Lifting in Everyday Life: Self-Image and My Weird Love of Physical Labour

There’s something about physical labour that is very satisfying in a way that’s different from working out.

One of my favourite essays is “Eating Dirt” by Charlotte Gill. It’s about her summers as a tree planter in BC. In it, Gill captures the full-bodied exhaustion and mysterious bliss of physical labour as she recounts 12-14 hour days of hiking and planting trees.

Tree Planters

Image Description: Three tree-planters have large canvas sacs around their waists with hiking packs on their backs. They hike along a hill in the forrest overlooking hills with trees.

Over the last five years, I’ve been involved with seven moves, some of which were my own. There’s a joke in the Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where one character says that she’s started a new workout routine where she moves furniture around, “My trainer is this Israeli guy with a big truck and…” (just then she figures out that her new form of exercise is just helping people move).

Perhaps one of the things I find satisfying about physical labour is the tangible sense of accomplishment. This isn’t to say that working out doesn’t also give me a sense of accomplishment; it’s just different. Knowing that I can move all the contents of my apartment into a truck, and out of a truck into a new home is pretty cool.

I don’t always feel as tough and strong from lifting pieces of metal up and down at the gym. (Again, sometimes yes. But it’s different to know you can lift big heavy objects…or is this just me?)

Or maybe my appreciation of physical labour has something to do with the fact that my main work is sitting at a computer for large chunks of the day, either reading or writing. I’ll admit that my enjoyment of physical labour is probably because I get to choose when I engage with it and I don’t necessarily have to do it every day.

One of my part-time gigs is working in the taproom of a local craft brewery in Toronto. When I’m not pouring beer, this involves a lot of heavy lifting, loading and unloading things, moving kegs and other heavy things. There’s something very practical about it all: Move object from point A to point B because you have to or because you need that keg over there. And by the end of the day, the feeling of “Wow! I did that!”

One of my friends joked this spring that by the end of the summer I’d be “ripped” from working at the brewery. She wasn’t wrong. I have noticed muscle growth in my biceps and shoulders that makes me feel big and strong. Maybe what I like is knowing that I don’t have to ask someone bigger than me (i.e., a man) to help me complete physical tasks that need to get done.

Keg-Barrel-Lifting.png

Image Description: A drawing from a textbook that features a leotard-clad man lifting a heavy barrel or keg over his head. (Sadly, could not find drawings of women lifting kegs.)

In my last post, I wrote about buying a new bike, and elsewhere I’ve written about my intense fear of urban cycling. In the last month, I’ve used my bike exclusively to get around, using transit maybe once in over a month. Doing so has completely changed my perspective of what I’m capable of. It’s freeing, really. Knowing that I can take myself places under my own physical power is exciting and awesome.

I suppose part of my newfound love of physical labour is about seeing myself in a new light. When I first started writing for this blog maybe ten months ago, I used to see myself as someone who wasn’t very physically capable or active. I saw myself as physically awkward, not very strong, not capable of performing certain physical tasks. But physical labour proves these self-doubts wrong in a very tangible and visible way.

I can no longer delude myself into thinking I am not physically capable or active if I can bike 30km’s in a day, or lift fifty pound kegs from point A to B, or move an apartment’s worth of stuff.

Slowly my self-image has started to change. And perhaps another ten months from now I’ll be accomplishing things I wouldn’t think possible now.

About tracyrwdeboer

Tracy is a freelance writer currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tracyrwdeboer.

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