I reject the notion that physical strength is a masculine ideal

Normally when someone criticizes my work on this blog, I take their words into careful consideration and I often find myself reconsidering my position on a given subject.   Sometimes I change my mind, sometimes I don’t.  I generally operate from the mindset that I don’t know a lot about this world and that I am always open to learning more, and so I usually don’t mind when someone offers constructive criticism because it can only help me develop stronger ideas about the world.

The last time a link to my blog was posted to reddit, I found the conversation that ensued very enlightening and interesting.  Even the people who disagreed with me had really good points, and I appreciated that my words inspired them to share their perspectives.  But earlier this week, my post about fitness as a feminist issue was posted to r/feminism, and one comment in particular not only crawled beneath my skin, but it decided to hatch a billion little babies of irritation that left me itching with anger and frustration.

The comment:

I think there’s a fatal logical flaw in the article. Being fit is great and all, but my first reaction was “whoa, ableist”. What about feminists with disabilities? I feel like that’s a bit of an irrelevant tangent, though, because obviously strength is measured in various ways, strength of character is what’s really desired, rather than strength of body.

The logical flaw that I feel exists is the actual link between the two. The blogger claims that increasing her strength helped reinforce her strength of character, and that’s great, but it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. As a man who pays excessive amounts of attention to other men, I can tell you for sure that a lot of guys work out to gain confidence and then end up with great bodies but no confidence whatsoever. There’s a missing step in this equation that really needs to be hashed out and focused on.

Then the same commenter continued with:

There’s a difference between this and selling snake oil, though. Does it seem outlandish that perhaps the blogger feels empowered because she’s taken on the “masculine” trait of building muscle? That interpretation of events probably doesn’t apply, but there needs to be some degree of critical analysis beyond bandwagon back-patting.

Now, I am very much interested in conversations about valuing the traditionally masculine at the cost of the traditionally feminine.  I’m constantly trying to root out my own internalized misogyny and femme-phobia, because I recognize that disdaining things that are traditionally coded as “feminine” puts me on the same continuum of woman-hating as the preacher who says parents should beat the gay out of their sons or the social trends that lead trans women to be murdered at a disproportionate rate than pretty much everyone else.  So yes, let’s talk about femme-phobia and internalized misogyny and let’s talk about ways to defeat this, because internalized misogyny has a body count that continues to rise with each trans woman who is murdered and each gay kid who is bullied into committing suicide.

But what I completely reject is this idea that “building muscle” – aka developing physical strength – is inherently a masculine thing, and that I take pride in my physical strength because I have adopted masculine traits.  This idea is at the core of a deeply damaging idea about gender roles, which posits physical strength and muscle as the provenance of men and physical weakness the domain of women.  One of the biggest ongoing themes in my writing is that physical strength is not a masculine trait or a feminine trait – it is a human trait.

That’s not why this got me so bent out of shape, though.  I’m going to get personal here for the sake of people who are new to my writing and don’t know my back story.  It might be a bit triggering so take care while reading this.

I have a very visceral reaction when I hear the social equation of man=strength while women=weakness, and it’s one that extends beyond your garden-variety feminist anger.  When I think of that equation, I am instantly transported back to a time in my life when it wasn’t uncommon for me to find myself being hit and pushed around and choked by the man who claimed to love me.  I remember what it feels like to not be able to fight back, to not be capable of defending myself no matter how hard I tried.  I remember what it feels like to have him sit on my chest and punch me in the face over and over again, and to wonder if this was going to be the time that he went too far and put me in the hospital, or maybe even worse.

This was my reality for nine years of my life.  I coped the way a lot of people in my situation cope – by abusing drugs.  I smoked pot every day and drank myself to sleep nearly every night and did god knows what else to my body, just so I could make it through the day without falling apart.   But that sense of numbness could not overcome the simple fact that I was being controlled and abused by another person, and that I couldn’t find the strength to walk away for nine years.

I was so broken, I cannot even describe it to you without resorting to melodramatic cliches of crushed butterflies and shattered mirrors.  I was so broken that all of the self-help books in the world would not have helped me, that millions of mantras and self-affirmations and post-its on my bathroom mirrors would not have even started to repair the damage.  And I’m sorry to say that feminism wasn’t enough, either. If it had been, I would have never found myself in the situation I was in in the first place.

