I’ve been thinking about strength lately: bodily strength, mental strength, and the places where the two intersect.
All day long, I cultivate strength—my strength, particularly my body’s strength, and other peoples’ bodies’ strength. I help people find their muscles and use them, which is great fun. I can’t help but notice as I do this that finding physical muscles often results in finding mental ones, too. Finding physical strength requires attributes like discipline, determination, and will, and these qualities are the underpinnings of mental strength.
Becoming embodied—and I mean that in the sense of truly inhabiting one’s body, being in sensations—creates an independent mind. Being aware of your body makes you aware of your internal reality. I’m pretty sure that self-awareness through physical exertion was the original intention behind yoga asanas.
Although we are not surrounded by images of strong female bodies, we are all overly accustomed to the hyper-sexualized female body. You cannot escape it. You get Victoria’s Secret catalogs in the mail. There are buttocks selling thong underwear on the side of the bus, pouting lips promoting ice cream on TV, and hairless legs hawking shoes at the mall. Very few of these bodies (you can’t really call them women—that’s not what they are—they are often headless, chopped up, clearly objectified bodies) are what I would deem physically strong. In fact, just for fun, I searched through dozens of images of “beautiful” or “hot” female bodies: Victoria’s Secret advertisements, Vogue spreads, fashion layout after fashion layout, and guess what? I found a disturbing recurring theme: these women are posed in the strangest, most flimsy postures you can imagine. Hips thrust awkwardly to one side, buttocks stuck out so the back arches in parody of the lordosis I try to cure in peoples’ spines daily, and the slumping shoulders and caved-in chests in the high fashion spreads…don’t get me started. They are, in short, a mess of bad posture, weak centers, and wilting arms: the ideal woman as weak and helpless.
I only care about any of this because I think the images of women we see regularly do damaging things to women’s brains. We can’t help it; we are social creatures; we compare ourselves to each other, especially in the domain of our appearance—for better or worse. Because women compare themselves to other women, the pictures we see on billboards, in advertisements, and on television or the internet have an effect on our brains. If we look at these “idealized” images a lot, we may begin to think they are a prescription for how one should look. Then we start to try to fit that mold.
This desire to fit the mold brings me clients who say things like: “Will this exercise make my calves big? Because I don’t want to do this exercise if it will make my calves get muscular.” I’ve heard this comment (or substitute some other body part for calves) countless times. Every time I have to bite the inside of my cheek, hard. I have to coach myself to have sympathy and compassion and remind myself that I am hearing a deep insecurity about embodying strength that is the one of the curses of women in the world I live in. Even after two waves of feminism, we are still dealing with this fear of strong.
In The Velocipede Races my main character, Emmeline is a strong woman—physically and mentally strong. I wanted to explore what happens to such a woman in a world where women are expected to demonstrate physical frailty. The women of this world, bowing to social custom and aesthetic, wear corsets and are squeezed into their weakness. Women like Emmeline who wish for a different life, are thought of as freaks. But let’s face it: a really muscular woman in our world might endure similar comments to those flung at Emmeline. Comments like “You’re mannish and unfeminine. You’re too big. You take up too much space.”
But as we see from Emmeline, who rebels against the fashion dictates of her world, aesthetic originates outside of us, in the opinion or view of others. Function originates inside, with awareness of sensation. There is a lot of power in being free from others’ opinions. Emmeline gets so free from others’ opinions of her that they go to great lengths to get her to care again. Breaking the mold is not usually a popular activity.
I think it’s possible to escape the vicious head game born from seeing too many images of women’s bodies, to break out of that mold, but it takes a lot of mental strength, a willingness to swim upstream, and a contrariness that you’ll have to defend again and again. How do you get that mental strength? Physical training might be one way.
Being physically strong, as anyone who’s been there knows, makes you feel different. You are less afraid. More capable. More certain of yourself. The way you assess your possibilities is different. You say “I can” more often, and “I can’t” less. You rely more on yourself, and less on others, both for doing things (picking up that heavy box, standing on a ladder to reach for stuff in the cupboards, moving the trash cans) and for permission to do things.
By building that physical strength, a woman breaks the mold. She puts herself in a position where she has to face others’ opinions of her, whether good or bad. And then she has to say: I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to please myself. And if lifting this weight, or climbing this hill, or running this fast is what pleases me, then I’m going to do it. Even if it makes my thighs big. Even if it means I take up more space than the world wants to give me. She, like Emmeline, places function over aesthetic, which is one of the most physically empowering things you can do for your own view about your body.