Undercover Badass

At the moment, I have secret muscles.

I can press a 20kg kettlebell over my head with one arm. I went from doing bodyweight push-ups on an 18-inch elevation (seat of a dining chair) to floor push-ups in 4 weeks. I swing, lift, squat, fly, curl, press, & row iron in a variety of weights, 4-6 times a week. I scramble up mountain faces, practice endurance through yoga, kick up into handstands, & sometimes for fun,  I hoist my boyfriend over my shoulder or go from lying down on the floor to walking across the room with his full weight on my back.

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Living up to this shirt!

 

But you can’t really tell by looking.

To most people, myself often included, I don’t look strong. I don’t have an athletic build, & muscles don’t jut sharply from my resting limbs. I have a soft, protruding belly; fat cushions my back & my ribs; my butt jiggles when I walk; my arms look squishy; my thighs are BFFs. When I flex, my bicep pushes up against a pocket of fat that blossoms on my upper arm. I have given up puzzling at my back in mirrors and videos, wondering if the ripples & dips I see are firm gatherings of working muscle or layers of fat bunching over it. My muscles are there & growing. They’re just doing it in hiding.

Sometimes, that’s kind of fun. I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy seeing impressed and surprised looks when I capably heft a water cooler bottle to replace the empty. I can’t help laughing out loud when someone offers to help me with a box I’m moving only to be stunned by its weight. Other times, it’s less fun.

At the end of August, I’m going to the Girls Gone Strong Women’s Fitness Summit. I’m excited to spend a weekend with some of the hardest-working & most inspirational women in fitness, not to mention meeting many of the amazing women I’ve come to know through these pros.  I’m also nervous, because I want to be able to hang. Even though I know GGS is a body-positive community, I feel a need to put pressure on myself to be stronger, leaner, better. I’ve been embarrassed to talk about attending the Summit, because I assume that people will react with disbelief & amusement. Because I don’t look strong. I don’t look like I work hard.

 

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Same body right here…

I’ve started telling people about the Summit, anyway. Every time I mention it, I get a thrill of something like fear. Thoughts of what they might say or think peck anxiously at me. But I tell them anyway. Some people have smiled & nodded in polite confusion, like they can’t understand what the event is or why I would attend. I have gotten a few raised eyebrows & quick once-overs. A handful of people have been delighted & wanted to know more, confessing their own beginning fitness practices. Those have been the most pleasant reactions – hearing about how someone picked up a barbell for the first time in their life, or finally touched their toes without bending their knees. When my friend’s wife told me she had done her first hang from a pull-up bar, we made curved claw shapes with our hands at each other & laughed knowingly.

A former coworker recently found me on Instagram & sent me a message about the fitness videos & photos I post there. She was impressed, she said, & she hadn’t known I was into “all this stuff.” I told her about the Summit & the goals I’ve been working towards. “Woah,” she replied. “You’re a total undercover badass.”

I’ve been hanging on to that phrase for a couple of weeks now, because (as I’ve written about before) I’ve often been made to feel like I don’t deserve or qualify for strength. You’re doing it wrong, is the all-too-common response to getting strong without getting skinny first. Sometimes, as stupid as they are, I put those same restrictions  or criticisms on myself. What’s the point? I find myself wondering. Does it matter that I can do these things if I don’t have the physical appearance to show for it?

But the cool thing about the undercover badass is that she is a badass. For reasons laypeople will likely never know, she won’t advertise her prowess. But her incognito status does not diminish her abilities; she remains a badass, no matter what she looks like. & that’s what I want to remember:

I can press a 20kg kettlebell over my head with one arm. It took me 4 weeks to advance from chair-elevated push-ups to floor level. I swing, lift, squat, fly, curl, press, & row iron in a variety of weights, 4-6 times a week. I climb mountains, build yoga muscles, celebrate life with handstands, & sometimes for fun, I add an entire person to my bodyweight squats. & I do all of that right now, as I am. I might be undercover, but I’m a badass regardless.

