I was wrong (Guest post)

Last year, as my 40th birthday disappeared in my rear-view mirror, driven by a combination of vanity and fear of my own mortality and decrepitude, I committed to getting in shape. I’ve always been fairly active: I have always walked a lot, commuted by bike when that was plausible, and just generally been high-energy. I’ve always avoided driving whenever possible.

But a childhood full of failure at team sports and a lack of innate gifts in the coordination department scared me off of formal physical activity for decades. Indeed, I was convinced that I hated working out – that I would always hate it, no matter what, and that it would take a tremendous and ongoing act of sheer will power to do it.

One year ago today, I posted on facebook about how much I hated it, and defended the permanence and context-invariance of my hatred against comment after comment from friends who were trying to be helpful. This guest post is a kind of personal anniversary celebration, as well as a very public admission that I was totally wrong.

I have always been deeply uncomfortable in spaces that are specifically gendered female. In general, I am more at home in male-dominated spaces. For example, I am a philosophy professor. Philosophers worry a lot about how male-dominated the discipline is, and I share this important concern, but at a personal, visceral level, the gendering of philosophy spaces has always made me more rather than less comfortable. Even more acutely, it turns out, I prefer physical activities that are generally gendered male, and I am much more comfortable training with and around men than women.

As a feminist, however, I felt shame about my preference for male spaces for many years; it seemed to me to be a betrayal of my values. It took me a long time to really absorb the idea that we are all complexly gendered: some men feel more comfortable in feminine clothing; some women feel more comfortable with a masculine chest; and I feel more comfortable training my body in masculinized spaces and ways. This is not, I finally realized, a betrayal of feminism, a compromise of my female identity, or indeed any kind of normatively evaluable fact about me.

But for a long time, failure to grasp all this and a lack of imagination thwarted my various attempts to ‘start working out.’ I would occasionally try a yoga or aerobics or pilates class or something and feel deeply alienated; then I wouldn’t do anything for a couple of years. I now see this as a vivid example of how gender norms can limit our imagination, both through inculcating shame and through stifling creativity. When I was shown a few powerlifts in the gym, I discovered serendipitously that I love exercise when – and only when – it is a testosterone-driven outlet for aggression in a yoga-pants-free environment.

This discovery transformed me. Today, I box about 6 hours a week, run four miles a day most days, strength train three times a week, and am getting ready for my first powerlifting competition (in the under-105-pound masters’ class) in March. I ride my bike about 100 miles a week, and I’ve recently started dabbling in parkour. I’ve put on a ton of muscle and my body fat is around 16%.

RK boxing

I am interested in how different my relationship is with each of my main physical activities.

I bike as my primary mode of transportation, to socialize, and sometimes to relax and give my intellect a break; biking does not feel like exercise to me and I am completely noncompetitive about it. Getting on my bike is like hanging out with a dear and familiar childhood friend.

I basically despise running, but I know it is good for my cardio health and overall conditioning. I feel like I ought to be able to force myself to do some things that I hate, so I run partly because I hate it, to test my will regularly. As with biking, I have no competitive goals when it comes to running. I am content to survive it.

Powerlifting is the first physical activity I have ever truly excelled at, and it’s a huge rush for me. I lift two or three times a week, working with a personal trainer. Lifting makes me feel powerful and in command of my body and competitive like nothing I have ever experienced. This is the one physical activity I do where I am really working towards specific goals, which makes for a very distinctive kind of working out. Here’s me deadlifting twice my body weight:

I box about five hours a week, often with a private coach. I box because it pushes me to my limits on every front. Coordination, speed, strength, flexibility, endurance; boxing requires all of it and I love the challenge. I also love giving my aggressive side an unfettered outlet. But honestly, I think that what I love most about boxing is being included (however peripherally) in the culture, the history, and the aesthetic of the sport. I love being in boxing gyms and going to fights and hanging out with boxers and coaches. I love training in different cities when I travel and meeting local boxers. I have no metatheory of this love, but it thrills me, and allows me to be someone I usually am not.

