I have the most bizarre memory. I mean, I can remember things that happened when I was 2. I remember locker combinations from high school. I remember school seating plans from elementary school. Yet I can’t remember my kids’ names on a regular basis, or whether I’ve seen a particular movie. This is nothing new. I’ve always been like this. Maybe I live in the past too much. Maybe all y’all don’t live in the past enough. I don’t know.
When I was a wee little kid, I remember thinking “I’d rather be strong than be pretty”. This was a pretty revolutionary thought for a girl in the 70s. I mean, yes, women had begun working outside the home (or returned to working outside the home, if you take the long historical view of womens’ work). Sure, women’s rights had moved forward in the previous 50 years or so since women had been granted the right to vote (and to have agency over their own bodies, but that’s probably a post for another day). What hadn’t changed much was the way women were expected to act. The way women and girls were expected to be.
I was a girl who hated wearing skirts and dresses unless they floofed out when I spun or had many petticoats (like Anne of Green Gables’ dresses did, or Laura Ingalls’). I didn’t care if people saw my panties when I climbed trees, but I also recognised that if the sight of someone’s unders caused such grave distress, it was just easier to wear jeans. But the jeans had to have front pockets and no back pockets. My shirts had to be short-sleeved. Blue or green or brown; definitely not pink or baby blue. I didn’t mind having long hair, as long as it was easily tied up in a ponytail, but I didn’t want to dick around with it. I didn’t care about braiding it or curling it or styling it or whatever.
I was six or seven when my mum had my long hair lopped off, and while I loathed the “mushroom cut”, I loved the feel of the wind on the nape of my neck. The lightness from all that hair having dropped to the stylist’s hand in a single braid. I wasn’t interested in putting on makeup (although I was interested in wearing theatrical makeup. I got a set of make-your-own makeup for ExMass one year and proceeded to dress myself up as Gene Simmons and Peter Kriss. Not simultaneously; that would be weird. That was the last year I got makeup for ExMass).
I was proud of the fact that I could take things apart and put them back together, usually with very few parts left over. I liked using tools and getting my hands and clothes dirty. I liked lying under the car when it was on the lift and learning what all those grease-covered things were and how they worked. I liked not having to ask for help to do things. I wanted to be able to move things, lift things, carry things, and not have to ask someone else to do it or to help.
For a kid, obviously, this was never about gender roles. It was never about breaking the mold. Even though I was called a ‘tomboy’, a badge I wore with honour even though it was often tossed at me as if it were an insult, for much of my childhood, I just, plain and simply, wanted to be a boy. Not because I had any kind of understanding about gender identity, but because I eschewed doing the things other girls my age seemed to want to do. I wasn’t interested in dolls. I didn’t care about playing house. I think I used my Easy-Bake(tm) oven altogether four times (once we ran out of the batter that came with that thing, it languished).
If my friends COULD convince me to play house, I was always the dad. Even when I took ballet lessons, I danced male parts (there were zero boys in ballet when I took lessons) – now that could be because of my inherent gracelessness more than any kind of gender role identification, but it was comfortable. I didn’t want to do brownies; I wanted to do boy scouts (wasn’t allowed in those days). I didn’t want to play ringette; I wanted to play hockey (and was told girls couldn’t play hockey, which is probably what started my lifelong loathing of the sport, a loathing I only began to abandon once my kid started to play). I wanted to play football (girls did NOT play football, but I was invited to try out for the cheerleading squad).
Maybe I was an inadvertent feminist as a child (as an aside, “The Inadvertent Feminist” is a GREAT book title. If there isn’t already a book called that, someone should totally make it happen). Maybe all kids are more predisposed to not give a shit about what society expects of them. I don’t think I was especially different or unique. But sometimes my childhood memories and experiences hit me in the face.
This morning, as I was doing the weightlifting portion of my workout, the words I want to be strong, not pretty popped into my head. “Oh hello, words,” I said to myself (and yes, I was probably muttering them out loud by that point), “where have you come from?”
“From when you were a kid,” the words replied. “You used to say that all the time.”
“Weird,” I said. “I’m sure those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Lots of people are both strong and pretty.”
“Maybe, but at some point, you felt you had to make a decision between the two, and it looks like you chose strong.”
I glanced over at the weights. I’d just added another 10kg to the load. “Okay, sure. Maybe. I mean, why bother lifting if there’s no resistance?”
“Why bother working at anything if there’s no resistance?”
I was beginning to think I was having a conversation with something greater than just a few words that had popped into my head unbidden as I did some torso rotations and tried to remember whether I was on rep 2 or rep 6.
“That sounds pretty deep,” I said. “You know we’re at a gym, right? Lifting weights? I’m not sure this is the time or place for Deep Thoughts.”
“Like the capitalisation there. I could actually hear that,” my me said.
“Thanks. I’m kind of an expert at that sort of thing.”
“Anyway, the point is, what makes you think you’re not strong? Or pretty?”
“Uh,” I said. “I know I’m strong.”
“Okay, what about pretty?”
“Look. Me,” I said, stretching my head as far back as it would go, “that’s just. It’s not a priority, okay? I don’t actually care whether I’m pretty or not.”
“No. I mean. I don’t want to care. I’m *supposed* to care, but I don’t want to care. So whatever. I’m just. Can you put another 5kg on for me?”
“Dude, I’m just your consciousness or something. I literally have no hands. No opposable thumbs. No physical body.”
“Right,” I said. “Hey, I don’t know where this conversation came from, but I’m really trying to focus on doing this…thing. With the weights. And the crunches. And I think that guy can hear me talking to myself.”
“Sure. I just wanted to let you know that this whole strong vs. pretty thing isn’t new for you. Some people use their time at the gym as meditation, you know. Maybe that’s -”
“Some people use their time at the gym to wheel potential hookups too,” I said, “but everyone in here is like old enough to be my grandparent, which isn’t necessarily a turn-off, but I’m also not interested. So can you just stop making me look crazy and shut up?”
There was this weird awkward silence from my me.
“Okay fine,” I said. “Stop making me look crazIER.”
“Sure thing, coach,” my me said. “Just. You know. Pointing something out. Just something curious. Something you might want to think about. I’m’a go hang out over there by that …what the hell IS that thing?”
“I have no idea. I think it’s a stair climber.”
“Why not just use the stairs?”
“Dude. Fuck off.”
“Okay. See ya.”
The whole conversation got me thinking. What was it that made me say, as a wee little kid, that I’d rather be strong than pretty? I can guess, of course. Also, just for the record, being smart was just a given. (She says, tooting her own horn.)