Lifting Makes Women Manly And It’s Fine

Enlight9

“Lifting doesn’t make women manly.” Oh yeah? Maybe it does.

Calm. Down. I hold you to a higher standard than one of sexism, and I am about to make an argument that I believe is more empowering to women–AND MEN–than the statement in quotes I just regurgitated. But you are going to have to hang in there with me and you are going to have to keep an open mind. And the latter request is me holding you to the aforementioned higher standard, it is me giving you credit for being able to do so. So, let’s begin.

First, let’s knock out a few truths here, or what I argue to be truths, that are necessary to my argument. One: there are distinct differences in male and female lean mass distribution and the aesthetics we generally ascribe to bodies of one sex or the other based on these differences. Testosterone level differences COUPLED WITH skeletal proportion differences make for biological markers of each sex. In men, higher testosterone means greater development and mass levels in the upper body even with minimal load bearing on average. This, coupled with skeletally narrow hips and broader shoulders in the male human means that typically we associate upper body development with men. Male upper bodies look bigger because on average they literally are bigger and the skeletal differences between men and women only augment this appearance. Women who do not pursue anaerobic/resistance work have almost no physical reason to carry much upper body mass, and the species’ biological inclination to throw wider hips at its female members magnifies the illusion of larger lower body, smaller upper.

Now, I’m making a bunch of generalizations. Averages. If you really pay attention to physical variation within the human population, and maybe you never really have until you started lifting, you will notice an enormous spectrum upon which all human bodies have a place. I almost hesitate to call it a spectrum because that word really suggests two poles and to be honest, I think this is all more complicated than two poles. But let’s use the concept of spectrum because at least it leaves room for there to be gray area which is what no one really, REALLY wants to acknowledge.

Truth number two (this is something no one wants to either acknowledge or deal with or both, so this is going to be fun): Words like “manly” or “feminine” or “masculine” are subjective descriptives. What this means is that there is no solid definition of what “masculine” is or looks like and there is no solid definition of what “womanly” looks like, etc. There isn’t. If you look up masculine in the dictionary it probably says something like “having traits ascribed to the male human being” and then we can just return to the biological markers I went over in my first point. Because we’re talking about aesthetics, we are not even going to BEGIN to get into psychological and behavioral and cultural markers for feminine and masculine traits. Okay? We’re not going to go into style. We’re not going to go into different cultures and what is and isn’t considered masculine and feminine within those. Nope. We are not complicating this. Today we are talking about why lifting actually can and does make women aesthetically “manly” and why that might be okay OH MY GOD CALM DOWN I’LL GET TO IT.

So truth number three is this. If a woman lifts seriously enough and has halfway decent genetics and actually eats and just does what you do to get better at lifting THE HOPE IS that she would develop some upper body muscle, and of course lower, but if she develops upper body muscle, which WILL HAPPEN if she is doing what she’s supposed to be doing, is she not developing a thing on her body that biologically is a marker of…being male. Right? Hello? Yes? It’s harder for the woman to do this, but indeed she can and indeed suddenly she is walking around with parts of her body that are developed and biologically they don’t typically DO THAT if the human being in question is female. Listen, I know I’m using a lot of caps here but I really feel like I need to talk through what I just did very distinctly before I make my next point.

And that is this. Let’s say that you agree with my contention that upper body muscle in particular is a masculine biological trait and for women to have more upper body development means she has augmented a part of herself that places her closer to the “masculine” part of the spectrum than before she had so augmented herself–technically she is more manly, masculine now, biological-marker speaking. I mean, I just don’t know how else you can really look at this. In other words, I’m going to reassert the thing that I am not supposed to assert because it means women won’t want to lift weight now OH GOD JANIS DON’T DISEMPOWER THE WOMEN WHAT WILL WE DO NOW. Well, I say this to you: what’s really more the question here is WHY it is so bad for women to be more manly. What is really more important here is WHY this is what we need to sit here and argue about when how one looks is a single facet of the very complex, fascinating, amazing process that is resistance training. Like, let me get on my rant horse for a second here–what the actual FUCK. You’re telling me that the objection someone might have to women lifting weight is that they’re going to LOOK. A certain WAY. BECAUSE OF IT. Think about that for a second. If we were wringing our hands over someone putting on a really ill-fitting item of clothing because it was going to look like it didn’t fit I would understand the preoccupation with how something looks. But we’re talking about half of the species doing a thing that is an extremely technical, complicated activity and what we’re talking about is what it makes them LOOK LIKE. FUCK.

How is it that this is still the goddamn number one thing that we are concerned about with anything women do? Why is it that we are still making stupid memes with some woman in underwear next to an image of herself not in underwear lifting some weight and saying “look at this! Women everywhere, thou art liberated!” That is not liberation. Those are chains, and they’re being applauded.