One of the most amazing transformations for me has been the change in my courage. I am not afraid of people looking at my body, nor of what the scale says, nor – most importantly – of trying new things. This includes trying things that might hurt me, or that I might be terrible at. For the first time in my life I feel like I’ll try anything at least once; I have no fear of or for my body anymore. It has been an incredible year.

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where she is also a Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.  She lives in Washington, DC and Tampa, FL with her 12-year-old son and her very old Shiba Inu. 

23 thoughts on “I was wrong (Guest post)

  1. Red Hen says:

    Being labelled `not sporty`as a kid does a lot of damage to one`s interest in taking exercise, and indeed, to exploiting and enjoying and maybe even discovering what sporty talents lurk within.

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  2. Tracy I says:

    Wow! What an amazing story and a fantastic post. Happy birthday! I love especially how your post affirms that there indeed is something for everyone, and that there are all sorts of good reasons for people who are convinced they hate working out to look beyond ‘the usual fare.’ Thanks for guest posting. Great pictures!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • rebeccakukla says:

      Thank you Tracy! Yeah I did not want to say anything dippy like “I hope my story inspires others”, but I really do think that lots of people who think they just hate excersize simply haven’t found their ‘thing’ yet, often for complex social reasons. I hope my post encourages someone to keep experimenting.

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  3. kirisyko says:

    Reblogged this on Sykose Extreme Sports News and commented:
    you go,girl!!!

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  4. polly says:

    Fantastic post, and I would love to respond in an intelligent and insightful way. Unfortunately I’m too busy being consumed by jealousy that you got to a 2x body weight deadlift with (less than?) a year’s training. That is amazing!

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  5. rebeccakukla says:

    Yeah I actually only started lifting for real in August, so about 5 months ago. My squat is more impressive than my deadlift but I don’t have a good video! I really loved the involuntary grunt in this one.

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  6. Craig Burgess says:

    This was a truly amazing, inspiring and thought-provoking blog! Thank you. I think the idea of complex social reasons underlying our fears and self-doubts, and the further connected idea that we have to accept ourselves for exactly who we are regardless of how our predispositions and what makes us comfortable might be used by others to label us, in myriad contexts, is fascinating.

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  7. […] she guest posts at Fit, Feminist, and (Almost) Fifty about being wrong, about discovering boxing and power lifting, and about the role gender norms play in limiting the […]

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  8. Bijan Parsia says:

    Happy birthday and congrats on finding exercise that resonates with you! That’s terrific.

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  9. Audrey says:

    Awesome post, Rebecca! You’re so right that so much of exercise is finding something that resonates with you. And I’ve also always felt more comfortable exercising in spaces that are gendered male rather than female, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it that way before, so thanks!

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  10. Marz says:

    This is so awesome, thank you for sharing. I can relate to much of this.

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  11. Anne says:

    Your second paragraph about being “not sporty”? I wrote almost the exact same thing in a draft post for my blog. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who things being deemed “not sporty” was an issue. In retrospect, for me a lot of it was not liking most team sports. I don’t even have an interest in watching them. But, I’m really enjoying that I’m surprisingly strong for a “big girl” who was all but lethargic 2 years ago.

    I think the “bad feminist” issue is very interesting and something that seems to come up often in a lot of random places. I thing that a lot of us struggle with it on occasion, which is annoying an counter intuitive as feminism is supposed to be about having the freedom and equal opportunities needed to do what you want, even if that means preferring something typically considered masculine. I’m glad that you had the courage to stick with it anyway, because nwo you do what you love and can serve as an inspiration to others.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  12. Helen says:

    Isn’t it wonderful when a person finds something that they really like?

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  13. Your second paragraph about being “not sporty”? I wrote almost the exact same thing in a draft post for my blog. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who things being deemed “not sporty” was an issue. In retrospect, for me a lot of it was not liking most team sports. I don’t even have an interest in watching them. But, I’m really enjoying that I’m surprisingly strong for a “big girl” who was all but lethargic 2 years ago.

