Growing up, I never thought my physical strength was special. Physical strength meant big, meant fat. Fat was a bad thing. My grandpa would call me “rolly-polly” and chubby when I was little. To this day, I can recall those moments and the emotion I felt. I was ashamed; I didn’t try to be fat. I didn’t realize I even was fat until people called attention to me as “fat”. I quickly learned that being big and taking up space wasn’t acceptable for women. I learned that my lack of grace, my tendency to be loud and expressive, and my fatness made me undesirable. Don’t get me wrong; my family loves me very much. But I quickly learned that no matter what I achieved, how good my grades were or how involved I was in school activities, none of that would make up for the fact that I was fat and therefore unpretty. I quickly learned that women with physical strength were not people to look up to as role models. Yeah, there’s Wonder Woman and she’s strong, but even she has a small waist, curves, gorgeous hair and is pretty.
Fortunately for me, it must be in my DNA to rebel. Because everything in me screamed “fuck that!” Wonder woman is great and all, but I can be strong and loud and still be awesome. I don’t have to be pretty to succeed. Unfortunately, the external world doesn’t always see my awesomeness. And some of those messages about how important being pretty is have stuck with me. And this obsession with pretty has lead me down some dark paths that are not so great for my confidence.
I threw shot put and discus in high school. Unless we were breaking state records (which one of our teammates did during my freshman year), we were an afterthought. We encouraged each other to get strong, which lead to the weight room. The weight room in high school was an intimidating place. I had no idea what I was doing, and most of the time our coach was out with the runners or too busy to show us form. He tried, but in a small town in Iowa, girls who want to lift weights were low on the priority list. We were given a general guideline of what to do and then set free. One day, I went into the weight room with the other throwers and we were using some of the equipment that the football players were also using. I remember looking up while using the lat pull down machine and seeing one of the players laughing and pointing at me. I felt so small and incredibly humiliated. My team was behind me though, encouraging me to keep going. The moment stuck with me, though, and fed the message that girls lifting were a joke, and that I what I was doing was laughable.
Unfortunately, strength was also equated with slow. For one of our meets, our coach made us to what was considered the “Fat Man’s relay”, or the throwers’ 4x100m relay. We had to do this as well as one other running event. I got signed to do the 200m dash. I was terrified. I am not a fast runner. In fact, I still often cry before running events because I’ve carried so much internalized hatred for how slow I am. The mile test during P.E. class carries a special place in my heart, not because I loved it but because it always felt like a shame parade. Because all around me there are messages that you can either be strong or be fast and if you’re neither, you’re screwed. If you’re too slow, there’s something flawed in you. You can be a nerd, but you can’t be a nerd who is also super athletic. It’s and/or, not both/and. A person can’t achieve both. And those who might achieve both are special, are exceptions to the rule. In the end, the throwers did the relay, and one of our teams won their heat. I was not on that team. I did the 200m dash and came in last. I was definitely not an exception, and filed those experiences away in the shame cave section of my brain, only to be taken out when I’m struggling to sleep or at other inconvenient moments, like phone interviews or during dates.
