Fragile. Tiny. Vulnerable. Weak. I’ll admit it: I liked being those things. For a long time (most of my life?), I enjoyed people grabbing my arm and cooing “Oh, I’ve never seen such a tiny wrist!” I liked that men got things down from high shelves for me without me even having to ask. I liked how boyfriends stood protectively around me, their arms a barrier between me and everything that was scary. I liked how I could punch a male friend on the arm and he’d just laugh. I liked being the damsel in distress, liked being carried over mud puddles and — heaven help me — liked being rescued. (Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this now.)
Muscles did not fit in with that image I held of myself. In fact, muscles made it hard to fit into all the uber-girly dresses that defined my image. I was one of those girls who would look at Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby and think, “I would never want to look like that, she’s way too muscular.” I used to covet the spaghetti-like arms of starlets and catwalk models, arms that are widest at the elbow. Besides, female bodybuilders are widely ridiculed in our society; childish women are still the ideal.
Then something inside me began to change. Maybe it was the realization, courtesy of my abusive ex-boyfriend, that the same arms that held me up could also be used to hold me down. I learned that my softness could be used against me. Or maybe it was discovering, as a teacher, that people don’t listen to a shrinking violet. Or perhaps it was the epiphany after so many times of falling on my face that there is no one to rescue me. No one but me.
Moreover, now that I’m a mother, I’m the rescuer. I’m the one that has to be strong and steady. I’m the one carrying tiny bodies up six flights of stairs. I’m the one encircling my arms protectively against the harsh realities that fly at my children with alarming force. It’s impossible for me to be needy in the face of their bottomless need.
This shift has caused me considerable consternation. If I am not the princess then who am I? A cross-dressing knight with the wrong genitalia? I’m pretty sure there weren’t any of those at King Arthur’s round table. An Amazon woman in a culture where “amazonian” is generally not a compliment?
This ambivalence about being “strong” translated into a strange love-hate relationship with my muscles. I wanted to be strong but I didn’t want to look like it and while there are many ways for women to be strong, having distinct muscles is an obvious way to proclaim your strength.
For years I have lived with this competing notion of always wanting to be ever smaller and yet needing to be ever stronger. I’d bemoan a few pounds gained on the scale but rejoice in the pull-ups that new muscle let me do. (Think pull-ups aren’t a life skill? Once in college I locked myself out of my apartment with the only way in being through a second story balcony. I enlisted the help of the guy next door. He promptly jumped, pulled himself up and climbed over the railing. I’d been locked out for an hour. He was in in 30 seconds. A feat he and his roommates later repeated to relocate all our furniture to their garage but that’s another story. Being able to do a pull-up would have been useful, is all I’m saying.) I’d cry about a dress not fitting but be ecstatic that I could heft the 50-lb bag of flour into my cart at Costco.
Then kickboxing and karate came into my life and the martial arts showed me that not only are muscles handy, they’re life-saving. There was something so deeply satisfying, healing even, about punching and kicking. Sure it’s not always the strongest one who wins – karate taught me the value of using my weaknesses – but muscles certainly don’t hurt.
And that’s the beauty of and the problem with strong women: we’re immensely powerful. Even more powerful, perhaps, than we know.