I’m not a small woman. But I am strong. And on my bike—when it’s flat, especially–I can be pretty fast. See past posts Big women and strength and Fat or big: What’s in a name? for some of my thoughts about this stuff. For more, see Big women on bikes.
If you’re a larger, stronger, faster person, there’s language people may use to describe you. That is, once you’re in a context in which people have to see you as athletic. It’s powerful language with which I’m frankly not that comfortable, though I know people mean it as a compliment. Some days I even hear it as a compliment.
I passed some friends on their bikes on a ride and later they commented, “you’re an animal on that bike.” Or the other day at the boxing gym the trainer commented “you’re going at that heavy bag like a beast.” Or sometimes, people call me a “monster” as in “you were a real monster on that section of road back there.” Monster, beast, animal?
In each case, I know what they mean. I’m big and strong.
But part of me wants to be good at these things like a more graceful sort of creature. Sometimes I want what feminists aren’t supposed to want, to take up less space, to be noticed for beauty of movement not brute force. I know I’m no gazelle, never a greyhound. I posted awhile ago about running like a wombat, solid but speedy. Also cute and cuddly. See run like a wombat! (Read guest blogger Tracy’s post about her fitness animal inspiration, the seal.)
On the bike there’s a contrast between people who spin at a high cadence and people like me who prefer bigger, harder gears. Usually that too is associated with size. It’s like the contrast between sprinters and distance runners.
Big gear riders are mashers.
See an explanation here: “Pedaling furiously (with a high cadence) on a low gear is called spinning, while pedaling slower (low cadence) on a high gear is called mashing. Both can get you to high speeds — so why do the best cyclists prefer spinning? The prevailing theory is that spinning is a more efficient use of your strength and energy. Many cyclists revert to mashing, however, because it feels faster. But, not only does mashing produce more lactic acid, it predominantly uses what’s called fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fatigue faster than slow-twitch fibers (used in spinning)…”
Back to “beast” language: It isn’t at all feminine. I guess that’s part of the issue. And while CrossFit is the place that’s best at encouraging women to embrace “beast mode” even there it seems like it’s more a guy thing.
Discussions about body image and animal language always reminds me of a story I associate with dancing. I’ve always wanted to dance. But beasts don’t get to dance.
It’s a family story–I don’t know if it’s true–but according to the story I was thrown out of ballet class at the age 4. I was told I had the grace of a baby elephant. Bounce! Jump! Stomp!
That’s also a slight to baby elephants. Look, here’s one dancing!
In my family my father, a slender man, and my son, also very thin and tall, were the dancers. I associate dancing with the ballet dancer’s body.
So when this video came across my social media newsfeed, it made me smile.
On good days I think it’s simply a matter of wanting the thing you don’t have. There was a time in my teens when I wanted straight hair. I even tried straightening it with chemicals. More recently there were months when I took up blow drying and straightening with a vengeance. These days I’ve mostly made peace with my curls.
I watch some of the smaller women in boxing class and admire how fast they move. I admire the graceful, flexible people in Aikido. And on the bike, it’s the hill climbers who wow me. I don’t want to look like an endurance athlete–see Fear of frail? In which Sam pledges not to body shame skinny runners–but I’m not entirely comfortable with the beast language either.
In my geeky family we sometimes talk about which Lord of the Rings character we most resemble. They joke that I’m the Hobbit mother in terms of height. And I like second breakfasts. But really, they say, I’d be lousy Hobbit because I’m not a fan of pot smoking and I love to travel. I have one child who is a definite elf. Maybe, they say, you’re more a dwarf, like Gimli. Short but strong. Notice though that there aren’t any Dwarf women in battle and the subject of dwarf women is a bit of a joke. This from a LOTR wiki: “Dwarves wanted their women to be protected from other races and they usually kept them concealed inside their mountain halls. They seldom traveled in the outside world, only in great need, and when they did, they were dressed as men; with similar voice and appearance as male dwarves, even when they are rarely seen they are usually mistaken for a male. All Dwarves had beards from the beginning of their lives.”
It’s also a matter in athletic terms of feeling the need to train your weaknesses. I need to work on high cadence drills. I can spend less time doing big gear sprints. See Train your weaknesses but also know your strengths. In Aikido, I need to work on being a better uke and practice my rolls.
But my discomfort goes past this, I think. It’s partly about gender and beauty and society’s norms which in theory I reject but in real life still haunt me sometimes. I know, I know. I’m the person on the blog who is all about loving the body you have. And 95% of the time, I’m there. I’m especially there in athletic contexts. But this is my 5%. And it’s January. And grey. And now you know, even unusually happy perky me isn’t always happy and perky.
Maybe I’ll watch Strong! tonight.