Oppressive Stereotypes for Strong Women

My letter to the editor in the Washington Post, February 19, 2014:

With all due respect for a brave person who is determined to chart her own path, Marion Cory [“Genderqueer at the gym,” Outlook, Feb. 16] inadvertently reinforced the very gender stereotypes that oppress her.According to Ms. Cory, derby cars, self-discipline, adventure, challenge, sports and weightlifting are masculine. Has she never heard of feminism? That, in part, was the point: freedom from gender roles — for all of us. Has she never watched the Olympics? When women lift weights, they’re not acting masculine, they’re acting like people who want to get stronger.And why in the world would she want to use the men’s locker room? That’s for men. She’s a self-disciplined, adventurous, strong woman — just like millions of other women. The word for these people is not genderqueer; it’s athlete.
— Mariah Burton Nelson, Arlington
Marion Cory in her apartment building’s gym. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Tweet #imove to be an inspiration

Today’s a Gym Day. Yesterday: Bike ride. Every day’s a good day to move. Join me by tweeting to #imove. What’s shaking? Be an inspiration.

Bored with Your Workout Routine? Try Flying

When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford University, I spent a lot of time with friends in Berkeley, and every time I went there, I attended Motivity performances or classes. Motivity was the brainchild of Terry Sendgraff — and, some say, the precursor of Cirque Du Soleil.

This unique art form combines gymnastics, modern dance, improvisation, theater, and circus arts, using low trapezes and other vertical equipment in an enclosed performance space — or, sometimes, outdoors. Terry was the leader of a loosely connected troupe of women and a few men who were all highly creative, and to me, highly inspirational. (Of course I loved Terry’s Tall Women Walking series.)

I wasn’t any good at Motivity. Gymnastics and dance have never been my strong suits. But that didn’t matter, because in that era (late seventies, northern California), talent was not required. What mattered was participation. Openness. Adventuresomeness. Creativity. Courage. Those qualities are available to us all.

If you look at her Web site, which I happened across this evening, you’ll see the seeds of other aerial circuses. And you’ll see people who knew how to express themselves through strength, play, and teamwork.

In her seventies now, Terry is mostly retired, but still choreographs and offers some workshops. If you’re ever in the Bay Area, check out anything she’s touched, twirled, or flown over.

And if you’re bored with “exercise”, ask yourself, How might I discover or develop more creative ways to move, play, and express myself?

Fit Tip #31

Bike trails filled with people
Dodging them could make me blue
But bike trails filled with people: This is my dream come true

Fit Tip #25

Get out of the gym. Ditch the exercise bike. If you still like to play. Rock and roll with a TRIKKE! (I once rode one all day. Now I’m seeking my own. Let me know if your Trikke is in search of a new home!)

Fit Tip #17

Tired of workouts: Just getting them done? New playbook will show U how to make fit fun: http://www.exuberantanimal.com/pubs

Regular Old Athletes

A 78-year-old friend of mine climbed Mt. Fuji last week. A lifelong Japan-ophile whose powder room has a Japanese sign on the door that translates, literally, “Honorable Hand-Washing Place,” she has lived in Japan, and speaks Japanese, but this was the first time she had climbed the “mythic, mystic” mountain, as she put it.

“I don’t even know why it was important to me to do it, but it was,” she said after the successful 18-hour round-trip hike. “Probably something about getting older, and seeing friends sometimes be so feeble, living in assisted living homes.

“One friend said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’ But I do feel different now. I feel changed.”

The Japanese talk about how shy “Fuji-san” is, always skirted by clouds. The mountain appears suddenly and mysteriously, almost magically, on very clear days. “When we were living in Tokyo, we used to joke about the Japanese having the mountain on wheels, because it was always showing up in unexpected places,” says my friend, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“I enjoyed reading about routes, and buying hiking boots, and entering into whole ethos. It was fun, until I got to the base of the mountain and looked up and thought, Oh my, what have I done!”

Six hundred thousand people climb the mountain every summer – “so it can’t be that difficult,” says my friend, who ran her first 10K in her early sixties and raised five children, including a mountain climber.

“When you start out, it’s not that steep. It just takes persitance and tenacity and endurance.”

This friend is the founding member of my reading group, which has been meeting monthly for fifteen years. Last night we discussed The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, while my friend and her husband served us a dinner on china plates called, thematically enough, “Blue Rose.”

For dessert we enjoyed a homemade Mt. Fuji ice cream sculpture made of Rocky Road ice cream, complete with tufts of whipped cream snow.

On her way up Mt. Fuji, my friend learned that last year, a 100-year-old man made the journey. So she doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.

“The last 200 meters were tough, and downhill was tough too, because my quads were like rubber,” she recalls.

But she took it all – even the falling – in stride. “Every time I fell, the guide would say, “Good time for a rest,” she relates, laughing.

What’s extraordinary about this story is that it’s not extraordinary any more. Every month, AARP: The Magazine receives story pitches about older (or downright old) athletes who have achieved things someone considers remarkable. The editors turn them down, explaining that impressive athletic accomplishments by older people simply aren’t unusual enough to make the news.

Which is not to say they’re not important – to the people themselves. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I do find myself telling people, ‘We just came back from Japan, and I climbed Mt. Fuji!” says my friend.

“I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she continues. “The Japanese have a saying: “Every Japanese wants to climb Mt Fuji once, but only a fool wants to climb it twice.”

No need. Sounds like once was just right.

Now, as for you, Dear Reader: What’s YOUR Mt. Fuji?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation MNelson@aahperd.org

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