A few years ago, I did a triathlon during my first week of work at the Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. My coworker’s husband had to drop out, and they let me take his registration. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I knew it included running *insert dread here*. But I was new and wanted to make friends so I thought why not. If it totally sucks, at least I won’t be the only one there. I had a swim suit, a mountain bike, tennis shoes and some old leggings and a cotton shirt. Nothing fancy, and just enough to get me through the race. It was the called the “Couch Potato Triathlon” and the distances were really short, so I only hand to suffer for a maximum of one hour, maybe more if I go really slow. A few things to note about this race: 1. I am heavily modified, lots of tattoos and piercings. Totally forgot about that going into this event and did not mentally prepare for all the staring. One woman’s jaw actually physically dropped when I walked past her to get into the pool. 2. Was not prepared for the chaffing. 3. I LOVED IT. Who knew? Who knew I could swim, then bike, and then actually run, all during one long event? I sure didn’t. It was so fun; it awakened up a competitive beast in me I did not know I had. Or if I did know, I had locked it up. Unfortunately, there’s not a big market for triathlon in central Kansas. But, I left that job a year in to move to Wisconsin. Lots of water, lots of opportunities for multisport events. I quickly signed up for a few more triathlons. But these people were serious triathletes. My mountain bike and cotton t-shirt were not going to cut it. In fact, during one race I was the *only* person without a wet-suit. The announcer quickly picked up on it and commended me for being the only tattooed lady brave (read: crazy) enough to go into rainy Minnesota waters without a wetsuit in late May. And to this day that announcer calls me the tattoo lady, at every. single. event I participate in and he’s also the announcer for. But, one thing I want to mention here: I keep doing triathlons in spite of feeling slow and being embarrassed about my body. Because triathlon is helping me “flip the script” so to speak. My body is nothing to be embarrassed of and I don’t care if I don’t have the fancy gear (that’s a lie, kinda. I do really like the fancy gear. I just don’t think one HAS to have the fancy gear order to participate. I could get into some of the elitist shit that happens in triathlon, but that’s for another post). Slow does not equal bad or embarrassing. I had to embrace an entirely different definition of what “fast” and “sprint” mean in the endurance athlete’s world. And everyone who is out there doing triathlon is out there to work on their fitness and participate in a fun community event. That’s what I love, more than anything. Triathlon taught me that I can get out there and participate and feel good about myself again.
But there was still a hole in my fitness. I started to work at the YWCA and ventured into weightlifting again. I was befriended by some women who lift together and started to think “wow, this stuff is fun. And I’m actually kinda good at it”. One of the women went to a crossfit gym as well, and I was really curious. What’s Crossfit? I googled it. Bad idea. These were serious (and super ripped) athletes. Also, there’s so much out there about how bad Crossfit is for the body and how prone to injury crossfit athletes are. My brain was simultaneously intrigued and terrified. I couldn’t go to one of those gyms, nope, because again, the “too fat, too slow” mantra pranced through my frontal lobe. I felt safe in my group and continued to stray away from anything that might challenge me or lead to failure. Failure, to me, was not acceptable. Because I had already failed out of school and was just getting over a long-term abusive break up for which I felt responsible, I didn’t want a challenge. I wanted to feel safe.
A few months later, a woman came in to cancel her membership because she was trying a new gym. Nothing against the YW, but she needed a change. I asked her which gym, because she seemed super pumped about it. “Solcana! It is this awesome LGBT-friendly crossfit gym!” Mind. Blown. I have identified as queer for a long time, and thought “I’ve gotta go over there!” and “But crossfit is scary”. Luckily, one of my lifting friends had a friend who had a friend who was a coach at Solcana, and she said Solcana was a great gym with a super supportive environment. AND my acupuncturist was also a member. It was as if the planets had aligned. If I were to ignore this opportunity, it would be like ignoring fate. Okay, maybe not that serious, but if the awesome people in my life were encouraging me to try it, I felt like I should.
The coaches and community at Solcana have totally changed my view of Crossfit and more importantly, have taught me that being strong is a phenomenal gift that we have the right and responsibility to develop and celebrate. Being a strong is not something to be ashamed of and that there is space for everyone to work on their strength. Being strong and fast is not some elite club to which only certain folks gain access. We all get access to the club, and it just so happens that I have found a space that celebrates me as a whole person. As a queer, strong, phenomenal human being who has made mistakes and is working on letting go of some of that shame she’s carried around for way too damn long.
Next area of domination: gymnastics. I have a lot of pent up stress and shame surrounding gymnastics, since I was kicked out of Spencer’s gymnastic team because I couldn’t do a back flip. I love Solcana because it pushes me to confront my preconceived notions of what I can and can’t do, and pushes me (with safety first in mind, of course) to at least give a movement a try. I’m so grateful for our community and for our coaches. I look forward to continued growth and lots of laughs with you all.