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No matter what color or cut I removed from the rack, my body mocked me in every dress. My shoulders, rounded from so many pull-ups, refused to squeeze into anything strapless. My thighs, thick from squatting twice my bodyweight, made it impossible to wear any fabric that didn’t stretch. My hands, calloused from gripping dumbbells, snagged any sleek material I dared to touch.
After training extensively for a bodybuilding competition at age 22, my 5’4” frame was molded into muscle — which looked the exact opposite of what I understood to be “feminine.” I didn’t identify with the delicate women in the summer ads around the mall, the petite models with long, slender arms and even longer, more slender legs. In fact, I had no desire to be delicate at all, until it came time to dress up.
I had nearly given up on finding a dress for the summer wedding I was attending when I found a navy blue cotton number from PacSun with a pink floral pattern. I was usually repulsed by the color pink (I refused to wear it after age 12 because it was too “girly”), but the way it contrasted with the blue didn’t immediately turn me off, so I gave it a chance.
After pulling it on, I was finally able to admire the image of myself in a dress. I turned from side to side with my arms raised, like a Sim instructed to “Check Yourself Out.” The neck only dipped slightly, calling no attention to my unimpressive B-cup, and the hem fell right above my fingertips, drawing just enough attention to my hips.
But as soon as I noticed the cut in the back dipping dangerously close to my tailbone, my ego immediately deflated. It didn’t take a debutante to know that an exposed bra at a wedding was a no-go. This meant the next stop on my shopping trip was the the lingerie section of Walmart for a pair of sticky boobs — seamless cups with silicone gel adhesive on the inside meant for literally sticking to your boobs — and I wasn’t emotionally prepared for that level of intimacy with my own body just yet.
I didn’t realize there was something wrong with looking the way I did until I never saw other women who looked like me. I didn’t resemble the tall and toned “athletes” advertising the newest Nike sports bra or Adidas leggings who seemed more like they just stepped off a runway than deadlifted their own body weight — and I didn’t want to, either.
The summer after my junior year of college, my nails were constantly broken, my feet blistered, and my shins bruised — tokens of a war fought and won with myself. I had gotten more acquainted with a squat rack than the guys I spent the last year sitting next to in sports journalism class. For as long as I could remember, I took pride in my battle scars; they were reminders of challenges I had overcome and personal records I had achieved.
One of those challenges was losing my father unexpectedly at age 12. My family didn’t have many photos of his competition days, but one I remember vividly was of him tanned and oiled up in a purple posing suit, flexing on a stage. His hair— a mullet, of course — hung down to his trap muscles, which rose above his shoulders like waves. In a second photo, where he stood smiling (and flexing) in someone’s backyard— this time in a blue-green posing suit — his bicep muscles swelled inside his arms.
These photos of my dad bodybuilding, along with a few photos of my mom, who set records in track and field in high school, painted an image of the physique I wanted to achieve in order to win my own awards and set my own records. But the more people pointed out my changing appearance in comparison to their own, the more self-conscious I became.
“Your traps are huge,” they’d say. Or “I want arms that look like yours.”
I took them as compliments at first because I knew that’s how they were intended. But eventually, I heard what they weren’t saying: “You look unlike any other woman I’ve seen.”
While some women I knew were eating fewer calories to diet over the summer, I was doing the exact opposite. Drinking protein shakes and eating an unethical amount of hard-boiled eggs and chicken breasts while doing hundreds of reps of weights that I could barely carry the year before helped me purposefully put on several pounds of muscle in just a few months. I felt powerful, determined, resilient — like I really was my father’s daughter, like I could take on anything.
But there was a hidden truth that seemed to be understood by everyone but me: Women don’t want to look “bulky.” Even my stepdad at one point asked me “You’re not going to get any bigger, are you?” There I was, with my cut-off T-shirt tucked into my sports bra because I was so proud of the definition in my arms, suddenly aware that I looked exactly the way other women feared.
Before long, I was focusing just as much energy on covering up my muscles as I did on building them. I’d choose a T-shirt over a tank top when leaving the house because I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself, or I’d browse bodybuilding.com for weightlifting gloves — something I previously mocked — for the sake of sparing my apparently delicate hands. In my head, being “feminine” and “masculine” were mutually exclusive — and people didn’t seem comfortable with me being the latter.
At the time, I didn’t understand there was a term for such a thing. It has to do with the gender binary, which is where society’s definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” stem from. It’s the reason baby boys are dressed in blue and baby girls are dressed in pink. When a young woman leans toward the “masculine” side of the spectrum through her language, style, or participation in sports as she grows up — like I did — she gets slapped with the label “tomboy.” No one questioned me wearing basketball shorts every day of fifth grade for this exact reason. But eventually, this label begins to blur into identity.
Elisabeth Sherman, who wrote about her father dressing her like a boy growing up, described her “tomboy costumes” as a “suit of armor” against society. But it was my body — rather than my clothing — that became the “suit of armor” that allowed me to combat the misogynist and sexist society around me. Having a “masculine”-shaped body and “masculine” traits gave me the confidence to walk down the street without looking over my shoulder because I believed men would be hesitant to approach me. (Although, in reality, I was just lucky, considering 65 percent of all women in the US have experienced street harassment and I hadn’t yet moved to New York City.)
The same can also be said when it comes to the word “feminine.” It puts people — especially women — into a box so others have a better idea of what to expect. But the thing about women is we can possess many qualities at once.
As soon as I got home from Walmart that day, I tore open the box and studied the sticky boobs I had just purchased. There was a film on the backside that you removed in order to expose the adhesive that would then stick to your chest. Even after the film was removed, you could put it back in place to be used again, so I saw no harm in trying it out.
The adhesive felt like that of a fly trap, and I instantly imagined my nipple detaching from my tit. After taking a deep breath, I took off my shirt and bra and pressed the contraption against my chest. Considering there wasn’t much to stick to, it immediately fell off. I couldn’t help but laugh.