Today I am a mess of contradictions. As I sit writing this I have a slushie to my left, having already eaten a bag of popcorn for dinner. I’m obviously not concerned with body image, right? Well what would you say if I told you that earlier today I went to the gym for an hour? You’re beginning to see what I mean.
The deliberate action of working out is one of my favorite things. I like being active. I like being healthy. I like being able to concentrate on myself for an hour every day. No one requires that you socialize when you’re running on a treadmill with your iPod in your ears. It’s an escape.
But it’s also a prison.
I won’t lie and say that my fervor for fitness is totally self-motivated. Besides the reasons I already mentioned I also go to the gym because society dictates that I must. I am a female and according to popular opinion I must keep my body in tip-top shape if I want to be desirable. And I do. My self-worth doesn’t revolve entirely around getting lusty looks from the frats that crowd Court Street on a Saturday night. But it’s human nature to want to be noticed every now and then.
In her article critiquing Foucault, Sandra Bartky mentions internal and external forces that demand all women conform to the beauty standards established by media and industry. Although they are neither tangible nor quantifiable they are nonetheless strongly felt and nearly impossible to resist. Women measure themselves by the attributes they possess that make them more “attractive” than others. Conformity, achieving and even surpassing the status quo, quickly evolves into a blood-sport. Those who don’t play by the rules are automatically disquailified and ostracized. A woman who defies just one aspect of female gender presentation is immediately banned from the competition completely. A woman who is not “complete” does not exist, so rigid is the ideal of perfection that the invisible magistrates work to enforce.
So what happens when a gender-variant woman walks into a gym for a leisurely jog? It seems like the world shuts down.
Now, I’m no stranger to the looks I get from some of the people that I pass daily. My hair’s much shorter than most men’s. I see the looks of confusion, the questions and assumptions forming silently behind pairs of curious eyes. It’s funny, in fact, the reactions that a silly little haircut can inspire. That is, it’s funny until an entire room of blonde, tan, and well-defined competitors stops to stare at the outsider who has dared step foot on their playing-field.
I go to the gym for fun. I go for myself. I go and I pray that one day I’ll be fit enough to fit the standards. But I want to fit them on my own terms. I am a woman forever trapped by expectation. My appearance, a very personal and inoffensive choice, takes me out of a game that I desperately want join. It’s a game of necessity, one that I have to play if I want to survive and prosper within a system that threatens social alienation to all those who refuse to participate. Yet if such a tiny detail can hold me back, how am I ever supposed to live up to the expectations that the omnipresent dictators of female beauty have for me and still maintain a true sense of self?
I want to be an MVP, but it seems like I’ll never be able to get off the bench.