I don’t remember who it was but I think it was a client that I had years ago. We were talking about a break up of her marriage or relationship or something and she was telling me about her mom’s reaction. We had focused in on this one thing that seemed to distress her mom, or maybe it was just part of the argument for why she should try to keep her relationship. Her mom said, “Well, who is going to open jars for you?” As I remember it, the comment was matter of fact and so very out of context of the pain the person was feeling both in the relationship and because of the break up. However, it did seem self-evident to her mom that jar opening was a thing you wanted a man around to do.
There is a part of me that can imagine writing this piece from a place of grief after death of a partner and taking that phrase in that sense. I vividly remember my own mother’s grief after the death of my dad, encapsulated in the question, “Who will watch the snow fall with me?” This evocative moment speaks to connection, shared pleasure in company and its loss. The jar could be the same. I walk into the living room to find my loving partner and hand him this jar so he can do me this kindness, but he is not there and my heart breaks.
Except, that isn’t what that client’s mom meant. She meant that we need a man to help us with the hard and heavy and strenuous things and that we should put up with all manner of crap to keep that presence. Or alternatively, she thought so little of men that she only kept them around to open jars and clean the eaves in the fall. Either way, connection, pleasure in company, jars as symbols of love, this was not what was getting evoked.
I have been thinking about the jar issue as I adjust to being the only adult in my home that houses me, two pets and an occasional child. I am thinking about what it means to be self reliant and relying only on myself. Last week, I came home at 10pm after starting my day at 7am. It was garbage day the next day and my dog just refused to take the garbage out for me. The nerve. The cat was similarly uncooperative. I took it out myself. Laundry baskets that are full to the brim and well over 20 lbs must be carried upstairs. Snow was shovelled all winter. Bags of salt need to be emptied into the softener and cat litter needs to be moved from car to litter box. And yes, there were jars that I had to open. These were all things I used to defer to “someone stronger than I was”. It’s based on a rational division of labour, at least in theory. Yet I have come to think that I was doing myself a disservice by deferring even as much as I did. The dependence it can create, when we fear we can’t manage the heavy or hard things, can cloud judgement. It can stoke fear. The fear is that of being alone, lost and struggling, protectorless, perhaps vulnerable.
I’m not saying I’m not vulnerable. I’m just saying I’m strong. I’m strong enough to lug the garbage and the laundry and the salt and the cat litter. I have friends to lug motors to boats with me and honestly, I haven’t met a jar that ever beat me. It may take me a while, it may end up looking like the lid has been in a car accident, but it’s open.
Lasting companionship and connection is lovely. Lives don’t always work out that way. Opening our own jars gives us options and a certain clarity. I like that quite a bit. 💪🏻
I strength train in a small community center gym. It is filled with the full range of humanity who live in my diverse community. When I started working out there four or five years ago, as far as I could tell I was the only woman who regularly lifted weights. Only in the last year or so have I begun to see a shift where there are other women who lift, at least a little bit, with some regularity. Nevertheless, it is still very much a man’s domain. And perhaps because weightlifting is so deeply connected in our psyches with manliness, machoness, and physical dominance, I find that I encounter a larger-than-usual population of the toxically masculine. From aging athletes who feel that it is their rightful territory, to arrogant and ignorant newbies puffing up to attempt to appear competent, I must interact with men who at best don’t seem to recognize that I may belong there, too, and at worst, those who seem to resent my presence.
I am not proud to acknowledge it, but I have adjusted to this reality in dozens of subtle ways that allow the status quo to remain in place. The gym at my rec center remains a man’s space. All of these adjustments are done to keep the men there at ease and to avoid conflict. I would like to think that I’m just being considerate, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s really about not entirely feeling like I belong–that I’m still imposing on a space that isn’t equally mine.
Here’s a sampling of what I do:
–I work hard to be efficient with whatever equipment I’m using. Old-school gym culture suggests that folks can “cut in” and share equipment, but this is not something I see at my gym. Instead, folks stay where they are until all their sets are done and then the next person takes over. If I’m doing several long sets, I am always aware of who is around me who might be waiting for whatever I’m using. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable if I can tell that they’re waiting for me, although I do not usually see the same consideration in reverse.