I needed something more than that.  I needed to believe in my own strength as a human being.  I did that by facing up to challenges that scared the shit out of me, and then attacking them with every bit of courage I could muster.  Athletics and fitness gave me a way to do that. The space between the starting line and the finish was a safe place where I could push myself and teach myself about my limits, and in the process, show myself that I was stronger than I ever thought possible.

But I suppose that wasn’t feminist enough, right?  Like I’m part of a real-life “Is This Feminist?” post?  Well, Random Internet Commenter, I’m sorry that this….no.  Actually, I’m not sorry.  I’m not sorry that my life and my philosophy are not ideologically pure enough. I’m not sorry that I have not met the standards of feminist perfection by finding empowerment in something that is traditionally coded masculine.  I’m not sorry that my means of surviving in a world that has tried to break me are not considered feminist enough by some random person on the internet.

This has worked for me, and it continues to work for me.  I am not the only one this has worked for.  Women around the world who have taken up sports and athletics could tell you a similar story.  And I would encourage any woman who has ever survived being beaten, kicked, spit on, pushed around, humiliated, controlled or manipulated to give this a try, too.  She doesn’t have to run or lift weights.  She could do yoga or dance or play soccer or swim.  She could do anything, as long as it takes the fear and pain that had been instilled in her body’s memory and replaces it with joy and pleasure and belief in her own strength.

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30 responses to “I reject the notion that physical strength is a masculine ideal

  1. Got to love random internet posters who presume to know everything in your life. I try my best to just delete (or ignore) and move on. What you’ve overcome is truly amazing and I’ve also found that sports, exercise, and strength have helped me in other areas of life. Helped me to gain strength mentally and pulled me out of hard times.

    • I usually am good at giving them the big old WHATEVER but this really bothered me because it is so the antithesis of everything I try to represent in both my real life and my internet life. Also I’m so glad to hear that you’ve had a similar experience in your life! I am always amazed by how deep the connection between my body and my mind/heart runs. I usually find that if I am feeling badly in my heart/mind, doing something to make me feel good physically is the best way to turn that around.

  2. I am actually so angry for you, reading that comment is making my blood boil. So according to this guy to start with, to be a good feminist, you need to declare for every privilege you have. Yes, you are lucky to be able-bodied but how is it ableist to talk about how exercise has improved your relationship with your body and your mind and improved your-self esteem.

    As you concluded in this post, it’s not about what exercise you do, it’s about being able to recognise your body as your own, as in it does not belong to your partner, the diet industry or the patriarchy and its bullshit assumptions about femininity.

    • Thank you. And yes, I have a hard time with comments like that because it just reinforces the old way of looking at things, but it’s perhaps even more problematic because it is couched in the language of progressive thought and feminism. Plus, it’s a little weird to have a guy sit and point out how I’m doing my feminism wrong. Actually, it was extra weird and I’m not really a big fan of it.

      • There are two things wrong with his comment….
        1) He’s comparing apples to oranges, as they say. While it would be ableist to say that a blind person could never be equal to a sighted person unless they gained eyesight, because that isn’t naturally possible, it’s not ableist to say that its a good idea for women to become physically strong because that is naturally possible. (so is he saying that being a woman is a disability?)
        2) HE’S the one being ableist! Many disabled people are physically strong – he should google “paralympics” and “disabled martial arts” sometime.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am going through some Big Stuff with my therapist at the moment. It is so so hard, but it is so so good. Subconsciously, I picked up my gym going when we started talking about this stuff. Thanks for articulating this connection – the strength I get from and use at the gym is a visceral reminder of how strong I am emotionally. They can’t be separated.

    Last night while running, I kept telling myself this is the farthest you’ve ever run – now this is the farthest. It’s true in so many ways.

    • Awesome! I love that feeling, knowing that you are pushing into new territory, both psychologically and physically. It can be scary but also so freeing at the same time, because you really have to re-evaluate your previously held ideas about yourself and the world. Thank you for this comment!

  4. That comment is ridiculous…period.

    There is a big difference between working out to overcome challenges to develop strength of not only body but also mind and working out to become better looking, which is what the guys who don’t gain confidence are doing most of the time.

