I am a bit obsessed with bodies. Sinful bodies, holy bodies, compassionate bodies, sick bodies, extraordinary bodies, ordinary bodies. I wrote my dissertation about medieval regimes designed to stretch the body to its uttermost limit while maintaining mental and moral clarity. This spanned from the male desert ascetics to the mostly female late medieval mystics. Yet somehow in the course of this research, I neglected my own body.
So, shortly after submitting, I decided to redirect my focus and in typical all or nothing fashion, I entered a bodybuilding contest to the outright horror and curious amusement of my academic friends.
It was a difficult and wonderful experience. It made me fall in love with my research again in that vulnerable time after you finish your PhD and nothing makes sense anymore. Whether or not female mystics saw God or not, the shared sensations of physical rigor – little sleep, extreme mortification (okay, we may be comparing lifting barbells with bathing lepers, but for the sake of argument), controlled nutrition – connected me to these women in both material and non-material ways. For myself, I experienced an unexpected pleasure and relief in being my own sadist and masochist.
I started writing my bodybuilding story many years ago, reshaping it in various narrative voices: empowered, desperate, confused, arch. I’m still not satisfied, but it something about grief, friendship, guilt, self-image, transcendence, being a body and a soul.
My powerlifting story is simpler. It is a story about my ass.
One of the goals of bodybuilding is symmetry and I am not naturally symmetrical. I have and always will be bottom-heavy, which meant I couldn’t really develop my lower body, which was always the most fun for me.
So I decided to try powerlifting a few years ago.
And I love it. Powerlifting is not an act of feminism or bravery that I perform for anyone else. It is a regime of self care. (Although some would say that wearing a Lycra singlet after the age of 30 is pretty damn courageous.)
When I say it is a regime of self care, I don’t mean that it is healthy. I mean a psychological regime of self care. For me, powerlifting is the perfect antidote for academic anxiety. You slowly progress, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. There are some set-backs but you largely get out of it what you put in to it.
Powerlifting consists in three lifts: bench press, dead lift and squat. You lift a certain weight and that is that. There is no unclear basis of comparison, uncertain benchmarks, luck of the draw. The weight I lift is the weight that I lift. Sure, I have strong days and I have not so strong days. But I can be fairly confident in my numbers, that it is not a fluke. It is not so clear cut with an academic career.
And to get back to my ass, I love to squat. There is something really awesome and invigorating about packing on twice your body weight (and for some people, much, much more) onto a bar and then lowering it down without a clear idea of whether you will be able to bring it back up. Most of the time, you do, but sometimes you don’t. And the rack or someone else will catch it. Failure is part of getting stronger. That is just is not the case outside the gym.
Bodybuilding was an academic exercise. But with powerlifting, I am no longer pumping irony. It is all much more earnest than that. You are there to do something specific. And if you want to be ironic about that, lose your focus, you might miss your lift. And not only would that look tragically ridiculous, but it might hurt.
Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.