The other day I was chatting with my good friend and running buddy, Anita, who is in the UK for the year. We were talking about how we want 2018 to be the year we use our internal resources to build ourselves up rather than depending on validation from things or people outside.
This is something that I think a lot of people struggle with at times. We are bombarded with the idea that our success and worth as people is somehow measurable in terms of what we achieve, what people have to say about us, whether we have someone’s attention, and in the case of many straight women, whether we have the “right” kind of attention from men.
The “right” kind of attention is of course a complex thing. I mean, in so many ways that feminine allure is our worst enemy, and having our self-esteem depend on it to being appropriately recognized is arguably the source of misery and forgoing of power. Another friend of mine shakes her head at the idea that we, as women, have given so much of our power over to the good opinion of others. One slogan that might sound pithy and trite but from which we can all benefit is: “what you think of me is none of my business.” This can apply in all areas, including the misplaced need to be found attractive by men (I realize this is not something all women seek, but I do think it’s deep in the psyche of many and it’s a problem that leads to all sorts of other problems).
Anita came back to me on the second round of our conversation with this gem: “Exercise makes me feel powerful.” Let that sink in.
I first got into working out with weights way back in the late eighties, drawn in by body-builder Gladys Portugues and her workout book Hard Bodies, acquired for $2.50 at a publishers’ sell-off when I worked a summer job at Doubleday in Toronto. In the preface (or was it the intro? we’re talking over 30 years ago) of that mostly how-to book, she talked about a woman who had started weight training in the midst of a nasty divorce. Week-in, week-out, she showed up at the gym a few times a week for her workout. For someone going through a tough life transition, she looked remarkably unfazed, happy even. The take-home message of that part (and I can’t recall if it was a story told in a sentence or a paragraph or a few paragraphs) was not so different from what Anita said: her workouts gave her back her power.
By the time Sam and I finished our Fittest by Fifty challenge back in late 2014, I had developed a whole new way of being in my body. I blogged about it a couple of months after my 50th birthday, in a post called, “Mine All Mine: How Getting Active Gave Me a Whole New Way of Being in My Body.”
There I said:
For the very first time in my life, I have a sense of my physicality as belonging totally and 100% to me.
I own these activities–every endurance run, every early morning workout in the pool, every struggle on the bike. They’re mine. I do them for me. Not for you or for my parents or my partner or because someone else/society/my employer/Oprah thinks I should. Nope. None of that. No one would blink an eye if I never did any of this stuff again. And yet I do it anyway because they’re things I want to do.
I talked about a confident sense of ownership over my own body. This was in 2014, in the wake of several women coming forward with sexual assault charges against a popular Canadian radio personality. Now, three years later, we’ve got #metoo, the de-throning of Harvey Weinstein, the Kevin Spacey debacle, and the “time’s up” campaign in Hollywood. We’ve Oprah saying there is a new day on the horizon. The Canadian radio host went to trial and was acquitted. But the conversation about sexual consent and coercion continues.
Getting active has an enormous influence on women’s sense of their own power. In 2014 I said about the newfound attention being given to conversations about consent and coercion:
So what does this have to do with a new way of being in my body? Well, you know, it just made me realize the extent to which it’s a rare thing indeed when a women feels confident ownership of her body — like she doesn’t owe anyone anything and she gets to say “no” and let it mean “no” (not “maybe” and not “let me talk you into it” and not “are you sure?” and not “maybe later” but “NO”).
And when we don’t feel that confident sense of ownership, it’s hard not to feel insecure about choices that may upset people or make them angry or, heaven forbid, disappoint someone or not meet their expectations. And hence the level of coercion and coaxing that lots of women endure (by the way, said radio host’s alleged actions were a lot more serious than coercion and coaxing).
And so to discover a domain where that shit doesn’t happen is like a small miracle, like finding an oasis in the desert or something like that.
And that’s what diving in with both feet into some athletic activity that I love has done for me. It’s like hello. Who’s been keeping this big secret from me?
More recently a more subtle discussion arose around Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person,” published in December in The New Yorker. If you haven’t yet read it, it’s fabulous. One of the things it depicts is a moment in which the young woman who is protagonist changes her feelings about a sexual encounter with a man midstream. She was into it, but now she’s not. But, as so many stories go, she went ahead anyway: “…she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over.” Why? Well it was easier to go through with it than to try to get out of it, let the guy down, disappoint, what have you.
But that’s all bullshit right? I mean, we might know what that feels like, struggle with those moments ourselves, and still be clear that there is no reason for us to have sex that we don’t want to have. Ever.
If getting active can help us develop a confident sense of ownership over our bodies, or as Anita says, “make us feel powerful,” then maybe, just maybe it can be part of the movement towards a world where women don’t feel the need to succumb to that sort of pressure. And for straight women that means giving less of our mental real estate to what men like and want and more real estate to what we would like and want. And the confidence to assert that.
Does exercise make you feel powerful?