Gender Strength

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I’m moments away from getting on a plane to Milwaukee for a week of strength, friends, lifting and leisure-ing. In my haste of preparation, I’m digging up a fun chapter from Lift With Your Head to post today.

Gender Strength

We cannot obtain what isn’t defined. The vague archetypes that we carry around in our heads will suffer from being fuzzy ideals unless we define to ourselves and the Universe what the heck they really are. In my fluffy little industry we hear words such as ‘in shape,’ ‘toned,’ ‘defined’ and ‘strong’ all the time, as if the collective consciousness instantly understands a solid idea of what these mean. Marketing hyperbole weaves magic spells around people’s otherwise logical brains creating a need for pursuing such words without really self-defining what they are. The ad will feature some chiseled He-man or woman as bait, trying to solidify a common denominator ideal which we suddenly realize we have to be. And we then shell out money for their product or program with their idea of what we are supposed to achieve.

Then into the gym we walk, sometimes full of motivation, sometimes apprehensive and concerned, but all with the same vocabulary. In-shape, toned, strong. These are the desired outcomes of their current quest. In shape, toned, strong. Good goals, if they had real definitions.

Time to dig. What do these mean? ‘Toned’ has been discussed among my newsletters as a word with only aesthetic relevance and therefore not in the same league as the other two (in other words it is a silly infomercial word that we don’t use). ‘In shape’ can have many wonderful meanings, and exploring them in depth is of serious virtue before hopping on the bus for that destination. But today we’ll talk about Strength.

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What is it to be strong?

I have a few ideas, and I want input from everyone about more thoughts. Although an attempt will be made in the following paragraphs to define strength, let’s ask if a need to define strength is relevant.

Yes. (It’s my book, hence saying ‘no’ would defeat the many paragraphs I’ve already written).

Boys and girls (men and women) often have different strength heroes, and for very important reasons. Both have glaring contradictions in their perceptions and actions of strength, which ties in so well with the last chapter on cognitive dissonance. The very first thing that is blatantly apparent to anyone in the fitness industry, although their cognitive dissonant behavior has them justifying this fact with whatever hyperbole they can come up with, is that strength is often a secondary benefit to their workouts. A classic example, straight from a Bodytribe member’s response to a recent newsletter, is as follows (with a testimonial plug that I thought I’d keep in there as an ego stroke):

“I’ve got one! I’ve got one! My destructive behavior actually relates to my relationship with working out. What really gets me to the gym, in all honesty, is the belief that if I go on a regular basis, my body will be ‘beautiful’. And if I’m ‘beautiful’, then I will be loved unconditionally. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this warped thinking. Not exactly a new concept. But I think very few will admit this because it’s so narcissistic. Overtime, I hope to become more interested in what my body can do rather than how it looks and what everyone else thinks of it. I don’t see that as an ‘easy’ change. But I suppose that’s why I chose Bodytribe out of the billions of gyms to choose from. Hee!”

Aha! Well put, honest, and very true. This, by the way, was from a woman, and will help open up a discussion on gender specificity about the word ‘strength.’ Define a strong woman. Unfortunately the blurry image we come up with, because all archetypes are actually blurry and only step into the light and cease vibrating when we clearly define them, will often not feature physical power. And there are some reasons for this, but first a disclaimer:

I’m not a woman, nor have I ever been one. In my insatiable quest for understanding, I’ve met a few, heck I was even raised in part by a great one (hi Mom!). So any words regarding the gender that I happen to find confusing, beautiful and educational come from observations and paraphrasing, not from walking in their shoes, which tend to be uncomfortable and not something I could do for more than a few yards.

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Physical strength is held as a male trait. Wait… drop it. Do not throw anything at me yet. If this isn’t true then why is the common stereotype of a strong woman riddled with words like ‘butch’, ‘bulky,’ ‘steroids’, or any number of terms that have very male connotations? And why are women’s ‘fitness’ magazines so bent on perpetuating a soft, helpless version of a woman who should only do petite Pilates moves or move little colored weights around that weigh less then a kitten? And why does the cover always feature a waif-ish model who looks like a 12-year old boy with make-up on as some sort of icon to what a ‘fit’ woman is?

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Well a century ago fitness meant strength! Now strength seems like a very low priority in the women’s fitness ideal. Is it because it is a ‘man’s world?’ Is it because of fear? Is it because of peer pressure? Well I know our friend from Ontario has many things to say. This is from Krista Scott-Dixon’s November 2005 Rant at www.stumptuous.com.

“The … point is that we need to develop a strong core – and I’m not talking about Pilates or jumping on vinyl balls. We need to develop, maintain, and care for a strong sense of internal self. Fitness is part of this project because it helps us test and surpass our limits. It teaches us skill and confidence, and it forces us to meet challenges. If we stick to it through difficulty, then we are rewarded in ways that are often hard to see. Every little mini-obstacle that you overcome in training makes you stronger inside. Strength is an expression of the body, but more importantly it is also an expression of the will and the spirit. To struggle and surpass, or even to struggle when there is no means of surpassing – that is strength.”

