What does domestic violence have to do with this blog? Everything

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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but because it happens to share the same span of 31 days as the much more high-profile Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the subject doesn’t get nearly as much attention.  Is it because it’s easier for people in our society to talk about women’s boobs than women’s black eyes?  Perhaps. (I do have to admit that this collection of tacky pinkwashed merchandise made me feel a little grateful for the fact that domestic violence awareness has escaped the grasp of of corporate America and thus escaped being Jingle Jug-ified.)

But I think that part of it might have to do with the fact that there is still a lot of shame surrounding domestic violence in our society.  At least, I feel that way.  I used to write more about it on this blog, but then the audience for the blog blew up and my coworkers and family members started reading it, and I suddenly felt less like writing about it.  The truth is that I still feel ashamed of the fact that I am a survivor of domestic violence.  I don’t think that’s an irrational reaction, either.  I mean, I read comments on the internet. I overhear conversations about domestic violence.  I hear the offhand comments people make.  I know that a lot of people think women who stay in violent relationships are stupid, weak, dumb, or that we probably did something to deserve it.  The consensus seems to be that there is something deeply flawed with any woman who stays with a partner who abuses her.

So it’s kind of a scary thing to admit to having been on the wrong side of things in a violent relationship, because it opens you up to all kinds of judgment about your value as a human being. I understand why a lot of women do not talk openly about their experiences (and I really understand why male survivors are even more reticent). I get it because I struggle with it, even though I also know that one of the most powerful ways to fight shame is to speak openly about the things that we are most ashamed of.

That’s not really why I’m writing about this on this blog, though.  I’m writing about it because this blog is a direct result of my experiences as a survivor of domestic violence. As a result, I feel as though I would be remiss to let the month pass without writing about this, especially because those experiences are central to the mission of this blog, which is to encourage women to embrace their strength and bravery, no matter what form that may take, and to resist the social mandates that say the proper way to be a woman is to be weak and vulnerable.

I tend to have a very visceral reaction when I encounter women who want to whittle themselves down to nothingness, and it’s not borne of some ivory-tower feminist theory I learned while sitting in a classroom.  It comes from the memory of my ex-husband, sitting on my chest, punching me over and over in the face and stopping only when he realized my lip was split and that my face was bruised. Later, both eyes would turn black with bruises. I remember trying to fight back, but no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to do so. I just was not strong enough.

It was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced, that utter sense of powerlessness in the face of someone who was hellbent on hurting me.  That feeling haunted me in my sleep, where I’d have nightmares in which I spit out all of my teeth or I was unable to scream when confronted by assailants.  That feeling was carved into my brain, irrevocably altering my emotional landscape.

That feeling is what I think of when I hear misogynists talk about women’s “natural” state of weakness and physical inferiority.  It’s what I think of when I read a response to a quote of mine going around tumblr, in which a girl said, “What if I want to be weak?”  It’s what crosses my mind every time I read about 1,000-calorie diets and exercise plans meant to keep women from “bulking up” and assertions that women with muscular arms look “gross” and “like men.”  I thought about it again when I saw the ad campaign that contained the following Google autocompletes: “women need to be controlled,” “women need to be disciplined,” “women need to know their place.”

I think of my own once-tiny arms and how they could never protect me, not when I needed them the most, not when I wanted nothing more than to defend myself against a man who wanted to control me and wanted to make sure I knew my place.  I think of all these things and I get so frustrated.

I want to know why it seem as though we’ve implicitly decided to agree that the only ones in our society who get to be strong and who get to have muscle – real muscle, not just muscle meant to make your ass look good in a pair of jeans – are men. I want to know why this is even though some days it feels like the vast majority of women I know have been assaulted in some way.

But I didn’t make these connections right away.  In fact, it wasn’t until I’d spent quite a bit of time lifting weights and running that it slowly started to occur to me that our culture had basically fetishized feminine weakness, and that I no longer wanted any part of that paradigm. I wanted to feel strong and courageous, and I didn’t care if others thought this was proof that I was somehow damaged as a result of my history.  (I would like to submit this for you, that our culture is filled with narratives of young men who hit the weights so they could fight back against bullies, and that the only thing that separates me from those young men is that I happened to be married to my bully.) I needed to do these things for myself, so I could move on with my life and no longer dwell on those years of pain and fear. I needed to heal so I could really learn how to live, and not just survive.

