October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but because it happens to share the same span of 31 days as the much more high-profile Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the subject doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Is it because it’s easier for people in our society to talk about women’s boobs than women’s black eyes? Perhaps. (I do have to admit that this collection of tacky pinkwashed merchandise made me feel a little grateful for the fact that domestic violence awareness has escaped the grasp of of corporate America and thus escaped being Jingle Jug-ified.)
But I think that part of it might have to do with the fact that there is still a lot of shame surrounding domestic violence in our society. At least, I feel that way. I used to write more about it on this blog, but then the audience for the blog blew up and my coworkers and family members started reading it, and I suddenly felt less like writing about it. The truth is that I still feel ashamed of the fact that I am a survivor of domestic violence. I don’t think that’s an irrational reaction, either. I mean, I read comments on the internet. I overhear conversations about domestic violence. I hear the offhand comments people make. I know that a lot of people think women who stay in violent relationships are stupid, weak, dumb, or that we probably did something to deserve it. The consensus seems to be that there is something deeply flawed with any woman who stays with a partner who abuses her.
So it’s kind of a scary thing to admit to having been on the wrong side of things in a violent relationship, because it opens you up to all kinds of judgment about your value as a human being. I understand why a lot of women do not talk openly about their experiences (and I really understand why male survivors are even more reticent). I get it because I struggle with it, even though I also know that one of the most powerful ways to fight shame is to speak openly about the things that we are most ashamed of.
That’s not really why I’m writing about this on this blog, though. I’m writing about it because this blog is a direct result of my experiences as a survivor of domestic violence. As a result, I feel as though I would be remiss to let the month pass without writing about this, especially because those experiences are central to the mission of this blog, which is to encourage women to embrace their strength and bravery, no matter what form that may take, and to resist the social mandates that say the proper way to be a woman is to be weak and vulnerable.
I tend to have a very visceral reaction when I encounter women who want to whittle themselves down to nothingness, and it’s not borne of some ivory-tower feminist theory I learned while sitting in a classroom. It comes from the memory of my ex-husband, sitting on my chest, punching me over and over in the face and stopping only when he realized my lip was split and that my face was bruised. Later, both eyes would turn black with bruises. I remember trying to fight back, but no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to do so. I just was not strong enough.
It was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced, that utter sense of powerlessness in the face of someone who was hellbent on hurting me. That feeling haunted me in my sleep, where I’d have nightmares in which I spit out all of my teeth or I was unable to scream when confronted by assailants. That feeling was carved into my brain, irrevocably altering my emotional landscape.
That feeling is what I think of when I hear misogynists talk about women’s “natural” state of weakness and physical inferiority. It’s what I think of when I read a response to a quote of mine going around tumblr, in which a girl said, “What if I want to be weak?” It’s what crosses my mind every time I read about 1,000-calorie diets and exercise plans meant to keep women from “bulking up” and assertions that women with muscular arms look “gross” and “like men.” I thought about it again when I saw the ad campaign that contained the following Google autocompletes: “women need to be controlled,” “women need to be disciplined,” “women need to know their place.”
I think of my own once-tiny arms and how they could never protect me, not when I needed them the most, not when I wanted nothing more than to defend myself against a man who wanted to control me and wanted to make sure I knew my place. I think of all these things and I get so frustrated.
I want to know why it seem as though we’ve implicitly decided to agree that the only ones in our society who get to be strong and who get to have muscle – real muscle, not just muscle meant to make your ass look good in a pair of jeans – are men. I want to know why this is even though some days it feels like the vast majority of women I know have been assaulted in some way.
But I didn’t make these connections right away. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d spent quite a bit of time lifting weights and running that it slowly started to occur to me that our culture had basically fetishized feminine weakness, and that I no longer wanted any part of that paradigm. I wanted to feel strong and courageous, and I didn’t care if others thought this was proof that I was somehow damaged as a result of my history. (I would like to submit this for you, that our culture is filled with narratives of young men who hit the weights so they could fight back against bullies, and that the only thing that separates me from those young men is that I happened to be married to my bully.) I needed to do these things for myself, so I could move on with my life and no longer dwell on those years of pain and fear. I needed to heal so I could really learn how to live, and not just survive.
Over time my motivations have become more intrinsic, more grounded in the actual joy of new experiences and physical movement, but in the beginning it was all about beating back the sense of powerlessness that had engulfed me for an embarrassingly large chunk of my life. Picking up heavy weights, eating lots of food so I feel energetic and vibrant, training myself to run and cycle long distances so I can become mentally tough, seeing my body change as muscles showed up in my arms, my back, my legs – these have all done a tremendous amount to help me become whole again.
There’s another aspect to this as well, and that’s my ongoing battle against fear. Fear is a complicated thing. It ostensibly works to protect us from harm, but in my case, I was so afraid of what might happen if I tried to leave (would he try to hurt me even worse? would I be capable of surviving on my own? where would I get money?) that it paradoxically kept me in a situation where I was actually being harmed. So I promised myself that never again would I allow untrammeled fear to guide me into accepting a small, timid life. Every time you read about me trying to face my fears of open water swimming or cycling or whatever, you’re watching me as work through those issues.
(By the way, I am far from unusual in this regard. After Diana Nyad completed her swim across the Florida Straits, ABC News published an article in which they asked what makes someone like Nyad strive to achieve the seemingly impossible? Psychologist Judy Kuriansky said “People who accomplish extreme athletic feats usually were either praised for their over-the-top accomplishments early on in life or they were ‘scaredy-cats’ as children and want to prove themselves as adults, she said.” Yep, I am far from unusual. I am no Diana Nyad, mind you, but I understand her mindset.)
This is why I fight so hard against the social constructs that say women and girls are weak and inferior, and why I refuse to accept a model of fitness that is adamant that women should want only to be as small as possible. (This is why I cannot abide Tracy Anderson!) This is why I feel angry when I see fitness media that cares only about making sure women have sexy butts and sexy abs and sexy sexiness, and that seems to consider the desire to train for strength and size to be rather distasteful. This is why I want to feminist hulksmash all of the so-called fitness gurus that care only about abs and tiny waists and ignore all of the other aspects that go into keeping one’s body and mind strong and healthy.
As you can see, the belief fitness is a feminist issue is one that is very personal to me, and not just in the sense that I can critique mainstream fitness until my fingers fall off, but because I know first-hand of the way that the pursuit of fitness can be a force for positive change in one’s life. I’ve seen how it can be used to keep women anxious and weak and vulnerable, but I’ve also seen over and over again how it can accomplish the opposite, how it can help women learn to take up space and to be courageous and to believe wholeheartedly in their own personal power. That, to me, is a much more positive way of looking fitness, and that is what I hope to help spread in the world, because I know the worst possible outcomes of the negative side and I want no one to ever have to experience that again.