by Annabeth Leong
I don't like exercise that focuses me on my appearance. In all too many classes I've attended, I've heard the instructor yell, "Think about that bikini body," or, "Work off that pizza you ate on Saturday night." This bothers me for feminist reasons, but mostly it bothers me because it's not what I'm there for. Exercise has sometimes made me look good as a side effect, but wanting to look good has never kept me coming back.
Striking drills are my favorite physical thing to do. I like to let go on a punching bag or strike shield, gloved or ungloved, with fists, with elbows, with the heels of my hands, with feet, with shins, with knees. When I do this, I get to a place I can't access any other way. My mind is blank and focused and I lose all sense of time. It is pure and perfect and I am never looking at the clock or wondering when it will be over. I can go until I won't be able to move the next day, but I don't give a fuck what it does for my bikini body.
Here's what I'm looking for:
the cessation of mental noise
relief from all my words, words, words
the flex of flesh
the joy of bunching and releasing muscle
feeling fucking deadly
the thud of impact
the crisp sensation of a quick, precise strike
More than anything else, it's the rage. I doubt you would think it to look at me. I actually have a lot of trouble expressing anger, or even feeling it except for when it's just me and the strike shield. I just know that there's a lot of it blocked up inside me, and this is the only thing that gets it out.
I don't picture the face of an enemy. I don't think of anything specific. I actually don't think of anything at all. It's just something that takes me over after a few hits. It's there in my chest, and it is one of the coldest, cleanest things I know.
Sometimes, I think about the stories of berserkers, and I think that I would be one if the time and place were right. Knowing what fills my body when I'm striking, I can see myself in a battle frenzy.
I have trouble explaining this to people, and I'm frustrated by the way a lot of exercise classes pull me out of this feeling. I often get the idea that women are supposed to exercise to look pretty, and that people are taken aback if I try to say that I'm there to give this rage somewhere to go (I think this gets accepted for men as a way to turn negative feelings into something positive).
I like the white sensation behind my eyes strike after strike, sweat pouring off the end of my nose, muscles burning along the sides of my ribcage, but I also don't want this stuff to stay inside me. I need to sweat it out because I'm pretty sure it poisons if it congeals.
For my bachelorette party, I took the girls for a private lesson at a boxing gym. I always notice how most girls need to be taught that it's okay to hit something without holding back. They start out tentative. They need to be encouraged. My response has always been deep gratitude that this, finally, is something that's okay for me to hit without holding back. I think some of the most thrilling words I've ever heard are Brad Pitt's, from Fight Club: "I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
I liked watching the other girls get it, but mostly I was too caught up to look out for anybody else. At that party, the instructor made a comment. "Who is it?" he asked. "Mother-in-law?"
I didn't know how to answer his question. He was thinking way too small. It was a continent. It was, as the Violent Femmes would say, "Everything, everything, everything, everything."
I often think of the hulk's line from the recent Avengers movie, when he explains his secret, the reason the transformation to the beast is always available to him. "I'm always angry," he says, looking mild-mannered as he does.
As a writer, it's strange to think of how I need this blank space to express the rage. I've written a few things out of anger ("Risk Rider and Dare Take the Con" in Coming Together: For Equality), but mostly the emotion makes my hands shake too much to type. The rage seems too intense, too unfeminine, too scary, and too far beyond words.
People are constantly being exhorted to exercise these days. For their health. For their appearance. Because it's one of the things we're supposed to do. As with many other things, I think it only works if you find your own reason. And this is mine.