There’s this book of idioms I got for my birthday one year called “I’m not hanging noodles on your ears.” It’s got goofy phrases from around the world that quite sharply contrast cultural differences. The only one I still remember is “you’ve got thighs like banana tree trunks”, a way to tell a woman she’s hot in some places where Hindi is spoken. I remember reading that at the time and thinking, well that’s great, but who wants fat thighs, anyways?
I am very aware of my body in Chile. For someone who mostly expresses as female-gendered, my body is well above average in size. I’m at eye level for the tallest guys here, and I haven’t been skinny enough for a thigh gap since sophomore year of high school. Sometimes I like the way my body is, and sometimes I don’t. It sucks to be catcalled because I am a white woman. It also sucks to feel inconveniently massive beside all those petite gymnast types I took trapeze classes with. It’s annoying to ride on the micro busses when they’re full, because I have to ride with my knees jammed into the seat in front of me instead of tossing them to the side and taking up two spots. On days when I’m feeling bad about myself, I pine a bit for that sophomore year thigh gap when none of my clothes sizes were large, just extra long. I’ve learned to stop myself now, though, mid-pine, and get a handle on myself. And you know what’s helped me get there? Women with muscle.
Women in our societies are taught to disappear. Talk quietly. Smile, don’t get angry. Glorify anorexia. Cross your legs, because God forbid that you’re knees take up more space than is strictly necessary. A loud, opinionated woman is a bitch. A loud, opinionated guy is a man. With the size female mannequins are getting, you might as well just show the clothes on a collection of 2-inch PVC pipes stuck together. What remains of the female body is an object in the public domain. To be touched, whistled at, used for sexual gratification, whatever society gets into its collective head. Ok, this is getting more rant-like than I like to do here. I digress.
So, the problem is that women are made to be and feel and act small. So what better way to fight back than be unapologetically big?
In my last post on strong women, I talked a lot about love being a strength. Well, I’m here now to talk about some buff women I know who are fighting the patriarchy (whether they know it or not). They go way back.
If you know my grandma, you know that she looks almost hilariously tiny beside my 6’8″ dad (more hilariously tiny than other people, I should say). She may look tiny, but she’s mighty. How many women do you know from her generation who were PE teachers and sports fanatics? And I’m not talking about the spectators, here, I’m talking about the players. I’ve lost track of all the sports she played as a kid, but at an age when most grandmas I know of are just kind of moseying along or content with weekly geriatric water aerobics, she canoes and kayaks all summer long, skis and shovels all winter, walks, and does her exercises EVERY morning. Damn! She’s been a wonderful support to me, too, in my physical pursuits, always encouraging me when I say I’m back in the gym, nudging gently when I relapse.
Both of my aunts were competitive swimmers. Both. One became an arborist, which is not a job for the faint of heart or the weak of bicep. The other became an engineer, but for many years white-water kayaked on the weekends, not a sport for the faint of heart or weak of lung. I guess both of them kind of have a lot of shot joints, one aunt between crew and swimming, the other between swimming and tree-caring, but they sure as heck haven’t let that get in their way more than strictly necessary.
She’s not related to me, but I think I can count Becky Kasper, the mom of a two friends from high school, as another inspiration. She was there in the high school’s gym every afternoon. This was (is) your typical high school gym, full of a lot of football players and wrestlers in their respective off seasons, pretty much all guys, showing off, raising and lowering metal bars well-adorned with more metal to increase the size of various body parts. There were a lot of weird protein shakes people would swig from, and sometimes you heard talk of steroids. A lot of swagger, not always a lot of actual action. But there was Mrs. Kasper, every day, just killing it on the elliptical. And other things. But I think what impressed me most was the elliptical. Because it’s kind of hard to be intense on the elliptical, but she managed it. Every day. No off season.
What I love about these women in my life is the way they’ve shown me to take back the power in my body. And the cool thing is that the more time I spend taking it back, the greater the power becomes. And I’m not just talking about physical strength, here, although that’s convenient at times. Moving in the gym makes me happy. Feeling all those bones and tendonds and muscles working together to lift a heavy thing, or even better myself, is joyful. What I see when I look in the mirror after 20 minutes of continuous abs or a turn on the squat machine is not the existence or lack thereof of a thigh gap, but raw energy, the take-back of power.
There’s another thing I’ve noticed, too. At the gym I started going to halfway through my time in Brazil, the trainer kept on giving me all of these upper body exercises to do. Deltoids, trapezius, tricep, bicep, lat pulldowns, you name it. I realized that the upper-body narrative fit well with the ways that men are encouraged to weight train. You’re only a man if you’ve got visible muscle!, society seems to scream at them. And there’s nothing more visible than a sculpted bicep poking out of a tank top. That wasn’t really my goal, though. Ok, so I do like being able to poke at my bicep and not feel mush, but what I craved were squats and lots of hip strengtheners. I know there’s a lot of sort of mystical power associated with the uterus and stuff in women, and I realized that while I may not completely buy into all that, strong legs and hips keeping me standing straight were more important to me than non-gooey upper arms. I realized that I wanted to take back the narrative that says that size = strength, that visible strength = absolute strength. For me, I am as strong as I feel, and I feel strong killing it on the squat machine.
I hope that with time, I will find a place within myself that doesn’t need me to be a particular size or shape to feel like it can be fully happy. In the meantime, please excuse me while I go work on those banana tree legs.