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.

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Some Card Metaphor

Enlight29

I am not a good card player. Many times I have sat in proximity to my brother at a table filled with friends or family and lit by an overhead light and listened to his incredulous outbursts of “Janis, I LITERALLY just saw your card.” And Joel could see the card I was about to play not because I was physically incapable of keeping it close but more because I just didn’t really care about whether or not someone knew my hand. And this was probably sourced in the fact that card games do not hold my attention. So too does the world of competitive powerlifting have a limited ability to hold my attention or me hostage. Any time I have felt the creeping sense that I am under too much control by external forces that without a doubt do not have more than a very passing interest in my actions in this sport, I change course.

So let me show and/or play my cards now, to the very few who have an interest in my actions. In five days as of this writing I was scheduled to do a meet. Over a series of weeks from when I signed up for this meet to now, I “entered” and withdrew from the meet several times, at least mentally. Physically, I am in okay shape to compete. Mentally, as usual, as with all people who are not robots, I identified cracks in my intent. Where the body is ready to be piloted, the mind is usually far less pliant. As is no secret because, again, I don’t really keep my cards very close, the last year and a half has not been all that easy for me, and the last eight or so months in particular have not. So while I was convinced of my ability to go and physically do a meet, I knew mentally was probably another story. And so I chose not to, and I only bring my official withdrawal from a meet into this blog post because it is an important precursor to where I will be trying to go from here.

And I want to write a blog post about that because I feel like what I am thinking about and how I am thinking about it–I just don’t see discussion of this that often. I also see a lot of people who are so entrapped by “supposed to” and “should” that they are unable to write their own rules within the boundaries of an activity that isn’t going to serve them that well if they don’t take on more responsibility for understanding how it functions in their lives. So, here we go, here’s me talking MORE about my quest to figure out what is best for my body in context of this sport. Oh my god I KNOW, I ALWAYS talk about this, man do I have issues. Except the body is never static, and my navigation of this sport and my body and my body image and my physical health is far different than it was four years ago, four months ago, whatever. The less I stop and ask myself what I’m actually doing, the more autopilot I try to keep myself in so I can execute this number in this weight class, the worse things tend to go. So, here we go, let’s talk about where I’m at with things right now and what it might mean for what I do in this sport.

I am the leanest I have ever been at about 140 pounds at the moment. If I take an honest look at my frame and where I am filled out and where I am not and consider average height ranges within the various weight classes, a lot is coming together that suggests to me that I probably am going to stay the healthiest and sanest and happiest the longest by allowing myself to compete in the 148 weight class. Now, let’s take a look at the word I just used, and did not edit–allowed. It speaks of someone critically aware of standards and rules and established norms, someone whose very rhetoric is colored by these guides. What I will tell you is that I, like many women around my size, sit in this uncomfortable no man’s land that is the “between 132 and 148” classes. I will also tell you that I am VASTLY undersized as a “competitive” 148. But here’s what’s more critical, and can be looked at a weakness if someone is inclined to see things this way: I am extremely aware of my history as someone with eating disorders and living the kind of life that asks me to be aware of my weight in the way the 132 class would ask me to is something I am both unwilling to do as well as don’t believe will best serve me physically in the sport in the long run. Do we even need to go into how mentally problematic it would be? That of all the issues suppressing my weight for 132 would raise, that it would be nearly stupid for me to dangle my past addictions on a wire before me, their glitter impossible to ignore and not enough of a warning against the sharp edge hidden beneath that diamond glow–do I need to flesh that out further? At this point, if you’ve followed me long enough, I sort of hope not. I do not fit myself inside of someone else’s box or standard or ideal. Mine are painful enough to get in and out of.

And so I just let go. Not of training, which is all I care about. All I care about is that I can train. All I care about is that I get better. I could not live without this, not easily. But I don’t give a fuck about how well I do in this sport. I can compete sometimes but what I’ve learned by being in multiple top rankings in multiple weight classes, having two totals on Soong’s list, having broken two all time world records, is that no one gives a FUCK about any of what you do with that. I have said it over and over and over. I will say it again. It gets you NOTHING. And so I am, in a sense, back at a sort of start. Because I am so undersized and poorly developed as a 148 lifter, I really don’t know when I will be competitive in that class. Where I had some thin, dry laurels to rest on before, now I have nothing but a field of dirt mixed with some fertilizer. I am nothing, I have no hidden cards, there is no pressure on me. All I have are my instincts, which have done pretty well for me so far. Looks like it’s about to be the season of the witch.

We Don’t Need Protection

Enlight4

I am going to go ahead and talk about something I’m not supposed to talk about–marriage. I’m not supposed to talk about marriage because I am getting a divorce. I suppose it would have been okay for me to talk about marriage were I still contentedly married, but once things cross into the territory of legal dissolution, me bringing up anything related to marriage is me bringing up something far too many people have far too much experience with, and this experience is largely uncomfortable. Well, as you might know if you’ve followed me for two months or two years or my entire life (hi Dad, I know you’re reading this), I don’t balk at making people uncomfortable if I believe some good might come out of it.

