Swords, Power-lifting, and Goddesses


Several years back, when I found myself with some money that wasn’t earmarked for regular expenses or necessary savings, I bought myself something I’d always wanted: a sword. A lovely katana, made my friend David Goldberg, a master swordsmith.

Some of my friends were shocked. “I’d have bought a diamond ring,” one said.

I was shocked by their response. I’d never spend that kind of money on jewelry. Which, I suppose, sums up what I think is important in life.

Last weekend I made it to a showing of the movie Strong at the Inaugural Women Sports Film Festival  here in Oakland. Strong, which was made by director Julie Wyman, tells the story of Cheryl Haworth, a world-champion power-lifter.

I was so inspired by Haworth and the other women featured in the movie: Big women, powerful women, doing whatever it takes to lift the heaviest weights, focusing on what their bodies can do, not what their bodies look like.

I’m a martial artist (hence the sword), not a power-lifter, but I understand the importance of focusing on what your body can do. And as someone who has been injured and whose knees have become arthritic with age, I can also sympathize with the struggles of an athlete who gets hurt – one of the points of the movie.

There was a poignant spot in the movie where Haworth was thinking about what she might want to do with her life when her lifting career was over. She looked at the requirements for the Coast Guard and discovered she’d have to lose over a hundred pounds, even though she was a world class athlete in top shape. There isn’t a lot of room for a really big woman in most walks of life.

I know what it’s like to be a woman who spends most of her time doing things that don’t fall in the “feminine” spectrum. One of the lovely things about the film festival was that the organizers and most of the people helping out – taking tickets, selling t-shirts, and so forth – were athletic women of all shapes and sizes who loved sports. Even though I knew none of them personally, I felt as if I was in my kind of crowd.

Later on that same day, I read this entertaining piece in The New York Times about a group of women skateboarders in the Bronx known as the Brujas. And even though I can’t skateboard at all, I felt kinship.

Which brings me to an entertaining conversation that took place on Facebook the other day. It was started by M.K. Hobson. She had stumbled across one of those online quizzes that purports to tell you what you are really like. This one gives you data on how “masculine” and “feminine” you are.

Her results pegged her as 97 percent masculine and 39 percent feminine. Her response to those results? “Or, yanno, another way of saying this? I’m just an extremely dominant woman. Fuck you, gender essentialism.”

I couldn’t resist the test. My results came back 89 percent masculine and 19 percent feminine, which, according to the test is “very high” on masculine and “very low” on feminine and makes me “extremely masculine.” So I guess one can be extremely masculine and still have PMS and hot flashes.

Deborah Wolf also tried it. I don’t know what her scores were, but her response to them was: “Masculine, my tits. I’m a fucking goddess.”

It may not be an accident that the three of us have studied martial arts. Wolf was also in the military. We’re also all writers, which may or may not have anything to with where we fit on the test’s male/female spectrum, but probably has a lot to do with our urge to say something about it.

I went through the test again, making a list of how I answered the questions. Here are some of the traits I marked very high: assertive, willing to take a stand, ambitious, helpful, sincere, loyal, self-reliant. And here are some I marked very low: devoted, yielding, mild, tender, jealous, and avoids cursing.

What does gender have to do with any of those traits? Why isn’t it feminine to be ambitious and assertive and self-reliant? Why isn’t it masculine to be mild or tender?

I keep trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which everyone just gets to be the person they are, without defining the end result as masculine or feminine. So far my imagination hasn’t been up to the task.



Swords, Power-lifting, and Goddesses — 14 Comments

  1. I’ve been into weight lifting (not power lifting though) for much of my life. Circa 2010 I took a class meant to prep people for a personal trainer certification test.** One of the young women in the class was hesitant about weight lifting, concerned that “big muscles” would make her un-feminine. We set her straight on the subject of women and muscle development, but I was pretty shocked to find that was still a concern at all.

    One interesting aspect of Ada Palmer’s terrific novel Too Like The Lightning is that masculine and feminine ARE defined by lists of traits like those you’ve included above, but the terms are applied to people without regard to gender.

    ** Did you know you can be “certified” as a personal trainer just by taking a written test? I was shocked to learn this. I’d assumed an apprenticeship would be required. Anyway, I never took the test.

    • Wow, about the personal trainer stuff. Given the difference between talking or writing about something and doing it, I’d think you’d want a written and a practical test.

      I shall check out the Palmer novel. I haven’t seen it.

      It is worrisome that some people hold themselves back because they’re afraid they won’t look right if they take up an activity. Back in my karate days, I used to have bruises on my arms from doing arm toughening exercises. I found they freaked out the men I knew at work, but most of the women thought they were kind of cool.

  2. There is a wonderful confidence that women get, from physical competence. My daughter was on her high school’s crew team. You never saw such a pack of frightening Amazons. They knew no fear, because they knew nobody would bother them.

    • Yep. I’ve got a theory that learning to do powerful things with your body changes the way you move and act in the world and undercuts the way women are taught from babyhood to hold themselves back. (Even if their parents try to change that physical message, it comes at women from so many other places.) Your daughter is a great example.

  3. Well, I came out “undifferentiated–androgynous,” which I think is pretty funny. Maybe I’m the model for that future you’re striving for?

      • Um. I meant what I’m really aiming for is that we DON’T define these characteristics in gender terms. Assertive isn’t masculine. Tender isn’t feminine. (I seem to have left out the negative in my earlier sentence.)

  4. I took the test and got pretty much your same results, yet I never found a sport I like except for long walks on even ground and my idea of beach sport is sleeping in the sun, so sport’s not the only option. I think the “I am a goddess” is the best explanation.