Let me go a step further. I could go a lot of steps further on this one but I think I’m going to limit it today for this piece. But this step is going to REALLY get some people uncomfortable. I’m going to propose that it’s very comfortable to anyone within the species who is used to sexually objectifying women who don’t have significant biologically male markers to continue on doing so–it is less comfortable for this population to grapple with what it means to be attracted to women who maybe DO have more of those markers. And what does it mean, indeed? I’m going to go ahead and raise my hand and say a whole lot of nothing. I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions and think about your sexuality and think about the Kinsey scale and think about what your sense of sexuality is. Because hey, you’re allowed to be attracted to what you’re attracted to. But maybe it’s time to pull back on someone’s sexual attractiveness being the thing that is how we make arguments for what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

And that is the bottom line here. This isn’t about what is lauded as “hot.” This isn’t about what you are attracted to. It’s about the fact that we’re fighting a battle over what women’s bodies should look like, AGAIN. It’s about the fact we aren’t talking about something more productive than that. It’s about the fact that whether or not a woman falls into a very very very narrow ideal of sexual attractiveness (femininity level implied) is why she should or shouldn’t lift. Read that last sentence again. Hey ladies, lift, it doesn’t make you manly. NO. Hey ladies, lift, it might make you manly. Lift, because your body has the same joints and works mechanically the same as a man’s. And you might like it. And you might like how your body responds to it. And you might become an entirely different version of yourself as a human being with character and perseverance and dedication because of it. Lift because you want to. Walk into gyms with your head up because you have the exact same right to be there as anyone else who is paying to be there, end of story, your sexual attractiveness does not validate your activities. I started what I am doing now over six years ago. I needed to hear what I am saying now when I started. I am not discouraging women. I am telling them what to look towards to REALLY be free.

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All Talk No Talk

A lot of us have turned to lifting as a way to manage ourselves mentally. I don’t know how you can exist socially within this community and not acknowledge this. Further, I don’t know why people struggle so much with addressing their own emotions or at least addressing the emotions of those around them, particularly the emotions of those for whom they ostensibly hold some level of affection.

Our society appears to have a default setting that is to not acknowledge the existence of emotional health at all costs until someone’s emotional health has become so poor that those around them cannot help but do so. This is the standard. This is the status quo. The way people react to discussion of mental health looks very close to the discomfort and fear with which people have reacted to such concepts as witchcraft in past centuries. I watch and experience and listen to the experiences of this particular variety of cultural dysfunction on a daily basis.

And it is at this point in my life that I find the continued fear, minimization, and continued attempts to erase emotional life akin to denying the earth is a sphere. If you blow through life avoiding your own emotions and denying the expression and existence thereof in others around you, you are a flat-earther variant. You cannot be a fully functioning adult human being if you do not take responsibility for your own emotional existence. To be a “good person,” dare I suggest that you must further take responsibility for how you impact others emotionally in addition to your own self-management. So you are kind when possible. You are aware of what you put out into the world, and I mean that as broadly as it sounds. This is not a small task. It is enormously taxing and takes constant self-awareness.

People who are capable of constant self-awareness are subsequently more susceptible to being overwhelmed by a culture that is absolutely glutted with all forms of media, information, and exchange. Today alone I have seen at least three different sets of statistics pointing towards rising suicide rates over the span of recent decades. I do not think I am off-base in suggesting that today we are as isolated emotionally as ever in a world where we are as superficially connected as ever. This is not a new or original concern in the information age, but it is one that it is crucial we continue to recognize and mine.

It is crucial because while many of us are “out there” ostensibly showing ourselves to the world, such candid content is misleading. I know it is misleading because I have posted one way and felt another. I have tried to be as candid and as honest as possible but I have failed repeatedly. I do not feel I have lied, but I certainly have not divulged as deeply or as much as I could.I have tried to be open about when I am not okay, as much as I can, when I am able to put my pain out there. I can do more, I can face my own shit more, and I can do so in front of others with no shame more. I promise it, and I promise I will work on it and improve what I do in this regard because I believe that in doing so, in a small way I am countering an onslaught of human-generated content that is often swiss-cheesed by omitted struggle and pain and fear.

Do not judge mental health by what someone says, what someone creates. Do not appraise emotional stability based on what you see and read. Do. Not. I have been suicidal and no one would ever have guessed as much had they just encountered my instagram account. Indeed, this has been the case more than once in the past two years. I have sat in my car and wondered if I should have myself committed to save myself from myself. I have lived in the prison of a mind I’m not sure I should always trust. I know I am not alone. I will say this again, and more: I know I am not alone, and some of the most internally beautiful people I have met have been in the same place I have just described.

We have no trouble celebrating people overcoming obstacle. You see this in the way we trill over a war hero’s feats or the manner in which someone with great physical disability found a way to perform some activity that would be performed without thought by an able-bodied person. And yet, we stop short of really digging into the dark places, the doubt, the depression, the stagnation, the long waiting periods, the nights spent lying on the floor motionless or the mornings where the act of tooth-brushing is closer to pulling one’s own teeth because it means doing another day, facing the mind during a period that seems insurmountable and ugly and horribly friendless. The mind is not always a friend to people who have achieved what look like great successes or made beautiful things.

