I have noticed a surge on social media in the number of women that have taken up power lifting, cross fit, and bodybuilding to get strong. Not just strong but big. They are working against what they have been told is a ‘good’ female body to build muscle and become visibly strong. Whatever the reasoning and whether these women choose to acknowledge it, they are helping to smash expectations of the female body. They are expanding the categories of body types that we have been told are ‘good’ and proving that we can achieve most anything if we are determined enough. There are other social media movements working similarly to ensure that body positivity and health can be found at all sizes. These are equally important, but this post focuses narrowly on my experiences with physical strength. I encourage you to read other stories on redefining gender expectations and to take strength from them also.
Looking back, I know he did not realize what sort of impact his words would have on me; that a simple command would set off a chain reaction leading me to write this a decade later. That I would take so much more from his words and that it would become a moment that I pinpoint as the event that sparked such defiance in a ten-year-old girl.
It’s a vivid memory, and like all memories it has probably morphed over the years with telling, but here it is for all of you who have not heard it told (and many of you that know me have heard it many times so I apologize for the redundancy):
It was grade five and we were in the process of completing mandatory fitness testing. The tests were an absurd combination of flexibility and strength exercises which somehow determined if you were above or below the average “fitness level” for your age and sex category. I remember these tests being particularly stressful which I can ultimately chalk up to puberty (that’s right, puberty at age 10, it was horrible) and being nervous about how I would measure up compared to my friends. I recall the relief I felt when I discovered that I was “very fit” when it came to flexibility, being able to reach past my toes in a pike stretch; sit-ups, because doing more than 50 in a minute was a breeze; push-ups because I could bust out 60+ in a minute doing them the “real way” after insisting that I did not need to do the “girl push-ups”; and lastly came the test for chin-ups (there may have been a couple more ridiculous feats of “fitness” performed but these are the ones stuck in my head).
Even at the age of ten, I remember loving chin-ups and knowing that it was sort of strange that I was so good at them. I would try to teach my best friend how to do them on the rickety old chin-up bars at the local high-school when we were at our dads’ basketball games and was never quite sure why it did not come as easily to her as it did me. Either way, I was excited for this aspect of the “fitness” testing; the “fit” level for females was only 1 chin-up and for boys it was 3. Very excited because I had been watching as several of the teacher’s favourite students (all boys) could only do a maximum of 6-12 chin-ups and I knew I could do more. So, I got on the chin-up bar and flew through 12 chin-ups with ease. I remember a couple of my close friends gathering around and getting excited at me beating the record set by the boys. I was at 21 chin-ups (and probably was struggling but showing no signs of retreating) when my teacher called me down. “Get down and give someone else a turn” were his words. Maybe he was justified in saying that, maybe there were more people that needed testing, maybe gym class was almost over, maybe, maybe, maybe. It doesn’t matter. I was outraged, my friends were outraged, and we were sure it was because I beat out some of his favourite students and he was a sexist jerk.
Sexism was already a word we had tasted and decided was the perfect fit for all the hardships we faced that year, but that’s another story and I won’t go into it here. The take-away being that this moment was formative in a continual desire to be strong. That strength in a female body was a means of rebelling; that my strength seemed to unsettle this male in a position of power and enough so that he asked me to stop exercising that strength. It’s strange how the moment was so infuriating for such a long time (and remains so to some extent) but has morphed into something empowering as I recognize the impacts it has had on my life since then. Without this moment, would I have pursued strength in quite the same way? Maybe, but probably not with such adamant defiance.
Where has this path led? It has zig-zagged over the past decade. A struggle which many women will relate to; I have had difficulty at times balancing the desire to be strong with the need to be “feminine”. “Need” because being the “perfect woman” is something that every media shouts at us from all angles until it is engrained in our heads as some attainable lifestyle we could purchase, if we only had enough money. I would imagine my body reflecting those on the front of magazines: the perfectly tanned and lean stomach muscles; impossibly long, thin legs; arms that lacked any sort of muscle definition but would somehow still allow me to perform my feats of strength. These musings were nonsensical; I know that now. How the hell was I, at 5”2, going to grow long, lean legs? Despite the impossibility of these goals, I managed to underfuel and overtrain my body to a point where I was rather confident with my appearance and my strength remained (with a benchmark of maintaining at least 10 consecutive chin-ups since I was ten years old). This training was bland and ineffective in building strength. Think: cardio, abs, and some exercises on a mat. I “enjoyed” it, meaning that, I got satisfaction at seeing a relatively lean body in the mirror and the endorphins that accompanied each workout were a nice bonus.
I remember a competing desire at different points throughout this period of my life. A desire to have big muscles and a six-pack. I vocalized this once to a boyfriend who quickly told me he would find me unattractive if I pursued this body type. I should have told him to ‘go fuck himself’ (if somehow, you are reading this, here is a delayed ‘go fuck yourself’), but I was more interested in his affection than my own goals. I supressed this desire in favour of a lean “feminine” figure. I continued training and wearing ridiculous double push-up bras to try to make myself look curvier in all the right places.
Then I met bouldering.
One sunny afternoon I had agreed to meet a group of volunteers from my office at a climbing gym. The thought of doing pull-up after pull-up until I got to the top of a wall was appealing to me. I got completely lost, ended up being almost an hour late to the gym, and missed the belay lesson (to this day, almost 5 years later, I have still not had that lesson). The friendly staff member said I could ‘boulder’ instead and later be belayed by someone who took a lesson. Bouldering and I instantly hit it off, my combination of strength, flexibility, and masochism made me immediately half-decent at it. I revelled in my body’s ability to outperform burly men, and within a year I became a semi-regular at the local gym.