Over time my motivations have become more intrinsic, more grounded in the actual joy of new experiences and physical movement, but in the beginning it was all about beating back the sense of powerlessness that had engulfed me for an embarrassingly large chunk of my life.  Picking up heavy weights, eating lots of food so I feel energetic and vibrant, training myself to run and cycle long distances so I can become mentally tough, seeing my body change as muscles showed up in my arms, my back, my legs – these have all done a tremendous amount to help me become whole again.

There’s another aspect to this as well, and that’s my ongoing battle against fear.  Fear is a complicated thing.  It ostensibly works to protect us from harm, but in my case, I was so afraid of what might happen if I tried to leave (would he try to hurt me even worse? would I be capable of surviving on my own? where would I get money?) that it paradoxically kept me in a situation where I was actually being harmed. So I promised myself that never again would I allow untrammeled fear to guide me into accepting a small, timid life. Every time you read about me trying to face my fears of open water swimming or cycling or whatever, you’re watching me as work through those issues.

(By the way, I am far from unusual in this regard. After Diana Nyad completed her swim across the Florida Straits, ABC News published an article in which they asked what makes someone like Nyad strive to achieve the seemingly impossible?  Psychologist Judy Kuriansky said “People who accomplish extreme athletic feats usually were either praised for their over-the-top accomplishments early on in life or they were ‘scaredy-cats’ as children and want to prove themselves as adults, she said.” Yep, I am far from unusual. I am no Diana Nyad, mind you, but I understand her mindset.)

This is why I fight so hard against the social constructs that say women and girls are weak and inferior, and why I refuse to accept a model of fitness that is adamant that women should want only to be as small as possible. (This is why I cannot abide Tracy Anderson!)  This is why I feel angry when I see fitness media that cares only about making sure women have sexy butts and sexy abs and sexy sexiness, and that seems to consider the desire to train for strength and size to be rather distasteful.  This is why I want to feminist hulksmash all of the so-called fitness gurus that care only about abs and tiny waists and ignore all of the other aspects that go into keeping one’s body and mind strong and healthy.

As you can see, the belief fitness is a feminist issue is one that is very personal to me, and not just in the sense that I can critique mainstream fitness until my fingers fall off, but because I know first-hand of the way that the pursuit of fitness can be a force for positive change in one’s life.  I’ve seen how it can be used to keep women anxious and weak and vulnerable, but I’ve also seen over and over again how it can accomplish the opposite, how it can help women learn to take up space and to be courageous and to believe wholeheartedly in their own personal power.  That, to me, is a much more positive way of looking fitness, and that is what I hope to help spread in the world, because I know the worst possible outcomes of the negative side and I want no one to ever have to experience that again.

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59 responses to “What does domestic violence have to do with this blog? Everything

  1. I do believe this post deserves a standing ovation! Kudos to you for putting this out there!!!! I know exactly how you feel on so many levels and could not have said it better myself :)

    • Oh girl, I know you do. I thought of you several times while writing this. I love the idea of becoming a thriver – of getting past the white-knuckle moment-to-moment survival to actually thrive and prosper as a human being. It is very much a guiding principle in my life and I am grateful to you for introducing me to this.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It was beautifully and powerfully written. It makes me want to get strong so I can be able to protect my daughter if need be.

  3. Bravo! First time commentar, long time reader. I so relate to your words, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I run and lift for the little kid who couldn’t fight back and couldn’t run away. Thank you for speaking my truth so eloquently. Your writing is beautiful.

    • I run and lift for the little kid who couldn’t fight back and couldn’t run away.

      I teared up when I read this. I’m so sorry this happened to you, and I am so happy that you are able to find a way to achieve some degree of peace through running and lifting.

  4. Great post. I’m a DV lawyer and I see survivors of every shape and size, every personality. I’ve had clients whose husbands wanted to keep them thin, and ones whose husbands encouraged them to put on weight and told them they couldn’t ever find anybody else to love them because they were so fat. I’ve seen forced pregnancy and forced abortion and all kinds of sexual coercion. We start by making sure women are always the ones making the decisions about their bodies, that they are able to take care of and stand up for and defend themselves, and I think we go from there.

    • Thank you so much for the very important work you do. I can’t imagine how personally difficult it is for you (my husband is a counselor who works with a population that somewhat overlaps) and yet I know that it’s so essential that there are people like you who are able to use your knowledge and skills to defend survivors in court. So thank you a million times.

  5. This needed to be said, and you said it eloquently. Thank you for sharing your personal experience and how you’ve grown into the powerful woman you are. I’d love to reblog this…may I?