–I make it very clear which equipment I’m using. I put my workout log onto the bench before I get up to get a drink of water from the fountain. Or, sometimes when it’s really busy, I don’t get up at all. This avoids the awkward “I’m still using that” conversation. I’ve had men start to roll away a bench I had put a barbell or dumbbells next to as I was setting up a lift, and I had to ask them to please leave it there. Two-thirds of the guys just don’t seem to have processed that I was using it. Perhaps the other third of the time, they shoot me a look that suggests their needs are greater than mine.
–When I’m doing lifts like rows in which my decolletage might show, I do them towards the wall. For that matter, any exercise that might seem “risqué” is done with as little audience as possible. I’ve caught the eyes of men who were noticing me, and it can become uncomfortable quickly. For about a year, there was a guy who I found myself making sure always left before I did, so there wasn’t any chance that he’d follow me out. He stared at me with unabashed focus every time we were both in the gym. It scared me, and I never confronted him about it.
–I wear earbuds to listen to music and to signal I don’t want to have a conversation. On a related note, I don’t make eye contact except to check on if someone is done with a piece of equipment. I rarely smile, so I won’t be misunderstood to be flirting, and I avoid looking too stern (RBF), so I don’t look too mean. I aim to be neutral.
–I wear a t-shirt or loose tank top over my sports bra all year long, even when it’s blazing hot and the AC goes out at the community center. I wear no-show panties to avoid any pantyline and high-rise leggings that keep my backside covered. I don’t want my appearance to be misconstrued as attention-seeking. The handful of times I’ve felt it necessary to inform someone that I was married, the responses I got back were less-than-respectful. As a result of these, I have also started wearing a silicone “wedding” ring when I lift.
–I avoid correcting or giving feedback to someone, even if their gym faux-pas are problematic for me. If they are sitting for half an hour on a bench I need, I don’t ask them how long they’ll be. If they’re staring at their phone next to where I need to go, I wait patiently for them to move along. If they walk between me and the mirror, I keep my annoyance to myself, even if I need to spot my form on that lift.
Despite these considerations, I have had equipment picked up and walked away without being asked if I was using it. I am yelled at about once a year. Last year, a guy started screaming at me for “wasting time” while I was resting between sets. Only last month, another guy started yelling at me (“Don’t YOU tell me what to do!”), aggressively leaning in, when I asked him if he could “please walk around” so I could do an overhead press without him directly in front of me. I’ve had benches taken over while I was standing next to them. Backhanded compliments like “I know it seems weird to be asking you, but could you show me that lift,” are common. I act flattered instead of wondering aloud why they shouldn’t ask me.
I am ok with the idea that the way I lift weights it outside of normative femininity. However, I question the “rules” I have set out for myself to share space at the gym. I’m conflicted about it–I genuinely don’t want to be in conflict with guys while I’m there; however, there’s been frequent enough issues that my rules have been adapted in response to them. Many of those conflicts were due to the man in question seemingly having his own sets of rules that aren’t based on any mutual community mindset but rather things that work best for himself as an individual. His individual needs take precedence over mine. And how do I speak up for myself, when the act of saying anything at all is often met with aggression, intimidation, and posturing? Or on the flip side of things, when they are attempting to be accommodating, they are actually condescending and belittling–how do I say, thank you but no, I don’t need you to rack my weights for me or carry that dumbbell back? I can lift it myself, and that’s the whole point of being there.
And so I’m stuck. Do I go about standing up for myself and my needs and thereby continue to have conflicts, or do I adjust my behaviors to reduce conflict so I can have as pleasant a session as possible, but perpetuate and enable a gym culture that is not accommodating to women?
What say you? Do you stand up for your needs and risk conflict and confrontation? Are you open to feedback at the gym or does it feel like an imposition while you’re “in the zone?”
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
So usually I lift heavy things in the gym, either on my own, with a personal trainer, or lately with my son Miles who is starting university at Guelph next month.
That’s controlled and deliberate lifting. You know how much a thing weighs and you make a plan to lift it x number of times for y number of sets. Though sometimes the math is complicated. The other day I was lifting a 55 lb bar with 40 kg weights.
Lately though I’ve been lifting heavy things in the wild. What do I mean?
Well, here are some examples.
Tonight, I needed to move a washer and dryer set from the back lawn into the shed. We had a wheelie thing underneath it to get it as far as the shed so no problem but then there wasn’t enough clearance in the shed to get the thing and the wheels inside. Miles and I lifted it. I was cautious at first to make sure I was okay with the weight and then once I knew I was fine, carried it into the shed and set it down being careful not to trap my fingers.
