Get your standards off my body: How one female writer is overcoming societal policing
Whether she's editing hundreds of pages or powerlifting, Jessica Antony has developed a thick skin
Published On:
March 8, 2017
In this piece for CBC Arts' special International Women's Day series, I write about the ways in which women's bodies are policed, especially in gym culture.
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I've been working in the publishing industry for the past ten years and I've been teaching a writing course for the past eight, so most of my days are spent in relative seclusion behind a computer screen, reading manuscripts, editing other people's writing or marking papers. You have to learn to develop a thick skin when it comes to telling an author that their argument doesn't make sense, or that you've made significant changes to their writing, or that you aren't going to publish their book at all. Sometimes people have a hard time letting go of their work, which I can understand — I mean, hey, it's often born of hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears, and it can often be hard to give up control. I've learned to be sensitive to writers' attachment to their work and not to take it personally when they get upset about making changes to their books.

Outside of work, I'm also a powerlifter — something else that requires developing a thick skin. I'm a single woman in my mid-30s, and having a relatively unusual hobby also serves as something interesting to talk about when I'm on an inevitably disastrous Tinder date or something I can list on whatever stupid dating app I've given up on (and then caved and re-installed) as an "interest" outside of the usual "I like movies and travelling" that won't bore potential paramours into a coma. Powerlifting is something I'm quite new to, but also really passionate about — a passion I don't hide. When I mention this pastime, I am inevitably faced with one of three responses: "Wow, that's cool!" (I think so too, thank you); "Is that the thing they do in the Olympics?" (No, but close); "Don't get too jacked, you'll look like a dude" (Cheque, please).

Despite being well-versed in dealing with negative reactions from people in my work life, I am always blown away by men whose first reaction to my love of lifting heavy things and putting them back down again is one of threatened masculinity. "Don't lift too much or you'll get bulky," says the guy who couldn't tell me the difference between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers if his life depended on it. "Be careful you don't end up looking all manly" — because, unfortunately, you don't just have a body, you have a woman's body, which means that I see no issue in commenting on it and what I think is best for it, even if you're a near-stranger. Having a woman's body means guys feel they can give me their unsolicited opinion on how I would be the most attractive to them and what is best for me — even that guy I swiped right on last week and am now having a beer with while he explains that squatting is bad for your knees.

If online dating, social media and supermarket checkout magazines aren't screaming at me to guard my body against the absolute nightmare of letting myself become fat and undesirable (everyone clutch your pearls), then there's always someone else ready to tell women to be careful not to work out too much or they'll risk losing their femininity. We can't win.

While there have been so many achievements made in the name of gender parity, the covert policing of women and their bodies is just as damaging.
- Jessica Antony

There's something about being a woman that makes having a body so much harder. Why are women's bodies still such a public space? We are told how to dress (not too slutty, but don't be a prude), how much makeup to wear (too much and you're trying too hard, too little and you're not trying hard enough), how to flirt (too coy and you're a tease, too forward and you're a slut) and even how much to exercise (too little and you're lazy, too much and you're manly). We're given all of this constant, unending direction on how to be, yet people still seem to lose their minds when women post photos of themselves online. Enough with the selfies! Don't post so often! You're so full of yourself! Always be focused on your appearance, but so help me god if you begin to like the way you look — you're not supposed to actually be content with yourself.

In the end, it really doesn't matter if "powerlifting" conjures up images of scary-looking people full of steroids screaming their way through a deadlift. What's important is that we recognize that nobody has the right to tell another person how to dress or move or decorate themselves. And while we can all recognize the major roadblocks to equality that are no longer acceptable to ignore — inequality in access to employment, health care or education, for example — it's those micro-level instances of sexism and entitlement that can also really break a woman down. While there have been so many achievements made in the name of gender parity, the covert policing of women and their bodies is just as damaging.

This is part of a series of personal essays celebrating women in the arts that CBC Arts is publishing in the lead-up to International Women's Day on March 8.

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