Earlier this month, a man walked into a hair salon in California and shot and killed his wife and seven other people.
Sadly, predictably, some men’s rights activists greeted this news with glee, saying that the man had struck a blow for their cause. Some of their comments made my blood literally turn to ice:
I submit that women … are much more likely to pay attention when they’re being threatened. If it becomes obvious that claiming child abuse during divorce, withholding visitation and other such actions could result in their death, then they might think twice about such behavior.
Another commenter said feminists needed to be reminded of their “biological superiors” with a “slap across the face.”
One can read comments like that and take the perspective that such statements are merely verbalized rage issuing forth from the desperate maw of a dying order. Certainly it’s a valid perspective – our world is no longer constructed in such a way that men can automatically expect to become kings of their own private fiefdoms upon marrying. Many men have no problem with the more egalitarian vision of romantic relationships, but there are some who see this as a deep betrayal of everything they have been promised in their lives.
I wish I could take such a blase attitude, but the fact is, I cannot. I cannot because I know that this is a mindset that persists even into the 21st century. I cannot because I bear the emotional scars of my involvement with a man who viewed the world in precisely this way. I cannot because I still remember what it felt like to be the one threatened, to be reminded of my “biological inferiority,” to be the one slapped across the face.
There’s nothing quite like being pinned to the ground, completely unable to move, to make a person feel weak and powerless. Maybe the only other thing like it is trying to fight back and defend yourself and having your efforts crushed with all the thought given to swatting away a fly.
Day after day, for the better part of nine years, I was reminded of my physical weakness in the most visceral way possible. It did not matter how logical I was in my arguments, or how persuasive I was, or how intense my emotional appeals – in the end, he always held the trump card. He always had the power to win all arguments, to subdue me into submission, to make me give up. He knew this, and he did not hesitate to use it whenever he thought it was necessary. Unfortunately for me, he deemed it necessary in arguments over politics, over housework, over family vacations.
Over time, I shrank to fit the new dimensions of my life. I’d never thought of myself as a particularly physically strong person – I’d always been rather easy to push around – but after coming out on the losing end of so many battles, I started to think of myself as utterly without power or strength. I felt so humiliated, and when I tried to explain that to him, he scoffed. “No one else sees this,” he said. “How can you possibly be humiliated?” As far as he was concerned, if no one else saw it, it never happened. He didn’t understand that it was enough for me to see, that it was enough for me to know.
Sometimes, when I had the energy, I fought against it. I took some kickboxing classes for a while, and I loved them. The feeling of my glove-encased fist striking the punching bag gave me the space to release all of the rage that had accumulated inside of me. Those classes were my outlet, but they ended one night after he tearfully told me how sad it was that I felt like I needed to be able to defend myself, and he apologized for ever making me feel that way.
The detente lasted for a couple of months. Then some small thing led to another slightly larger thing, which led to yet another larger thing, and then we were locked in the cycle again.
After I left, I spent a lot of time thinking. I replayed scenes from our marriage over and over again, and a new portrait of him formed. I had always perceived him as this wounded force of nature, a young boy who didn’t understand the strength of his man’s body.
But his physical absence allowed me to view him in new ways, and I realized that he may have been wounded and damaged, but it didn’t preclude him from being what he actually was, which was a bully.
Bullies are cowards at heart. They feel powerless over their own lives, and so they grasp to maintain a sense of control by exerting power over those they perceive as weaker than them. My ex-husband saw me as someone who was weaker than him, and hence as someone he could control. I was a possession that belonged to him, a blond trophy that served as proof of his worthiness as a human being.
I did not want to be an object, or a possession, or a trophy. I wanted to feel in control of my life, but I did not want to be like my ex-husband. I did not want to find that control at the expense of another person’s safety and well-being. I wanted power that meant something. I wanted power that could not be taken away from me. I wanted to feel strong.
So I began lifting weights.
Unlike most of the other women at my university’s gym, I wasn’t interested in cardio-blasting my butt into oblivion or doing two hundred reverse crunches. I didn’t care about making myself as small as possible. No, I wanted muscles. I wanted thickness. I wanted to take up space. I wanted to be so intimidating that no one would even dream of messing with me.
I refused to accept that I was somehow destined to be “biologically inferior,” simply because I was a woman. The notion of women as the “weaker sex” had always been offensive, but now it seemed downright dangerous.
I began looking at the world with a newly critical eye. Why did everything in beauty magazines, for instance, focus on making women as small as possible? Why were women so concerned about developing muscles? Why did we as a culture view women with muscles as ugly freaks of nature? Why were we as a society so invested in keeping women physically weak?
Over time it occurred to me that we had made a sexual fetish of female weakness, and that in doing so, we had developed a system in which women willingly embraced a life in which they were perpetually vulnerable to harm.
I had seen first-hand where this led, and I wanted no part of it.
My time in the weight room took on a new dimension after that. My squats and my bench presses were about more than just feeling good and strong. I was fighting back against everyone and everything that insisted my lot in life was to be weak, to be easily threatened, to be biologically inferior. My weight lifting was an act of feminist resistance.
It’s been a few years since I had this epiphany. In that time, I’ve logged many, many hours in the weight room. I’ve taught myself to lift seriously and to lift heavy, in ways that have earned me respect from the men in the weight room.
The hard work and consistency is paying off. I took a yoga class earlier this week, during which I wore a tight tank top and a pair of compression capris. As I executed move after move, I checked myself in the mirror to make sure my form was correct. Each time, I saw with delight that my back was rippled with muscle, that my calves were solid and thick, and that my traps were well-defined.
Not bad, lady, I thought to myself. Not bad.
What’s more, I realized I was holding my body in fairly complicated poses, and that I was doing so with relative ease. As I changed positions, I thought of all of the things I could do now that require physical strength, everything from opening a jar of pickles to lifting heavy boxes over my head to wrangling small children and large dogs.
My body not only looks strong; it is strong. I am strong, and most importantly, I know it.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this post is part of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog roundup. The full list of participants will be posted October 29. If you are in an abusive partnership—whether you’re being abused, abusing your partner, or both—tell someone. You can begin by clicking here or calling 800-799-SAFE.