My bland training continued, I was only climbing once a week for the first year and I was still hitting my university gym to do all the cardio and boring mat exercises in between climbing. It was about a year after starting climbing that I moved in with my current partner, Kent. While I had already noticed some physical changes in my appearance due to climbing, the real changes started after we moved in together and started climbing more frequently.
In short, pre-Kent Merissa was not fueling her body properly. This was part purposeful, I wanted to look a certain way and ate in such a way to maintain that appearance, but it was also due to an ineptitude for cooking. Before Kent, I never ate breakfast and lived on a diet of peanut butter toast, soy meats, microwaved perogies, and sometimes plain beans/chickpeas with melted cheese on top. I was never really aware of exactly how terrible I was at cooking and thought I was actually doing a pretty good job as a vegetarian getting all my protein and iron. Kent and I learned together how to be ‘better vegetarians’. He had recipe books from family members on how to do it right. He liked cooking and I liked helping him/learning to cook. I started eating three meals a day, climbing more, and doing less cardio. Not surprisingly, these changes had consequences.
I remember being at a friend’s house after not seeing him for a while. I had gone to the bathroom and when I came back my friend was chuckling, saying that his roommate wasn’t sure who I was because last time he had seen me I had significantly less muscle. Eating properly and doing less cardio meant my body was able to bulk up. My arms got bigger and my back started forming more of a V shape. I got a lot of mixed reactions from family and friends. Some people were amazed at my (now visible) strength and some told me I better lay off the climbing because I was getting “too bulky”.
Those competing desires to be “big and strong” but remain “feminine” rose to the surface. I was experiencing such joy because of my successes in bouldering but I knew I was somehow compromising my status as a “female” by gaining weight and muscle mass. It was like a second puberty – my clothes all fit weird, I abandoned all t-shirts in favour of tank tops to accommodate my growing biceps, ditched my underwire bras because none of them were comfortable, and found myself not quite sure what was “flattering” anymore. I was an awkward teenager all over again.
And like a teenager, I felt the sting of people’s words despite my attempts to brush them off with a “I -don’t-give-a-fuck-what-you-think” attitude. I tried to ignore them but the negative comments followed me around. The worst was after a session at the university gym, I had completed a work-out (which since I started climbing had included sets of pull-ups) and was in the change room when I overheard a couple of women saying they would rather be fat than be as muscular as me. And it hurt. Was my body so far beyond the range of what they felt was acceptable that it was disgusting?
You might be wondering where the turning point of this blog is. The moment when I instantly became comfortable with my body and the changes I have seen since bouldering. There isn’t one. Like most people that have struggled with body image, it is an ongoing battle to be fought over and over again.
However, bouldering has helped me appreciate my body; I have come to accept and admire that my body builds muscle so quickly. I have thrown away my old daydreams about having the bodies I see on magazine covers along with my bland training regime. I know that it is genetically impossible for me and that it would be physically harmful to try to attain that body type. I have filled my head with images of strong women that I aspire to be, while reminding myself that my body is already accomplishing great feats and that I am allowed to be confident here and now.
This trip has reinforced a lot of this body-positive self-talk. Almost all the women we have met/seen are of the typical climbing stature. Lanky and lean, they have bodies that I used to desire. While I can still hear the climber chatterings in my head about “sending weight”: how I could accomplish tougher grades if I stopped weight training, quit building leg strength, and lost a bit of weight, I reassure myself that I don’t need to change. I remind myself of a BitchMedia podcast on body positive exercise, in which the interviewer notes Jessamyn Stanley’s, a fat-positive, queer, Black woman, thoughts on teaching yoga, “[S]he tries to think about her body like an instrument. She plays her instrument. Other people play their instruments. As a teacher, she strives to NOT have everyone feel like they need to play their instrument in exactly the same way and sound perfectly in unison. Instead, everyone’s instrument is different, and that creates harmony.” Our bodies are all different, it would be boring if we were the same. I appreciate mine for how it performs and I admire other women’s for how theirs performs for them. This does not mean that I don’t envy them from time to time, especially when I am trying to pull my ass off the ground or hold an unpleasant undercling. My non-typical climbing body forces me to come up with unique short-flexible-burly beta while others are maybe more suited to use the traditional beta of the first ascensionist. Neither is better than the other; our bodies* just offer different benefits and drawbacks in the game we call bouldering.
This empowerment goes beyond self-positivity. The movement, experimentation, and visibility of non-normative bodies reconfigure people’s expectations, in particular, of the female body in sport. I see it in the faces of others when I finish a difficult climb, and hear it in the groans of men failing on the same problem they assumed was easy because I made it appear that way. This is not to suggest ‘men’ are the enemy in climbing, but to highlight that changing our expectations can be challenging and painful given how deeply they have been engrained over time. As the work of climbing changes the body physically, there is equal, if not greater, work to be done breaking assumptions and harmful ideals. The project for the climbing community, as individuals and a collective, is to encourage this kind of work, and allow space for non-normative bodies and voices in our sport.
I would like to put down in writing my many thanks to the people that continue to encourage me to be a strong badass woman. Whether you are my ever-supporting partner, a fellow female crusher, a friend or family member that has applauded my pursuit of strong, or a random person that has complimented me on my muscles, you have helped me on this journey. I will keep trying to smash all expectations for myself and for you.
*In case it needs further clarification: all bodies are good bodies. Strength and health can be found at all shapes, sizes, and abilities. There are many more expectations to be smashed than just those that have been forced on our physical bodies as females; this is just one story in a whole collection.