aging · beauty · fitness · normative bodies · objectification · racism · sex · stereotypes

Women’s bodies and football and racism and being a babe at 50

I know you might have been watching the game. But me, the only bit I’ve watched was the amazing halftime show put on by J. Lo and and Shakira. Did you see it? So good. They performed a medley of their music along with some amazing choreography and wore gorgeous costumes. It was fun and beautiful and I loved it.

But no sooner had I enjoyed it than the commentary began. Do you know that J. Lo and Shakira are 50 and 43, respectively? There was a lot of commenting about that. There was also a lot of commenting about their “sinful” costumes. And should they really be wearing so little clothing? (Sometimes said, sometimes implied, “at their age.”) Isn’t this just the objectification of women’s bodies?

A friend said on Facebook, earlier in the day, about football, that it was a good principle in general to “let people enjoy things.” I think the same thing is true about the halftime entertainment.

There was an awful lot of critical commentary. So many words about women’s bodies. A conservative Christian mother of three took to Twitter to liken the halftime show to pornography and Twitter responded about as expected.

To give you a flavour of the anti-halftime show Christian comments, here’s Rev. Franklin Graham, “I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes. It was demonstrated tonight in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show — with millions of children watching. This exhibition was Pepsi showing young girls that sexual exploitation of women is okay. With the exploitation of women on the rise worldwide, instead of lowering the standard, we as a society should be raising it.”

USA Today weighed in, Empowering, not objectifying. Amen. Thank you USA Today. Argument: They’re adult women and this is about choice.

This blog’s frequent guest Sarah Skwire had the best response. I laughed during a university meeting reading it.

Sarah wrote. “I gather some women had bodies on television last night. This, of course, never happened when I was a child. Certainly not during prime time, when we watched clean and healthy shows like Wonder Woman, Buck Rodgers, Logan’s Run, Three’s Company, Baywatch, and Love Boat which never sexualized women’s bodies, or made scanty outfits a central point of their plots, or exposed young children to sexual situations..

When I was a child, women in entertainment all dressed like Edith Bunker.”

Why so much policing of women’s bodies? Did it make a difference do you think the women’s bodies in question weren’t white? Did it seem especially sinful/sexy and in need of control because they were brown women dancing? Was race a factor?

Read Dear White People: The Super Bowl Halftime Show Wasn’t Too Sexy, You’re Just Racist if you want to hear the arguments.

On Facebook Kristin Wolf had this to say:

“White people:
I see your posts about how their bodies and their dancing made you uncomfortable.

Did you notice the Latinx kids in cages singing BORN IN THE USA and LETS GET LOUD surrounded by an illumined Venus symbol? Did you notice the foot work? Did you notice the rope Shakira tied around her body while belly dancing? Can you think more deeply about what that image meant? Did you notice bilingual songs and two of the hottest Raggaeton artists as guests? Did you notice the 🇵🇷? Did you notice that sex work is legitimate work and the pole wasn’t about you?

Y’all save your righteous anger for the weirdest stuff. I wish y’all were as uncomfortable about kids in cages as you are about brown bodies.

STOP POLICING BROWN BODIES.”

So there’s sex and there’s race, but there’s also an age angle. So much talk of their age. Did you know J.Lo is 50? Did you know Shakira is 43?

The New York Times had this to say: “Well, on Sunday Ms. Lopez showed the world what 50 looks like — at least her version of it.” Read The Power of 50.

But that prompted a lot more spilt ink about being 50 and looking like J. Lo.

From the New Yorker article THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW, AND THE AGELESS COMFORTS OF J. LO : “Magazines and Web sites regularly publish articles that promise to reveal the secrets to Lopez’s continued youthfulness (how does she look so good at fifty?), and her ability to maintain a firm-skinned foxiness is a key part of our fascination with her. (I can’t purport to guess how she does this, though I would imagine that a punishing exercise regimen and diet, and access to top dermatologists and perhaps plastic surgeons, form at least part of the answer.) But Lopez’s still-point-of-the-turning-world quality goes beyond her physical appearance. There is something reassuringly unchanging about her presence, too. “

A friend lamented that J. Lo’s existence, looking that amazing, puts pressure on the rest of us 50 somethings to look like that too. It’s not realistic, said the friend, to expect the rest of us who aren’t J. Lo to chase that standard.

