog has turned into one mostly about body image. Well, you haven’t been dancing around it, but I have–mostly in the form of “well, what non-body image topic can I write about for my next post? Nothing? You’re not coming up with anything? Okay, we’ll try again later, after I come up with four new body image-related ideas.” So today I’m going to stop with the self-suppression and write a little about something that’s going to earn me probably more than a few mental “sour grapes! Sour graaaaapes!” dismissals.

So there’s this thing right now in the fitness industry that is “jeans made for people who lift,” although it’s not always phrased like that. After attempting to procure links on google related to this topic and running into pages of “diet down to skinny jeans” and similar, the most successful search for jeans made for people who perform compound lifts was “crossfit jeans.” That lead me to CocaBang, a label that just got some free publicity from me as well as targets “CrossFit Trainers, Fitness Competitors, Physique Models, Naturally Muscular and Athletic Women.” The schtick from companies like CocaBang is that it provides a product to women whose posterior chain as well as quads have reached epic proportions because she goes and puts her hands on a barbell sometimes–but she still has an itty bitty waist to go with that round thing in your–okay, no, I can’t.

I’ve had a few women post about these jeans in my feed. One posted a video that spent seven minutes portraying the special jeans-wearing people first stuffing their faces with some sort of Sonic-looking milkshake and then performing squats, sprints, and a bunch of things that are more crossfit-y and have names that I just don’t care to remember. Like Double Unders. Seriously, I thought Double Unders were some sort of complicated plyometric sort of thing until I realized through constant exposure to the term that they reference the act of getting a jump rope you’re jumping to pass beneath your feet twice between jumps as opposed to once. Seriously, why is this something that keeps coming up on my social media lifting feeds? It’s like obsessing over Bulgarian split squats, which are mundane to the point of turning ridiculous were a trend championing them to arise.

So anyway, back to this whole thing about needing special jeans because you lift. I feel like there’s such a massive humblebragging undercurrent to all of this, and that it’s resting on the paper-thin supports of “celebrating ourselves as chicks (and actually, there’s also a movement to make jeans for men who lift) who lift heavy shit sometimes.” While I’m all for celebrating yourself, because I’m really bad at it and I recognize that it’s an excellent thing to be able to do, I also get annoyed when it’s based on obsessing over one body type and one set of skeletal proportions to the exclusion of others who also do the thing where you touch a barbell sometimes. Ah yes, there’s that “skeletal proportion” reference–and you know I’m obsessed with it. And if you’re in the business of strength sports, you should be too.

Because not all of us have manlet or womanlet proportions. While people with short femurs and longer torsos and short humeri tend to be efficient and excellent benchers and squatters, these are only body types that can perform those movements at world-class levels. And when you’re competing in a relatively light weight class–read: anything 165 and under for both men and women–and you do NOT have short femurs or short humeri, there is only so much weight you can pack on a frame and between hip joints and knee joints that will result in appreciable amounts of mass in the thigh region. Which leads me to reference two exceedingly awesome lifters, both in the 132-pound class. The first, Richard Hawthorne, is lanky as all get-out. While everyone obsesses over his deadlift, which, at 600 pounds in competition, holds the current number one ranking in his weight class in the country, the fact remains that Hawthorne’s squat is also flipping fantastic. In August of 2013, Hawthorne squatted a wrapped 562 pounds, and it remains the number one squat in the men’s 132 weight class in the country–and it is a good 60 pounds above the number two squat. Hawthorne’s proportions are more in line for massive deadlifting, but he has developed strength through a movement that he is not built for to a degree that many of us would be lucky to ever reach. In terms of muscular development, Hawthorne is well-proportioned. His leg development is proportionate to his back development is proportionate to his chest development, etc. At 132 pounds, nothing on him is “huge.” Including his legs. And yet, he holds the number one squat (and also the number one bench, while we’re at it) in his weight class.

