In Honor of Chyna And Selfies

I don’t know film. I don’t know how to describe why the image quality of a TV show looks different than that of a big budget movie looks different than that of a Hallmark channel miniseries–but I know they all have a different visual quality. I mean, I know HD exists, so there’s that. So when I see a clip of WWE’s former female fighter icon Chyna striding across the screen towards the ring, I recognize that clip as depicting a woman with actual muscle on what looks like an actual major television production. The color, the saturation of it, the sharpness, the frame rate. Something makes seeing Chyna’s broad frame captured forever on film a really big deal for me. And it was, years ago, when I saw clips of her in commercials as a child. That was all the exposure I ever remember getting to the WWE–in my household, we didn’t really “do” that. But I saw her, this not-frail, mean-looking, growling warrior of a woman. And something resonated very deep within me and settled in for a long ride up til yesterday, the day I learned Joanie Laurer had died. 

Because the thing is, very rarely are women with appreciable amounts of muscle like Chyna sported in her WWE career on TV or movies–period. In televised sports, maybe, although that is still a rarity because the number of sports where it make sense for a woman to either have an appreciable amount of lean mass or be exposed appreciably while having a lot of lean mass that are actually televised widely are few to none. Having crossed into territory where almost no strength sports classify me as a “lightweight” in the light, middle, or heavyweight scale, the amount I feel my body type or size is represented in media is basically zero. I have realized this before and silenced the realization before I really allowed it to take hold because how dare I suggest that I, a white woman, am underrepresented? Then I remembered–and it would be good for the reader to remember this too–there is a difference between representation and marginalization and discrimination. And I feel like I can make a pretty strong case that women REGARDLESS of ethnicity who have significant amounts of muscle–PARTICULARLY in their upper bodies–are very, very seldom represented much less idealized in media. I mean any media. Indie films? Lol no. Reality TV? No. Soap operas? No. Movies? Also no. 

And spare me the “well this one time Jessica Biel got a lot of press for having some muscle” because I remember this because I’m old and I went off on a Google search for this and searching through the “Jessica Biel arms” image bank I pulled really didn’t impress me. Like, if this is what I’m supposed to consider significant amounts of upper body muscle–and I chose this image because it appears to be a more candid/I’m a fan taking a candid picture of this chick while she’s autographing stuff and it’s not photoshopped–then I say we all pack it in with this argument now. 

  
Now, I feel like I shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer–I’M NOT DISPARAGING HOW BIEL LOOKS. Dude, she looks great, yay! Ok! Let’s move on. I’m saying that if this is the best we can do in terms of representing a female body that has SERIOUSLY developed muscle, then it is no wonder women are turning to the phenomenon of the selfie to create their own damned ideals. 

That’s right, I said it. I think selfies aren’t always just a sign that the people taking them are vain bored shitheads. My theory on The Selfie, and I think there are actual scholarly theories that champion roughly this same argument, is that a lot of us are just trying to depict ourselves in a way that creates the ideal we don’t see, well, anywhere. Sure, I see it in other selfies. I see women that sort of look like me in supplement advertisements, but not really, because haha I don’t have implants and I am not that lean right now and my shoulders are REALLY wide and my hips are REALLY narrow and I just don’t really ever see anyone who’s posed as an “ideal” who is proportioned like that. Well, I mean, I guess guys are. So I, a female human who definitely identifies as a woman on the gender as well as biological sex side of things, get a lot of feedback that the way my body is shaped aligns me closest to, uh, a guy. And I’m not a guy. I’m a woman and I have enormous shoulders and huge stupid biceps and it’s like I have to make a case for fitting into a female ideal that I don’t fit into by, I guess, shrinking? Or changing my bone lengths? Because I can put a dress on this shit and those things aren’t going to change and it’s just going to look like a woman who has more things going that fit into a male ideal than a popularized female ideal. So…I guess I’m going to take selfies so I can have a tiny little collection of images on my Instagram that show a world where someone other than Gal Gadot gets cast as Wonder Woman.  

I have always, always felt like a freak. When I was younger, I had a condition that basically resulted in my bones growing much slower than the rest of my body developed, which meant that for a few years during elementary and middle school I was extremely short. Short to the point where my parents took me to the doctor to see what was wrong with me. People would toss me around for fun on the playground–I remember being unceremoniously dropped on the pavement during more than one of these “Janis is a rag doll, let’s play with her” episodes. In high school, I developed severe anorexia and walked around looking like Golem AKA the freak from Lord of the Rings. I started lifting later in college and transitioned into this brand of freak. I have never not been a freak, I have never seen myself echoed in some ideal in a movie or a show or an album cover or an advertisement–ANYWHERE. Well, actually, there was the time with the one boyfriend where he told deeply anorexic Janis that I had this “eating disorder physique” a lot of girls would kill [themselves] for.” That was a pretty concrete message that I refer back to periodically today. 

So sometimes I take selfies and marvel at how I’m the only person who can take a photograph of me that I don’t hate. I used to think this was some sort of sorcery, like I was picking the parts of reality I liked best and pastiching them together into a fragile delusional world where just one ugly image in some party candid would have me facing the actual reality of my looks–and I was at least somewhat right about that. But I now think that selfies might be one of few ways I have of taking how I look and forcing my own ideal into being with it. I own the content. I place the content where I choose. I understand that once an image is online it is there for people to repost, reuse, pick apart, link to, save, jack off to, whatever. But I put it there first. And I PUT IT THERE. That image of broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, breastless, monster-backed Janis is adding yet another dimension to the overwhelming fray of visual culture. And if I knew that doing so would have the same kind of impact as seeing Chyna, way back at something like eight years old on a television screen and then seeing her again yesterday would have on someone else who feels lack of representation as it had on me, being accused of vanity and narcissism and whatever else would be worth it. RIP Chyna, and here is my fucking huge bicep. 