That’s the worry, right. If she can do it, why can’t I? It didn’t help that a personal trainer chimed in and commented on my friend’s status said yes, we could all do that if we wanted to. It wouldn’t even take much time or money. He said we just needed dedication, commitment, a gym membership, and an hour a day. I remain skeptical about the hour a day part. I’m also skeptical that any amount of exercise would do it.

We’ve worried about this before here on the blog. A a few years ago Tracy asked Because if Christie Brinkley can pull it off, so can anyone, right?

By the way, she’s still at it now at 65. See Christie Brinkley, 65, lights up Instagram with holiday swimsuit photoshoot.

Tracy asked then, “Is there not an age where we can stop thinking about whether men think we look hot in a bikini? It may be that the Christie Brinkley photo shoot, rather than addressing ageism, just raises the bar for older women (like: why don’t you look like Christie Brinkley in a bikini?).”

Do you you find J. Lo’s looks at 50 inspiring or worrying? If the former, you’ll want to watch the video below.

Here’s J. Lo’s workout routine to get in shape for the show in case you want to start training.

alcohol · beauty · body image · eating · fat · fitness · habits · health · injury · movies · running · self care · sex · stereotypes · weight loss · weight stigma

Sam watched Brittany Runs a Marathon and recommends that you don't

Catherine wrote a blog post about Brittany Runs a Marathon without watching it. That was definitely the wiser choice. See her commentary here.

She writes, “So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.”

Catherine goes on to identify “some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:

  • Health problems should first be addressed by losing weight
  • Weight loss is possible to achieve through physical activity
  • Weight loss makes physical activity possible and easier and better and more fun
  • Some deep-seated emotional problems will resolve through weight loss and physical activity”

There’s a lot to dislike about the film that I knew before I hit play. It erases larger runners, it promotes weight loss fantasies, and it’s fat-shaming. All that I knew at the outset.

So why did I end up watching it? I sometimes watch “bad” TV or fluffy shows while cleaning. Easy to follow rom-coms? Sign me up! I hadn’t seen the floor of my room in weeks. There were Christmas gifts I still hadn’t put away, clean laundry, bags of gym clothes, yoga mats etc all over the floor, the bed needed making, the socks needed sorting and so on. I needed something longer than a regular half hour show to deal with all of the mess. I needed a movie length thing at least. I thought I could handle the fat shaming and enjoy BRAM for its redeeming features. The trailer looked, as a friend put it, cute. The Guardian called it a fluffy feel good flick. It is not that. By the end, I did not feel good at all.

Friends, it was not mostly cute with a side of fat shaming, which I expected. Instead it was a dumpster fire of stereotypes and it was also super sex shaming. All of this was lumped into criticism of Brittany’s self-destructive lifestyle. At one point in the movie someone opines–in a line that was supposed to save the movie, “Brittany, it was never about the weight.” Instead, “weight” is just a stand in for all of Brittany’s problems. Before fat-Brittany is taking drugs and giving men blow jobs in night clubs and by the end of the movie, thin Brittany isn’t just thin. She’s also turning down casual sex. The friends-with-benefits/boyfriend proposes. There was way too much moralizing about sex and drugs. And I say that as someone who is no fan of drugs or alcohol and is often accused of moralizing in this area.

This happens because Brittany isn’t just a fat girl. She’s a fat girl with low self -esteem. She could have just gotten some self-esteem. But no, she gets thin and then gets self-esteem. She could have gotten self-esteem and demanded equal pleasure in the casual sex. She could have started using drugs and alcohol in a responsible manner. Instead, no. She gets self-esteem, says no to drugs, and holds out for a real relationship.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t manage the weight-loss plot line well at all.