Let’s look at our other 132 lifter–Jennifer Thompson. So let me say right now I am so star-struck in awe of Thompson that I’m going to have to work really hard not to figuratively salivate all over the place here as I discuss her lifting as it relates to her proportions. Jennifer is among the best benchers in the world–male or female–and she is, like Hawthorne, lanky. Her long arms are not in line with the stereotypical bencher’s build, yet she has benched 331 pounds, a staggering number when put in context with her weight. She has also squatted her way into the top rankings in her weight class numerous times, as well as in the next weight class up. At her most recent meet, Jennifer squatted an unwrapped 325 pounds at 148, and that squat ranks at number five in the country for that weight class. Thompson’s skeleton is proportioned to be lengthy, complete with long femurs. She is also one of the best female lifters in the country.

Thompson is jacked, but she’s a lanky jacked. Those femurs are not short in proportion to the rest of her body.

I’m not trying to say that mass and muscle are overrated, nor am I ridiculously trying to claim that mass does not move mass. I have chosen to put on thirty pounds in a year because I believe the opposite. But the fact that is ignored in all the “quadisaurus” crowing and the humblebragging over “not being able to find jeans that fit” is misguided navel-gazing. Guess what–it’s hard for everyone, no matter their build, to find jeans that truly fit. And here is exactly why: every company has what are called “fit models.” Fit models are not people who are really in shape who model stuff. Fit models are what companies use to understand how their designs will or won’t fit average bodies. People who are size 14′s are fit models. Most companies have fit models for every single size of clothing they produce, and that model is paid to stay at his or her size, whatever that is, so the company can evaluate prospective product. Now, because we know that not everyone has the same skeletal proportions, if Company A chooses a fit model with average femurs or even long femurs to test out their size seven jeans, and Customer Tinyfemur goes to try on size seven jeans at Company A’s store, that shit isn’t going to fit very well. But maybe Customer Tinyfemur will head over to Old Navy, which seems to work with fit models with manlet/womanlet proportions, or at least it used to, and find something that works reasonably well for him or her.

Another variable that we need to keep in mind when pondering the question of “why don’t any jeans fit anybody?” is that everyone stores fat differently. So if you store all of your fat underneath your ass and on the sides off your ass, you’re going to have a different time with the same pair of jeans that someone who may weigh the same as you but stores the majority of their fat through their stomach and back is.

My entirely unscientific data collection is that the majority of women store more fat dominantly through the hips and thighs. This isn’t remotely an across-the-board reality, but I’ve done enough reading regarding hormonal influence on body fat storage as well as paid attention to this shit for over a decade to say that it’s not absolutely outrageous to say that there are more women who will store a majority of their fat through the hip and thigh region than their are who store it more like men seem to store it–predominately through the midsection. Please don’t jump down my throat for this observation. Their are all matter of variations on the spectrum of where fat is stored. I fall pretty strongly towards one end of that spectrum, but not everyone does. I’m basically built like a short lanky man, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Ta-dah. This is a thing.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a market for enterprises that want to make jeans for people who work out–and market them that way. I am saying that there continues to exist a mass set of blinders most people wear to the fact that differently proportioned bodies exist, and differences at a skeletal level can influence how the same amount of muscle looks when distributed along different lengths of bone. I can’t say I’m not guilty of a little bit of the humblebragging the “quadzilla cult” has generated–a few months ago, I was stunned to find myself in the “the length is okay but these are way too tight in my legs and way too big in the waist” situation that so many of us lifters like to exult over. I posted about it on instagram, thrilled I could finally be a part of the cult. The thrill was short-lived, because I don’t like cults, and because I don’t like anything that celebrates one body type. And yeah, to be totally honest, I kind of feel like my sport does celebrate one body type, even though what it SHOULD be celebrating is the fact that anyone of any body type can successfully compete–even us lanky freaks.

