Today is Friday, my boss is out, and we’re spending half the afternoon taking a departing coworker out for lunch, so I felt secure in digging to the back of my t-shirt drawer for an old favorite. It’s a gray girlie-style t-shirt, soft from many washings, with cartoon birds flying across the chest and a few rhinestones still stuck to the silk-screen. It never seemed like my style when I bought it off of a clearance rack for five bucks at the now-defunct Steve and Barry’s, but once in my wardrobe I found myself reaching for it over and over.
Many of the summer-weight shirts I put away for the winter seem to have gotten much looser when I pulled them out of storage this year. I haven’t lost weight to speak of since I started boxing, but I’ve lost inches from my waist and I can tell a difference in the shape of other places. A favorite t-shirt purchased at the Brooklyn Flea last year now hangs off of me like I borrowed it from my much-larger boyfriend. One particular blouse, deemed too scandalous circa 2004 for anything but hitting the bars due to the way I veritably exploded out the scooped neckline, is now perfectly work-appropriate. So the bird shirt, I assumed, would also have magically changed its size on me.
It definitely did that. My bird shirt now hangs off of me from the shoulders down, but across my traps, arms, and upper back, it’s now tighter. It’s one thing that hadn’t occurred to me about amping up my workouts – some parts of me would likely get smaller, I knew, but I never entertained the possibility that some parts would get bigger. Other shirts that fit differently have had bigger sleeves, so it hadn’t happened that one of them was noticeably tighter until now. And yeah, in the last couple of months I’ve noticed (hell, everyone has noticed) my arms toning up, and jokes about the gun show abound, but bulking up? I always thought that was something you had to actively try to do. My boyfriend, for example, spent a year or two fairly obsessed with weight lifting, periodically measuring his bicep with a piece of twine to mark its growing size. I might have guessed my arms would get bigger after observing his progress, but that was what he wanted to happen. It wasn’t a goal for me except insofar as building muscle is part of my overall fitness improvement.
I had some mixed feelings about it – on one level, I’m stronger, so of course I built some muscle. Building stuff generally involves making it bigger. Being stronger means hitting harder (and boy did I ever put some dents in the uppercut bag this morning!) and having more power. But – and not to go all Society Says and The Media Says on you here – I’ve been conditioned from a very young age to have this sense that the feminine ideal is many things, but “big” in any sense is not one of them. Conveniently, there was a post in Jezebel about this very idea today when covering a women’s MMA match. The two competitors, the author notes, subvert both the notion that women are small and weak and the notion that fighters are dumb and anti-intellectual. It’s that first one – the thought that women are, or should be, small and weak – that I’ve been trying and failing to conform with for most of my life. (The second one is a fairly new conundrum that I’m only just beginning to encounter. I hope to be able to approach it with more authority as I progress as a boxer.)
I am a big girl – tall, broad-shouldered, big-boned in the literal, actual sense of the term. It comes with the territory when you’ve got as much Scandinavian peasant blood in you as I do. And ever since the moment in my teens when I realized I was on the above-average side of the height spectrum (this came at least a year after I actually reached that height), I’ve tried to make myself seem smaller, whether it was by wearing baggy clothing, hiding in corners, slouching, or dieting.
These days I’m absolutely more comfortable with the hand genetics has dealt me, especially since (and I say it every day but I’m going to say it again) so much of boxing is wrapped up in being comfortable in your own skin, but it’s still a strange disconnect to think that getting bigger anywhere is okay in the midst of a fitness regimen like the one I do. Exercise is now something I do as practice for becoming a better fighter (and because it’s fun!), but sometimes I do occasionally doubt that it should be something other than a means for getting smaller. Doubt is an essential part of developing convictions, I keep telling myself.
I’m still learning to like my new and bigger arms. Objectively I know they’re impressive and objectively I’m no less female than I was without them. But on some level I’m still working hard to be a girl who happens to be buff and not a girl whose buffness is somehow compromising some part of her femininity. Female is what I am genetically and how I identify in the world. Just as I can’t make myself shorter or smaller-boned, I’m never going to be less female. That’s just not going to happen, no matter how big my arms get. That’s a conviction worth setting in stone.