Thoughts about fitness, consent, and pleasure

*Trigger warning: this post discusses issues around sexual violence and consent.

Regular readers of FFI know I’m an avid cyclist and sometime internet dater; what you may or may not know is that in my work life I’m a theatre scholar – I teach, write about, and regularly attend live shows of all kinds. It’s a huge privilege to be able to say, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon, “I have to leave my desk and take the train into town to see a play!”

That particular play is called Asking For It; is a piece of “verbatim” theatre – that is, theatre composed of interview material gathered, with full consent of participants, by the author and star of the show, Ellie Moon. Its jumping-off point was the media storm surrounding the now-disgraced CBC Radio host and popular member of Toronto’s arts community, Jian Ghomeshi, who between 2014 and 2016 was tried both in a court of law, and in the court of public opinion, for physical violence against women during sexual encounters. (I won’t go over the details of the case here, except to say that it turned out to be a textbook example of how the law treats women in situations like this one; if I had to send you to some sources for a primer, I would choose this one, and this one.)

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The promotional image for Asking For It, by Ellie Moon (Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto). The image shows a white woman (Ellie), both alluring and fierce, looking into the camera. Her long hair blows gently in the wind. Her neck bears a tattoo that reads “shocking to some”. The background is a sepia tone.

Moon was living in England when the scandal around Ghomeshi broke, but she was back in Canada as a jobbing actor when he went to trial. She found herself, as a result of the issues in the air, wondering about her own sexual preferences, those of others, and why we are not good at talking openly with one another about either sexual pleasure or sexual consent. The show asks: “How do we convey, and experience, sexual consent in 2017?” Using her interview material, transcripts from social media, and her own reflections (as a sexually active woman and a performer in the show) Moon creates a complex image of the ambiguities and ambivalences that shadow what we do and do not want to happen in private sexual encounters, and what we do and do not want to talk about afterward.

It’s a superb show, but why am I talking about it here?

For me, fitness isn’t just about building muscle, climbing hills on my bike, or stretching my aching hamstrings in yoga. It’s not only about eating yummy green things (and yummy chocolate things), getting proper sleep, and trying to drink less. It’s also about feeling safe, feeling joy, and feeling cared for in bed, when I’m not in bed alone. So while, as a theatre scholar, I was struck by the skill evident in Moon’s production and her adept use of the verbatim genre, as a woman interested in fitness and wellness (my own and that of others), I found the show struck some deeper chords.

Social messages these days try to make consent appear very clear-cut: no means no. And it absolutely does. But feeling consent, conveying consent, and expressing the shift from consent to non-consent when you’re deep into it can be a great deal more murky than the prevailing winds want to suggest – which can lead in turn to feelings of confusion and shame for men, women, and those who identify as non-binary alike. This is a large part of what Moon and her co-performers get into during Asking For It, and I found the labour of their honest reflection useful, moving, and also a bit of a relief.

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A pink button against a denim jacket reads: “Ask First. Make it Sexy. Consent is sexy. consentissexy.net.”

What happens, for example, when we’ve having loads of fun, but then suddenly, for one partner, something shifts? Whose responsibility is it to stop? How do we stop and not make things “weird”? Why do some of us (usually, women) feel such a need to keep things “light” (rather than “weird”) – and at what cost?

I had this experience not too long ago: I found myself crying into my pillow while my partner was behind me. We had been having fun, and then, suddenly, I was not. I felt such shame; the tears followed. He was unaware of the tears; I was fighting them because I didn’t know whether or not I was still consenting to what was going on, and that was making me even more anxious. (Note: he did not do anything for which he did not have my permission.) I cared about his experience and I didn’t want to hurt him; I also knew he didn’t want to hurt me. Eventually I told him to stop and went into the bathroom; when I returned, we sat and talked it through. After that, everything was absolutely fine.

This is an example of consensual sex working very well indeed – we talked it through; everything was absolutely fine – but it’s also an example of the complexities consent always presents in the moment-to-moment-ness of sexual encounters in the real world. Was it my job to tell him to stop? His to check in with me? Mine to give him signs that problems were surfacing? I have no solid answers to these questions. I think ideally he would have checked when I stopped being responsive, and I would have demonstrated more openly that I was starting to experience discomfort. But I know for certain that neither of us wanted to hurt the other – both of us wanted to consent to pleasure in one another, and we had / we did.