The Guardian reviewer writes, “The film struggles to square its protagonist’s weight loss with the pressure to present a body-positive position and ensure it doesn’t alienate the very female audience it courts. One minute it’s wryly poking fun at the expense and inaccessibility of gyms, the next it’s fetishistically cataloguing the shrinking number on Brittany’s scales. Indeed, as her body transforms, so does her life. She finds a new job, and supportive friends in her running club; men begin to notice her. Yet Brittany still battles with her body issues, unable to shed her identity as “a fat girl”. There’s a note of truth in Bell’s finely tuned performance as a character whose insecurities have calcified over the years, hardening her to genuine goodwill, which she frequently misreads as pity.”

For the record, fat Brittany is smaller than me. She starts out weighing 197 pounds. Her goal weight is 167. And we can track it because never in movie history has a person stepped on a scale so often.

(A blog reader pointed out a more charitable interpretation of why we see her stepping on the scale so often: “She steps on the scale a lot because she trades in her addictions to drugs and alcohol for an addiction to scale weight loss, which the movie portrays as an unhealthy obsession. What starts out as a good “oh look, I lost this many pounds now!” thing quickly escalates into a dangerous “go for a run, jump on the scale, dislike the number displayed, so go back out to run in the mistaken belief that it will make the number change” cycle. That’s why she steps on a scale so often. Because it’s NOT good that she does it.)

Forget the weight loss and the sex, even the running themes aren’t handled well. Friends tease Brittany when she first starts running because she isn’t a real runner. The longest she’s run is 5 km. Rather than tackling the “real runner” thing head on instead the film has Brittany run a marathon and become a real runner by the friend’s standards. Even her triumphant marathon finish is marred by Brittany’s continuing to run on her (spoiler alert) injured and possibly still stress fractured leg. We don’t know that but we do know she’s holding her leg and crying, running and not able to put much weight on it, and her first attempt to run the marathon was derailed by a stress fracture.

There is nothing to love here. Nothing cute or funny or feel good or fluffy.

Friends, don’t watch it. Not even on an airplane.

clothing · cycling · fashion · gear · stereotypes

Bettina shops for cycling clothes: too much pink and a happy ending

My partner and I are currently on holiday in Spain. At the time of your reading this post, we will hopefully just have hiked three stages of the GR11 Transpyrenees trail. That’s why the other day, we found ourselves last-minute shopping for some hiking equipment. We also had a quick look around the cycling section of the two large sports shops we visited (we had spare time and road cycling is very serious in the Basque Country, so we thought we might make interesting finds).

In both shops, we were taken aback by the differences between the male and the female sections for both hiking and cycling. The men’s sections were larger and much better equipped. In particular, the cycling section at one of the shops was so cliché it was basically a joke: it was about one-third of the size of the men’s section and everything, really, I swear, everything was fluorescent pink, or had elements of fluorescent pink on it. OK, I exaggerate. There was one fluorescent yellow jacket. One. No, not one model in various sizes. One. Single. Jacket. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture, I was too busy bringing my blood pressure back down. Urgh. I often find myself getting annoyed at the lack of choice and, in particular, the lack of not-pink sports clothing for women, but this was out of this world. It’s not that I don’t like pink at all, I just don’t want all my gear to be hot pink! I’d quite like some choice, please. This was a public display of gender inequality in sports even at the most basic level, that of equipment.

Luckily, our story had a happy ending: we found a charming bike shop in the city centre of Bilbao, which kept its promise of “interesting finds for cycling in the Basque Country”. I bought one of their long-sleeve jerseys. The shop was the kind where you immediately start chatting to the guy who runs it, get competent advice and a sense of community. And they had the same-size shelf for women and men, with an ample selection of not-pink clothing. Yay!

Shot of a person from the back in a long-sleeved cycling jersey.
Bettina from the back in her new cycling jersey, which reads “Véloze Cycling Club Bilbao”, and looks sort of powdery pink in this picture, but is actually beige in real life.

