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.
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.