  6. Thank you for sharing this post. I love it. I am so grateful every single day that I managed to get myself out of the relationship that was breaking my spirit in every way. When I left, I thought I would always be a shell of myself, but I’ve been amazed to see my old spirit revive despite the abuse. I am so proud of you for working to bring back your strength as well, and thank you for using your voice online to raise awareness of this incredibly important issue.

    Michelle

    • Thank you! I totally understand what you mean about not being sure you’d ever be able to recover your previous vitality, but I think that for a lot of us, it really can happen, provided we make a powerful effort to care for ourselves, to figure out where we went wrong in the first place so we do not repeat the same cycles, and to surround ourselves with people who treat us with love and respect. I would actually go so far as to say that I feel as though I am stronger, more resilient and more empathetic than I was before. I hate that it seems like this is so often precipitated by trauma but at least there can be some good that comes out of it.

  7. This is beautiful and so, so vital. Thank you for this. As I was coming to terms with an abusive relationship that had included sexual assault I found your blog and your review of The Frailty Myth and they gave language to things I had intuitively known for a long time. It was an integral part of my healing and has become a focus of my feminist work and activism (I’m in grad school focusing on trauma and mental health–my particular interest (and potential Ph D project) is using exercise-based interventions for survivors of intimate violence). I now powerlift and box and am thinking about getting into BJJ, and I feel empowered in a way I never knew possible.

    Thank you for being a strong, courageous feminist voice! And I really hope that you can find moments to step back and marvel with pride at the tremendous amount of healing and very good work you’ve done!

    • OMG do you know how happy your comment – particularly your academic and career path – makes me?! I would LOVE to hear more about this. Please feel free to email me at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com so we can talk more about it offline. I would love to learn more.

      Also, major props to you for not only finding a way to work through your experiences so you can become a healthy person again, but then to continue on to find a way to help others is just so inspiring to me. I’m so impressed, and so happy that I could, in some small way, be part of this.

  8. Love, love, love your blog, your writing, your perspectives, and your toughness. Reading your blog has opened my eyes, educated me, and challenged my outlook on life. Thank you for what you do for the many who read your words. Very powerful!

  9. You are so inspiring, this post relates to my life right now. I am not a survivor of abuse, but I am a survivor of a life time of pain and anger due to family members addiction. I am trying to find myself again, trying to find happiness. Thank you. This post touched me.

    • I’m so glad to hear that. I wish all the best for you as you work through everything that resulted from your family situation. It’s not easy but it really is worth all the effort, I think.

  10. Jesus, Caitlin, I had no idea you went through this. I’m so sorry to hear about it and I’m glad you’re out of that situation. What a brave post.

    • Thanks, Tara. Funny thing is that it really feels like it all happened to an entirely different person, but even though I’m so different now than I was then, I still try to remember that my experiences during that time of my life played a huge role in making me the woman I am today.

  11. You are a brave and inspiring individual. Even though I don’t know you in real life, I am so proud of you. Thank you for sharing your story.

  12. Your article made me remember the bulling that I went through in high school. How that feeling of not being safe could really eat at a person’s insides. I confided in my father and we were able to get the school authorities to intervene. This sentence really made me think. “I would like to submit this for you, that our culture is filled with narratives of young men who hit the weights so they could fight back against bullies, and that the only thing that separates me from those young men is that I happened to be married to my bully.” I realized how fortunate that I am because I followed the above script. I felt the driving need to take care of myself physically, and I had the full support of my father to find a compatible martial arts school. At the time I did not realize that this was anything unusual. I also wanted to say thank you for sharing that which makes you feel vulnerable because that shows a lot of courage.

  13. This is a beautiful and inspiring post! As the Head Instructor of IMPACT-Israel and a proud member of the Director’s Circle of IMPACT International, I applaud you for taking your story and turning it into a victory story for so many more of us. At IMPACT, we help women reimagine their bodies and their lives through focused, intensive and supportive work together on reclaiming their natural strengths and using them to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
    The best part, however, is that I received this from my daughter. I am so grateful that she has colleagues and role-models like you!
    Go Purple! May we move from strength to strength together!

  14. Pingback: Fitness Is a Feminist Issue | The Birth of Athena·

  15. This is a powerful post. Thank you for sharing and keep on facing down your fears and getting stronger in the process!

  16. Thanks for sharing. What an amazing woman you are. I was attacked and sexually assaulted at 18 by my (now ex) boyfriend and raped at 20. I’m 22 now and fitness/lifting weights has taught me so much about my own personal strength, both physical and mental. I know the exact powerless feeling you are referring to and I’ve made a pact with myself never to feel like that again. Thankyou so, so much for writing about this.