I will say that it was also the sort of shop you might be hesitant to enter if maybe you were still a bit intimidated by a new sport, perhaps didn’t feel like you belonged just yet, or were self-conscious for any other reason. It’s not the kind of place where you can shop in undisturbed anonymity, which is sometimes preferable to one-on-one attention. It was also more expensive than the large multi-sports department stores we had been at earlier. It’s one of those annoying situations where you just can’t win: if you don’t have a certain level of privilege, you don’t make it into the shop that sells the good stuff, and if you go to the shop that might look more accessible in the first place, you don’t get much choice, either style or size-wise.

Oh world, you still have a long way to come.

beauty · femalestrength · feminism · soccer · stereotypes

Sweat First, Glow Later

I was talking to a woman the other day about that wonderful feeling of working up a good sweat on a run, when she interrupted me to say, “You mean glow, not sweat.” Aack. I remember the expression from growing up. Horses sweat.Men perspire. But women merely glow. And no, I absolutely did not mean glow when I said sweat. I didn’t even mean perspire. 

Woman’s face illuminated in glowing sparkles.
H Heyerlein on Unsplash

In fact, I really, really meant sweat. The idea that women should only glow obstructs our progress, keeps us docile, fragile and dependent, and interferes with our strength. Can you tell I hate that expression? Even if it’s used as a euphemism, I don’t like what it implies. 

Back in the days when I practiced law, I would often go to the gym at lunch (in the same building as my office, because they liked to keep us close). I didn’t have a lot of time, so I’d make the most of the Stairmaster (my fave workout then) and arrive back at the office still red in the face. My office mate was perplexed. Why did I want to get so overheated? Answer—I loved the feeling. Secondary answer—I was working in a shark tank and needed an outlet for the pressure. Fast forward more than twenty-five years, I still love to sweat, even though I’ve bailed out of the shark tank. I love giving everything I’ve got, leaving it all on the road. To reach for an ambitious goal, to try as hard as we can, to go for it; that kind of effort requires sweat, metaphorical for sure and very possibly actual salty drops on our skin. The notion that women should only glow (which we know was meant not just actually, but also metaphorically) is offensive. The fact that science says women sweat less than men is a biological fact, not a matter of Victorian etiquette.

What happens if we try so hard that we break a sweat? What are the purveyors of that expression scared of? Our potential? Our strength? That expression (I will not repeat it) contains an implicit criticism of female effort as unladylike (you can imagine how much I love that word, too). The expression says to women, “You should not have ambition, or if you do, you must go about achieving your dream in a seemingly effortless fashion.” Ambition is not effortless. Why would we even want it to be? Then we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of achievement; the desire to spread our arms in a glorious moment of woohoo. 

Megan Rapinoe with arms outspread in the World Cup stadium

Speaking of which, I’ve noticed multiple pictures of US soccer star Megan Rapinoewith arms outspread in a defiantly powerful pose. I realized that I was judging her as a little arrogant with that pose and even though you didn’t know that until I told you just now, I’m going to take back that thought. Women don’t get as physically expressive about their personal victories as their male counterparts. Look at how Brandi Chastain was pilloried in 1999 for taking her shirt off in a moment of exultation when she scored the penalty kick to win the World Cup. She’s framed that sports bra and hung it on her wall. As I write this, the US team has won their semi-final game and is slated to play in the final the day after this piece publishes. Rapinoe didn’t play the game, because of a hamstring injury. I hope she plays on Sunday and that she has cause to spread her arms wide with triumph.

Let’s all spread our arms just a little more often, even and especially if we’re wearing a sweaty sports bra. Chances are we will be glowing for the rest of the day!

athletes · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings · Olympics · racism · sexism · stereotypes

Women, sport and sex tests: Why Caster Semenya matters a great deal

Many years ago I had the good fortune to work with a board full of fabulous women representing a wide diversity of interests, experiences and backgrounds. One of the women had competed in the Montreal Olympics. She described for us one day what it was like to be subjected to a sex test. Her emotions were palpable, especially the anger.

