And the meat shall inherit…

The meat head stereotype.

Our lives are filled with stereotypes which serve to filter the massive amounts of information that our brains process each day. We categorize everything that we experience, often subconsciously. And everyone knows that stereotypes are often harmful and are meant to be broken.

I’d like to contribute to breaking the meat head at the gym stereotype. What I find interesting about lifting prejudice is that people tend to think of the sport as a negation of what is desirable. That is, if you are strong, you can’t be smart (for men), and if you are strong, you can’t be beautiful (for women). It’s sad that no one is concerned about my partner’s lifting ruining his physique, or about my lifting ruining a perfectly good brain. In fact, although it would be preposterous if someone told me that lifting would turn me into a half-wit, many people feel free to comment on the horrifying changes that are coming to my body: thick neck, veins, hulkness. Similarly, I’ve been asked about the brutish males that might be lurking around in the gym – they might be strong, but we suspect that their brains are cooked.

It seems very old-fashioned to value primarily wits in men and beauty in women, and fear that building strength and muscle will severely damage those qualities.

And that’s exactly what it is. Very old fashioned. At the turn of the 19th century in England, women and men of the upper classes were known to have soft, callous-free hands and a sharp wit. They sat around in tea parlors and coffee houses and gossiped, perhaps occasionally getting up for a slow stroll around the park. If you read about physical culturists, early body builders, you see that these women and men, though often upper class as well (who else would have the time and money to invest in this), were absolutely counterculture. Strength was considered low-class and brutish. And it was common knowledge that in addition to having ungainly muscles, the lower classes had only half a wit between them, and the women, with their missing teeth and loose morals, put femininity to shame.

And so unfortunately these stereotypes haven’t evolved since then. Many people in spite of themselves still equate the muscle with the plebe, and would much rather be fancied weak and pale and rich than have callouses coming around their thumbs.

But, as much as I love the Brits for certain things, I don’t think that their class system is universally praised, at least not in the circles that I frequent. So let’s stop upholding it by talking about meat heads and butch girls in the gym, and acknowledge that, as my coach says, lifting is about strength, speed and grace. There’s really nothing dim witted about it.

More reading:
A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss
Physical Culturist

Pride and prejudice: being ladylike in an out of the workplace

When I first told my cousin that I was lifting weights, he looked at me in amazement: “I would never have guessed – you don’t look anything like a weightlifter” he said, thickening his neck with his hands. “I always thought women who lifted were butch”. He meant it as a complement. Of course, one would never imagine that a delicate flower such as myself would be strong. And if I were strong, it would be quite unseemly for it to be known. I flexed my biceps and he seemed impressed, but added that he would never allow his daughter to do a sport like this, alluding to women getting beat up in the MMA cage. Of course, MMA and lifting are completely different disciplines, and, if one female MMA fighter gets a beating, that is only because a stronger female MMA fighter has administered it. But of course, administering a beating was almost as unseemly as lifting heavy things and putting them down. He was good-naturedly shocked, and I felt like a Jane Austen character.

This came back to me today at work, when a male co-worker suggested that he and I both join the speakers roster for our office. Our female colleague laughed nervously, and turned to me: “no offence, but you cannot be on the roster, it’s only for people who can speak in the name of our office – I wouldn’t even put myself on there!” My male co-worker retreated and I said nothing, wondering, after dozens of public speeches in the past year, if that was true.

But later as I fumed and practiced my jerk, I realized the extent to which sexism is a part of our lives. Living in the United States, I witness recurring and in-depth discourse about racism, which seems to be slowly changing race relations, at least in the North East. Very slowly. But it’s ugly step-sister, sexism, is still so much a part of our lives that we barely notice it. Men are sexist, women are sexist. Old and young, women mistreat themselves even before they mistreat others.

And I looked at the way my female colleague treats herself – beautiful, disciplined, charming, half-starving, and I tried to tell myself that the shut down she performed on me was actually aimed at herself, day after day. Just as it would be unseemly for a lady such as ourselves to hoist barbells onto our back three times a week, so would it be ghastly for us to be public speakers – our place is in the background.

And so I wonder how far we’ve come from the 19th century. We are well-read, witty, play piano and toss our hair and sing, while making sure that everyone knows that we will always be a breath away from distress and a step behind the curtain. And the worst part is that for all the women’s empowerment movements, we are still largely oblivious of the extent to which we all are – men, women, old and young, pushing women down, down and down again.

These invisible barriers must be pointed out and discussed, time and time again, so that we can finally start to lift weights without fearing for the thickness of our necks, then stick them out without fearing for the sanctity of our heads.