Gorilla Hands: A Female Powerlifter Confronts Body Ideals (Guest Post by babyeaterlifts)

My nickname through part of my undergraduate degree was “Gorilla Hands,” and the story behind this moniker is as follows: the boyfriend of a girl who lived on my floor during my short duration in the dormitories told his girlfriend that he thought I was “really cool, but that I have huge hands.” This girl—whose name I can no longer remember and am feeling vaguely guilty for it—relayed her boyfriend’s observation to me as I sat with her and a few other dwellers of the fourth floor of our dorm. I joked that I had “hands like a gorilla” and “Gorilla Hands” stuck.

Here, my long femurs are about to navigate a near-max squat..

Here, my long femurs are about to navigate a near-max squat.

I do have large hands—rather, my hands are long. My fingers trail away from narrow, lengthy palms. I have often been able to match finger length with men of various heights and thought nothing of the strange dimensions of my hands until I began powerlifting. Powerlifting is a strength sport in which the leverages that your body’s proportions create for various lifts determine, to a great degree, how easy or hard it will be for you to perform those lifts with strength. To demonstrate, short femurs (the bones between your pelvis and knee) mean that an individual’s body must navigate a shorter range of motion in order to make depth at the bottom of a squat than would someone with longer femurs. Short femurs provide an advantage because the longer one spends time completing a lift, the more taxing that lift is on the body, and the less likely one will be able to complete the lift successfully when attempting to perform it at a near-max weight. To give another example of this phenomenon, those lifters with wide, barrel-like chests and short humeri (the forelimbs that run from shoulder to elbow) tend to be excellent benchers in part because the distance the bar must travel to complete a bench press repetition is shorter than someone with a small chest cavity and long humeri.

I have long femurs and long humeri. Proportionately, many things about me are long. That said, I am short, and this is perhaps why I did not realize that I was actually lanky until recently, as part of my ever-growing knowledge of my body. Perhaps the most important aspect of my proportions is the fact that my arms are, in all honestly, almost disproportionate to the rest of my body. I have a height of 62″ but a reach of 68″. That is a massive discrepancy and it is a discrepancy that gives me advantages and disadvantages as a powerlifter. Most notably, I can deadlift a solid amount of weight in relation to my bodyweight. My current max deadlift is 300 pounds, yet I weigh only 110. I have been deadlifting for just under a year, and my strength in this lift has progressed at a rapid rate. Part of the reason for this is my proportions–my arms are so long that, when I grasp the bar and pull it to a locked out position, it just doesn’t have to travel very far. The downside of my physical makeup, at last in purely athletic terms, is that my long arms make it very difficult for me to bench press. I have a 125 pound paused bench max at the moment, and progression with this lift has been achingly slow in comparison to my deadlift.

Long arms give me an advantage in moving weight when deadlifting

Long arms give me an advantage in moving weight when deadlifting

I compete in powerlifting and am dedicated to it to such a degree that I look at my body in terms of its advantages and disadvantages for the three main lifts on almost a daily basis. I have become so acutely aware of how my skeleton is proportioned and how it vastly differs from the skeletal proportions of many other women that I am no longer able to “compare” myself to others, particularly in terms of aesthetics, like I once did, and as I understand a lot of women do. Have you ever considered how long or short your limbs are relative to your height? How is your humerus proportioned in relation to the length of your rib cage? Do you have long collarbones that result in broad shoulders or short ones giving you a narrow frame? Most women I know do not speak of their bodies in terms of relative proportions. Most have no idea that they are proportioned extremely differently from women they see on movie and TV screens. I’m not even sure how many physique competitors are concerned with the issue of bone length in relation to how they choose to attempt balanced, symmetrical hypertrophy. What I do know is that once I realized the fundamental different from one skeleton to the next, it changed the way I looked at other women’s bodies–and, for good measure, the bodies of men too.

