Not too terribly long ago Julie and I sat in a coffee shop and she told me about this idea she had: she would leave her current job and begin a small business. Julie is remarkable. Smart, tenacious, and a huge advocate for women--for women doing what they want, even if is hard and terrifying (actually, especially then).
fitBallet is an exercise regimen designed to strengthen and empower women. I've taken it twice now and I'm not going to lie: it's hard. But that's the point. That's why it's exciting. Because at the end of the class, with shaking legs, I walk away knowing I did something that demanded I try a little bit harder, and in a new direction. It's my new (favorite) Saturday morning tradition.
Julie wrote what follows a few months ago and it is one of the most exciting things I have ever read about women's bodies and why we should move them.
Let's go ahead and say something uncontroversial: most women have a complicated relationship with exercise.
This isn't news, right? If you're like most American females, you've grown up logging hours on cardio machines and bribing yourself with cute workout tops. You've swung between periods of obsessive dedication and overwhelming revulsion, the latter only ending when you feel massive guilt or the calendar ticks over into January 1st. You want to love exercise. And for small, endorphin-sparked moments in the middle of a kickboxing class, you do! But then, inevitably, it's the next morning, and the sour cocktail of exhaustion and resentment kicks in, and you leave your gym bag by the door.
Who's mixing the cocktail? Why do we so often view working out as an obligation we'd do anything to avoid?
One reason, I think, is that we feel our efforts are never-ending and a notch above pointless. The messages we receive--from the media, from other people--tell us that exercise is a vehicle to physical perfection, and that perfection for women means being as small as possible. Our "health" magazines focus not on building, but on taking away, whittling down. Lose fat. Trim your waist. Become smaller as a physical human being. Exercise, cast in this light, is a battle against a rising tide: get on your treadmill and outrun all the calories you took in. Don't let them catch up to you.
But even more damaging than this message is the one we're not receiving. Women are not given the important, motivating speech that is the birthright of most men: "We're expecting big things from you."
When it comes to fitness, women have long been the spectators. We don't need to grow up to be big and strong like the boys, because no one's going to ask us how many push-ups we can do, or how far we can run. No one cares if you can do a pull-up, but everyone notices if you lose five pounds. Is it any wonder that women center their attention on minimizing their physical footprint? But this constant focus on a "skinny" body obscures what the focus should be: accomplishment.
Women aren't taught to view their bodies as glorious machines, but that's exactly what they are. Nearly every physical feat a man can do can also be done by a woman. Do we have less upper body muscle mass than men? Maybe fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers? As a gender, yes. And now we're finished discussing the immoveable biological differences between men and women. They don't even begin to explain why men are pushed to maximize their physicality and women are encouraged to try for slim thighs. Add to all of this the elephant in the room: the survival of our species depends on us willingly undergoing a massive physical trauma at least once. Most women do it twice. With this kind of genetic legacy, why don't women think of themselves as superheroes in hiding?
Because you are. We all are. And those masked avenger qualities--speed, strength, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound--belong to us just as much as anyone else. It matters, in this life, that you push yourself physically. It is important that we be able to carry groceries over city blocks and support the bodies of our aging parents and maybe outrun a zombie apocalypse. Even if we're just sitting at a computer, it's crucial that we feel the particular afterglow of having recently hit our bodily limits and inched them forward.
And so, I think it's time to just call it. Exercise is not an endless race race pitting us against ourselves. Your body is for you. Whatever your personal goals are--lungs and legs that can run a marathon, abdominal muscles that can sustain a two-hour ballet performance, arms that can carry two children to safety--that is what you should work toward with the same fervor that you pour into being a success at your career, your relationships. Let's tell ourselves the truth, as it's going to be from now on: the gym is not where you expend the Recommended Daily Allowance of calories in order to gain societal approval of your body. It's where you go to polish and reinforce the temple in which you walk around.
To take a class, train with Julie, find out what it's all about this is the rabbit hole to fall down.