  17. I stumbled onto this blog entirely by accident. I teared up at what you went through.. very inspiring this post. Thank you.

  18. “…our culture had basically fetishized feminine weakness.” YESSS!!!

    This states, more succinctly than I’ve ever been able to, the thing that has beenpissing me off since I was about… oh, four? I remember deciding at that young age that when I grew up, I would become a man, because being a girl as it had been defined to me seemed joyless and powerless. Now some little girls do grow up and become men, but I was not one of those for a minute. I just wanted an alternative to the “weak and pretty” simpering vision of girlhood, the Disney princesses who wait for the Prince to take care of them, and oh damn, I am so spit-mad about every woman whose prince turned out to be someone in search of a punching bag.

    People bullied me in school too — but girls bully verbally and when you hit the limit of your tolerance (which at the age of 9 isn’t far outside city limits) and respond by slugging them into next week, along with a few nasty-mouthed boys, you end up in the principal’s office, being labeled “the problem.” (If it had just been boys, well, boys will be boys, won’t they?) If you’re not, truly, kin to those angry men looking for a punching bag, you eventually figure out how to tough out the assholes without hitting them. The one advantage is that hitters of all kinds become aware that you are not a promising victim. And you quickly get to know what guys are not promising dates. “Why do you want to be strong?” said a guy once while trying to chat me up. “Men can change tires for you.”

    And there are women “hitters” who look for weak men — I knew one. He weighed about 120 dripping wet and she beat the crap out of him for years.

    Which means that none of this is hard wired into gender the way evolutionary psychology hacks want us to think it is; no, it’s about very distorted cultural attitudes involving power and dominance, and about personality disorders, just enabled absurdly in the direction of woman-beating by ridiculous stereotypes of gendered behavior. I think of the old cartoon about the cave man whacking the woman on the head and dragging her back to the cave by her hair — see, he really loves her! I severely doubt that cave man ever existed, but modern apologists really wanted us to think he did. Violent men whack women or weaker men because they CAN. Damaged, violent women whack their children, because they CAN, until they’re big enough to fight back. And the band plays on.

    Yowza for the best fight-back story I’ve read in a while.

  19. Thank you for posting this. It hit a cord on so many levels. I am a breast cancer survivor who didn’t ‘save her ta-ta’s’, is flat chested, young, and doesn’t wear breast forms. I have chosen a path that is unsupported by my medical practitioners. I am on the forefront of a group of women who also go flat, and do not present an image of normalcy after breast cancer treatment. So I am often looked upon quizzically, and sometimes looked at with fear. And unfortunately, sometimes people display anger and confusion, when they see me, short haired and androgynous looking. I cannot help them. I just go about my business, but I understand what it is to be a woman who does not fit a standard acceptable mold.
    I started lifting weights as a result of my diagnosis. I assumed that I might be able to connect with my new shape, gain confidence, feel self assured by investing in my physical body. It is working and I love the effects on both my body and my mind.
    I applaud you for speaking out about your past experience in having been in an abusive relationship. When I was growing up, I lived in a two family home and the women who lived upstairs did not survive the man she married (and he got away with it). We women need to speak out and speak up. Need to put the personal out there and say enough. And we need to learn to live and not just survive. Enough is enough.
    So thank you.

    • I just had to comment and say that your story is awe-inspiring as well. I hope there are more and more women who do what you did and shatter that so-called normal image. I hate that we live in a society that deems breasts so damn important to being a woman and labels a woman without them as abnormal. I find stories like yours empowering.

  20. Not that you need me to say this, but damn you are a survivor! Courageous both for what you endured and for being so open and speaking out about it. A great post. Really, a fantastic post!

    That crap stuff, that the psychologist said? That’s crap. Pseudo-science. No, the amazing thing is that you AREN’T an exception to the rule. Women EVERYWHERE are amazing. We rock!! Women EVERYWHERE fight back. Women resist oppression. Victims/targets of oppression ALWAYS fight back their oppressions. Sometimes it looks different for different people, but they fight back in their own way.

    Please check out my blog for a recent post, about a TED talk and gendered violence (although, I think someone posted it on Facebook and it could have even been you…so sorry if you’re the one who showed it to me in the first place!)

    Domestic violence, sexual assault, all forms of gendered violence happen because we take blame away from the perpetrator doing it and blame it on their target of violence.

