In the middle of a life devoted to the labors of the mind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discovers the exhilaration of brute strength

by Anna Quindlen

When was it that I finally gave up that gesture, as simple and as symbolic as flashing a thumbs-up or flipping the bird? In memory I am as skinny as a straw, fragile, almost pathetic; perhaps I am six or seven. I bend my arm at the elbow, make a right angle and a curled fist, and then pop my biceps, the muscle bulging beneath my skin. I am Olive Oyl with Popeye arms. I am showing my brother that I am strong. I am showing him that I am tough. I am showing him that I can kick his butt.

Years, even decades, of my life have gone by when the idea of flexing my biceps would have seemed ridiculous, foolish, the vestige of some bygone little-girl machisma. Yet here I stand, at 44, brushing my hair before the mirror and admiring the undeniable torque of the muscles of my upper arm and shoulder. When I do concentration curls, I use 15 pounds for each arm. I have graduated to 40 pounds on my chest presses, although I still use only two 10-pound weights-and those with difficulty-when I do shoulder presses. I do three sets of push-ups, 15 in each set, and as I raise and lower my body to the ground, I sometimes find myself thinking three things: I am strong, I am tough, I can kick butt. None of this is particularly true, but I like the thought.

I did not start weight training to feel this way, would never have imagined it would be the net effect. I didn't do it to look better either. It is a relief to say that I have finally achieved détente with my body, have finally negotiated a truce with its imperfections. I started weight training because my internist insisted. She told me that aerobic exercise-in my case, walking-was laudable, but that to safeguard against osteoporosis I needed weight-bearing exercise. She recommended working out with free weights, and she invoked horrifying statistics about broken hips and the use of walkers in women over the age of 70. For the first time in my life I felt truly old.

Now, for the first time in my life, I feel powerful. Actually, that's not true. I've felt powerful many times: when I wrote a particularly good column, when one of my books made the best-seller list, when I gave a commencement speech and got an honorary degree. But I am not one of those women who can disable a mugger on a darkened street or climb to the summit of a fearsome peak in the Rockies. I am almost passionately antiathletic; I do not play tennis or softball or squash. Before I began weight training, I had felt physically powerful only three times in my life-when I had managed to push three rather large babies through a very small opening.

Now when I do push-ups, I feel physically powerful. And, perhaps ultimately more important, I feel surprised at myself. It has been a year since I began weight training, and for the first month or two I was an incompetent embarrassment, a state of affairs to which I was unaccustomed. To be comfortable giving a speech to a thousand listeners and yet be incapable of doing squats is a bizarre manifestation of mind way, way over matter. I could turn a phrase but not touch my toes. I looked at film of women scrambling over barriers and doing chin-ups in basic training and shook my head. Dozens of times I told myself, I could never do that. Today I do what I used to say that I never could.

It has been instructive to figure out why I accepted my physical limitations for so long. There have been very few other things in my life to which I have admitted tacit defeat. A veteran of the newspaper business at a time when it was largely populated by men, the only or first woman to hold a variety of jobs, I have never been good at taking no for an answer. A feminist and proud of it, I have believed that women can do anything they set their minds to, usually as well as, sometimes better, than their male counterparts.

Except push-ups? Well, not exactly. It was only that the terrain of physical strength—or brawn—was surrendered in my mind willingly to men. It was not territory I cared to fight for; brains, I knew, were better. My body was merely a carrying case for character and intellect. Even as the fitness boom began, I thought that those engaged in the obsessive tending of their bodies must be a little light upstairs.

In fact there was a paradox at the core of all this that was-incredible as it is to deconstruct now-deeply antifeminist, a second cousin only once removed to that old dictum, Ladies don't sweat; they glow. Perhaps it was generational. I remember a conversation with a female sportswriter 15 years my junior who told me about her professional dreams for the future. "I want to cover hockey and baseball," she said. "No gymnastics, no figure skating, no tennis." I cringed. She'd just mentioned the three sports I followed most carefully as a fan. If I had not consigned the word to the junk drawer of my psychological kitchen, I would have called them feminine.