Earlier this week Sarah and I had to get the Snipe into the water and out again on our own. We use a trailer and cradle and there’s a ramp into the water but the boat isn’t light. It weighs about 381 lbs. We did it!
And then there are all the boxes of books I’m moving here there and everywhere. My books don’t fit in the new house so some are going to my office at university and others are going to Goodwill. Books aren’t light!
Now lifting actual things is in many ways harder than lifting weights in the gym. Real objects are awkwardly shaped and when you set them down on the floor you need to be careful you don’t squish your fingers. Actual things rarely come with handles. You need grip strength to hold them. We’ve blogged about real world strength here.
This everyday stuff is a big part of why I train with weights, I can lift heavy things in the wild, not just in the controlled environment of the gym.
Yes, it’s for bone health. Yes, it’s to maintain muscle as I age.
But it’s also for practical things like moving washing machines, sailboats, and books.
How about you? Do you enjoy your strength in practical everyday ways?
Why? Well, books that have more reviews, good reviews, are more likely to appear as recommended titles for people who use the biggest of the online book retailers, Amazon. So, please do us a big favour and review our book. See Why reviews matter.
Even if you didn’t purchase your book from Amazon, your review will help ensure others find out about Fit at Mid-Life
Take a look at the existing reviews, and click on “Helpful” below any positive reviews you find helpful
Click on “Write a Customer Review“
Select your star rating
Write a few words on what you liked (or loved) about Fit at Mid-Life
This exercise has led me to notice how many reviews other books have. Whenever I search for our book this title comes up: Thinner Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Female Body.
Thinner! Leaner! Stronger!
One of these things is not like the other. The strongest women aren’t thinner or leaner. They’re big. It’s why there are weight classes for lifting events. But forget that.
Our book has 6 reviews now and I was starting to feel better about the book’s visibility. But then I made the mistake of seeing how many reviews TLS has. 1484. Yikes. That’s a lot.
So I was feeling kind of ticked off about that since it’s a book all about looks and thinness.
But then to add fuel to my anger the men’s version of the same book came into my view. What’s it called? “Thinner” isn’t in the title. No, it’s called Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body.
BIGGER! And it’s got 3301 reviews.
The ultimate female body is thin and lean, I guess, and the ultimate male body is big and strong. And that’s a much more mainstream popular view than feminist approaches to fitness. I guess I knew that. But it’s still depressing.
Lizards cheer me up sometimes. Here’s a cute one.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash. Image description: A bright green lizard on a branch against a dark background.
But the one that I find just puzzling is the idea that large women aren’t strong. From the BBC: “Rebecca Roberts is “morbidly obese”, according to Body Mass Index (BMI). She’s also one of the UK’s Strongest Women. Newsbeat has been speaking to people who say that “bigger is better” – and that their size is an advantage in their jobs. Rebecca has overcome bullying during her childhood and says she’s learned to embrace her bigger size and weight.” See Bigger is better’: The weightlifter
But why is the strength of bigger women a surprise to us? It really shouldn’t be.
Among other things it’s why there are weight classes in competition. The strongest women overall are also the largest. It’s why it’s sometimes to useful to think of strength relative to your body weight. You can disagree about the numbers but it’s why strength benchmarks use bodyweight as a guide. According to 9 Essential Strength Benchmarks for Women you should be able to deadlift 150% of your bodyweight and bench 75% of your body weight.
That’s more meaningful than thinking of it in terms of bears. (I can deadlift something between a black bear and a panda, FWIW.)
But even large women known for their tremendous physical strength aren’t immune from the pressure to look smaller, to be lean and trim.
There I wrote. “We say “strong is the new skinny.” But really, few people mean that. The strongest women, like the strongest men, are big. That’s why lifting has weight divisions. And we tend not to see pictures of strong women like Holley on the “strong is the new skinny” fitspo posters.”
I think we ought to start admiring really strong women and having a mental image of them when we say, “Strong is the new skinny.”
At 42 years old, Ferguson has only been taking part in strength competitions for two years — earning gold in the Master’s division of the North American Strongman Championships in 2015, then going on to claim either the top or runner-up positions in numerous other competitions in B.C., Canada and North America.
To win in Raleigh, Ferguson had to lift metal logs, run with a 500 lb. yoke on her back and deadlift a car as many times as possible in 60 seconds.
I’d like to be able to deadlift a car. It’s Bike to Work Month again and lots of people in my newsfeed are sharing this older clip of a very strong man moving a car out of the bike lane. A girl can dream! #goals