Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Where (Not Quite Spot On, but Trying) Feminist Theory and Free Weights Collide

The faces at the gym are starting to look familiar.

I've managed to workout at least three times a week, sometimes four, over the past month or so. The experience has proven to be richer than I expected. I am thrilled at the good I am doing for my body, how much better I've started to feel in such a short time. But subtle voices -- not my own but that have influenced my own -- are insisting on whispering to me, just loud enough for me to hear them over my iPod.

I haven't started running again since the shin splints. I still really want to become an established runner but I think I need to train for that once I've improved my overall fitness.

So! I've been developing a workout that involves 20 to 30 minutes of cardio and then a workout with weights. I think the combo of moderate cardio and weights will serve my body well. As I am approaching the ripe age of 35, the more concerned I am about building bone density. Now is the time for weight-bearing exercise, ladies! (Men, too. Get to it.) And to be honest, I really like how I feel after a bit of cardio and lifting. I like the sweat on my brow and the ache in my muscles. I feel like my body is working, like I am becoming better acquainted with it. Does that make sense?

A. has been helping me learn how to use the free weights and machines properly. I am so clueless in the weight room; I literally can't figure out how to mount half the machines. (Eh, mount.) If left to my own imagination, I am usually on the damn things backwards. I feel intimidated by all the giant, muscly men in the room, the particular smell of sweat. Hell - I feel intimidated because the machines, themselves, really do require mounting. Lordy. I don't like that this is how I respond to that room at all.

Why do I feel so inferior in this room? It is not just that I am out of shape (that contributes, sure). My uneasiness stems from the dominating, inculcating messages of what it means to be a woman, to be feminine that have been unceasingly directed at me -- and to every other woman. (Also to men. They have to be told what to expect and desire, after all.) I struggle with this, partly because I have also been told I am strong and capable because I am a woman (and not in spite of it) by my parents, my family and friends. The weight room has suddenly become the site of a schizophrenic shouting match. I try to confidently straddle the machines while screaming against the voice -- one of my own voices -- in my head that says: "Oh, my. That position is hardly flattering/lady-like/attractive. You look like an animal, not a woman."


But, there are things around me that reassure me, encourage me to get over it already. The mean, limiting, destructive voices of Supposed Femininity shall not prevail, dammit. There are always two or three other women using the weights and weight machines and that makes me happy. It also makes me oddly proud even though I don't know these women. A. always puts more weight on the machines that I think I can handle and then I move through my reps with strength and grace. Fuck you, Supposed Femininity.

What I am trying to say is this: While I am physically trying to get through my third set of reps, mentally I am fighting a difficult and trying battle against Heteronormative Bullshit. Bah.

As a friend says, COURAGE.

On top of my trying to deal with The Incessant Voice of (Supposed) Femininity in my head, I am also battling my reaction to The Unfortunate Run-in. I can't seem to shake it. And I fear, that it, too, stems from some fucked up idea I hold somewhere deep inside about femininity. (This, truly, is what freaks me out the most.) As I was doing some sideways sit-up thingies on the thing you bend forward on and then do a backwards sit-up with your back (do you know what I am talking about? Do you know what this contraption is called? Good grief.), looking awkward as all hell and concentrating on not falling out of the Backwards Sit-Up Thingie, my Former Thesis Advisor approached the machine next to me. I truly could not have appeared more awkward.

I immediately felt weak, frightened, and imposterish and wanted nothing more than to RUN AWAY.

I didn't finish my last round of reps. I didn't acknowledge that I'd seen him. I left the room and walked for 45 minutes on the track instead.

I haven't been back to the weight room since.

Just as I am plagued with what it means to be a Female Body, I struggle with what it means to be a Female Mind. The overarching patriarchal nature of Academia leaves me frightened and intimidated. I am still in a muddle here, and I don't know how to further explain where I am. I am sure I'll write about it more, but for now, it is enough that I acknowledge this.

I hate that this is how I feel, how I think.

But, I am determined to push on. You can't kick the ass of something you can't see, right? I will go to the gym tonight and I will climb on to those machines. I will watch myself in the mirror as I lift free weights, watching and correcting my form. I will not look away. I will try to recognize when the Bad Voices are taking over my mind and I will tell them to shut up. And then I will free my mind. I will say hello to Former Thesis Advisor, and I will look him in the eye. I will not look away.



  1. I completely and totally relate. And it pisses me off too.

    The very last time I was in a weight room at a gym was more that 6 years ago when a very well intentioned man came over and explained that I had my positioning wrong. He very nicely showed me how to correct it, I then thanked him and never returned to the weight room again. There was something about how it made me feel - stupid, weak, embarrassed - that I don't want to experience again. And yet, he was very nice and I'm sure he didn't intend to make me feel awkward.

    It's always nice to hear that other people share what one considers embarrassing feelings - thank you.

  2. This is so GREAT. Love it.

    First, of all YOU ARE NOT ALONE in this, at all. I work out at my workplace, where I know most everyone and am in a position of authority over many of them, AND I am fit and have been going to the gym for years, and STILL I feel intimidated and Nervous Tummied and like running away.

    Yesterday I was going to use a 20 lb bar, and there were a couple of beefcake dudes chatting in the area where they keep the bars, and so I DID'T DO IT. I was too afraid to go over there and insert myself and get the equipment I wanted.

    SIGH. Courage, indeed.

  3. I really loved this post - so well written.

    I really hate using machines where I don't know what the hell I'm supposed to do, or if I'm using the bare minimum for weights. I feel like everyone's watching or critiquing my form.

    BUT, I feel powerful and confident if I'm using something with a ton of weight or doing pushups with perfect form.

    I think everything I feel stems from my own confidence. Even if someone comes over to show me "the proper way," I thank them and use it to my advantage. I actually think guys are impressed when women are in the gym and might be a little intimidated themselves. That, and they like helping women. :)

    And then I watch the too-muscled guys lift their super-heavy weight ONE TIME and laugh to myself as I do my 3 sets of 15.

  4. I love this post! You and I have very similar workout routines. It took me forever to work up the courage to try the weight machines because I thought I'd be doing them all wrong, but it turned out that they had very useful instructions with diagrams right there on the machines. And I feel so much better since I started working out regularly again. Even though it's only been a few weeks.

    Go you! Courage!

  5. LOVE this post.

    i'm 1/2 and 1/2 on this. if i know how to use the machine - or even better, can use free weights for a particular exercise and know i have correct form - i feel SO EMPOWERED. i LOVE that it's mostly guys, and here i am doing it too, and if some guy from work showed up i would totally get a rush because BOOYA, CHECK ME OUT BEING AWESOME WITH WEIGHTS, HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW??

    but then if it's something i'm even REMOTELY not confident about, i'll shy away from it 100% of the time. like if i wanted to try a new weight, or a new motion, or a new machine - totally wouldn't, not if i were alone. frustratingly, i'd do it if i had a (guy) workout partner there with me to show me / spot me.


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