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Thanks Krista. Now, and I mean the minute before I started writing this sentence, I just received an email that was baffling in both its serendipitous timing and strange out-of-the-blueness. One of our Bodytribe powerlifters simply sent me the following, just seconds ago, with absolutely no explanation as to why:

“I do pretty well with my workouts for increasing strength.
I went from, in July, benching 45 to 100 max, deadlifting 65
to 200 max, squatting 45 to 150. And I have all but gotten rid
of my back pain, lost weight, gained and lost inches in all the
right places. And I love my workouts! I have so much fun. I
swing leverage clubs around, do all kinds of nifty stuff with
kettlebells, I tug a sled, I do farmers walk with everything in
sight, I was even in my gym newsletter for that. “

“I also love the physical culture philosophy. It is about being
strong and functional and embodies a lifestyle, for me it works.
Honestly it has improved my life in more ways than just in
physical appearance; I feel more focused and spiritually aligned.

“So as you can see I am pretty darn happy, I guess that’s why
I proselytize about it. It is a way of living and being for me not
just a way of becoming something.”

As if she answered the question I haven’t even publicly posted yet. Thanks Katy! She just wrote again, mentioning that the email was a defense of her strength training to yet another man who argued against the benefit of heavy lifting for women. There may be a big key. Is this common? Are men that threatened by a woman’s strength that they need to make up absurd claims about strength being dangerous or wrong for them?

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What about men? No disclaimer here, I happen to be one, and have been most, if not all, of my life. If you want to know about my quest for strength, the chapter Routine Versus Ritual, sums up the epiphaniacal process that led to my current lessons. But us dudes are bombarded with some heavy hitting propaganda that to be a Man means ranking high on some scale of badass-ness that exists in the same blurry archetypical universe as the ‘strong woman.’ There was a GIANT forum discussion recently on www.testosterone.net about the many varieties and levels of badass-ness, with no one really defining it, therefore leading to circular arguments and a mass of wasted words.

Many guys chose the word ‘strength’ to sum up the higher echelons of badass-ness, yet no one defined what strength was. The word ‘toughness’ was thrown around with equal etherealness. Fighting prowess seemed to be the bench mark for many guys, which even led to a UFC-fighter-versus-street-fighter-versus-bodybuilder debate that, again, due to undefined terms and ideas, led nowhere (although it did appeal to the Batman-versus-Spiderman, or Jesus-versus-Superman sort of debates some of us nerds had as kids). Size came up over and over again, as it does in all magazines and advertisements. The quickest, shallowest estimation of badass-ness seems to be sheer mass. Where does that leave me at age 22 when I weighed 127 pounds? Standing at the sign-up counter at the gym forking over my ducats for the right to lift badass stuff within their badass walls and be among the badass guys.

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I’m 50 pounds heavier, this is true, but far from the behemoths on the cover of any bodybuilding magazine, as are 98 percent of most men. My quest for size-for-size’s-sake ended when I realized the best Me wasn’t going to waste time in the gym striving for a media-fed ideal that had nothing to do with REAL strength or performance. Let’s face it. Modern bodybuilding teaches you to be good at nothing. REAL training, for strength and performance, teaches you to be better at anything.

But strength, for many men, still means size. Although the inverse can hold some truth – size very well may mean a stronger muscle – strength, as I will define in the next chapter, does not mean size.

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Quick update:

The nutrition workshop this weekend has been canceled! There will be no workshop at Bodytribe this weekend, but the schedule will be updated for the rest of October by Monday, so check in soon!

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Showing 9 comments
  • Gubernatrix
    Reply

    I guess calling it ‘sex strength’ might garner too many hits of the unwelcome variety…

    I’m pleased you posted this though; it was timely as I’d been struggling with a post on a similar topic recently. I agree with what you say but I’ve chosen to take things off in a slightly different direction: if we are defining ‘strength’, shouldn’t we also be defining ‘beauty’ – since both can and are being sought in the gym? I don’t want to shy away from the pursuit of beauty and what’s more, we can use strength training to make it a positive experience.

    Head on over to http://gubernatrix.co.uk/2009/10/strong-is-beautiful/ to have a read.

    Or if you don’t want to, watch this video which is great fun and kinda makes me wish I was gay.

    http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=10860475

  • Christine
    Reply

    Great article! I think there are some out there that see the pursuit of physical strength as purely a masculine thing. When really, I think it should just be a *human* thing. There’s a certain amount of intestinal fortitude required around heavy objects, and both genders are capable of that.

  • deb roby
    Reply

    Chip,

    You got me going with this. So much so, that I was asked to step outside my normal reporting area and take up the question to Define a Strong Woman at BlogHer.

    http://www.blogher.com/define-strong-woman

  • chip
    Reply

    Thanks Deb, I’ll be sure to check it out!

  • Justin_P
    Reply

    Nice work, Chip. Thought provoking as all hell. I had to add my .02 Canadian Pesos at my blog as well.

    Salut!

  • Erica
    Reply

    Not responding to only this article, but actually to your whole site. THANK YOU. I am not sure yet, but you may have gotten my 65 yo mind to wrap a bit more tightly around my lazy reluctance – to make the goal the goal – to get strong and healthy. I just don’t like to work out, I only like having worked out…

    Hopefully!

  • chip
    Reply

    Erica, you are most welcome! Let us know what your next step becomes.

  • Erica
    Reply

    Well, first, I just got rid of my car. Now I have to ride my bike to work. That kind of over-rules the lazy reluctance, at least part of it!

    I am keeping the goal the goal.

  • Tiera Terrone
    Reply

    Oh my goodness! a tremendous article dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing situation with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss drawback? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

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