I also have no doubt that I was able to express my growing non-consent, eventually though imperfectly, because I am in my 40s and I now have a strong sense of myself as an independent sexual subject. Had I been in my 20s, and especially myself in my 20s, I’m pretty sure it would not have gone as well.

Which makes me worry a lot about my students.

Then there’s the question of where each partner’s responsibility lies in the acts of asking for, giving, and receiving consent before we even get going. Yes, in heterosexual situations men typically hold the balance of power, and so should always ask to make sure consent is intended (rather than simply assumed on their part). After all, violence in relation to sex is about power: social, historical, and physical.

But power does not always break down along expected gender lines, even in heterosexual situations.

In the sexual relationship I have with the man in the anecdote above, power is surprisingly balanced; we weigh similar amounts and are similarly strong, and our personal identifications (based on gender, ethnicity, race, and class) mean that in some key ways I am culturally more privileged than he is. Further, I initiate our sexual encounters at least as often, if not more often, than he does. Given these factors, I consider it my responsibility to ask his consent before I move too far forward; we do this playfully, thanks to a rapport built up over time (and thanks to our mutually compatible senses of humour).

About three quarters of the way through Asking For It, Moon and fellow actor Christine Horne recreate, for the audience, an encounter from Moon’s research between her and a friend: after a boozy dinner they are on a Toronto bus. Horne’s character tells Moon she should be approaching strangers as well as friends for her project of collecting material for the play, and so Moon goes over (rather reluctantly, and bashfully) to the only other passenger on the bus, a man played by Steve McCarthy. She asks him to talk into her phone about his experiences of asking for and receiving consent; he asks her if she is coming onto him. She says no; she explains the play project and asks again for his feedback. He becomes angry, though not hostile; he is obviously frustrated and feels blindsided. Moon then admits she’s “a little bit drunk”, and he says, “can you imagine if the situations were reversed?” If he approached her on the bus, asked to talk about sex, and admitted to being tipsy? Moon is taken aback; she gets it – that image represents the opposite of the safe situation they are currently in, and they both know it – but she also, at least a little bit, gets the difference. “But I asked you,” she says quietly.

She opened with a request for consent.

I find myself thinking about these issues as a 43-year-old woman who wants to enjoy sex but also to stay safe and healthy and happy in my sexual life. I also find myself thinking about these issues as a feminist, and as a feminist teacher.

I am often asked to explain feminism to others; I don’t mind doing it, because I’ve had a lot of practice. To me, feminism means appreciating and recognizing the privilege our sex and gender identities afford in relation to others, and in conjunction with other forms of privilege or non-privilege our bodies bear.

For me, as for Moon, “feminism” is a word that means “equality”‘; sadly, “equality” is a complex concept, and we seem to be living in a moment that jettisons complexity, too frequently, in favour of the superficial. A lot of the talk around consent is actually fairly superficial: no means no, dammit! Just follow that mantra and you’ll be fine. A lot of the men in Moon’s play know this mantra, but are struggling: they think that checking in, or making sure to ask, is the sum total of their responsibility. OR, they are angry and frustrated that, in the consent game, girls seem to be getting all the joy and none of the struggle.

Yes, no means no. But can everyone say no, really?

What these guys (and, frankly, what a lot of us) miss is that it’s really not that easy, for any of us. Understanding consent as more than a word or two – understanding it as a factor of power imbalances, historical privilege, and the challenges and joys that have arisen as women have become more culturally and economically powerful players in the public sphere – means coming to grips with consent as something that needs to be constantly negotiated between sexual partners, and something that needs to be fulsomely (not superficially) expressed by both parties.

It means recognizing that some of us have more vocal power than others. That some of us feel more free than others to express what it is we want. That some of us fear speaking out, ever, about sexual feeling, because the consequences can be catastrophic.

It means talking through power and privilege, even as we talk about consent.

 

You Ask, Fit Feminists Answer: Where does a beginning weight lifter start?

This is the second in a new series where we answer readers’ questions.

Dear FFI, could you recommend a good beginners guide to weight training at home? A book or a web resource. I’d like to start gently and can’t go to the gym. Thanks in advance!