In fact, we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements. This kind of scrutiny has now been enshrined with this week’s decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland in which they ruled against middle distance runner Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s move to enforce new regulations regarding athletes differences of sexual development (DDS). In particular, the IAAF says female athletes who have higher than usual levels of testosterone must take drugs to reduce those levels to even the playing field.

Semenya’s career in track has been dogged by constant allegations that her achievements in the sport are unfairly won. Curiously, US swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body produces less lactic acid, is deemed to be exceptionally fortunate to be born with this genetic advantage.

And yet, no one is suggesting Phelps should take drugs to enable his body to produce more lactic acid so his competitors have a more equal opportunity.

We cannot forget that along with the sexism this decision against Semenya perpetuates, it is also supporting a racist assumption on how black bodies perform compared to white ones. Acclaimed tennis champion Serena Williams has been constantly challenged on her accomplishments and her body size, shape and presentation. This CNN article gives a great overview about the biases against Williams, including the assumption that her excellence erases her female identity.

The belief that Williams and Semenya are so good at what they do, they cannot possibly be women is one that has long been used to attack women who excel in sport. But it seems particularly pervasive in its use against black women. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than is usually found in women. Yet the research is unclear how natural testosterone affects performance compared to artificial hormones used to enhance performance:

“What’s clear is that there is solid evidence that men who take excessive doses of testosterone … do get a competitive advantage clearly in sports related to strength,” said Bradley Anawalt, a hormone specialist and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of medicine.The problem, said Anawalt, is that attempts to try to quantify that competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone are “fraught with difficulty in interpretation.”

The CAS decision was meant to clarify and instead muddied the waters even further. They upheld the IAAF decision but said they should take more time to implement. They agreed with the concept of the rule DDS athletes should reduce their testosterone, but were concerned about the effects on athlete’s bodies. They said it was fine for the IAAF to apply this rule to athletes racing under 1000 metres but athletes running longer distances were fine.

The Semenya case has implications that are far-reaching. We know women have been over-medicated, often to their detriment. We know that chemical castration has been used to manage pedophiles. But Semenya is neither depressed nor a criminal. She is an athlete performing her best with the tools she was born with.

That the IAAF and its head Sebastian Coe have created an environment in which Semenya can be neither her best or herself is untenable. I am glad Canada’s Minister for Sport has called out this decision. We need to have conversations about sexism, racism, and transphobia in sport; more importantly we need action. Follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun, among others, on Twitter; sign this petition; become informed; and make your views known and heard.

cycling · equality · femalestrength · stereotypes

On being underestimated

Many of you will have heard about this already:

A female cyclist (Nicole Hanselmann) is forced to stop after nearly catching the men’s pro race that had begun 10 minutes ahead of her women’s race. Hanselmann wears black and light blue-striped kit and rides a white road bike with blue bar tape; also in the photo we see part of the peloton’s motorcycle convoy, which has stopped Hanselmann and is speaking to her on the pavement. She looks annoyed. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Swiss cyclist Nicole Hanselmann was competing for her Bigla Pro team at a race in Belgium; the men’s race had a 10-minute start, and Hanselmann made that up pretty quickly after grabbing an early lead. Her race was stopped so the men could get ahead again; she was given a head start once the women’s race resumed, but the wind had left her sails by then. (UM: DUH.) She finished 74th. Later she instagrammed the incident: “awkward” was her photo caption.

A female cyclist (Hanselmann), wearing her black and light blue-striped Bigla kit and helmet, leans on her right gloved hand while smiling into the camera through her cycling glasses. You can see this image on her instagram feed here.

Why did this happen? I’ve been looking around for an explanation for the last day or so and have no clear one to offer you. It sounds like the officials made a wrong call on the race gap: 10 minutes was not long enough. (Is this a standard gap for this type of race? I can’t tell – I haven’t been able to find this information out. If you know, please say in the comments!) It also sounds like Hanselmann had GREAT legs going into the race, and really took advantage. (There are structural reasons why this might be the case; women’s race lengths are often not long enough to capitalize on women’s peak fitness, which means early attacks happen. Go here for more.)