 

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I’m going to forget that, though. In the future, probably the not-so-distant future, I am going to feel inadequate & question my worth. This process of self-acceptance is exactly that: a process. It doesn’t serve me to be afraid of setbacks on a cyclical path. Instead, I hope to remind myself that my secret muscles – my undercover badassery – remains.

 


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Beastin’

The first time I heard the expression “beastin'” was in preparation for my first year of teaching high school. “Know the slang,” one of the advisers in my program insisted. “Learn it, love it.”

I didn’t hear it applied to me by students until my 2nd year of teaching, after I had started to figure out what the hell I was doing instead of going in every morning just hoping no one lit anything on fire. 2nd year me had not come to play. & I remember so distinctly that morning, as I circulated the room checking my students’ writing journals, that one of my 9th grade boys shook his head and sighed: “Miss, you beastin’ on this journal tip.”

I felt like such a boss.

It’s still funny to me, about 10 years later, that while my students have moved on & left this word behind as all hip young cats will, the concept of beastin’ is alive & well in the world of fitness & strength training.

& as ever, I love it:


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Positivity Pressure

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On average, someone asks me if I’m ok, four times a day. I kept track for a month.

It’s well meant, but it pushes some serious buttons.

I say yes, because I’m supposed to, & because, you know, it’s true. As true as anything else. Yes, I’m ok: I haven’t just received some sad news; I have the same number of fingers I had when I woke up this morning.

I just don’t smile & make small talk all the time. I’m not hype in the morning. I work with teenagers all day, so I value quiet. Deeply. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to engage in small talk. & sometimes, I feel things other than happy. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I mean, didn’t you guys see Inside Out?

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All together now!

People’s reactions to perceived unhappiness, especially in women & young people, are interesting. Those reactions are often very intense. Strangers & acquaintances alike feel compelled to chastise me for not being grateful for my life, or to remind me that my situation could be worse, or that I’m beautiful & should therefore go through life gifting the world with my permanently bared teeth.

It’s worse online, where Instagram & Facebook often feel overrun by positivity pushers who replace fitspo with memes that demand I never feel bad or self-conscious or anything less than 100% pure gratitude for every single experience of my day. Everything is a gift, the positivity pressure tells me, so say thank you.

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Dimples & All

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly kids grow. Take my friend Alie’s daughter, Zaida. Not long ago at all, we were losing our minds over how close she was to standing up. But when I saw her recently, on the day of the Superbowl, that was old news. As she careened around our friends’ apartment, I marveled aloud at how big she had gotten. She turned her cherubic face toward us & broke out the killer smile that is going to get her out of so much trouble in the future. We melted, & she hustled over to lay her head in her mama’s lap & beam up at her adoring fans.
“Oh my god, look at those dimples!” our friend, Laura, squealed in delight, before looking up at my own smiling face. “Oh, Priscilla, you have them, too!”
I fought the urge to cover my face with my hands, a reflex from years of having my face pinched, squeezed, & poked. Laura, thankfully, made no sudden moves. We laughed as she recalled sitting at her desk in elementary school, pressing her pencil’s eraser into her cheek in hopes of leaving a dimple behind.
“I was like that with freckles,” I said, recalling my attempts to dot my skin with pen, marker, makeup, paint.
“You can have some of mine,” Alie offered, not for the first time in our friendship.
Later that night, reflecting on this moment, I was struck by how my longing for other people’s features is fading into past tense. That’s new-ish. Most of my life, I wished I could wake up in someone else’s skin; no more chubby cheeks & dimples, no more explosive curls, every feature I’d bemoaned & hyper criticized melted away. As Mean Girls captured so well, that hyper criticism is all too common among girls, so I had a great audience for the shame & self-loathing I carried with me.
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This is probably one of the reasons why it was always so much easier to believe the negative things people said about me. One negative comment outweighed a thousand nice ones in my mind. It didn’t matter how many people told me I had a beautiful face & a warm, infectious smile; one middle school classmate trying to nickname me “Pillsbury Doughgirl” was enough to cancel out all the positivity.

