Every Summer my mother and I lug our air conditioner up the two flights of stairs from the basement to the living room. She has me take the heavier end both because she seizes any opportunity to use me for physical labour and because I am the strongest member of my family.
I've always been naturally athletic. I had biceps in preschool. I swam the most laps in kindergarten. I ran faster than the boys in middle school and lapped the other girls in high school. I actually enjoy working out. I love the burn that comes from working new muscles and the exertion of pushing myself to be faster, fitter, and more toned. I take pride in my athletic ability. So, why did my face flush hot with shame when I beat the boys in an arm wrestling competition in fifth grade, or when, more recently, I was asked how much weight I lift while hanging out at the beach?
I'm a medium-sized woman, with fair skin and blonde hair, which means I have the privilege of blending in and not being discriminated against based on the way I look. But in a society that values women based on how little space they can take up, I've always felt that my visible strength isn't desirable.
I had been taught that, in order to be feminine, I had to be small, light, fragile.
There was a time in my life when I wasn't this way. I was flirting with an eating disorder and battling the emotional devastation of a quarter-life crisis. I've found myself longing for the slim look of my arms during that time, or the widening space between my thighs — but there was nothing healthy about the way I was living. And much to my personal embarrassment, I couldn't do a pushup and could barely run a mile. Eventually, I broke off the relationship I was in, moved continents, got a job, and started exercising and eating again. I gained muscle and weight, which was hard at first, but I was also stronger and healthier, and my obsession with my body stopped controlling my life.
I had the space to think again, and once I did, I realised I had sacrificed an essential part of myself because I had been taught that, in order to be feminine, I had to be small, light, fragile. I know now this is as sad as it is false. I value my strength, not despite my femininity, but because of it.
I take comfort in the extra layer of protection my muscles provide. I've learned to love how the distinctly feminine curve of my waist rises up to meet the broad strength of my shoulders and bulge in my biceps. It's the body I was given and the body I have made and continue to make through sweat, grit, and hard work. I feel strong, I feel like a woman, and most importantly, I feel at home in a body designed to do the thing I love most — move.