Strength, Part 2: Taking Up Space

A woman makes a small muscle with her right bicep.
Photo by Rebecca Trynes via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I’ve been doing workouts lately using a wonderful website, Fitness Blender. They have a bunch of free videos, everything from gentle stretching to what the instructors, Daniel and Kelli, term a “sweatfest.” I’ve been using the site for about 8 months, and am especially into their 30-minute cardio and strength training videos.

Kelli and Daniel are the antithesis of the stereotypical workout Barbie and Ken dolls. They’re buff, yet human and welcoming. They joke around with each other, and occasionally their dog starts barking off-screen.

Kelli mentioned in one video that a lot of women are afraid of strength training. They’re worried they’ll bulk up, get huge, look masculine.

She explained that lifting a reasonable amount of weight will tone your muscles, not cause you to become a Schwarzenegger clone. Then she added something like, “And if you do get bigger, so what? Women are supposed to be tiny and helpless? I don’t think so!”

*

Yet I often see women minimizing themselves.

Guys spread their legs wide enough to take up three seats on the subway. Women scrunch away from them, cutting their eyes and sighing but not telling the guys directly to bring their knees back into their own space.

(For a brilliant analysis of this cultural phenomenon, see the Saving Room for Cats Tumblr.)

I just took a self-defense class with about 35 women, ranging in age from 19 to 78. One of the main components was yelling verbal commands, such as “No!” and “Get back!” Yelling these things (not screaming, but really bellowing them) can cause a potential assailant to seek out an easier target.

But the women in my group had a hard time yelling. “No,” they’d say to the instructor, batting away his hand. “Speak up, ladies,” the instructors kept telling us.

We’re so terrified of sounding stupid, or drawing attention to ourselves, that we’d rather get hurt.

I have my moments of minimizing myself, biting my tongue, smiling when I don’t want to.

And I just bought a new and bigger set of dumbbells for my workouts. Every time I do a rep, I think about strength, and about taking up space.

*

If you’re curious about Fitness Blender, a good place to start is with their Free 5-Day Workout Challenge for Busy People. If you try it, let me know what you think!

Strength, Part 1: Hard Versus Strong

A woman stands with a man flexing his arms behind her, so that it looks like his arms are growing out of her shoulders.
Image
by vaibhav ahuja via Creative Commons on Flickr.

On a series I just watched, the main character’s mom criticizes her adult daughter’s cold way of speaking to her family. “You’re very hard,” the mom says. “You think it’s strength. It’s not the same thing.”

In our culture, we often use hard and strong interchangeably. For men, being able to get an erection (“get hard”) is equated with being a real man—with strength. We describe people with strong muscles using metaphors from machinery and car racing: someone is “torqued” or “ripped,” and their belly is a “six-pack” (all imagery relating to hard objects, from a race car to beer cans).

So what’s the difference between hard and strong, emotionally speaking?

If you’re genuinely a hard person, you don’t care for others, or even register when your words or actions cause them pain. You shield your own wounds by numbing yourself. You build walls that keep you safe, and keep others away.

Strength, on the other hand, involves vulnerability. The researcher Brené Brown has made the study of vulnerability her life’s work. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes enlightenment as the slow, repetitive process of taking our armor off.

What can we do when we feel the world hardening us?

How can we keep taking off our armor, when others carry such sharp and stealthy weapons?

No answers here, people. Just stuff I’m thinking over, in these days of a terrifying presidential race, when nothing’s true unless you tag it with the correct emoji, and the air is thick with the ferric odor of irony.*

Over the next few posts, I’m going to be sorting through some ideas about the various ways people can be strong. Chime in if you have ideas. We all need all the help we can get.

*I shoplifted those last 5 words from the Stephen King novel The Dark Half.

My New Wheels

A blue women's street bike parked on pavement by some grass
Photo by Anya Weber.

Biking in Boston can be scary. Every year or two, someone gets killed because a car opens its doors into the bike lane. Or because they take a nasty spill and aren’t wearing a helmet.

But biking also means freedom from the lurch and delay of the T. It means a cool breeze even in the worst humidity. It means rewiring my brain to understand how different parts of the city connect to each other.

After 5 years without a bike, I decided to access that freedom and pleasure again. I bought my new ride off a bright and fearless high school student who’s upgrading to a mountain bike. “Are you planning to race?” she asked me.

Nahh. Competition isn’t my goal. Exploration is.

I just moved to Quincy, and I don’t know it well at all. After only a few days out on my bike, I’m forming a clearer picture of what’s around me.

I even biked to the beach!

And I’m joining Quincycles, which advocates for better access for cyclists to all parts of our city, and leads bike tours to neighboring communities.

Blue women's street bike with person's shadow
Photo by Anya Weber.

Summer is a time for expansion, and for delight. This bike is my vehicle to both. So happy that I have her, and a safe place to keep her.

I also want to name her. Any suggestions?

Back in Business

Woman standing in field of tall grass
Photo by Brian Tomlinson via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I put this blog on ice for a while, while I did some thinking about what I want it to become.

This started out as a venue for writing about being childfree. But it was never purely that. It included book and movie reviews, dating advice, and random meditations on singlehood and other topics.

I fell prey to a common issue: feeling like a fraud. I felt like this website had to be about something in particular in order to have value.

I’m still feeling unsure about where this site is going. But my brain hasn’t felt quite right since I stopped writing these posts/essays/whatever they are.

So, this summer, I’m giving this site another shot. Who knows? Maybe my words will get herded in a particular direction, becoming purely one thing or another. Maybe the blog’s name will change.

Maybe it’ll continue to be a patchwork, at least for a while.

Anyway, thanks for hanging in there, old timers, and welcome, newbies. If you’re a long-time reader and enjoyed a particular topic I used to cover, let me know in the comments. I’ll see if I can whip up something tasty for you.