Pursuing Discomfort

Not my buttocks.

Not my buttocks.

I am moving up the stairs as quickly as I can, motivated by the vision of DYT’s taut buttocks ahead of me. If my lady ass can become even half of that, it will be worth it. DYT is much faster than me on the stairs, which makes sense because she is 18 years my junior. At least, that’s my current excuse, and I think it’s a good one. My legs feel like sandbags and my heart is pounding. Sweat pours down my face, while mosquitos easily pierce my lululemons to taste my sweetness. I repeatedly and ineffectively swat at them. My awkwardness only increases when we return to DYT’s studio, for there I grunt and pant while doing three sets of Turkish get-ups. When it is finally over, she hauls out the special “FFG sweat mop” and starts to clean up while I lie motionless, not feeling very apologetic.

Being topless was the only part I enjoyed.

Not my technique, per se. Being topless was the only part I liked about doing Turkish Get-Ups.

I recently re-hired DYT as my personal trainer—she prepped me for my figure show a few years ago—and I am loving it. DYT is even more delightful now, particularly because she makes me engage in activities that I do not enjoy. Let me rephrase that; I do enjoy them but am not very good at them. Among many other things, I suck at the following: running steep stairs, rope work, tire jumping, anything to do with balance. DYT mostly trains for my weaknesses, rarely for my strengths. For instance, I have a crazy strong upper body, finding the push-up portion of a tabata drill to be a break, during which my heart rate decreases. I shit you not. Romanian split squats on the bosu, on the other hand, kick my bite-riddled ham hocks! So it is good that the day after I do heavy chest with PDDs and teach a Le Tigre-themed spin class—two things at which I excel—I am put right back in my place when DYT pulls out the agility ladder. I strongly believe that it is always a mistake to repeatedly do that which is convenient or comfortable, both at the gym and in everyday life. Dear FFG devotees, are you ready for a pompous lecture on this theme? Don’t worry, it’s coming. Just sit back and relax.

Not my sweatshirt. Mine was sweatier.

Not my sweatshirt. Mine was sweatier.

I remember the first time that I ever worked out at a gym. I was 23 years old, in my second year of a demanding PhD program at the University of Rochester. I had previously resisted organized exercise, recalling how my mother had done something called “the frog” with other middle aged ladies in an effort to remain thin for her misogynist husband. “Fuck that shit,” I angrily declared, mistakenly associating all scheduled fitness classes with anti-feminist weakness. Everything changed when I was living in Rochester, New York, during the early 1990s. Completely on my own and mired in poverty, I was surrounded by people who were generally much older and better educated than me. Facing the most difficult and stressful challenge of my existence, I decided to respond positively by finding an outlet. I somewhat randomly joined a group exercise class that was subsidized by the university, and run by a feisty young woman named Denise. Like many other Americans, she had enlisted in the army to finance her education. Denise was in charge of the boot camp training for fellow ROTC recruits, which is why she delivered up a class full of jumping jacks and squats, instead of the Jane Fonda bouncy dance crap that I had been expecting. My body had literally never experienced such intense movement before; I could barely handle five minutes of this activity without stopping to catch my breath. Oh how Denise laughed at the look of sheer horror on my face. My disgust was not, however, inspired by her drill-sergeant commands; it stemmed from my sudden realization that I was hideously out of shape. I was in fact quite thin at the time, weighing something like 115 pounds, a condition related to my lack of food money rather than any concentrated effort. That year I had to sell my cassette collection—remember that ancient technology?—and almost all of my clothes just to pay the rent. I was hungry and sick throughout the school year, something I now attribute to my lack of fitness and not just my pissy-pants refusal to apply for a student loan. I had decided that death was preferable to debt. I foolishly almost got my wish, but was pleased by the sacrifices I had made when I started a tenure-track position at the age of 28 without owing any money to anyone. Still, my shockingly low starting salary soon reversed this situation, and I quickly racked up grocery bill charges on my credit card, forcing me to claw my way upward toward financial security all over again. Now my alert readers might be wondering: “How did we move from discussing fitness to addressing FFG’s past economic challenges? Is there a point, other than her as-usual abject narcissism and penchant for melodrama?” Why yes there is a point, my lovelies, and it is this: My more general experiences of consistent hard work, gradual gains, and periodic set backs were mirrored in my fitness journey. [Aside: I fucking hate the word journey but am pressed for time today, so we will all just have to get over it].

Not Denise. But you get the idea.

Not Denise. But you get the idea.