Sam says, “I like Stumptuous. Here’s her advice on setting up a home gym. And not quite a how-to book and with apologies for the title, I also like The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess (2008). Also have a look at NerdFitnessfor their Strength Training 101.

Tracy likes Nia Shanks. She says, “I would recommend Nia Shanks, Lift Like a Girl. The website is pretty good. The Beautiful Badass workouts have modifications and variations for home training. She’s not perfect in staying away from weight loss/diet talk, but she’s better than most. And if you purchase the PDF of Beautiful Badass you gain access to youtube videos that aren’t otherwise searchable.”

What do you think? What do you recommend? Suggest away in the comments.

So if you have questions send them our way, using the “contact us” form on the left hand side of the blog. I’ll forward them to the appropriate blogger. We’re not experts by any means but we do have a wealth of real world experience with many, many physical activities.

Moving from involved to committed

By MarthaFitat55

Image shows two bent tubes of neoprene fabric in black with red accents

Martha’s new gear! Image shows two bent tubes of neoprene fabric in black with red accents

What’s the difference between being involved and being committed? The business fable uses bacon and eggs to explain: the pig is committed, while the hen is involved.

When we talk about fitness, it’s a bit of both. This week, I made the leap from involved to committed. I bought a pair of knee sleeves.

For the last three years, my fitness clothing has been nothing fancy. I originally started with a pair of ratty yoga pants and a tee shirt. Then I graduated to a pair of capris found on the sale rack.

Occasionally when it gets superwarm in the gym during the summer, I rescue one of my old rowing tanks. And while I’ve always invested in good footwear, when a friend offered a pair of deadlift shoes at a discount, I bought them to save her the hassle of returning them. Luckily they turned out to be a good fit, and if I ever decided to stop lifting, they could probably work for something else.

So my approach to workout gear has been minimal at best; involved if you like.

But these knee sleeves are the first thing I have thought about, tried out, and decided to expend the funds necessary for me to have my very own pair so I can lift well and with the proper support.

That’s because these sleeves are simply miraculous, and I don’t use that word lightly.

This winter, my trainer and I have been working on developing greater depth for my squats. I have a regimen of exercises to strengthen my hips, and over time, I have been able to drop lower and lower.

It’s been all good. Except when I watched videos of fabulous women lifters getting their “ass to grass” in squats, I admit I felt a wee bit jealous.

During a cold spell last month, my knees became cranky. My trainer suggested I try the sleeves when we reached higher weights on the bar. I borrowed a pair for the session, and I did not want to give them back. As I worked my way through the sets, I began scheming how these sleeves would be mine.

Since I like the owner, I decided they should stay where they belonged. I did borrow them again a couple of times to be sure they were as good as they felt the first time, and this week, I went online and committed.

The sleeves provide a level of support I did not think was possible, and yet, when I wear them during squat sessions, I have no hesitation standing up after dropping down. Though they are working on the knees, the sleeves send a message to my hips that the knees are in charge and stability is the goal. And while I’m not as close to the level as I see on the training videos, I am achieving very creditable squats that pass the form test quite well for depth and control.

I see you grass and I am coming for you.

— Martha lifts and writes in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The Flu and My Friend’s Fitness Journey (Guest Post)

Last week I got unexpectedly hit with the flu. (Come to think of it, is it ever really expected?) Anyway, it knocked me out hard and I was upset by the rough start to my 2017. (Needless to say I haven’t worked out but proudly made it to a Yin yoga class which my post-flu body could barely handle.)

While I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do appreciate a New Year’s reflection on my overall life trajectory. What have I accomplished? What haven’t I? Where would I like to see things going over the next year?

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New Year’s resolutions for me, like lots of people, tend to fall flat by Week 2. Sam wrote about December 1st as the new January 1st. I actually like the idea of getting a jump on a new year the months leading up to it.

In the fall, I was excited to recommit to my health and fitness. I’ve written here about how I am learning to see myself as an active person who is takes her wellbeing seriously. One of the people who inspired me to make the change in my own life also recommitted to her health and wellbeing exactly one year before I did (she in November 2015, and I in November 2016).

I thought that I would speak more formally with her about her experience, as there are things I recognize as similar about both of our stories: we both started out as relatively active children and young women but became discouraged and anxious about fitness as we got older. We both had multiple false starts over the years, and we both decided to integrate fitness and wellness in our lives around the same time.