    I think the “bad feminist” issue is very interesting and something that seems to come up often in a lot of random places. I thing that a lot of us struggle with it on occasion, which is annoying an counter intuitive as feminism is supposed to be about having the freedom and equal opportunities needed to do what you want, even if that means preferring something typically considered masculine. I’m glad that you had the courage to stick with it anyway, because nwo you do what you love and can serve as an inspiration to others.

    Thanks for sharing

    Like

  14. natalieh says:

    I love this post and especially the grunt in the video. I feel the same way that you do about running, it’s effective and an act of will.
    I can’t wait to hear how the competition goes in March!

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  15. That’s a very interesting post. I, too, feel more comfortable in male-dominated spaces, both at work and at the gym/pool. Your feeling of shame, however, puzzled me. I guess we each have to define what feminism is on our own terms. It is because of feminism and the feminist movement here that women are able to be part of, and be accepted in, male-dominated spaces. In many countries and cultures, men and women simply do not mix, professionally or socially. It’s great that you worked through your initial hesitations and found an activity that you enjoy. I feel the same way about swimming: it’s an activity that I’m good at and that makes me feel powerful and competitive. Good luck in your next competition!

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  16. warmginger says:

    A great post and happy birthday. I loved the terms “complexly gendered” – a new one for me and I foresee myself overusing it form now on!

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  17. […] what was so great about Rebecca’s story of boxing and powerlifting.  We so love to hear about people who broke out of the mold and forged […]

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  18. Jo Ball says:

    I am really interested in your post. Thanks for sharing. However I want to also critically engage with it.
    When you talk about ‘male spaces’ I question that a bit. Partly because I think we need to problematise this, even by inserting ‘historically’ before – ‘male dominated spaces’ – I think this just helps give it some context. Weight lifting and boxing is not a ‘male space’ or ‘male sports‘ in an ahistorical sense, these spaces have been socially constructed this way within the polarised gender norms of male and female. I am sure this is what you are getting at, but I wanted to just flesh it out a bit more with you. I also think these male spaces are being transformed by the emergence of sports like Crossfit. For example Crossfit, which is largely a power lifting sport, is the first sport where women and men receive identical prize money. I guess what I want to say they are not male spaces at all, they are male dominated spaces that are being challenged and contested by women like me and you who like going in there and smashing some weights. I run, crossfit, bike ride and swim.
    Further, I thoughtfully wonder at some of your assertions about wanting to be in male company. Yes, there is no feminist shame in doing that, but as a philosophy lecturer I guess I want to hear a little more from you about this? I mean it isn’t just because is it? Nothing is just ‘because’? Would you be happy to be in a women’s only boxing class if it had the same intensity as the classes you go to now?
    I look forward to maybe exploring some of this further with you. I also have a blog where I write about running the synchronicities and schisms between my own running and politics. In order to be transparent about where I am coming from, here is the link to my blog http://whatideasdowhentheyrun.wordpress.com

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  19. K. Rodier says:

    I think it is strange to have weight numbers and body fat percentages on a blog that is critical of these things. Also, these things are very triggering for readers who may think that this is a safe space apart from numbers. I know feminists who read this blog who struggle to stay in recovery from their eating disorders and find posts like this very disorienting. I think its important to be critical of the fact that some of the behaviours described on a fitness space that is feminist are on a spectrum of behaviours that are decidedly NOT feminist at all. Not to mention any discussion of forcing oneself through willpower is a construction used against people whose bodies do not conform to the ‘norm.’ Willpower is basically bunk science too.

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  20. […] some small people are very strong. See Rebecca Kukla’s post I was wrong. She’s half my size and can deadlift more than […]

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  21. As a very tiny person who loves to feel strong, I “heart” this post!

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  22. Elizabeth says:

    I can relate to much of your story also. Many of the sports and activities which I enjoy are ‘traditionally masculine’, but I have noticed that I start that particular activity because it looks like fun! It often doesn’t occur to me until much later that there are many more males than females who are participating in that activity.
    Great post & blog, by the way! 🙂

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