“No, no, no,” my grandma says, shaking her head. “No. You shouldn’t do that - that makes you too masculine.”
I raise my arm and flex, grinning at her. “Well, I want to be masculine.”
“No,” she repeats, more forceful this time. “You need to be feminine. You used to be prettier. Now you look too hard.”
Christmas Eve, 2016.
My family is generally of one mind about me lifting: don’t do it. My mom, dad and grandparents worry that it’ll make me too “bulky” or too “boyish”. They offer this unilateral opinion every time I mention a gain - what I deadlifted this past week, how much weight I lost on Whole30, how deep I got into my squat. They offer this opinion without prompting, as if I’m perpetually asking for permission.
The women in my family are decidedly girly. My mother subscribes to the fashion model of Stevie Nicks, while my grandmother applies her German precision and coldness to impeccable tailoring and tasteful colors. My aunts go bolder, with sequins and nails and big hair, but still fall on the feminine end of the spectrum. My cousin is picture-perfect femme: tall, with long blonde-streaked hair and a killer body she wraps in designer everything. I don’t fit.
I was decidedly not them, and so I deleted my body from the conversation. When I was young and fit, I ran. I was popsicle slim, flat-chested, and entirely uncomfortable. Mind over matter, I told people. Boys, football players lifted in the weight room and I laced myself into my shoes and took off. I enjoyed severing the tenuous link between my legs and breath and my head and focused on tuning out my body’s signals that enough was enough to push just that much further. I learned discipline. I also learned to ignore pain, and only celebrate when I was decidedly beyond my limits.
Fast forward through a mind-body connection based on money, hacking grad school, a cross-country move, a period of anxiety so pervasive it takes a year to come back to any kind of baseline. I am the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. I am tired. I am eating my feelings. I remember a gym my friend told me about, queer-owned/run/friendly. I desperately need something to change.
My first few classes are brutal. I am out of shape and stiff. I fall down several times. I can’t look anyone remotely attractive in the eye (and there are many of you, you should be proud). My body remembers a level of fitness I can’t possibly achieve in 50 minutes. This is dumb, I tell myself. They’re all better and stronger than you. You’re shit. You’re nothing. This is never going to work.
Slowly but surely, it does, because I pick up a barbell and, shocker, I love it. The first time I really drop into a squat I break into a sweat - not out of effort, but panic. Too deep! Too much! How can I possibly get up out of this? I do. I do it again. It’s fun. I get better.
I find my edge. Slowly, I clue into my body - what aches versus what is pain, what is stiff and what is a true limit, what is fatigue and what is a stubborn no-I-can’t-too-hard. I dig deep into my hips and shoulders and dredge a well of grief and fear. I start to see external changes that flatter my bruised ego, and I’m able to do more.
I make friends. I learn to love my trainers. I quit therapy. I look forward to the gym.
My family doesn’t recognize me. I am untethered from their expectations. I look in the mirror and I see lats, and biceps, and quads, and an ass that I built. I am proud of my broad shoulders. I have facial angles and a hawklike chin. I am excited to get bigger. I am finding space to breathe and be free. I am happy, for the first time in my life.
This is a big fucking deal.