 

Tracy: What does being “fit” mean to you?

Jaclyn: Being fit means loving, embracing and accepting my body for all the amazing things that I can do. This is not to say that now I love my body because it is leaner and has more muscle mass, and that I could not love my body before because I had a much higher body fat percentage. Getting stronger, lifting heavier, and getting my cardio up to a level I didn’t know was possible has led to an appreciation for myself and my body that I never had when I spent most of my days drinking, partying, and subsequently binge eating my hangover away the next day.

Tracy: Since you mention it, regarding your drinking/partying in the past, do you feel like you simply “replaced” those old habits with new ones or is it more complex? (Do you feel like a different person now than you were back then?)

Jaclyn: I think it’s more complex than that. I’m the same person, yet a different person. I think a part of the drinking was me trying to cover over parts of me that I didn’t like (or that I thought I needed to change to be liked). When I began my fitness journey, my new habits (nutrition, fitness, sleep, water intake, etc.) replaced old habits (binge drinking, binge eating, partying).  As my new habits began to slowly weed out and replace my old ones, there was a moment that I realized I was truly and genuinely happy. In that moment, I realized that this new lifestyle fuels me and allows me to be my most authentic and genuine self.

Tracy: That’s so wonderful and it’s been amazing to see your progress. What was your previous experience with fitness? Were you an active child?

Jaclyn: I grew up an active kid; I was on the swim and synchronized swimming teams, played soccer, and did ballet. My family loves to camp, so I’d frequently go canoeing, hiking, swimming and kayaking with them. But gym class was a nightmare for me. As a shy and introverted child, cliques in gym classes (which often involved choosing partners and teams) intimidated me. My intuition was to skip the classes to avoid this.

In undergrad, I joined a couple gyms but never stuck with them because I had no knowledge about what I should be doing, how to use the machines and free weights, or how to bring variety into my workouts and how to eat in accordance with my goals.

I would never even dream of asking someone to show me how to do something, and I was too afraid of being judged using free weighs since I had never used them before.  So, I would go over to the one machine I knew – the treadmill – walk for 40 minutes and leave as quickly as I could.  After a couple weeks, I would get bored of the same old routine and frustrated by the lack of any tangible kind of progress, I would quit the gym.  Looking back, my social anxiety, shyness and introversion were the biggest obstacles for getting into fitness.

Tracy: I think that can be quite common—sometimes people see “gym culture” as macho or unfriendly, especially for someone who is new to working out or not that knowledgeable when it comes to fitness. How did you find this and what strategies did you find helpful in overcoming that?

Jaclyn: As someone with little knowledge about fitness and exercise, and as an introvert with social anxiety, breaking into the gym and developing a consistent routine was a huge obstacle. This time, however, I didn’t want to run; I wanted to face this challenge and move myself into a space where I could walk into a gym and do my routine comfortably.

As I’ve grown with my anxiety, I have learned things that I can do to help reduce attacks.  For example, in a conference setting, the more research I have done on my topic, the more comfortable I felt.  So, this was my first strategy in wanting to become more comfortable at the gym, to gain knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I could afford a starter package with a personal trainer.  My thought process was that if I was willing to spend the money I previously did on booze, then I could certainly take that money and invest in myself and buy some training sessions.  I thought that if I had an expert take me through the gym, show me how to use the machines and show me some free weight exercises, I would feel more confident walking in and doing it on my own.

Further, I thought that if I could learn the basics of form, that when I went on my own I would be less likely to injure myself.  Another alternative to training packages is to take full advantage of the growing fitness industry via social media platforms (such as YouTube). I used this to watch how certain exercises are done, would mimic the motions in the privacy of my own house, and then try them at the gym. Utilizing the knowledge from the training sessions and from my research online helped me feel more confident in the gym.

Tracy: You’ve mentioned your social anxieties, which I think are common for many people, especially when it comes to trying new things. How has fitness allowed you to grow in this area, and allowed you to become less fearful of being judged, etc.?

Jaclyn: In addition to gaining the knowledge necessary to make me more comfortable at the gym, I made sure to go during quieter periods (i.e., not during peak times), especially at the beginning. I would also wear a baseball hat, which almost acted like blinders—it helped me feel more “in the zone” and focus more on myself and less on others around me.