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When I Grow Up

Heads up: This post discusses sexual abuse.

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For most of my childhood, I dreamed of being Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Or some kind of wolf-girl. I wanted to be naked & dirty & live with ferocious beasts. I’ve always loved Where the Wild Things Are, but I still believe that Max made a huge mistake in getting back in his little boat & sailing home for dinner. I longed to scale trees with ease, keep pace with running herds of gazelle, melt into the shadows & never be found. I wanted civilized humans to glimpse me at a distance & be too terrified & awed to try to follow. I wanted to be strong.

When I was 8, I lived for gymnastics class. I loved the uneven bars, the momentary feeling of flying as I launched from one to the other. I never feared that I would miss, even though I did now & then. I relished catching hold of the bar, catching myself, pulling my body back & up  & over. I loved the beam, too, especially cartwheeling on the narrow space, grasping for balance with what my classmates called my monkey feet. I plummeted fearlessly from that beam, over & again, once crushing my wrist & fracturing it in three places. As I waited for my mother to pick me up that day, I used the injury as an excuse to practice one-armed cartwheels, to my coaches’ great annoyance (apparently you’re supposed to sit still when you break a bone, & just falling on your face instead of catching yourself with your broken wrist isn’t a sufficient compromise, it seems). I quit later that year, when my parents pointed out that I was fatter than the other girls on my group & I didn’t look as good in my leotard as they did. But I loved it while I did it. I loved tumbling & pressing up into handstands. I loved the feeling of my legs pumping as I ran at the horse, the gathering of my muscles echoed in the compression of the springboard before the launch. Then: up & over, splits in midair, maybe an attempt at a tuck. I loved being strong.

In 5th grade, I was a cheerleader, because I could still do splits & the uniform wasn’t skintight. I liked splits & shouting, but I loved being a base for the lighter girls to fly. I never said this to anyone, but I felt this sense of responsibility & pride, even though my brother insistently taunted me about being too fat to be of any other use. I felt strong, & I loved it.

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Plot Twist

The other day, Boyfriend set his desktop background to a photo of me. He usually opts for beautiful scenery or incredible feats of fitness, so I thought I knew what to expect when he started nudging me to go check out his new screen. But when I was slow to get out of my book, he couldn’t resist telling me, “It’s you!” & it was with absolute dread I shuffled to the computer in the corner of our gym. Absolute dread.

Boyfriend & I generally have completely different opinions of what photos of me are cute (or acceptable), so I wasn’t sure what he would have chosen to blow up across his jumbotron monitor. But whether I was to be met with a carefully posed portrait or a fantastic mid-word candid, I knew I was not going to be pleased.

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The Chain

One of the best parts of deciding that I was going to do what I wanted re:fitness & stop worrying about if I was doing things “right” is the amount of control it gave me. I decide how I work out, why I work out, & what I work on. & now that Boyfriend & I have our own place, we took control of our space, too. The result?

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Creating a functional home gym in the middle of our apartment was not done in a day. Boyfriend & I discussed what we needed to have a place we could both use comfortably; we shopped for & laid foam tiling to make everything from yoga to animal flow to jumping possible; we decided which dumbbells, which stretch bands, what size jump box & if we need another (yes), which pull-up bar & where to put it so that we could both still practice handstands. As it came together, a new challenge arose: using it.

It would have been very easy to put all of the work & time in to making a perfect gym space, only to let it sit & look pretty. In fact, it still could be. One lazy Saturday has stretched into a week of “taking it easy” in our pasts. Though we both have a love for movement & lifting, we also both have a love for ice cream & couch dates. Striking a balance between those 2 happy places doesn’t come naturally to either of us.  So in late December, we agreed to commit to using our gym every day.

If every day seems like a lot, that’s because it is. & I won’t pretend that I was all fired up at the thought of this. The pessimistic side of me (picture a despondent Charlie Brown on my shoulder) was not excited.

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mood.