    Plus let’s face it, most guys don’t feel intimidated trying anything in fitness because it is considered “masculine.” It is way more empowering for a woman to step into territory once considered to be off limits. I think by writing that about the fact that your increased physical strength empowered you is important to prove that “strength” IS NOT a masculine thing.

    This person should really be happy about the fact that you are destroying the boundaries for women when it comes to fitness!

    Also, slightly off topic, but have you seen the book Venus with Biceps? http://www.amazon.com/dp/1551523701/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=1551523701&adid=04P9M40P4WEAFCPXQFX3
    :-)

    • I have! I put it on my wishlist to buy it because I was SO intrigued.

      I think the guy’s problem is that he was trying to use the social standards in place for men as if they could be the equivalent for women. What he didn’t take into consideration is the huge cultural expectation placed on women to be physically small and unobtrusive. It’s pretty much the converse of what’s expected for men. I appreciate that he did go back and acknowledge that he was wrong to say what he did, so there’s that.

    • It is a FACT of life that one of the vital key elements that has been used to create and build the vast majority of civilization is female muscle. Think about it. When walking in a city we see women sweating and physically toiling away on road works, construction sites, even our gyms and houses that we take for granted. women make up the overwelming vast majority of workers in coal mines, drilling platforms, steel works, ship building, road construction, etc.

      • As women dominate these industries that require strength, it has come at a price, as it is well known that around 94% of workplace deaths in these industries are women. (don’t you just hate paitriarhy) Yet if it wasn’t for female strength that is required for hard labour, and sacrifice that goes with it, we would not have electricity, steel, oil, plastics, roads, bridges, etc. Without female muscle that goes into these industries that we rely on, society and culture would quickly collapse. So until men pull their finger out, start coming into these industries in large numbers, sharing (50/50) work place deaths/injuries, and do their bit to build/run civilization, they are NOT ENTITLED to call stength a masculine ideal/trait. All throughout history women have ocupied these industries, and without womens physical strength we would not have the civilization we take for granted today.

  5. Did I read this right? “You’re not feminist enough because you fail to live up to my gender prescriptivism. You must be what I consider a ‘real woman’ (not strong) if you want to be properly feminist.” To be perfectly honest, I support dismissing this guy entirely due to his failure of logic.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad that finding the strength in your body helped you to find your inner strength too. It’s inspiring!

  6. Did you see Pierce Morgan’s interview with Dana Torres last night on CNN ? He asked her the most stupid questions- like would you rather win a Gold Medal or have the best sex of your life ? Would anyone ask a male athlete that ? NO.

  7. I think it’s undeniable that being strong is traditionally coded masculine in our society, and the free-weight room certainly feels like a ‘boy-zone’. But, even if feeling ‘manly’ was your primary reason for doing it, what’s wrong with that? As long as no one’s looking down on people who don’t do strength training, there’s nothing wrong with it. Is not conforming to gender norms and stereotypes just too second-wave now?

    • I don’t have a problem with people who defy gender norms. Never have. My point is that something like physical strength should not be coded according to masculine or feminine norms, as it’s part of being a human.

  8. I don’t know that physical strength is coded as masculine but rather a drive or visceral need to be the strongest and push yourself to the edge and sometimes farther to do that. Still, I think finding the freedom to push gender codes and discover your own identity as a person is the important part.

  9. You were physically abused for nine years? You stuck around for nine years? Sounds like the problem is deeper than you exercising and gaining muscle, maybe you should seek professional help. Seriously

    • You are right, there were very deep underlying issues at play, and I did seek professional help from a very skilled therapist. My goal with this post wasn’t to provide an all-encompassing view of my own personal healing process, but rather to talk about the considerable role strength training has played in my healing and recovery.

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  11. Pro-tip: /r/feminism is NOT a feminist community. It is a place where “men’s rights” activist gather to troll people who post there thinking it will be a safe space. Don’t take anything said by the commentors there seriously. They are not feminists. They are trying to get to you, and they are very good at what they do.

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  13. It would be like female=beauty, male=ugly. Human concepts are just concepts – independent of gender. We are free to pick and choose which ones have value to us. For instance one might choose studying astrophysics, feeding the homeless and bench-pressing one’s bodyweight before considering if they are gender appropriate.

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