Over time, I became more and more confident in myself and in my place at the gym. The better I became at lifting, the less I worried about being judged.  Moreover, the more I fell in love with lifting, the less I cared about being judged; in fact, I don’t worry at all about this because I know that weight lifting involves stalling on reps, or failing a certain move.  I know saw failure as opportunity to grow and learn – understood that this was part and parcel of the process itself – and so I no longer feared being judged.  This process of working on my anxieties in the gym was by no means a speedy one, but I can now happily say that about one year later, I do not need to wear a hat, and I can walk into any gym, at any time, and get to the grind with no fear and no anxieties.

I found that this newfound confidence in the gym spilled into other aspects of my life.  Looking back at where I started and where I am now made me realize how strong and resilient I am.  It helped me realize what I want out of life, and what I wasn’t willing to compromise.

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Tracy: What surprised you most about the new lifestyle that you wouldn’t have expected?

Jaclyn: I never expected to fall in love with fitness and weightlifting like I did, but perhaps more surprising was the humbling self-love and acceptance that arose naturally out of the process.  I have cellulite and big thighs, but this no longer bothers me like it used to.  Instead, I am amazed by how strong and resilient I have become since I started.  I have become humbled by fitness and developed a love for myself that was absent from the larger part of my life.

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Speaking with Jaclyn over the last few months have helped to keep me both motivated and patient with myself. It’s especially helpful when I have my own hang-ups or things that slow me down—like the flu, or like fainting (which I wrote about in last month’s post). I’m grateful to have her as a friend and role model and thank her for letting me write about this so openly in this month’s post!

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Finding my fitness spirit animal (Guest post)

I have figured out my fitness spirit animal.

My desire to get in better shape has been a long time coming. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who truly enjoys physical activity, who opts for a salad instead of something crunchy and deep-fried. One of my good friends is one of these people. It seems to come to her naturally—she runs marathons for fun and honestly enjoys vegetables. She often says that her spirit animal is a hamster because she can relate to the need to run on a wheel that doesn’t go anywhere—just to burn the energy.

I envy these people. And I cannot relate to them at all.

In the past I’ve related most closely to lazy housecats. Or maybe to a blubbery seal sunbathing on a rock with half-eaten fishtail dangling from its mouth.

 

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This is how I spent much of the last two years: sprawled out on my couch with Netflix and a family-size bag of chips balanced expertly on my chest. (For you non-snackers, a family-size bag is much bigger than a regular size bag.) I was going through some intense stuff in my personal life and so hibernation seemed the most sensible option for a time when I was feeling so emotionally raw. And don’t get me wrong…I do have some fond memories of nights alone surrounded by blankets and snacks, like any happy seal would. I don’t regret this perhaps necessarily indulgent time in my life. But the problem was that it became a fairly regular habit. From “What the heck, just this once!” to “Oh, maybe I’ll only indulge on weekends,” to “Well, Thursday and Friday are basically the weekend,” and so forth. You get it – it got out of hand.

I think part of the problem was also that I viewed myself as a very physically awkward person, so anxiety around my own physical awkwardness prevented me from taking action sooner. I just never thought of myself as an “athletic person.” And this would always be reinforced when, in the past, I’d be working out and feeling strong and graceful, only to catch my reflection in an ill-placed mirror and suddenly think, Oh God! Is that what I look like right now?? (Have you ever seen a seal try to get around on land? It ain’t pretty.)

 I mean, I probably suffer from an average degree of female-related self-consciousness about my body, but the combination of athletic anxiety and my perceived physical awkwardness didn’t help.

Who knows, maybe it’s that “fitness clothes” (bright and skin-tight) just aren’t that flattering on bodies like mine (soft and curvy with doughy bits). Don’t get me wrong, I do love my body and have admired myself in many a reflection on a good day—I even considered entering a burlesque show once—but by today’s standards of “fitness,” or what it means “to be fit,” I often see myself as too round, soft, and flat out awkward to be an “in shape” person. And it doesn’t help to see people with gazelle-like grace running past me on the street while I get sweaty just from walking around with a backpack on. My idea of what it meant to be active had become too dichotomous.

