My friend and personal trainer Jessica posted a blog this week with a link to this video that Always (a feminine product manufacturer) made about perceptions of what it’s like to run, hit, move …. like a girl.
I went to a Body Pump class Thursday. It’s the first time I’ve been in a workout class in awhile. I generally do my workouts on my own, and if I do something in a group, it’s a group run. Body Pump is a strength-training class that seems to appeal to both males and females as the class was pretty well mixed. At the beginning of the class, the instructor asked if there were any “first-timers” in the class. There was me and a group of three twenty-something males who were right in front of me. I was also the oldest person in the class. As the workout progressed, I realized that I was also one of the strongest people in the class. I was surprised. I was especially surprised when I could handle more weight and more reps than those twenty-somethings in front of me. And, when it came to pushups – an exercise that Jessica drills me on quite frequently – I had no problem. From the very beginning, Jessica had me do full push-ups. I have never done the modified version with my knees on the floor…. ever. At one point in the class the instructor joked that he was going to make the girls do the pushups without being on their knees. Groans and laughter and shouts of “no way” filled the mirrored gym classroom. I texted Jessica when I got back and told her that I was the only woman who did pushups without modification. What she doesn’t know is I first typed that I didn’t do them ‘like a girl.’ Seeing her video earlier that day made me very aware that what I was about to say was not what I really wanted to say.
I heard plenty growing up about not throwing ‘like a girl’, crying ‘like a girl’ or running ‘like a girl’. It’s a very ingrained way of thinking that sends a double message. On the one hand if it’s meant to encourage someone to try harder or with more aggression, it can accurately portray that action. We all know what that means. A ‘girl’ would do it sissified with little confidence, holding back out of fear of getting hurt. On the other hand, it’s a veiled insult that says that’s the way girls do things. To do it with gusto, would be to do it ‘like a boy.’ I often felt that when I acted like an athlete, I was somehow doing something that was against my natural inclinations as a female. I felt different. I felt like it might be unattractive. I felt like I was somehow trying to be something I wasn’t. On the other hand, because I did it, the doing taught me that I could do whatever I wanted to despite being a girl. I didn’t have to be pigeon-holed into some way of being just because I was female. If I could be an athlete and a girl, maybe I could be a corporate manager AND a girl or even an independent person AND a girl.
The better description would be to encourage girls to run ‘like you mean it’, hit ‘like you want to knock it out of the park’, or put your weight into it. Those pushups are modified pushups that are suited to girls IF they are not strong enough to do them or for boys who are not strong enough for the regular pushups. It’s not a gender thing, and it cuts both ways to insinuate that a girl – or a boy – is acting ‘like a girl’ because they have to do some strength-training in order to get in shape for the next level. How may boys have been called wusses or girls or other derogatory names because they haven’t been working out, or they are not athletes? Becoming an athlete is a progression of building strength and stamina. It is also requires a building of fundamental skills which start out very difficult and shaky for any new athlete – not just girls. Everyone should have the chance to be a beginner and build the confidence that comes out of improving in any sport. I wonder how many girls or boys have never approached athletics because they knew that they would look ‘like a girl’ when they started. And, if you never begin, you never become an athlete…. period.
I have friends who tell me that they wish they were athletes. As we get older, our bodies need to have that physical challenge to keep us in shape and stay healthy. I know lots of friends who have become athletes late in life. Most of the women I know can’t admit they’ve become an athlete because they don’t think they are good enough to really be called an athlete. I think maybe some dismiss it because it’s not considered feminine … or ‘like a girl’ … to be athletic. This problem affects women for their entire lives because athletics teaches so much. It has taught me how to be a beginner and try new things. It’s taught me that learning is a process. It’s taught me that my body doesn’t have to perform ‘like a girl’ just because I’m 53 and a woman. When I ran my first marathon at 48, I was astounded that my body adapted to the year and a half training regimen leading up to the event. The more I pushed my body – with wisdom and restraint – the more I saw how adaptable my body was. It responded. That’s what athletics brings to me. It helps me understand that although there are some limits on what I can do, I am only limited by my choices. If I choose to run a marathon at 48, I can do it. If I choose to learn to surf at 51, I can do it. I may do it like a beginner, but I’m really happy to say that I do it …. period. And, I’m a girl… so I guess I’m doing it ‘like a girl’. Please get out of the way.