But “why” on this day, in this place, is not really the point; there are a lot of culturally-embedded, fairly obvious reasons why this incident is newsworthy. And if you’re a strong female cyclist, you already know the why.

We get underestimated. This is true of pretty much ALL female athletes, but it’s definitely the case for female athletes in male-dominant sports. Snoop around on our blog for lots of qualitative evidence, most recently this fantastic guest post from just a few days ago, about trying to lift around men at the gym.

I’ve been riding road bikes since 2012; I learned early (from a hugely inspiring female coach) that I was strong and suited to the sport. I drop a lot of guys. I’m faster than a lot of guys. And I love riding with folks who are faster than me, because they make me get faster.

But fast guys also tend to misunderstand what it means to have women on their ride.

(And here, let me specify: I’m talking largely about CLUB rides. When I go on organized rides with guys I know and trust and train with, we are all good and the adventure is ace. #notallmaleriders, of course. But still plenty.)

How this misunderstanding? Step one: mansplaining.

If I’m on a high-end bike that fits my body, the bike is kitted out with all the gear, and I demonstrate clear road- and club-riding skills, chances are I do not need you to tell me basic things about the sport, my bike, or anything else to do with what we are doing at the minute. Keep it to yourself, unless you see me in obvious need of assistance. And if that happens, maybe ask first if I need any.

Step two: aggressive off-showing. Yes, I’m on your ride because I’m fast enough for the posted ride pace. This should not be an invitation to you to attempt to ride significantly faster than the posted ride pace, just because you can. Or maybe you’re trying hard to show off to the other dudes on the ride? (I see this A LOT. God, it must be exhausting to be a male club rider.) At any rate, 38kph on a posted 32-34kph ride is too fast for me. You are going to drop me. And quite possibly you’ll drop the other, less fast, guys on the ride too. Is that really what you want? (And if so, ask yourself: WHY DO YOU WANT THIS?)

Step three: excessive complimenting. I pulled that pace line for two minutes and it was a strong, effective pull? We held a good pace? Yup, that’s what happens when you pull, after resting inside the pace line for a bit. I pulled the peloton with another woman at the front, and it was a strong, effective pull? Whadaya know. We have #madbikeskillz. GET OVER IT.

If you’re not going to say “hey! Great pull! Way to go!” to the guys on the ride, when you say it to me the message is clear. You didn’t think I could do it. You underestimated me. Thanks for sharing.

It’s not just guys who underestimate women riders, though. Many women I know have no idea how strong they are. Many of the women in my club think they are too slow for the two faster groups the club runs; even the amazing mountain biker I train with in winter (like, PODIUM MB-er, peeps) isn’t sure she can hold the faster lines. (Spoiler alert: she really can.)

I know these women are stronger than they let themselves think. They don’t believe it, and that’s because they have been taught, over years of aggressive gendered socialization, that women aren’t fast or good enough when it comes to sports like cycling. There’s tonnes of external reinforcement of this idea, too: just ask Hanselmann. All around us the messages normalize the notion that women can’t do it, not really, no matter what Nike says as it tries to sell us things.

I know this post sounds cranky, but I’m fed up. Being underestimated is exhausting; it makes it hard to want to go on the rides, to try to get faster, to deal with all the noise while ALSO trying to ride the ride. Cycling is hard enough work; I don’t need to be doing extra emotional labour on the damn bike, too.

A delighted woman, circa 1950s, in white shirt-sleeves and a skirt on an upright bike, huge smile plastered on her face. The caption reads, “He said a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So I dropped him.”

What’s your experience on the bike? Do you have supportive ride-mates, or do you experience unnecessary gender blow-back on your usual club dates? Do you have race experiences you’d like to share?

fitness · gender policing · stereotypes · weight lifting

Give Me Strength (Guest Post)

Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.

I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.

For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.

I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.

In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.

My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.

Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.