I am always surprised to hear people say that they avoid participating in group exercise classes or hiring a personal trainer because they are “too unfit.” I can only assume that they would rather expire from heart failure, endure continual fatigue, or suffer from chronic back pain than risk displaying weakness. I don’t understand this position, as I responded rather well to my own public humiliation all those years ago. I remember thinking: “I will show Denise; I will get stronger.” I masochistically liked that I was a useless piece of shit at the gym since it counteracted my over-confident attitude with regard to my intelligence and academic abilities. It is rewarding to work hard for something instead of smoking pot in the school yard every day during grade ten and still making the honour roll. During my second mostly horrible year of grad school, I attended Denise’s class three times a week; after three months I could get through the entire hour without taking a break. I was officially addicted to exercise, and have never stopped working out since then. I have also never stopped thinking about Denise, her lean little body, and shouty military voice. At the time, I had quite a lady crush on her, especially after I saw her waiting tables at UNO Pizza in the mall. I wonder where she is now? Maybe Afghanistan.

And now an interjection for my darling readers: I would appreciate it if you would tell me about your first time, preferably in lurid detail as a comment on this post.

Not a good idea. Caravaggio, Basket of (tempting but rotten) Fruit, c.1599, 31 x 47 cm., Milan: Amborsiana.

Not a good idea. Caravaggio, Basket of (tempting but rotten) Fruit, c.1599, 31 x 47 cm., Milan: Ambrosiana.

I will finally give you what you deserve, channeling Denise’s commando presence to kick your asses, should such a kicking be currently needed for any reason. Ahem. Here goes: Pursuing discomfort is a worthwhile endeavour. Last week’s post discussed mandatory comfort, including how it is framed as a false act of rebellion that ultimately enables the status quo. While discomfort does not occur outside of power structures, it is nevertheless more worthy than the goal of achieving comfort. Discomfort allows more room for unexpected experiences, and for pushing beyond limits instead of adapting to or accepting them. This principle holds for anyone’s personal life, career path, or fitness journey. [Ugh!]. It is admirable to aim high and do the more difficult thing, which will likely involve removing yourself from an unrewarding relationship or changing your career instead of making only a minor adjustment, or—worse yet—simply waiting to see if things get better. Wake up and smell the reality, fuck nuts! When faced with a tough decision, you should never do what seems like the safest, easiest-to-get-out-of-later thing—never choose the low hanging fruit, which is permanently infested with worms. That’s the reason why no one else has picked it, dumb ass. Why gnash your teeth later with regret, downing another tranquilizer as you avoid facing the truth of your failed and disappointingly sad life, trying to find someone else to blame when it was your own damned fault? Just grow a set of lady, man, or trans balls right now and do the more challenging thing instead. Believe in yourself and your greater abilities. In the meantime, I will be practicing what I preach. Stay tuned for what I hope will be shocking and exciting updates about some ongoing changes in my own life.

Not my future.

Not my future.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Pursuing Discomfort

  1. Hahahah awesome.
    FYI: I *finally* had an epiphany about how deeply feminist narcissism is. I’ll be practicing it whenever I get the chance, henceforth. Amelia Jones on Hannah Wilke rocks my world. It’s about time you posted some self-portraits!

  2. That post was awesome.. I am training with a hardcore paddling team and am constantly pushing myself outside my comfort zone. My 47 year old body is responding in ways I never thought possible. I concentrate on my weaknesses so as to defeat them and move on to the next.

  3. I’m wondering what you mean by “first time”. First time outside one’s comfort zone generally? Fitness-specific? For me it would be a little hard to pin down. The ventures with the most lurid details didn’t happen in the gym, although starting to work out took me a good distance outside my comfort zone.

    I started to lift when I was 30, about a year after getting divorced and it seemed like a good time to be trying new things. Growing up, I was a nerdy little kid with thick glasses and no evident athletic ability, so gym classes felt to me more like social Darwinism than physical education, and apart from that and a couple of semesters of hatha yoga at university, I had no experience exercising in any sort of systematic or organized way. Even so, slipping into the weight room was surprisingly easy. I wasn’t seriously unfit or overweight, and I felt curiously at home in the basement dungeon of a weight room at the university where I was working. Soon I grew to love the integrity of the weights in my hands, and the meditative nature of lifting heavy with good form. I don’t recall worrying about becoming “a gym rat”, and it turns out that I can be both a gym rat AND a nerd, so yay.

