Stripping At Forty
I stood in the lineup, the glue at the edges of my hot fuchsia, crystal-studded bikini just gummy enough to keep it from slipping up over my rear and into the crevice where glutes meet at the base of the tailbone. My brown body had been bronzed even darker, and my skin stretched taunt and thin, so tight it would have twanged like a guitar string if you had dared pluck it with a finger. My skin shaved, dilapidated, spray painted, and oiled until I radiated back the canister light coming from the line of powerful floodlights just above, which caused beads of sweat on my face to roll down onto my neck and arms, carrying off my makeup.
On both sides stood similarly un-clad, made-up women, also sweating, also glued into tiny, jewel-studded bikinis, equally bronzed and slick. Bodies fluid with heat but motionless, too, fixed in left, right, center poses; eyes straining for some dark place within the crowded auditorium, some shadowy corner hidden from the lights. We were competing in Women’s Figure: an athletic contest, a beauty contest, a strip show— at forty, on stage, posing and flexing muscles for a crowd of mostly strangers, wearing a bathing suit never intended to touch water. The judges called for a turn, and we turned, a great sliding barge of near nakedness, pivoting on six-inch acrylic heels, stripper shoes. A quarter turn to the right, followed by a quarter turn to the right—four times, until we had made a complete round, come full circle, as it were, back to where we started.
I was born racially ambiguous in the North and raised in the conservative South, the bastard daughter of an unwed waitress and a married cop, first abandoned, then fostered, then adopted by a white family. It is a shame that genes cannot be altered as easily as paperwork, and a rule that they tend to express themselves too late for revision anyway. It was never my parents’ intention to adopt a person of any color but their own; they had not supported civil rights, integration or rainbow coalitions of any kind. It was 1970, and for my adoptive parents, the idea of multiculturalism extended only as far as Catholics marrying Protestants. They were told that the little beige girl in foster care was white, or at least white enough. But as I grew, I kept growing darker and darker, and my soft baby curls tighter and kinkier. My white family had adopted from the wrong side of the tracks. There were going to be taunts at school, and rough looks, and questions about paternity, hints of miscegenation, especially as my mother—blonde haired and blue eyed, of pure German and Swedish stock—moved about our town towing three pale children like herself, and me. My mother took to covering my body in long-sleeved t-shirts. I wore big, floppy nylon hats to shield me from the Florida sun. In the pool, the heavy, soaked cotton of an over-sized t-shirt clung to my bathing suit, dragging me down. I wrestled against the sodden fabric as if I might drown. I lost sight of my body. When my skin darkened in spite of my mother’s precautions, the pool was forbidden. My mother and I fought over this, but secretly I was relieved. I didn’t want to wear a bathing suit, even one no one could see. I hated my own body.
Quarter turn to the right, left side pose.
I grew. Big, awkward, bound to a WASP mother who feared and hated Blacks and idealized blonde, blue-eyed children, I grew. My mother starved herself thin but fed her children. Eating generated love and comfort, and because it pleased my parents, a kind of power, second helpings were proof of their fitness for parenting. Fat deposits build slowly, thicken like a coastal reef. By high school I stood nearly six feet tall, weighed close to 200 pounds, with crazy frizzy hair that could not be tamed and yellow skin. But my sense of self was limited to a set of seemingly incongruent facts: I was a size 10; then a size 12; then a 14;then—but what I looked like, I could not say. Dress sizes, numbers on a scale, these were just pieces of a puzzle scattered about the room. Then I left for college. In one year, I dropped fifty pounds. My newly revealed body was light and small. And though my legs were still unreasonably long, I was no longer this gargantuan of a woman, towering over men, but more of a wisp, a reed, a willow, bowing into their arms. Transformed from the big-boned gal of childhood, was this new woman, lithe and feminine; a girl men wanted to hold at the waist, to fling across their backs, to carry over a threshold, to save. When I arrived home for the summer, I could wear my sister’s tiny bathing suits. My father was impressed. My mother was furious.
Quarter turn to the right, back pose.
Do you know that place behind your arm, the underside of your arm, adjacent to your arm pit, which is difficult to see unless you are really thinking about it, really craning your neck? In your 20‘s, this place forms a soft sink on either side of you, the curve of an ice cream scoop. After sex, men will want to hold you by your arms and run their thumbs in the bowl of it. In your 30‘s, it is a still firm mound of un-risen dough, springing back at your touch. Your children will pinch you there as you burp them. By forty, when I noticed mine in the three-way mirror in a dressing room, it will have risen over the sides of the little strapless top you wore with no regrets just the summer before. I was no longer a teenager, dutifully consuming the food my mother craved but could not let herself eat. I was a grown up, raising two children. I had a job, a home, and a husband. And also an eating issue. For my fortieth birthday, I bought myself a gym membership and joined the scores of women huffing it out on the cardio deck, walking, jogging, stepping, spinning our way to leanness. But unlike them, I ignored the giant televisions hanging overhead and spied on the personal trainers and their clients down on the main floor, where the machines were. Lined up in rows, fitted with black industrial-grade rubber, brushed aluminum, and twisted steel cables, were contraptions supporting round plates of metal as big as tractor tires, racks of dumbbells numbered in pounds from 5 to 120. The trainers led their clients about like penitents, buckling them to one machine after another. Watching made my hard time on the treadmill pass more quickly. My running distance increased from one mile to six each day. I shaved entire minutes off my best times. But after countless hours of cardio, I was still fat beneath my floppy shirts.