I do not have any more to offer than anyone else. I often think I have much less. But I am very, very willing to say what I just said. I am willing to talk about it, to post about it, to yell about it when others prefer only whispered conversations. I will continue. And I will find beauty in the speech of anyone else willing to do the same thing.

Getting Through

Enlight5

The day I turned 32, I benched at a gym a few hours away from my normal one. The garage bay doors of the Anvil in Cedar Rapids, Iowa are thrown open as wide as they will go when the weather is agreeable–and less agreeable, if you feel the way I do about summer. But it wasn’t summer yet on this day and I remember looking towards the light slanting in from outside as I lifted and everyone else lifted and enjoying the space I was in as much for what I was doing there as how it looked and sounded and felt. I moved in and out of different rooms during my training session–the strongman and powerlifting area for my main work and a smaller assistance area for pull-ups and staring at my phone and the bathroom for…whatever. Sometimes a few children would appear during my floating from one area to another and I noticed a girl watching me. She was pretty young, and because I’m just bad at children in general I’m not sure how to guess how old she was, but we’ll say she was not older than 11. I’m pretty sure about that. Yeah, I’m not having kids, okay?

I don’t do particularly well with people watching me. Ever. Ever, ever. In any circumstance. If you’re in a room with me and you’re watching me do something and I know about it I probably hate you in that moment unless you’re one of about five people. So the kid watched me and I warily watched the kid. Because I grew up in a family filled with judgment, I lived under judgment; the way I tied my shoes was judged, the way I walked was judged, the clothing I wore was judged, and among some relatives how I looked was ALWAYS commented on. Yes, that classic shit that burns the concept into young heads that their aesthetic makeup is their primary worth, that old virus–I contracted it very young, and it stayed, and I used it to try to destroy myself later, but that’s an old story.

Hours later, I received a message online from the girl’s father. Perhaps you can guess how this goes; he said that in the time he had taken the girl to the gym, she had never expressed interest in lifting. He said that after seeing me on that day she said she wanted to lift. And my reaction to this is the point of what I’m writing now. I read what the father of this girl wrote to me and all I could think of was a sense of sorrow for what the girl was going to have to get through as she grew older and a sense of hope that maybe, if she tried lifting and it did work out for her, she would get through things more smoothly. I stop just short of saying more smoothly than I did, but really, I should just say it. There was not much in my life as I grew up to make me feel good about myself. I had a lot of things in my life, a lot of activities, a lot of schooling, a lot of privilege, but for whatever reason things did not align such that any activity in which I partook made me feel a sense of accomplishment, or like I had WORKED for something.

And here’s the thing, I’m not here to write about how lifting changes people’s lives and kids are going to benefit from it becoming a more popular pastime, ESPECIALLY GIRL KIDS. I don’t even have to write that at this point and the story I just related above should do the work for me. I’m more interested in the thought that I didn’t want to think when I read what the father and fellow lifter sent me: that this girl was going to have to get through things in her life. It’s waiting for her. Because I just turned 32 and I am at the point with what has gone on in my life for the last two years where I have learned a few things about the concept of instability and unforeseen events and endings of different varieties and the chasms they leave in their wake. I am not bitching. My point isn’t to hold a pity party. My point is to point out that everyone runs up against obstacle, and so I am not unique, I’m not at all special, and I’m not claiming it. But I am observant and I see patterns and I notice who tends to get through when things go to hell and I try to understand why certain people get through better than others and I’m pretty absolutely sure it often has something to do with people feeling like they have any sort of power. It has something to do with someone feeling like they have accomplished things before and they can and will do so again. I has to do with the work and the trials it takes to get to the point where someone can feel like they have achieved anything.

So if you know me, which most people really don’t and they’re probably lucky for it, then you know that I cling to my lifting like it is a buoy out in the middle of a raging sea, because it is. It is the only thing, and I mean the only thing, that has ever given me a sense that I accomplished something real. School wasn’t real. My degrees, I’m sorry, aren’t real to me. I played a game, I fed into a broken system, I walked away with some pieces of prettily stamped-up paper I believe I have actually lost. And I’m not even saying that lifting being the buoy is a good thing. It’s not, probably. But right now, at the start of 32, there is not a lot else around me to hold onto, and nothing else that feels like it’s going to save me from going under if I let go. So, you don’t. You just keep holding on and you feel the water sometimes at your shoulders and sometimes at your neck and you realize that there’s not a whole lot of possibility within the world of this metaphor–what, is a ship going to come through and save you? Are some seagulls going to come and collectively carry you away? Maybe you just train to swim farther and farther over time. You swim a little farther in one direction and then back to the buoy day after day–every day, a little farther, gaining strength and endurance until one day you swim away from your buoy and you don’t have to swim back if you don’t want to.