Tonight after a marvelously brutal interval class that involved jumping lunges, crouching push-ups and so many skaters that my I’d get an Apollo Ohno tattoo on my butt if it didn’t already hurt so much, a male friend gave me a grin and commented, “You sure are strong. For a girl.” Well, what do you say to that?
Five years ago: “I’m strong, period.” I would have felt insulted and then challenged the guy to a weight-lifting duel. Indeed, one of my very first posts on this blog to ever cause some (minor) controversy was when I bragged I could match a male lifter in my weight class. Allison, the only Gym Buddy I had at the time, and I lifted some very heavy weights with very bad form and declared ourselves the winners. While I still give myself some points for chutzpah, today I cringe remembering that. And not just because at the time I didn’t understand why using a Smith machine was cheating. It’s because I wasn’t proud to be a girl. I didn’t want to be a man either, let’s be clear, but I saw my femininity as a weakness and I hated it when people pointed it out to me.
Three years ago: “Am I?” I would have felt accused and uncertain. I was pregnant, anxious, depressed and unable to keep up with a fraction of my old workouts. In addition, I have never felt more vulnerable in my whole life than during my pregnancies. Pregnancy for me is a scary thing. Not only do I have to protect myself with half my strength but I’m also 100% responsible for the little person growing inside me. And all the others hanging onto my skirt. Pregnancy, one of the experiences that can most define you as a girl, felt like weakness to me in so many ways.
One year ago: “Haha, I’m working on it.” I would have felt embarrassed. Jelly Bean was safely on the outside and thriving, I’d just weaned her and so finally had full custody of my body again, and was settled back into a consistent workout schedule. Unlike previous post-partum periods, this time I knew enough to know how much I didn’t know. I’d been down the lose-the-baby-weight-at-all-costs road before. I’d over exercised. I’d been orthorexic. I wasn’t sure exactly what the right way was to do things but I sure knew what the wrong way was. Plus, being just over 30 with five children made me feel like I’d lost the girl in me forever. Losing oneself may be the ultimate weakness.
So what did I say tonight?
The intervening years have, hopefully, given me a better vantage from which to view myself and reevaluate what exactly are my strengths and my weakness. I can tell you for sure that I no longer see being a girl as a weakness. I may not ever be able to lift as much weight as a man and that’s fine. Their bodies are built for strength but mine is built for efficiency – there is a reason that women typically outlive men. Nor do I still see my pregnancies as weak spots in my life. Indeed, when I remember the can’t-be-overstated excruciating pain of natural childbirth, I see true strength. I can even now see my uncertainty and embarrassment and past mistakes more charitably. I can’t learn if I don’t screw up, right?
But I do have real weaknesses yet. Some are physical: I’ve been around the fitness industry long enough to know that while I may be strong compared to a lady who doesn’t work out, in the realm of fit females I’m not particularly strong. Just like there will always be someone more beautiful, I’ve come to learn that there will always be someone stronger, faster, more flexible. Many more weaknesses are mental: I still fight my competitive nature. Depression and anxiety are held at bay through a fragile combination of medication, exercise, healthy food, supplements and sleep. I’m still bad at balance and moderation.
This is what I have learned: Merely possessing strengths does not make me strong nor does having weaknesses inherently make me weak. I’m as strong or as weak as I practice to be.
And so tonight I answered my friend, “I am. And proud of it.” Whether he meant it as a joke (which I’m 90% sure he did) or as an insult, it doesn’t change my answer. I am strong. I am a girl. And neither has much to do with my muscles.
How do you take “strong… for a girl”? How would you answer this? Has your perception of your gender changed as you’ve gotten older?