Screen shot 2014-04-25 at 12.44.56 PM

The above picture is of me being a hypocrite. Kind of. Because yeah, that day I went shopping and this particular brand of pants fit me like the quadzilla cult claims all pants fit its members–pretty damn snug in the leg and crazy loose around the waist–and I posted about it on Instagram. But objectively, look at my quads. They’re not huge. Sure, they’ve gotten bigger–in proportion to the rest of me. I can see it. But I’m always going to have long, gangly legs attached to an an extremely short torso. I’m always going to have an easier time deadlifting because of it. And that will make my total, and I’ll have a competitive total based on proportions that don’t really fit me into cult quadzilla. So I’m making my own cult, the one you fit into based on the fact that you don’t fit into the confines of a subculture that doesn’t fit into the confines of a larger culture. Join me, we have cookies.

The Pattern

When do I stupid, impulsive, compulsive things, I get tunnel vision. Harsh thoughts corral my perception into a narrow beam and I do things like call a salon at noon and schedule a hair appointment  for 7:30 PM. Between that call and my appointment I stumble along in a haze, high on the fact that I’m doing something stupid and rash and, perhaps more disturbingly, a little happy I’m doing something I don’t think I want to do. 

This is not a new pattern. It’s one I’ve plotted and followed before. It’s a way to combat the berating that begins slowly in the back of my mind and creeps from decibel to higher decibel until I suddenly become aware of it. It takes hours, sometimes days of acidic, disparaging thoughts before I realize I’ve been subjecting myself to the constant tone of my own abuse. By then, the damage is done and the only escape from the mental prison is to act against myself in a way that will top it–if I can cause myself more pain than the insidious creep of thoughts I’m barely aware of, I win. Or that’s how it’s worked historically. It’s why I have a history of self-harm: brief stints with cutting, self-induced vomiting, actually beating my abdomen and thighs in particularly unhinged moments.

That paragraph reads as “crazy, unstable, general WTF.” And it is. But it’s a part of my history and I know I’m among many who find or have found solace from a voice in their head that they cannot escape by trying to outdo its damage.

Perhaps you’re asking why I’m discussing this on what is supposed to be a powerlifting blog. It’s not a powerlifting blog. Powerlifting is only a vehicle–it’s the easy part, but dealing with the truths it reveals is much harder. And yesterday I cut off a sizable amount of my hair because I succumbed to the accumulation of days of self-abuse I didn’t know had been ringing in my head until I stared into the bathroom mirror in my childhood home at significantly shorter hair.

It’s not a secret on this blog and on other parts of the internet I use to discuss my lifting experience that I’ve chosen to put on a sizable amount of weight since May of last year. Putting on close to thirty pounds at 5’2″ is no small shift. I’ve already written and talked about why I’ve chosen to do this. And I accomplished what I set out to do–I generated more muscle mass by lifting and eating. I also increased my body fat percentage appreciably as well as worked up to a weight I’ve never weighed in my life.

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 2.00.32 PM

Illustration of above points. And then probably about five more pounds.

Something snapped a few days ago. Coming into Madison, my birthplace as well as the city in which I earned my undergrad degree, I felt the pressure of younger experience and a prior body crushing against my psyche. I felt the discomfort of not recognizing my body in its current state pushing down on my self-perception, and I felt it hard. One morning I woke up with the deep conviction that I could not stand being in this body anymore. It was a light-switch-flipped moment.  It was like coming out of a long, restive sleep. And it sent me into the cycle of growing mental self-destruction described earlier. And I cut my hair off.

I wish I could present you with a blog post celebrating my own physique, of standing with the “lift big eat big” enthusiasts, of positive thoughts and promising outlooks, of championing a focus on lifting, not looks. I can’t because It wouldn’t be my truth or my experience at this point in time. But I can say that I think I’m closer to identifying the pattern of my own self-destruction. Closer to understanding how stop it before it starts.

This is not really about the stupid hair. It’s about feeling defeated and understanding how to cradle and soothe myself after the violence exacted by a slippery, dark little part of mind. So, you know, here’s to that.

It's very Dita Von Teese-ish, so I guess that's cool.

It’s very Dita Von Teese-ish, so I guess that’s cool. Also, this is deceiving, it looks shorter than this. WTF camera.

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