However, during my time of hibernation, another friend of mine had completely transformed herself from a hard partyer to heavy weight lifter. It was inspiring to see her journey and what appealed to me most about her story was that she had done so with no previous experience or even inclination to make such a change. When I asked her about her experience, she told me that she too had been initially intimidated by fitness culture and by gyms, never daring to try more than the elliptical or treadmill. But the real clincher for me was when she told me she still indulges in homemade desserts and other delicious treats every night. She still has nights sprawled out on her couch with Netflix.

It was a revelation.

Never before had I meant a healthy and fit person with the same lazy, snack-fueled inclinations as myself.

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I used to think there were two kinds of people: the gazelles and the hamsters of the world who love to run and don’t eat junk food, and the housecats and blubbery seals like me, doomed to lie about on our rocks and couches indefinitely. And while I know that different people have different inclinations (health- and activity-wise), it took me a while to realize that “fitness” is a wide-ranging sliding scale.

I used to think that being healthy and fit meant pretty much never eating fun stuff again, never lazing about guilt-free again. And this would mean that becoming healthier would be changing who I am and giving up some of the things I truly enjoy. It hadn’t occurred to me that incorporating fitness into my life would be about harmonizing my internal athlete and couch potato, my inner hamster and housecat.

While so much of the culture around “being fit” can seem impenetrable, exclusive, and intimidating—especially for someone who has never known quite how to go about it—finding someone who had found a way to take control of her health and wellness in her own way was eye-opening for me. I just had to find my own way that worked for me.

Strangely, I had been afraid that becoming healthier and more active would mean losing a part of myself. But what I learned was that I had it in me the whole time. My fitness spirit animal is still 100% a blubbery seal. But here’s the thing about blubbery seals, they know how to relax on land, but they get down to business under water. They are my fitness spirit animal: the perfect combination of awkward and graceful, blubbery and strong, lazy and active.

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Tracy de Boer is a real adult lady currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy at Western University. She is passionate about the ways philosophy enables people to think critically about everyday life. She is also very sad about the results of the U.S. election. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, @tracyrwdeboer.

 

Getting Equipped

By Martha Fit at 55

My sneakers died last month. I loved them, my bright turquoise and green shoes that always perked me up, but they gave up the ghost after a rather epic hike.img_3072

Luckily I have another pair, as a result of acquiring some proper lifting footwear.

My beloved walking shoes, fabulous as they were for walking through miles of bog and barren as well as unevenly paved urban streets, simply weren’t suitable, even when brand new, for the heavy work I was now undertaking in the gym environment.

After a winter spent rebuilding my fitness foundation due to a misbehaving knee, I started working on gaining more depth with my squat, and also establishing more stability for my deadlifts. Fortunately, my trainer realized I needed proper squat shoes as well as deadlift shoes, so I could get closer to the floor, literally and figuratively.

I am the first to admit they are the oddest things I have put on my feet. The squat shoes are inflexible, while the deadlift shoes are a souped up version of ballet shoes. Both involve complicated laces, and they are rather dull in colour (one is black and the other is a dark grey) and as an added bonus, the squat shoes come with Velcro.

But they do the job they are meant to do. And I love them. Plus they were way easier to acquire than any of my other workout gear. Take my search for a swimsuit last month. It was, admittedly, not an ideal time to be looking. Nonetheless, I had hope. At the very least, I thought I could pick up a cute pair of gym shorts and a tank, and call it a day. After all, spandex is spandex.

No such luck.

After trekking through multiple stores, I had to ask: where are the cute prints, the funky suits, and the sassy, saucy tops I see all over Instagram and Facebook?

They’re not in my hometown, that’s for sure.

Nor are they to be found all that easily online. If you are lucky enough to find something in your size, there’s little variety, it’s often uninspiring in design, and if it is actually pretty, it’s totes expensive.

So why do I embrace the solid, frankly unsleek, squat shoe and its equally uninspiring-looking companion the deadlift shoe, all while chafing at and whining about the miserable selection of available pants and tops? Why do I love my unpretty lifting shoes that have changed how I work in the gym? Is it because no one cares what’s on my feet? That it doesn’t matter if you are a size 8 or a size 18 when it comes to shoes?

