athletes · body image · competition · Guest Post · weight lifting

I was wrong (Guest post)

Last year, as my 40th birthday disappeared in my rear-view mirror, driven by a combination of vanity and fear of my own mortality and decrepitude, I committed to getting in shape. I’ve always been fairly active: I have always walked a lot, commuted by bike when that was plausible, and just generally been high-energy. I’ve always avoided driving whenever possible.

But a childhood full of failure at team sports and a lack of innate gifts in the coordination department scared me off of formal physical activity for decades. Indeed, I was convinced that I hated working out – that I would always hate it, no matter what, and that it would take a tremendous and ongoing act of sheer will power to do it.

One year ago today, I posted on facebook about how much I hated it, and defended the permanence and context-invariance of my hatred against comment after comment from friends who were trying to be helpful. This guest post is a kind of personal anniversary celebration, as well as a very public admission that I was totally wrong.

I have always been deeply uncomfortable in spaces that are specifically gendered female. In general, I am more at home in male-dominated spaces. For example, I am a philosophy professor. Philosophers worry a lot about how male-dominated the discipline is, and I share this important concern, but at a personal, visceral level, the gendering of philosophy spaces has always made me more rather than less comfortable. Even more acutely, it turns out, I prefer physical activities that are generally gendered male, and I am much more comfortable training with and around men than women.

As a feminist, however, I felt shame about my preference for male spaces for many years; it seemed to me to be a betrayal of my values. It took me a long time to really absorb the idea that we are all complexly gendered: some men feel more comfortable in feminine clothing; some women feel more comfortable with a masculine chest; and I feel more comfortable training my body in masculinized spaces and ways. This is not, I finally realized, a betrayal of feminism, a compromise of my female identity, or indeed any kind of normatively evaluable fact about me.

But for a long time, failure to grasp all this and a lack of imagination thwarted my various attempts to ‘start working out.’ I would occasionally try a yoga or aerobics or pilates class or something and feel deeply alienated; then I wouldn’t do anything for a couple of years. I now see this as a vivid example of how gender norms can limit our imagination, both through inculcating shame and through stifling creativity. When I was shown a few powerlifts in the gym, I discovered serendipitously that I love exercise when – and only when – it is a testosterone-driven outlet for aggression in a yoga-pants-free environment.

This discovery transformed me. Today, I box about 6 hours a week, run four miles a day most days, strength train three times a week, and am getting ready for my first powerlifting competition (in the under-105-pound masters’ class) in March. I ride my bike about 100 miles a week, and I’ve recently started dabbling in parkour. I’ve put on a ton of muscle and my body fat is around 16%.

RK boxing

I am interested in how different my relationship is with each of my main physical activities.

I bike as my primary mode of transportation, to socialize, and sometimes to relax and give my intellect a break; biking does not feel like exercise to me and I am completely noncompetitive about it. Getting on my bike is like hanging out with a dear and familiar childhood friend.

I basically despise running, but I know it is good for my cardio health and overall conditioning. I feel like I ought to be able to force myself to do some things that I hate, so I run partly because I hate it, to test my will regularly. As with biking, I have no competitive goals when it comes to running. I am content to survive it.

Powerlifting is the first physical activity I have ever truly excelled at, and it’s a huge rush for me. I lift two or three times a week, working with a personal trainer. Lifting makes me feel powerful and in command of my body and competitive like nothing I have ever experienced. This is the one physical activity I do where I am really working towards specific goals, which makes for a very distinctive kind of working out. Here’s me deadlifting twice my body weight:

I box about five hours a week, often with a private coach. I box because it pushes me to my limits on every front. Coordination, speed, strength, flexibility, endurance; boxing requires all of it and I love the challenge. I also love giving my aggressive side an unfettered outlet. But honestly, I think that what I love most about boxing is being included (however peripherally) in the culture, the history, and the aesthetic of the sport. I love being in boxing gyms and going to fights and hanging out with boxers and coaches. I love training in different cities when I travel and meeting local boxers. I have no metatheory of this love, but it thrills me, and allows me to be someone I usually am not.

One of the most amazing transformations for me has been the change in my courage. I am not afraid of people looking at my body, nor of what the scale says, nor – most importantly – of trying new things. This includes trying things that might hurt me, or that I might be terrible at. For the first time in my life I feel like I’ll try anything at least once; I have no fear of or for my body anymore. It has been an incredible year.

Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where she is also a Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.  She lives in Washington, DC and Tampa, FL with her 12-year-old son and her very old Shiba Inu.