Where I truly, secretly, wanted to be was down on the main floor, where the weights were. To conquer those machines and master that floor, that’s what I wanted. That knowledge seemed the private province of the men in muscle t-shirts and baggy gym shorts, barrel-armed and big chested, sweating and grimacing beneath their loads. And then one day, I decided that it could not hurt me to cut my run short just a bit and venture onto the weight floor—certainly it could not make me fatter, could it, just to skip a few minutes? I descended the three steps from the treadmills, forced my running shoes to take me toward the cable rack, hoping no one would intercept me and lead me back up. At a giant metal rack that bore resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in both proportion and persona, steel cables attached to silver handles and hung at about the level of my chest. From watching other members, I knew that the machine was set up for chest flyes. You held the metal handles and made swooping motions with your arms like a great whooping crane, bringing the long, thin wires in front of your chest in an empty embrace. It was the one exercise I thought I could manage. I grasped a handle in each hand and faced the mirror, prepared to hug.
Quarter turn to the right, right side pose.
A transformation is a live birth. A radical move away from what is no longer necessary. An uprising. I felt my body tighten between the cables. Standing centered between the pulleys, I opened my arms wide and pulled. I pulled like a demon. Over and over, I brought my fists together before the mirror, working—well, I didn’t know quite what—but working. I pumped. I flayed. I clenched. I squeezed. Between the cable stacks, clutching cold, steel handles, hugging the air with a vengeance, something suddenly popped. Not an actual breaking, but something real opened, something akin to what gets opened in girls of certain age, adolescent girls who are predisposed to do certain things. Wild girls. With all that metal at my disposal, I made my hands into fists, pumping and thrusting. What was wild in me was not sex, but a blistering rage that I’d tamped down for twenty years. The anger that could not go into my dead mother, that could not release itself into the groin of a teenage boy; the anger that curdled and bubbled but had so far failed to boil over, only boiling down like sauce, finally worked up a head of steam strong enough to lift the lid off. Years of biting it down finally flew that fucker off and clear across the room. With metal in my hands, I was the angriest girl in the world. It was twenty years too late for rebellion. But finally, fundamentally, I was a freak in the gym.
Muscle hypertrophy is the enlargement of muscle fibers in response to overcoming force. The force is the hard work you do, literally breaking apart discrete muscle fibers. Once broken, the body reconstructs the muscle, rebuilding to ensure the fibers are bigger, stronger than before. Pain is part of this process. You cannot have the transformation without its attendant pain. You cannot have the baby without the birth. After that morning on the cables, I transitioned more and more of my workout time to weightlifting. I lifted five days a week, sometimes more, sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner from my new gym, a luxury palace of free weights, machines, cable stacks, medicine balls and resistance bands, complete with a separate cardio floor (where I rarely wasted any time). Early mornings between the stacks, with weights in my hands, I thought I would crack open. I would leave the weight floor a sticky, frizzle-headed, bewildered mess, clutching my chest for fear my heart would break—then swatting at it over my clothes, petrified it wouldn’t. Break open, that is. Like I needed it to. Like it had not opened in years. There is always pain when things break apart. And sometimes, as in the case of pressure cookers spontaneously blowing their lids, liability. I had thought that somewhere on the gym floor I would begin my transformation, the one promised to me by countless fitness magazines. But the change began closer to home, in my kitchen. When I began to equate eating with nutrition, began to eat with a plan, a blueprint to fuel the workouts with steel and rope and rubber, my body transformed. Muscle which had been gradually accumulating layer upon layer, revealed itself, while simultaneously, my eating stripped my frame of excess fat. I added definition to my thighs and back. I gained ten pounds—with pride. The year I turned forty, I had the body I craved when I was seventeen.
Quarter turn to the right, return to front pose.
The nature of body building is transformation, building up by breaking down. You cannot go back. I began to lift like the women in the fitness magazines. Here on the glossy pages, between diet tips and low-carb pizza recipes, were the women who had smiled throughout high school, who had gone on dates, been strapless at the beach, who had made the cheerleading team—Figure competitors with flawless tans, manicured nails, laser-light smiles, lining the edges of a stage, muscular goddesses on their way to some Olympian prom. Six-inch heels made them sexy, glamorous, hot. Six inch heels made me 6’6”. So the idea of competing in Women’s Figure was not my own. It took my husband, other gym members and complete strangers to tell me what my body looked like. In June of 2011, I competed for the first time, taking second place in both Tall and Over-forty classes. Every muscle I had earned stood out on my bronzed body—even the one behind my arms, the triceps. I had the glutes, quads, and abs of an athlete, the resolve of a warrior. I’d fought this battle with myself and won. Not second place but my place. Not a fat forties but a fierce one. I had conquered the weight room and found out what the steel and iron and rubber were good for. They were good for breaking apart. And piecing back together. They were good for me. I still lift and there is still pain. If there is a way to build without aching, I haven’t found it.
– j. a. alexander is everything you read in this essay and a few things you might suspect: mother, wife, writer, reader, bodybuilder, personal trainer, breadophile, and a freak in the gym. She currently lives and writes in Orlando, Florida.