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Knowing Better

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I knew I was in trouble after the first round of swings. Instead of the satisfying soreness in my glutes, the end of the first set came with an old familiar friend: the pinch in my lower back as my psoas declared that it was done with me & it was shutting down until I learned to leave it alone already. Contrary to what my psoas might think, I’ve learned a lot about my body & its limits, so I tried to modify my circuit without giving up my whole workout. But modification wasn’t enough.

I managed to go out that night, ignoring the sudden yanks of warning pain as I walked or shifted in my seat. But by the time I staggered home, at a perfectly reasonable hour, my hips had a heartbeat & my unsteady gait couldn’t be blamed on the alcohol. “This is going to suck,” I groaned, as Boyfriend kindly helped me out of my shoes & left me to curl up & die in peace.

It was the worst pain I’ve experienced for years; I spent the glorious Monday of my 3 day weekend barely moving from the couch, except to drag myself from sitting, to lying down, to crawling to the bathroom. By that evening, I could walk – bent double & shuffling so my footsteps wouldn’t send shockwaves of excruciating pain up my spine.

A year ago, I would have been beside myself in panic about missing work, & when I took a break from freaking out over that, I would have tuned into the nonstop internal diatribe I’d be having, about my irresponsibility & incompetency for getting hurt yet again. I’d be singing my old song: Shouldn’t I know better by now?

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Smoke, Mirrors

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Boyfriend & I found a perfect apartment & moved in together in October of 2015. The space is decent by non-NYC standards, which makes it palatial for Manhattan. Facing the exciting prospect of having more space than we knew what to do with, we agreed to power through the unpacking & settling in so that everything would be done as soon as possible. I can’t remember what ambitious time period we set, but the next few weeks were a blur of scrolling through photograph after photograph of carpets & curtains. We browsed hundreds of sideboards, only ever agreeing upon 2 models…the first of which was sold out on 4 different websites. I filled my phone side tables, decorative pieces, mirrors, shelves, & then struggled to explain to Boyfriend what I’d attempted to capture in these photos of showrooms or display windows before giving up & helping with the latest piece of flat-pack furniture that arrived. So many Allen wrenches, so many illustrated instructional manuals featuring 3 nearly identical screws that serve entirely different purposes. We struggled to maintain our original enthusiasm – work was pretty brutal on my end & I was coming home exhausted & unhelpful, while Boyfriend was spending so much time trying to get things just right that he was missing the forest for the trees. Despite all of the work we had done, the unfinished pieces seemed to overshadow it all.

Throughout the process, I kept taking photos – sometimes to intentionally document a change we had made, but more often I was simply capturing the everyday moments that take up my storage space & fill my Instagram feed. Every now & then we would swipe through my albums & see the bare space we had transformed in just 2 months. With the photos in front of us, we could see how much we had done instead of only how much was left to do. Even though I don’t always identify as such, all people are sometimes visual learners. We all benefit from taking a step back & looking at the big picture. Seeing our apartment’s before & after clearly, we could both appreciate what we had accomplished.

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On Beauty

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day, a video of a student’s media project. As the photographer tells her subjects that she’s taking pictures of things she finds beautiful, reactions vary, but the overall trend is heartwarming:

The exception to the embarrassed but pleased smiles?

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This moment was like seeing my inner truth take shape & stare coldly through my screen, right into my grinchy little heart. I’m exaggerating (a bit) – I don’t react this way when people describe me as beautiful…anymore…always…

 

I’ve been thinking about beauty because recently, one of my favorite online communities, Girls Gone Strong, launched a 7 Day Love Your Body Challenge. Signing up grants you a downloadable guide through the challenge, which includes daily guides to shifting your perspective. Each day has a focus, & for the past few days, I’ve been stuck on the third one: concerning beauty.

I feel beautiful when ____.

Day 3’s mantra encourages me to fill in the blank, & even though the guide offers suggestions, I’ve been stumped. I’ve tried out a few of the phrases in my head, & while I find that I feel happy, nourished, revitalized, peaceful, sexy, like a boss, even pretty or cute, I wasn’t comfortable saying that anything made me feel beautiful.

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