  

Not Being a Hypocrite. 

“What’s boiling again? Is that 212?” Glaring into a pot of water sitting on my stove, I try to remember anything regarding chemistry. Google says that yes, it’s 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and I ignore how pathetic it is that this is something I need to look up. The water flows up to the boiling point, I adjust it back down slightly, and turn a bottle of black liquid over the simmering pot. There is going to be change. Or there is going to be change and then disaster. I pick up the singlet I broke a world record in, soak it under the faucet as the bottle’s directions dictate, and lower its black and neon-colored mass into the now-dark liquid. This action will either start the singlet towards assuming a new, totally black identity, or it will slowly degrade the fabric’s fiber to the point where the garment is stretched out beyond usability.

I compete again in two weeks. It doesn’t occupy my mind much. I don’t know if this is because I am just not concerned about it in any way or if it’s because I am very good at coming up with things about myself to feel bad about and better at spending time dwelling on them. I think the reason lies somewhere between the two options; I am at once very content to trust my body and my training in relation to how I will perform at this meet and constantly looking for small, less significant ways to invalidate myself.

If you follow me on social media you’ll have seen me fairly regularly referring to my shift in weight class recently. I have spoken on this topic frequently, expressing dismay at finding out some lifter cut water or physical weight to make a weight class at their first or second meet. This is old news, and those who are at all familiar with my involvement in this sport and my journey through it–as of April 1st, my time in this sport and doing major barbell work is four years–know that I have again and again advocated not holding your weight down for competition. So I was going to do this upcoming meet at 132, and weeks ago now decided against it because at a very deep gut-level I can tell that 148 is a more appropriate weight class for me for the future. In other words, I refuse to be a hypocrite, and I refuse not to practice what I so vehemently preach.

What I resent is my automatic sense of shame/the defensiveness that rises within me when I assert this choice and act on it. The shame and the defensiveness come from a sense of my position in the sport’s community and they are a response to perceived values said community holds. They are not positive, but they are feelings, and there’s no real use negating them. Acknowledging them is what’s going to be best here, and that is what I’m doing now. So let’s break this down, by the facts, by the numbers, whatever:

 

The last time I competed was in August of 2015. I competed at 123. I cut to 123 from a bodyweight of 131 pounds.

After that meet my bodyweight went up to around 135-137. I embraced this post-meet time period as one in which I would work on some lagging areas. I did. My weight went up to into the 140’s, partially because I had never planned on staying at 123.

I started to cut down to 140 to make 132 for this upcoming meet.

I stopped because it didn’t feel right.

My gut instinct, which has not once failed me in relation to handling my body in this sport yet and has led me to multiple successes, said that something wasn’t right, and that something else was, and I listened to it.

At a little over 5’2″, I believe 148 is a much more sustainable weight class for me in the long-term. I am only interested in the long-term.

 

I am not interested in writing about what I think I will do. I don’t need to. I don’t need to tell anyone what I will do, because I will just do it and then everyone will know. So you can draw whatever conclusions, say I’m going to hit whatever numbers, say I’m a fool, say I should make a stop again at 132, and it doesn’t matter, because I know what I will do eventually because it is my body and I have not been wrong yet about what to do with it.

Is it easy? No. Five years ago I would have been horrified at the idea I would weigh 145 pounds at any point in my life. Ten years ago I would have possibly just tried to kill myself over it. Melodramatic? Absolutely. There is nothing rational about the brain of an anorexic. There is a reason there is such a high death rate among that population. And it’s probably the 19 year-old Janis that has echoed back to me recently, an old horror bouncing back and forth between 2006 and 2016, one that I have felt truly haunted by for weeks now.

What I write on this–whenever I do–lays me bare to the criticism of others. I have been called a social justice warrior, weak, more self-hating than anyone the speaker has ever met, annoying, body-image obsessed. I know what it means to put myself out there like this. I know what it invites, I know what judgment looks like. I also know that the people I admire most in this sport–and elsewhere in life–are the ones who are strong enough to place themselves in vulnerability. Because if I say it first, if I tell my own story, it can’t be told by anyone else. You can say whatever you want in reaction. The first person first-person is there now.

You can also tell me that I shouldn’t care what everyone or anyone else thinks, and–this is always the second part of this axiom–I should do what I want to do. I hear this a lot. My two responses to this are: I operate in a community. I wouldn’t compete at powerlifting if I didn’t want to engage in a social setting in relation to what I train for. I don’t believe I act in a vacuum. I don’t believe anyone who says they don’t either. I care about helping other people. I care about telling people they are not alone. Because I am not alone in what I feel and what I am describing, and I have the guts to talk about it.

My second response is that I have the guts to act in a way that IS doing what I want to do. I have done it before, I have followed through, I have accomplished, and I have done it again. I will do it again. I am doing it now, because I choose to compete at 148. I am talking about it now, and I will talk about it again. And this makes me strong. I am allowed to have reservations, to have doubts, to be afraid, to feel insecure, and still ultimately be strong. I am stronger because I fucking acknowledge them. I am strong because I put myself in a position many aren’t willing to put themselves in.

Once rinsed out, the singlet looked stretched beyond wearability. I held it up in dismay, realizing the boiling must have broken down the fabric, or maybe it was the dye, or maybe both. I hung it up with a sense it might dry back down to normal size. I came back to it the next day. It had dried, it had survived the shift to black, and I will wear it in two weeks.