Fragile. Tiny. Vulnerable. Weak. I’ll admit it: I liked being those things. For a long time (most of my life?), I enjoyed people grabbing my arm and cooing “Oh, I’ve never seen such a tiny wrist!” I liked that men got things down from high shelves for me without me even having to ask. I liked how boyfriends stood protectively around me, their arms a barrier between me and everything that was scary. I liked how I could punch a male friend on the arm and he’d just laugh. I liked being the damsel in distress, liked being carried over mud puddles and — heaven help me — liked being rescued. (Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this now.)
Muscles did not fit in with that image I held of myself. In fact, muscles made it hard to fit into all the uber-girly dresses that defined my image. I was one of those girls who would look at Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby and think, “I would never want to look like that, she’s way too muscular.” I used to covet the spaghetti-like arms of starlets and catwalk models, arms that are widest at the elbow. Besides, female bodybuilders are widely ridiculed in our society; childish women are still the ideal.
Then something inside me began to change. Maybe it was the realization, courtesy of my abusive ex-boyfriend, that the same arms that held me up could also be used to hold me down. I learned that my softness could be used against me. Or maybe it was discovering, as a teacher, that people don’t listen to a shrinking violet. Or perhaps it was the epiphany after so many times of falling on my face that there is no one to rescue me. No one but me.
Moreover, now that I’m a mother, I’m the rescuer. I’m the one that has to be strong and steady. I’m the one carrying tiny bodies up six flights of stairs. I’m the one encircling my arms protectively against the harsh realities that fly at my children with alarming force. It’s impossible for me to be needy in the face of their bottomless need.
This shift has caused me considerable consternation. If I am not the princess then who am I? A cross-dressing knight with the wrong genitalia? I’m pretty sure there weren’t any of those at King Arthur’s round table. An Amazon woman in a culture where “amazonian” is generally not a compliment?