    And NOT just physical violence. We have to stop focusing on physical violence because that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other things involved. Another reason that it continues is because society brushes off all the non-physical forms of abuse, like the insults and name-calling and put-downs and isolation. Or worse, all the red flags that happen and people tell women to ignore their gut feelings. Great example: guy showing extreme jealousy, and woman’s friends say that it’s really cute and they wish their partner was as jealous. Umm…NO, that is a red flag for abuse!

    I guess in a way, being in the relationship was a paradox, but not really. If anyone ever questions you on it, then you can always cite that research consistently shows the MOST DANGEROUS time for a survivor is when they end the relationship. That is when the abuser’s power is most challenged and when they are most likely to retaliate with severe (even fatal) violence. And, when kids are involved, it’s dangerous for them, too.

    And I agree that abusers are bullies. Except, people generally don’t love and trust their bully at first. Usually, that’s the start of the relationship–bullying finds victim and there ya go. Not always, obviously. But in cases of domestic violence, the bullying only comes after the lies and manipulation and after the target of violence is in love. And that makes it all the more damaging and harder to heal from.

    Yet, your study stands as an inspiration. And a perfect post that makes the connection between what your blog is about, feminism, and domestic violence. Thank you, again, for sharing.

  21. Absolutely perfect post. Thank you so much for writing it. It is really brave of you to talk about your own experiences, despite the sexist chatter that goes on about survivors. I used to be one of those people until people like you who came forward with their stories made me realize I’d been brainwashed to hate and doubt other women like myself. (I wrote about it on my blog here: http://feministmillennial.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/feminist-confessions/) Thanks again so much, I’ll be a regular reader now! Great work.

  22. Wow, Caitlin.
    I am so awed by your strength. I am so glad you found your current partner and all you have done. Life brings us all kinds of crap. In my case I lost womnderful, athletic husband ot a sudden heart attc. i raise our little girls alone. I found running, triathlon, and woring my my health to cope. I admire you. Thans for posting…

    • Oh my goodness, I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine. My heart goes out to you and your daughters. I am so glad that you’ve been able to turn to running and triathlon to help you deal with that, but I’m sorry you even had to face this in the first place.

  23. Reblogged this on The Outside Lane and commented:
    Please take the time to read this remarkable post from Caitlin at Fit and Feminist. I think it is one of the best pieces on fitness for women that I’ve ever read. Whether you are into working out, out just like thinking about it (like me), I think this article will empower you and/or challenge you. It certainly did me.

  24. Pingback: Help! No, Don’t. Help! No, really, I Got This. Help! | The Outside Lane·

  25. My wife is a professional athlete, not one of the fake ones who are just models but a real powerful woman! Her legs are strong and she is incredibly sexy as she can do things! If anyone tried to hurt her, well…. Pity the fool! I love her body too it’s funny that we get asked to help our friends move houses all the time cause as a couple we can move so much stuff!!
    One of the fun things is we actually wrestle each other (all in love though!) and she can kick my ass! It’s a lot of fun cause we are so evenly matched physically! Anyway I just wanted to put my 2c in that some guys find it sexy as hell when a woman is really fit powerful and strong. I find it sexy that my wife can look after herself, she chooses her moments of vulnerability herself, she isn’t forced into it. Not sure if either of us are feminists but that’s just how we think! Coming up on 11 happy awesome years of marriage together now too!

  26. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. I love your blog! It helped me prep for and run the NYC marathon yesterday. I’m a survivor of rape and domestic violence, and yep – you’re right on with everything.

    Training has totally changed my life; I’m a long-distance runner now :) Best wishes for all your future events!

    • Congratulations! I hope you had a wonderful time. That’s a huge accomplishment, especially with your history. It feels like you are doing more than just prevailing over the distance, but like you are prevailing over everything that has ever threatened to destroy you in your entire life.

  27. This is absolutely brilliant. This is the sort of thing we need more of. It empowers people to invest in and believe in themselves, not just as they are, but as they could be.

  28. I totally get what you mean about embarassment/shame. I recently wrote about verbal violence and after linking to my post on FB- I felt absolutely mortified and how people would perceive me. After I spent a day feeling horrible, this then made me think that we have to tell our stories about this so that it stops feeling shameful, not just for ourselves but for other survivors.

    One of the reasons I got out of my relationship when I did is because Patricia Evans wrote a book about Verbal Abuse and I discovered it at the bookstore. The stories she told helped me set myself free. Thank you for liberating the world with the work that you do and the stories you share.

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