It was not that I was completely unfamiliar with the allure of strength and sweat and working the body to the breaking point. I could not shake my memories of that tiny bulging biceps, that childhood gesture of power, the satisfaction of seeing the long, strong muscles beneath the skin. I could not shake the recollection of playing grade school basketball, the occasional euphoria of weaving through a hole in the defense with the perfect three-part harmony of ball, hand and feet. I could not forget the time, more than a decade ago, when I saw the new, improved Martina Navratilova play tennis after basketball whiz Nancy Lieberman had talked her into weight training. Everyone was asking, "What happened to Martina?" The answer was that she'd slimmed down, bulked up and found power that she never knew she had. She looked great, played better, seemed mentally as well as physically tougher. But there was always the suggestion, tied inextricably to the growing public awareness that she was a lesbian, that her new, more muscled physique was not quite female.

We've moved a great deal over the last 25 years in how we define being female. Little by little the definition has become clear: Female is whatever individual women are, whatever they choose to be. Skaters. Quarterbacks. Nurses. Doctors. Bodybuilders. Our traditional notions of femininity were as illusory as the images of certain ladylike sports in which women traditionally shone. It is difficult for me now to watch the girl gymnasts without thinking of eating disorders and pubescence interruptus. The elegance of the ice rink is often overshadowed by what we know of the fierce, sometimes poisonous ambition of some of its sequined participants. Only tennis has retained the same allure for me. Well, not exactly the same: My children are tired of hearing me say, "Will you look at the definition on her?"

If feminism means, as I believe it should, not denying any part of our selves because of gender, I must admit that I spent years overlooking a part of its essence. I had never obsessed about my body, had not starved myself or dieted constantly. But I had more or less written my body off. It has become a truism that people are afraid of strong women. As a publicly strong woman, outspoken in print, feminist in conviction, I've run up against more than a bit of that resentment toward strength of mind. But maybe, for me, the last stronghold was strength of body; it was all right to be assertive and intelligent as long as I was not buff.

I've lived for a long time with one kind of strength. Now I've developed a taste for another, for power and for perspiration. And I am not alone. I work with a trainer named Chelle. When I met her, another set of female stereotypes was shattered. I had always imagined personal trainers as blonde shag cuts atop an array of candy-colored spandex, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders by way of Farrah Fawcett. Chelle is none of these; tall, lithe, dressed usually in black, she often spends as much time talking about kinesiology-about which muscle is working when-as she does putting me through my paces. Chelle says that when she starts to work with women, they say with concern, "I won't get all bulky, will I?" It takes only a couple of months for most of them to begin asking, as I did, "What would it take to really build up these shoulders?" Like me, many of her clients are convinced they cannot do much of what she demands, and then are delighted and finally driven when they realize they are capable of even more. Like me, many of them prefer free weights to sleek machines. I don't want any of this to be automatic. Just me and 20 pounds of iron. Me, myself and I. That's the face-off here.

No butt-kicking has yet taken place. Nor will it. That expression is a metaphor for a feeling of physical power that I never expected to find seductive, a feeling that my body can work, grow, stretch and expand in ways that I previously had required only my mind to do. Weightlifting is different from running or walking or most other forms of exercise; it's less sensible, really, and more primal. And it has come to me at a time in my life when I am ready to accept it, when I know that femininity, and feminism as well, are about different kinds of power, one of which is the mastery of the body. I wasn't ready for this at 21. I hope that, as the doctor prescribed, I am building strong bones. I know that, as Chelle says, I have more energy and flexibility. But more than anything, lifting weights has taught me that there are still, at midlife, things I have long thought myself incapable of mastering that perhaps I will learn to do.

I have biceps now. They look good.

 

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