“I don’t feel anything,” I said to the questioning eyes of yet another person asking me if I can “feel it” in my bicep when I perform a given exercise. As much as I wish I was speaking that sentence in reference to ever having to feel emotions–because emotions are annoying as shit–I say it as an affirmation of what has been my policy throughout my arm’s rehabilitation to never do anything with it that I “feel.” This policy has gotten me from benching ten pound dumbbells to sets with 185 pounds. It has had me deadlifting reps with 400 pounds less than half a year after surgery. It has been a policy of strictness, honesty, and above all discipline. And it has been my focus.
My focus–to the point where it has replaced things that had previously preoccupied me. I have stopped writing as much, not because I have any less to say, or that I have lost the guts to speak, but because I have felt conflict at moving away from what was previously my “schtick.” If I am no longer as preoccupied with my struggles with body image–and I’m just not–what is my message? I certainly am interested in ongoing discussions of femininity as it relates to women’s participation in sports, body image concerns conflicting with performance demands, and other topics. Periodically, something rises above the constant tide of Stuff in my social media feeds that relates to physical self-concept that smacks me in the emotional face–again, is there a way to just get rid of emotions? Damn, man–and makes me say “there is work at a collective subcultural level still yet to be done. A lot of women in strength sports really struggle with what the hell to do with their relationships with their bodies.” And I mean that, and I will continue to participate in that discussion.
But here’s my unpopular opinion–or story, because remember that thing up there about me questioning what my message is now? My message has always been my story, as I don’t believe in fabricating some empty series of tenets based on nothing that sound good that I can repeat over and over as message. Just like I basically got myself out of anorexia mode by deciding that I didn’t want to be that anymore, a continuation with this self-emancipation from ED land manifests in my deciding I don’t want to feel stuck and immersed in a barrage of media that talks about how to heal one’s relationship with one’s body. Furthermore, I have decided I am not interested in being defined as an athlete who does something AND IS A WOMAN, because holy god isn’t it novel that A WOMAN is doing a thing that changes how her body looks and what do we do with that because NO WAY is it a minor detail that this athlete who IS A WOMAN we are talking about right now looks a certain way, it’s such a big deal guys, let’s break this down and talk about how novel it still is that women are doing things that ask their bodies to adapt physically to what they’re doing. See how long and convoluted that shit was? That is what discussion of body image and women’s sports basically looks like. I want to be thought of as an athlete. Period.
The strength of this desire did not dim when my arm sort of tried to snap off when I locked out a rep with 460 pounds. It grew. My psyche became absorbed not with whether or not my thighs fit the ideal aesthetic for a female powerlifter–and dear god is that such an oxymoron in some circles, and it also doesn’t actually exist, but hey, let’s focus on not focusing on body image shit, guys–but with how the HELL I was going to keep. Fucking. Training. That was it. All the time. Engineer things for this muscle group so I don’t have to grab things with my hands and subsequently use the bicep for pulling motions. Restore range of motion as fast as possible. Destroy scar tissue. That was it. EVERY DAY. And only recently have I arrived at a point where that isn’t the case. And that leaves me looking around, blinking in the glare of being back on the same plane as able-bodied people, trying to figure out what I am now. Because like with most traumatic events, when you go through it, you do not come out the same person. Whatever the size of the trauma, you probably changed.
I have had conversations with many people about this idea of trauma-change phases over the last few months. If it was a conversation with someone who had just met me, even though it would start out about the omnipresent arm, I would sometimes hear things about my past discussions of eating disorder experiences or ongoing body image navigation. And this constantly has bothered me, because my self-concept is more fiercely aligned with the emphasis on athlete first, every other aspect of my identity second than ever before. Very simply, when something you hold extremely valuable is threatened, nothing else fucking matters anymore. You don’t forget the fear and the frustration or what feels like suffocation, this complete inability to escape a reality you never wanted. Unless you drink some vodka. yeah…. I like to think that there’s this small divide between people in this sport who have had to have surgery for it and people who haven’t–and I mean specifically surgeries that arise because of lifting. They cause shifts, and those shifts look different from person to person, but they are shifts.
So I only know that when I go into the gym, I go into it with a body that basically works right, and that is how I understand my body right now. When I pick up a 25 with my right arm and toss it up to my bar as I warm up for squatting, the idea that I was incapable of doing so a few months ago flickers through my head EVERY SINGLE TIME. When I go to pick up 45 pound dumbbells to do some accessory work and do it with both arms, recognition of regained ability is instant and constant. When I carry freaking GROCERIES with my right arm or open a DOOR I remember. I didn’t choose to stop being preoccupied with self-image–my arm stopped it for me. It replaced that preoccupation with something a little more productive, for the moment anyway. Replacement works, whether self-induced or as the result of outside circumstances. Am I saying I don’t have awareness of my aesthetic “faults?” That I can’t pick myself apart into 50+ unacceptable pieces if pressed–and hey, nobody presses me on that one so that’s nice–or that I don’t decide not to wear something because ehhhhhh not flattering? No. But there’s this fluid scale of how much is too much, of how much is background noise and how much is emotionally crippling. I don’t spend entire days feeling vague horror and embarrassment at how I look anymore. I just don’t. And yes, I actually did, that’s not exaggeration. Maybe one of the eight thousand lessons of Armgate thus far has been to replace, not negate. I don’t know. Let’s go with it.