So here’s a small part of the reality of my now-defunct marriage, and it is entirely on me. It’s not even ABOUT the volatility that surrounds divorce guys, jeez. In fact, this goes back further than my marriage. A key point of my background that informs why I relate to powerlifting the way I do is the fact that I have never been involved in a subculture so misogynistic–I come from a liberal city and my education was largely made up of attendance at liberal schools. University of Wisconsin, Madison is pretty freaking progressive. Same with the University of Iowa. When I did grad school in Iowa I lived literally around the corner from a very well-attended gay bar. From my first-floor window in that same apartment I got to watch Iowa City’s gay pride parade multiple years in a row. I lived in an insular little bubble where it was NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT to be a dick to women, minorities, minorities who were women, people with fluid gender identities, etc. Of course it happened all around me all the time–like on the street, on the bus, at parties, at bars–but I lived under the impression that everyone around me and most people I came into contact with were Scared To Death of making a politically correct conduct misstep in more official situations like, you know, class or the professional world. Then, I got into powerlifting.

I was immediately in love with it. As with most things I fall in love with that aren’t people, because doing the following to someone you fall in love with isn’t something I’d recommend but I bet a bunch of us have made this mistake, I completely immersed myself in it 24/7, digging up as much content as I could about any aspect of it. I read articles. I started learning about lifters–the ones who had been part of the really early years of the sport, and more typically the really heavy hitters at the time. And the third thing I did quite a bit of, and this is where things get as interesting as I suppose this post is going to get, is go on message boards and lurk. I went principally on the cesspool of lifting humanity that is bodybuilding.com’s message boards and still have an account there, gross. My favorite board to frequent was Outlaw powerlifting, which still exists in exactly the same form as it did over five years ago, bravo guys, way to build a brand. On both of these message boards as well as within some in-person interaction I had in relation to gym culture and the sport, I found that I was thought of as a second-class citizen by many of the men within the subculture in question. This was subtly as well as not so subtly suggested. The more “alone with the other guys” the conversations I was around were, the more problematic the discussion of women involved in lifting often was. Problematic is probably a really nice way to put this, to be honest. I walked away from my first year of learning about powerlifting completely changed in terms of how I saw the concept of equality and how it worked between men and women.

If you’re a man reading this and you are finding a sense of defensiveness growing in your gut, I’m fine with that. I do not need to be agreed with or liked by anyone. I know that I am not alone in my impressions, and these impressions are at the foundation of what is now catapulting a movement into growing strength and size. So let’s return to my marriage, since I brought that up and made everyone so uncomfortable in the first place. I distinctly remember that all I wanted–and all I still want, as a far more accomplished competitor now than at the beginning of all of this–was to be taken seriously in the sport as an athlete. If I accomplished the same grade of achievement as as man, I wanted to be considered in the same way as him. And here is where the sad part lies. I was in a relationship at the beginning of my lifting career and I was thankful for it because it meant that I was not on the market, so to speak, to be pursued or as aggressively objectified and considered as a sexual object. I reasoned: people would take stock of me, what I had to say, and the athletic feats I had made, and very simply, my unavailability as a potential sexual partner would mean that those things would not fall second to my fuckability. I would be taken seriously. I resented the idea that being with a man would mean I would be taken seriously, but my understanding of lifting culture said that this is what it would take to be taken seriously, and that is all I ever wanted. My all-time world record is the same as this guy’s all-time world record. My ranking is the same as this guy’s same ranking. And when I got married, even though some disillusionment had set in and begun to erode my convictions about how to get some goddamned respect, seriously guys how hard is this, I thought I had doubly fortified myself against being thought of as a second-class citizen because I was now LEGALLY no longer officially on the “potentially can fuck” market. Scarrrrrry.

All I can say is that my experience between initially, desperately forming the conviction that being in a relationship would relieve me of being met on an unequal plane as others and now has shown me that I was wrong. And I am thankful that I am wrong and that it doesn’t take something so close to “ownership” in this case as being in a relationship, particularly with a man, to “protect” a woman from all of the deeply imbedded inequality that exists TODAY within women’s lifting as well as it exists TODAY within our culture at large. And there are a myriad of ways that this inequality manifests and ultimately it ends in a pervasive, overwhelming amount of inappropriate, disrespectful conduct towards women in the sport. And I’m going to talk about it in the coming weeks. And the coming months. I’m going to comment on it for as long as it’s going on. This is my preface. My marriage was not protection, and it should not have been protection. Women in this sport do not need protection. They need respect, to be considered first as human beings before their gender identity, and this is one of the hardest concepts for a good proportion of our sport to grasp. I’m not going to “let it go” because I am not a part of the majority and this is “what I should expect” for being a woman in this sport. I have never accepted this, and it seems that I will have to be loud about not accepting it once again as various volatile, reprehensible, often downright disgusting situations continue to reveal themselves as they have in the past weeks. Women do not need protection, we should not need protection, and anyone who thinks otherwise is part of a deeply entrenched problem.