We are intoned with the ultra-positive message of embracing difference and unique features in ourselves and in others. It’s a politically correct, progressive feat to attempt. It’s a feat that I argue is a potentially frustrating if not impossible one to accomplish if we don’t know what we’re looking for. How many women note how long or short another women’s legs are in relation to her torso when comparing her body to the one beside her? How many realize how much the discrepancy between her own proportions and those of the woman she is scrutinizing mean that she “doesn’t look like that model/athlete/singer?” How many strive for the abdomen of women who have much shallower rib cages than they do? How many want the hips of a woman whose pelvis is considerably wider than theirs? These differences are ones that no amount of exercise of diet manipulation will overcome.

benchjaniswheeeeWhen you spend years embroiled in the concerns of the world of eating-disordered thinking—which I did, for roughly seven years of my life—you learn to judge the body’s image by certain standards. When you escape the worst of the ravages of that eating disorder and adopt new ways of assigning worth and beauty to the body, those standards are replaced. When you become passionately devoted to a strength sport in which your body’s shape and proportions at least partially determines your success as an athlete, you again revisit your ideals regarding desirable bodies. I have, at this point, accumulated layers of physical self-identification. For one group of people, one that includes the scores of “a body fit and toned, not too bulky”—coveting users of Pinterest, I am an “ideal”—I’m petite, trim, “cute.” For another group, the world of powerlifting, I’m in a minority—I’m in the second to lowest weight class that exists within the sport and my lift numbers will always be the warmup lift numbers for those in the higher classes. Lower weight class lifters such as myself are not the typified image of the sport, and we don’t tend to appear on the few magazine covers that are produced by powerlifting enthusiasts.

I’m not complaining about this, but I am pointing towards what I’ve found to be a schism in what I should want from my body in terms of its build. I have finally reached a landmark point further in the process towards “not caring what people think,” that badge of honor given to those who achieve an appreciable level of maturity at whatever age. I have identified so many contradictory voices in relation to “the ideal body” and understand that phrase at so many different levels—both activity and aesthetic-based—that I’m throwing my hands up in concession. I can’t be what multiple ideals champion simultaneously. I am a very small female powerlifter, and this is an identity that, at least at this point in the sport, only a minority can claim. It is an identity that I’m having to construct and learn to appreciate at an entirely new level. I sometimes struggle with this process, and as a visual artist, I have done work that helps me to explore the ambiguities of the image of the body as it relates to powerlifting, an example of which can be seen below.

porch8

Size is often equated with strength, and this is a gross generalization and correlation. I have had to rewrite my understanding of what it means to be strong and what it means to “look” strong; I have had to redefine my understanding of what is physically beautiful, and most importantly I have had to reevaluate what I value in my own body. My gorilla hands are useful—I have almost no issues with maintaining my grip on the bar during a long fight to lock out a deadlift because my fingers are long enough to very far around the bar and stay locked. I will work with the body I was given, and I will value it for what its specific build can give me.

I blog at http://babyeaterlifts.wordpress.com.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 49-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

5 thoughts on “Gorilla Hands: A Female Powerlifter Confronts Body Ideals (Guest Post by babyeaterlifts)

  1. I salute you (with my stubby fingers and short humeri)! How refreshing to see an evaluation of womens’ bodies from a functional point of view, rather than from a pneumatic boob size + body fat percentage one.

  2. I finally realized last night that my generously-proportioned booty gives me an advantage on the bench press (because I can get more leg drive under the lift without letting my bum lose contact with the bench). Meanwhile, I have rather small, dainty hands – that have never yet failed me as I slowly advance my deadlift.

    As a middle-aged, married woman, I feel like I can be fairly chill about how my body looks – actually I’m probably in the best shape of my life, but straight aesthetics are less important now. Understanding how my body functions mechanically and testing my physical limits is much more interesting, and it does feel (you should forgive the expression) empowering to think about my body in terms of advantages and challenges rather than homely bits and attractive bits. I wish I had arrived at this mindset twenty years ago!

    • Terra I couldn’t agree more about realizing a state of self-acceptance and appreciation in youth instead of what I reluctantly agree to call “middle age.” Babyeaterlifts has allowed me to realize why I can never have a flat stomach. Some women have long torsos, like PDDs, who has an amazing mid-section based both on genetics and feaking hard work. She is going to rock the figure stage during her show, highlighting her magnificent abs. My torso region is less than half as long as hers, meaning that I will always have what I call my “lady pouch” or “egg belly,” which is not fat per se, but protrudes because it is filled with intestines and fabulously important organs. I will just have to work it with some other section of my body, and learn to love my egg belly (and perhaps even caress it while looking into a mirror at the gym, which I saw a young chap doing the other day). Good for him. I guess.

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