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From Yoga Dropout to Competitive Powerlifter and Boxer in One Year

01/25/2014 09:36 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2014

Last year, as my 40th birthday disappeared into the distance in my rearview mirror, driven by a combination of vanity and fear of my own mortality and decrepitude, I committed to getting in shape. I've always been fairly active: I have always walked a lot, commuted by bike when that was plausible, and just generally been high-energy. I've always avoided driving whenever possible.

But a childhood full of failure at team sports and a lack of innate gifts in the coordination department scared me off of formal physical activity for decades. Indeed, I was convinced that I hated working out -- that I would always hate it, no matter what, and that it would take a tremendous and ongoing act of sheer will power to do it.

One year ago, I posted on Facebook about how much I hated it, and defended the absolute, eternal permanence of my hatred -- its complete imperviousness to any changes in context or circumstance -- against comment after comment from friends who were trying to be helpful. This guest post is a kind of personal anniversary celebration, as well as a very public admission that I was totally wrong.

I have always been deeply uncomfortable in spaces that are specifically gendered female. In general, I am more at home in male-dominated spaces. For example, I am a philosophy professor. Philosophers worry a lot about how male-dominated the discipline is, and I share this important concern, but at a personal, visceral level, the gendering of philosophy spaces has always made me more rather than less comfortable. Even more acutely, it turns out, I prefer physical activities that are generally gendered male, and I am much more comfortable training with and around men than women.

As a feminist, however, I felt shame about my preference for male spaces for many years; it seemed to me to be a betrayal of my values. It took me a long time to really absorb the idea that we are all complexly gendered: some men feel more comfortable in feminine clothing; some women feel more comfortable with a masculine chest; and I feel more comfortable training my body in masculinized spaces and ways. This is not, I finally realized, a betrayal of feminism, a compromise of my female identity, or indeed any kind of normatively evaluable fact about me.

But for a long time, failure to grasp all this and a lack of imagination thwarted my various attempts to "start working out." I would occasionally try a yoga or aerobics or Pilates class or something and feel deeply alienated. Then I wouldn't do anything for a couple of years. I now see this as a vivid example of how gender norms can limit our imagination, both through inculcating shame and through stifling creativity. When I was shown a few power lifts in the gym, I discovered serendipitously that I love exercise when -- and only when -- it is a testosterone-driven outlet for aggression in a yoga-pants-free environment.

This discovery transformed me. Today, I box about six hours a week, run four miles a day most days, strength train three times a week, and am getting ready for my first powerlifting competition (in the under 105-pound masters class) in March. I ride my bike about 100 miles a week, and I've recently started dabbling in parkour. I've put on a ton of muscle and my body fat is around 16 percent.

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I am interested in how different my relationship is with each of my main physical activities.

I bike as my primary mode of transportation, to socialize, and sometimes to relax and give my intellect a break. Biking does not feel like exercise to me and I am completely noncompetitive about it. Getting on my bike is like hanging out with a dear and familiar childhood friend.

I basically despise running, but I know it is good for my cardio health and overall conditioning. I feel like I ought to be able to force myself to do some things that I hate, so I run partly because I hate it, to test my will regularly. As with biking, I have no competitive goals when it comes to running. I am content to survive it.

Powerlifting is the first physical activity I have ever truly excelled at, and it's a huge rush for me. I lift two or three times a week, working with a personal trainer. Lifting makes me feel powerful and in command of my body and competitive like nothing I have ever experienced. This is the one physical activity I do where I am really working towards specific goals, which makes for a very distinctive kind of working out. Here's me deadlifting twice my body weight:

I box about five hours a week, often with a private coach. I box because it pushes me to my limits on every front. Coordination, speed, strength, flexibility, endurance: boxing requires all of it and I love the challenge. I also love giving my aggressive side an unfettered outlet. But honestly, I think that what I love most about boxing is being included (however peripherally) in the culture, the history, and the aesthetic of the sport. I love being in boxing gyms and going to fights and hanging out with boxers and coaches. I love training in different cities when I travel and meeting local boxers. I have no metatheory of this love, but it thrills me, and allows me to be someone I usually am not.

One of the most amazing transformations for me has been the change in my courage. I am not afraid of people looking at my body, nor of what the scale says, nor -- most importantly -- of trying new things. This includes trying things that might hurt me, or that I might be terrible at. For the first time in my life I feel like I'll try anything at least once. I have no fear of or for my body anymore. It has been an incredible year.

This essay first appeared in almost the same form on January 13, 2014, on the blog Fit, Feminist, and (Almost) Fifty.