Thanks to the Carnival of the Feminists, I found this wonderful post from Liz on women and weight-lifting. Liz is 52, and she lifts big weights. Her post -- illustrated with photos -- begins with a humorous anecdote about the fear her muscles and her strength engendered in one particular young woman.
Liz notes that men tend to respond in one of two ways, by either belittling her muscles or fetishizing them. Women, on the other hand, often seem to become either defensive or reluctantly admiring; few of either sex express unabashed appreciation. Liz, however, makes it clear that her own weight-lifting experience is a passionately feminist one. Her muscles (all achieved naturally, without anabolic steroids) are outer manifestations of her own inner power and strength. And while she makes it clear that she doesn't believe that feminists must lift or work out, she clearly embraces the cultural subversiveness of becoming a strong, muscular 50-something woman.
In response, The Happy Feminist "weighs in" with her own experience:
Here's the thing. I want to be as physically strong and fit as I can be. Due to severe time constraints in my life at the moment, that's not very strong or fit, unfortunately. But one day I would love to be as strong as the woman (Liz) who wrote the post linked above. It's not about besting men (although that's potentially a fun side benefit), and it's not about trying to conform to some societal standard of attractiveness. It's about trying to be as physically capable as possible. Being physically capable has to be viewed as a good thing for everyone, doesn't it?!?!? To the extent that prejudices and norms of attractiveness discourage women from fully developing all of their physical gifts, I say screw that.
My wife and I are both committed to working out. Though I consider myself to be quite fit, my thirty-something wife is, frankly, in better shape than I. A former competitive triathlete, she and I both do Pilates and take boxing lessons -- and we both lift weights. I've often gone to the gym with my beloved, and watched the reactions that she gets when she lifts. Though she is lean and tall (we generally can wear each other's jeans), she's also toned and muscular -- and I've seen the awe (and anxiety) that she inspires in others when she starts lifting "heavy weight". Most women at our gym stick to the 5-15 pound free weights; my wife goes well above that for a variety of her exercises. There's little question that she intimidates people. I'm proud of her fitness and her strength, particularly because I honor her tremendous physical work ethic (an ethic that I share). To me, she's the most beautiful and extraordinary woman alive, which is how a husband ought to feel -- but she's also indisputably a dedicated athlete, and I have enormous admiration for that. We are fortunate to share a passion for the physical; given the time and financial resources that working out absorbs in both our lives, it would be a difficult thing indeed if we did not!
Not long ago, someone asked me, half-jokingly, "How does it feel to know that your wife could beat you up?" Though I'm rapidly learning boxing technique, my wife's progress (we have the same trainer, but meet with him separately) has been exponentially faster. I'm awed by how crisp and powerful her punches have become and how rapid her lateral movement is. She and I would never, ever, ever, dream of striking one another in anger. But it's true that it's an odd feeling to know that if it ever were to come to it, my wife could probably defeat me in a fight!
It's not that I believe that a husband must always be physically stronger than his wife. As a pro-feminist man, my comfort in my own identity is not linked to any sense of muscular superiority over my spouse! At the same time, I'm a product of my upbringing. I've never been in a relationship with a woman of my wife's level of fitness and power and agility. It's been a shock to realize that I am frequently judged because of my partner's strength. The reactions I get when folks see us together in the gym fall into one of two camps: some people (usually men) assume I am "hen-pecked and put-upon", a wimpy victim who is dominated by his wife. Others assume I must have something very special "going for me" (something not evident to the naked eye, mind you); I must be "extra-confident" to be able to "handle" such a strong woman!
But in the end, while I celebrate my wife's physique, I don't rely on her looks or her athleticism to boost my self-esteem or my feminist credentials. What makes me proudest about my wife is that I think that she is such a marvelous role model for other women. Her willingness to tackle traditionally masculine sports, to be unafraid of developing strong and evident muscles, sends a powerful signal about female ability and potential. Our future children will see in their mother a woman who is very clear about one thing above all else: femininity, ferocity, and obvious physical strength are not mutually exclusive propositions! And in their father, lord willing, they will see a man who does not define his masculinity by his ability to physically protect his weaker wife.