Rant 10 January 2004: What if?

I’d like to dedicate this rant to the memory of Rosemary Vernon, the Iron Belle who in her role as editor of the fitness site Dolfzine, remained dedicated to the cause of women’s training. I imagined her as a graduate of a fine finishing school somewhere, the kind of elegant woman of a certain age who always knew which fork to use, how to say a kind word, and of course, how to get deadlifting chalk out of your black workout clothes. She was indeed a steel magnolia: a lovely flower on the outside, but tough as nails inside. Rosemary, your gentle wisdom will be greatly missed.

It’s been a while since Old Lady K rapped at ya, but rest assured that my sardonic observances in real life have continued unabated. No, age has not mellowed me; rather, the past several months have simply given me a crust of relaxed apathy over the soft, squishy centre of molten indignance.

On New Year’s Day I watched the World’s Strongest Woman competition. This competition is barely a few years old, like many women’s strength events, such as weightlifting in the Olympics. Wrestling, in fact, will be performed by women for the first time in this upcoming Olympics. As I watched the grrls sweat, grunt, and heave in the various events, I admired their size and power. They carried 155 lbs. over a course using only their grip. They put 485 lbs. on their back and walked some more. They ate stone for breakfast and iron for lunch.

What struck me in particular was how unusual it was to see these images in the mass media. Yeah, yeah, we’re all sick of hearing about how the media is full of unrealistic images of women (and, increasingly, men). I’m sure we all feel we are savvy media consumers now. But as I watched the strong women, I felt a kind of craving, a kind of pang at the absence which the women’s presence made visible. How often do we see positive images of strong women? I don’t mean faux strong women like starlet-of-the-month learning to box in some woman-in-jeopardy movie (really, if she weren’t already positioned as a total victim of some male character’s aggression, she wouldn’t need to box, right?). I also don’t mean the women who are cast in some role where they are supposedly “as good as” the boys. Girls who try to play the boys’ game with the boys’ rules often wind up getting a little dog biscuit and a pat on the head at the end of the film (or they die, or they’re pepper sprayed with a nice romantic relationship that fades in a heart shape to black). Isn’t she cute, she thinks she’s people!

No, I mean hardcore, asskicking strong women. Women who are doing what they do not because they have “issues” or because the male protagonist is out to get them, or doesn’t respect them, or needs to like them, or whatever crap women in the media are supposedly up to. Rather, women who are doing it for the joy of it, the pleasure in being and defining oneself. Women who are strong from the inside.

It kind of freaks me how scared many folks still are of strong women who are not ashamed of themselves. Women who are strong from the inside make society crap its collective pants in fear. We have difficulty conceptualizing strength that is not used to dominate and control, or that is not used to exert privilege. We can’t imagine that a strong woman doesn’t have some negative, embittered agenda. My students ask me how a marriage can be equal. They can’t figure out how a relationship can work if one partner isn’t the alpha dog. I tell them we’re both alpha dogs. That’s why we respect each other. We don’t need to pee on each other’s legs to know it. They are puzzled still. They still filter and repress their anger and aggression into subtle, feminine forms that creep out like icy tentacles. They master psychological warfare and use it on one another. Instead of expressing their power and anger constructively, claiming their space, they shrink themselves tinier and tinier, hoping for eternal little girlhood. So many young middle-class women’s heads are teased, spackled globes on starved bodies, like ghoulish lollipops. Urban debutantes with more money than brains literally shave parts of themselves away to be even more debilitatingly ornamental. They stumble in stiletto heels in February, tottering into snowdrifts like some kind of migratory stick insect that got lost on the way to the tropics and has no idea how the hell it wound up in a Canadian midwinter. As I walked out of an icy parking lot one day, a woman in front of me balanced precipitously on tiny points, clinging to her male partner for verticality. He protested gently at being required to support most of her bodyweight because of her choice of shoes. She shrugged and giggled. “I’m a woman,” she said, “that’s how it is.” I’m a woman, I thought, and I want to throw up.

Many adult women treat their bodies with the kind of medicalized delicacy that should be reserved for the terminally ill. They don’t do things because they don’t think they can or should.

You can and do. I can and do.

It’s time to discover the joy of movement and strength. Time to ask what-if. What if you get bigger? What if you get stronger? What if you did this for you and not others? What then?