I’ve been thinking about the contradictions my desire for new workout gear poses for me, and I don’t yet have a lot of concrete conclusions. As I get more assertive with my lifts, more committed to my training, and more confident in my results, I want a bolder exterior to match the inner changes I’ve made these past three years. After all, outside the gym, I’m not one to shy away from advocating, arguing, and persuading, so why skulk around the corners, metaphorically speaking, in the gym?

Because it’s not always that simple or easy to walk into a gym when you are so often surrounded by norms for attractiveness and appropriate size that do not reflect your own experience. Nor is it comfortable to always be told “I’m sorry; we only carry clothes that go up to size 12.”

However, lifting has taught me something worth remembering: when you commit to picking up heavy things and putting them down, you take up space, and there’s no running away from that. Quite simply the strength you bring is visible, unavoidable, and yes, audacious. And just like my much-loved sneakers, there comes a time when you have to say goodbye to old ways of thinking/seeing, and say hello to something so new, it will take you further than you have ever imagined.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s who finally caught her reindeer last week, and is now looking for a new target to aim for in her deadlift.

Getting strong and feeling it

By MarthaFitAt55

I remember when I started running, and my shins hurt, friends said to me in encouragement, “wait until you get the runner’s high – you will feel fantastic.”

And it is true, you do. But to be honest, the emotion I usually felt when I worked out, or learned a new sport, was frustration. I had to work at learning all of it: how to stretch, how to move my feet, how to move my arms, how to recover, how to prevent injury and stress. I was not a natural athlete.

Often I would drag myself home, physically, and emotionally, in a lather muttering imprecations and not a few curses.

Of course, there were great moments. I remember the joy I felt at completing two ten-mile road races and competing in two regattas. I remember how thrilled I was to take five minutes off my time from one year to the next in the road race, and how excited I got when I finally felt at home in the boat with the team and the oars.

I remember how sad I felt when the season ended, when my rowing team members decided to pursue other interests, when my knees said no to running.

When I started weight training, I figured there would be similar highs and lows. And yes, there were times when I gritted my teeth doing the last set of split squats, or when I sat in the change room wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.

Generally though, I liked, and still like, what I was doing. I was so happy when I started working with the trap bar, and then, when I graduated to the squat, bench and deadlift. So I have run the gamut – frustration, delight, excitement, anticipation, and sadness.

In one of my most recent training sessions, though, I encountered a new one: anger.

My trainer has suggested over the last couple of months that I work on my mental approach as well as thinking about my tactical approach to lifting large weights. I’ve been liking the ideas very much, and can see the difference in my squats.

The most consistent advice has been to focus on attacking the bar, whether I jam it in the right spot on my shoulders, or if it’s saying to myself, ”this weight is super heavy, but I am going to really go after this lift.“delicateflower

The fact is, I’m not used to physical aggression, or being physically aggressive. Now getting angry with inanimate objects was not foreign to me; I have wrestled with my share of awkward pie doughs, nasty zippers on toddler snow suits, and resistant corks in wine bottles. But getting angry in public, in a gym?

That was new, and it was uncomfortable and it was unsettling.

But I usually try anything my trainer suggests at least once, because so far I have received good advice and excellent coaching. So I attacked the bar. I was not going to be defeated by pieces of metal. I lifted that weight, and I did it seven times.

I expected to be wrung out, because we were on our next to last set, but instead I was buzzing with the power of the focused anger. It was overwhelming and confusing at once.

That night as I was thinking about that session, I wondered if, too often, we let those social roles set for women as peaceable, as accommodating, as flexible means we don’t get to own our aggression, passion, and anger in disciplined ways. It’s not just in weight and powerlifting, of course; it’s also in boxing and martial arts, to just name two.

Women aren’t supposed to show anger or aggression. If we feel it, we are supposed to swallow it, or hide it, because expressing those strong emotions means we are challenging the status quo, speaking our truths loud, and standing our ground.

But I have come to the conclusion that we need to show our strength, and if that means being loud, angry, and aggressive with the weight, then so be it. There are lots of lessons in the weight room that can carry over into the board room and perhaps it’s high time more of us were learning to harness that particular power effectively.

— MarthaFitAt55 has decided to replace her striped tabby cat inner self with a sleek black jaguar. So far so good.