Strength and Beauty
She put her coffee cup down. Her eyes flicked from mine to my shoulder, travelled up and down the length of my arm, then settled back on my face.
“You haven’t had much luck dating,” she said. “Are you worried that looking…” — she paused, choosing her words carefully — “less feminine is going to make things even harder?”
It was one of those moments when the sudden explosion of frenetic activity in my brain caused the rest of me to freeze. What felt like an entire history of feminism and hours worth of debate ran through my mind in the space of mere seconds, and it took several more for me to recover from the shock of her question before answering, simply, “No.”
There’s a part of me that wishes I would have punctuated the “No” with “And why don’t you go suck an orange.” I’m picturing the fruit print on the sundress I recently scored at a summer sale, imagining it as a tree of bitter Sevilles that would have puckered her lips into silence. But at the time, polite, decorous me kept my answer to a single word. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. While the question fired a hot anger that flushed my cheeks for most of the afternoon, the more I thought about where the question came from, the more I empathized with its impetus — and with her.
We had been discussing how my marathon training is progressing. After four years and an assorted bag of injuries since my last 42.2 kilometre race, I switched things up this time around and added two days of CrossFit into my weekly regime. The goal was to improve my overall fitness and to build strength in the areas whose weaknesses were contributing to the injury cycle. It turns out that doing something other than running was the best thing I ever did for my running. CrossFit is augmenting my overall physical capacity in ways I never could have imagined, to say nothing of the way it is honing my physical appearance. It was the latter, particularly the new contours of my arms, that drew my coffee companion’s comment.
It’s happened to me several times of late. Strangers have commented on how strong I look — and am. (“Do you work out?” was the query I got from a cashier at the liquor store when I swung a basket containing several bottles for a dinner party to the counter one-armed and effortlessly. I laughed to myself, thinking it was a whole new definition of “functional fitness.”) And if strangers notice the tangible evidence of my improving strength, my family and friends certainly do as well.
The comments from this more intimate group have been interesting. There are those who acknowledge the significant effort and commitment: “I know how hard you are working at this, and it shows. Keep at it, Jodi.” And there are those who know how hard it’s been to go from Boston Marathon Finisher to Can’t-Even-Run-a-5K-Anymore Wash-Up to Marathoner-Back-in-Training and CrossFit Newbie. They’re the ones who say, “I’m so proud of you.”
Much of the feedback, though, lands on my surface appearance. I’d be lying if I said I don’t love how it feels (and looks) to be lean and strong again and, at 46 years old, to be chiselling out muscle groups I didn’t have when I was half my current age. There’s a confidence that accompanies physical capability, and that is perhaps the most important thing I wear these days. But that’s not always what people see. “I’d kill for your arms,” one person said. “Well, aren’t we looking super-buff these days,” said another. Then there are comments like these: “Are your IG stories only about running and CrossFit now?”
Everyone likes a little flattery about how they look, right? I’m one of those people that has historically deflected compliments, but as I’ve worked on my self-worth in my forties, I’ve tried to learn to accept praise graciously and to offer it genuinely. So the compliments wrapped in language of jealously and toned with negativity jangle when I hear them. Because when I look at those who say they are envious of my body or irked by the content of my social media accounts, I see people who are in possession of so many of the things I yearn deeply for: a life partner, a family, home ownership, travel, security. And so I wonder why it is they can’t let me have just this one fucking thing. Just this one.
Because let’s be clear: The question about my appearance being “less feminine” has nothing to do with a real concern for my dating opportunities. (And besides, it’d be a cold day in hell before I’d invest time in a man who didn’t understand, and find attractive, my outer strength as a symbol of my inner fortitude, grit, and resilience.) The question also has nothing to do with conventional beauty standards; the person who asked it is smart and savvy and only too aware of how absurdly narrow a definition of “beauty” we’ve been conditioned to accept. What the question really uncovers is what often happens when someone else’s progress and accomplishments collide squarely with our own insecurities: We tarnish their shine, even if ever so subtly, to ease our own pain.
I know. I know because this is something I struggle with all the time.
Several years ago, when training for my first marathon, I excitedly shared my progress week after week on social media. Every Sunday I ran farther than I had on my long run the Sunday before, and the sense of possibility I felt in that training began translating to the rest of my life. I lost the 50lbs of unhappiness I had accumulated in an unfulfilling long-term relationship. I began pursuing a creative life I had put off for decades. I unburied passions and desires that had laid dormant for most of my adult life. I was happy in a way I had never before experienced, and I shared that journey openly and enthusiastically.
It was a surprise, then, to receive a message from a friend telling me she had muted my social media feeds. She explained that she had been bullied in gym class when she was young and my boasting about my running accomplishments and physical transformation was triggering her painful memories. She suggested I change the content of my sharing in order to show sensitivity and respect. I imagine I might have interacted with her a little more graciously today than I did then, even if my reaction would be exactly the same — which is not changing a thing about who I am and how I share it.
That former friend could have muted my social media feeds and left it at that. If seeing my content was painful, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted her to feel obligated to subject herself to it. But in choosing to tell me she had silenced me and proposing I alter my way of being, she attempted to diminish the light I was learning to shine. I don’t think she did this with exacting deliberateness. Rather, human nature kicked in and she found a means for easing the discomfort my physical journey stirred in her about her own.
That memory rose viscerally after my coffee encounter. The anger I had been nurturing since the question about my femininity being precluded by my muscles dissipated when I realized what was at its source: a battle with body image.
And lest that sound arrogant at all, I recognized it only because I started enumerating how many times I’ve done precisely the same thing in my own way. I thought about the social media posts I see but sometimes can’t bring myself to like. I thought about the ones I comment on but with language that is uncharacteristically reserved. I thought about the times I knew I should send a text or a note of praise in the mail but let too much time pass. I thought about the times I’ve thought, “Why them and not me?” I thought about the people from whom I’ve withdrawn and how silence can be used as effectively as poisoned words.
Because sometimes it’s hard. It’s hard to see people’s displays of happiness and love, particularly when those people leave me behind in the morass of middle-aged singlehood once their second chance comes along. It’s hard when someone else wins the writing accolades and gets the book deal when all I have are letters that encourage me to submit again next year. It’s hard to see people smashing personal racing bests left and right when I’m working flat-out just to get back to where I once was. It’s hard to be the only one in your peer group who doesn’t own a home, who feels the burden of making ends meet on a solo paycheque, and who wonders what the hell you’ve done so wrong to end up where you are instead of where everyone else is.
Except where everyone else is isn’t my journey. And what I want most of all is to find my own way.
And that’s when I think about how much better I feel when I can lift myself out of my own insecurity and jealousy and disappointment to see — truly see —others on their paths. To cheer them on. To help them when they need it. To step back, make room, and let them shine as they blaze their own trails. That. That is true strength, and beauty.
I hear myself saying again something I said over and over while training for my first marathon: “Running makes me a better person.” I feel that doubly so now as I’ve layered the learning of a new sport into my regime. I’m now a girl who runs and lifts. There is something about the discipline and incremental progress of committed training that is both humbling and empowering. For me it works to assuage the self-doubts I battle as part of my human nature. And when I doubt myself less, I am more generous, loving, and kind — to myself, and to others. My muscles may be working against me in the dating game, but I’d rather be winning at being a better human.
Strength and Beauty. Their roots run deep.