    I’ve been working with personal trainers since last fall, and I will say that they tend to push me harder than I might push myself, which I see as a good thing. Lately I’ve been mulling over the possibility of trying to lift competitively, which would be a huge stretch for me, the former kid who didn’t get picked dead last for teams only because she wasn’t “the fat kid”.

    Otherwise, sure, I believe in working without a net whenever the opportunity presents itself. I think it’s because I had a pretty miserable home life growing up, and I’ve always seen change and stretching beyond the familiar as ways to potentially improve my situation. I’ve yet to take a big risk where I’ve ended up regretting it. Meanwhile, I’ve seen too many people screw up their lives by trying to play it safe.

    • Thanks for your response Terra. I meant “first time” as in the first memorable experience of working out in some kind of dedicated or deliberate way. I had played soccer and so forth as a child, but had never really “worked out” in the pursuit of health and stress relief until I reached age 23.

      I really like what you said about not being afraid of change because of your miserable home life as a child. I think that my own bad childhood experiences have ultimately made me a better and less fearful person, allowing me to take chances to attain the life I now have. I never had any sense of entitlement and was willing to work and sacrifice to obtain an education. It also allowed me to select a good partner—most importantly one who is mentally and emotionally stable with an ability to respect others—though I know that this is often not the lesson that people learn when they witness bad relationships at a young age. I agree that playing it safe and refusing to embrace opportunities lays the groundwork for regret and confusion later.

  4. Thanks for the terrifying memory of Jane Fonda style aerobics in the basement of the church near my childhood home. Definitely the “bad” eighties.
    My first time when it came to serious fitness occurred shortly after I turned 40. It was my first sabbatical and I was tired and stressed and spent far too many hours standing at the kitchen counter watching HGTV putting butter on…anything and everything. [Not that my eating habits were much better prior to sabbatical: pad thai is sooo good and cheese really does go with everything]. I was in a hotel on my 40th birthday, got out of the shower and had a good look at my body in one of those full wall, no-steam hotel bathroom mirrors and told myself that this cannot be what 40 looks like. Being of the opinion that throwing money at a problem solves it (I did not have FFG’s childhood and grad school experiences of poverty] I immediately phoned the local gym when I got home and hired a personal trainer. My first words to her were “I don’t like to sweat”. She was a bit taken aback, but started making me lift weights and do cardio and I haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t just the weight loss that was motivating (although that was a definite bonus and 47 looks WAYYY better than 40!) but the building of muscle and strength, and the realization that I could do something that others couldn’t. I joined a Running Room 10K group 3 years later and although the cultish aspect of the organization made for a short association, I learned that I was actually pretty competitive (which those who know me always laugh about), and I run for my own sanity as well as for fitness. Now, working out is an every day occurrence; I still have a trainer because I like to be constantly pushed (and because I enjoy the “break” of being told what to do). None of this seems particularly like risk-taking, but maybe that’s because now I feel I am at a fitness level where I can accomplish anything. And yeah: now, I love to sweat!

  5. Thanks for the terrifying memory of Jane Fonda style aerobics in the basement of the church near my childhood home. Definitely the “bad” eighties.
    My first time when it came to serious fitness occurred shortly after I turned 40. It was my first sabbatical and I was tired and stressed and spent far too many hours standing at the kitchen counter watching HGTV putting butter on…anything and everything. [Not that my eating habits were much better prior to sabbatical: pad thai is sooo good and cheese really does go with everything]. I was in a hotel on my 40th birthday, got out of the shower and had a good look at my body in one of those full wall, no-steam hotel bathroom mirrors and told myself that this cannot be what 40 looks like. Being of the opinion that throwing money at a problem solves it (I did not have FFG’s childhood and grad school experiences of poverty] I immediately phoned the local gym when I got home and hired a personal trainer. My first words to her were “I don’t like to sweat”. She was a bit taken aback, but started making me lift weights and do cardio and I haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t just the weight loss that was motivating (although that was a definite bonus and 47 looks WAYYY better than 40!) but the building of muscle and strength, and the realization that I could do something that others couldn’t. I joined a Running Room 10K group 3 years later and although the cultish aspect of the organization made for a short association, I learned that I was actually pretty competitive (which those who know me always laugh about), and I run for my own sanity as well as for fitness. Now, working out is an every day occurrence; I still have a trainer because I like to be constantly pushed (and because I enjoy the “break” of being told what to do). None of this seems particularly like risk-taking, but maybe that’s because now I feel I am at a fitness level where I can accomplish anything. And yeah: now, I love to sweat!

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