“This is my sister, Brittney. She can deadlift 342 lbs and I once saw her bite the head off of a cobra.” My sister Sandy always introduces me (with a pretty straight face) this way.
I’ve never bitten the head off of a cobra for the record, but I know this is Sandy’s way of celebrating my toughness and I just laugh at it.
Although I’m tough as nails, I’m also as tender as warm butter and I’m not afraid to show my loved ones and the world both sides of me.
“I am a titanium reinforced butterfly.” I choose a mantra or two for the day going into any meet, and this was one I repeated to myself the day of my last one.
Today, as I travel to compete at Canadian Powerlifting Union Nationals I’ll wear a bracelet given to me by one of the five-year-old girls who’s more of a regular at Unparalleled Performance – the hub of elite powerlifting in Western Canada where I’ve been training this past month – than I am.
At moments of my drive I’ll glance at the purple bracelet with glued-on multi-coloured rhinestones on my wrist on the steering wheel and I’ll feel a warmness in my heart. I love to smile about these little ones on days when I lift. Girls like this bring me so many smiles, and I have the chance to be a role model in their lives. I remember my heroes growing up were my older sisters playing high school sports, and I can only imagine what it would be like to be a little girl who could look up to another female who lifts monsterous amounts of weight. I don’t think the possible life implications from that should be taken lightly.
Minutes after heartfelt thoughts about cute little ones, I’ll be repeating today’s mantras to myself: “Surprise everyone, even yourself. Blow f***ing minds.”
I’m oh-so-tender, but I’m also as tough as a gristly steak (can you tell I’m on a weight cut, dreaming about food with all these analogies?), and I believe in a world where women and men are celebrated for being both.
I recently read Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, and one of the parts that struck me most was where she spoke about girls and boys, women and men “rumbling with their identities:”
“From the time we’re old enough to stand, most girls…are raised to compartmentalize. We are raised to be tough and tender, but never at the same time… We’re taught how to be tough and sweet, and of equal importance, we’re taugh when to be tough and when to be sweet. As we get older, the consequences of being tough and independent when you’re supposed to be tender and helpless increase in severity. For young girls, the penalties range from a stern look to a descriptors like ‘tomboy’ or ‘headstrong.’ But as we get older, the consequences for being too assertive or independent take on a darker nature – shame, ridicule, blame, and judgment.
Most of us were too young and having too much fun to notice when we crossed the fine line into ‘behavior not becoming of a lady’ – actions that call for a painful penalty. Now, as a woman and a mother of both a daughter and a son, I can tell you exactly when it happens. It happens on the day girls start spitting farther, shooting better, and completing more passes than the boys. When that day comes, we start to get the message – in subtle and not-so-subtle ways – that it’s best that we start focusing on staying thin, minding our manners, and not being so smart or speaking out so much in class that we call attention to our intellect. This is a pivotal day for boys, too. This is the moment when they’re introduced to the white horse. Emotional stoicism and self-control are rewarded, and displays of emotion are punished. Vulnerability is now weakness. Anger becomes an unacceptable substitute for fear, which is forbidden.”
I consider myself lucky. Something about the combination of my spirit and my surroundings never stopped me from being tough. I wore the label “tomboy” like a little boy wears a Sheriff’s badge. If I saw a boy throw a football a long way I’d practice until I could throw it farther. I decided early I’d make the boys work damn hard to beat me – and that hasn’t stopped today. But I know many girls and guys learn to hide parts of themselves through this process, and that breaks my heart.
Today, at powerlifting nationals, I’ll be both tough and tender. As my hands grip the bar and I stare at it for that last second before it vanishes from my view, now on my back for my first squat, I’ll feel energy pulsating and expanding inside my body pushing my abs out (like my coach always tells me to), and I’ll say to myself as I unrack the bar and step out, “It’s time to blow f***ing minds.”
And then I’ll go to the back room, and calm down as much as possible. I’ll hold in my hands the little purple bracelet I can’t wear right now because it won’t fit under my wrist wrap, and I’ll think of those sweet little girls I’ve had the privilege of hanging out with at the gym for the last month and all the smiles they’ve brought me during training sessions, and I might even have to fight back a tear.
And then I’ll put on Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never.”
And I might listen to some John Legend, “All Of Me.”
But, sure enough, just before my second attempt I’ll throw on some Marilyn Manson, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and I’ll let my toughness rise up in me again as the song builds.
And I’ll walk out, with my hair in a cute pineapple on top of my head and determination in my eyes that makes people to whom my sister has introduced me think, “Holy f***, maybe this girl did bite the head off of a cobra once.” And I’ll probably have lip gloss on and my eyelash extensions will be as on point as my lifting form is about to be.
And then I’ll surpise everyone, even me, and I’ll lift that bar again, another 8 times with the energy and conviction it would take to decapitate poisonous snakes with your teeth, because I believe in a world where women can be tough and tender at the same time, or at different times, or whenever they want to be.
I also believe in a world where men don’t have to hold back their tenderness.
I once dated a pretty typical tough guy. The first time I went to visit him he was playing hockey and got a stick to the eye. He casually skated off the ice like nothing had happened, and then considered whether he should keep playing. His buddy convinced him to get it looked at, and I drove him to the hospital. He was fine and then wore his black eye like I wore my “tomboy” label growing up.
A few months later I was watching an Oilers game with him, but not just any Oilers game. It was Ryan Smyth’s last game. And when he retired and hugged his daughters and kissed his wife and stood before an arena of adoring fans all on their feet in celebration of this man’s career and life, I looked over and saw that same eye (once black) now fully healed and shedding a tear. And that to me was his most attractive moment.
Tough and tender don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As I also first heard from my sister, “Let your freak flag fly high!” If you’re a tough woman in ways that we aren’t expected to be rugged, you might be seen as a bit freaky – embrace that shocking side of you. If you’re a bro who lets his tenderness peek out, you might receive a few judgemental glares – go ahead and let those tears fall. Whatever it is for you, bite the head off of your own personal cobra – the world needs more titanium reinforced butterflies.
I created this program, Projekt Possible, to (among other awesome things) help people learn to let out the sides of themselves they keep hidden.