Powerlifter as Identity:  Thinking on the Cycle of Representation

Written by: Janna Moretti

I signed up for my first powerlifting meet at the age of 39.  I had only been powerlifting for an 8-week meet prep upon a sturdy, 3-year foundation of Olympic lifting and HITT training.  I’ve lifted most of my life, strength training as supplement to cheerleading in high school, then taking weightlifting as a class, then doing it off and mostly on ever since.  It is one of my earliest loves—making time to lift when I was in the Marine Corps despite the long work hours and the early PT sessions with my platoon.  Though I’ve always loved lifting, the way it made me feel during and after—upward thriving, becoming, channeling, heightening—and though I had always thought of myself as strong, it took me a long time before I saw strength as part of my identity.  It wasn’t until I became a mother that my routines and my whys and my hows and my what’s-it-all-abouts culminated into my identity as a competitive powerlifter.  Powerlifting has become my preservation of self.  

I didn’t know other mothers who carved out a space for themselves in this way.  I had a hard time visualizing becoming a competitive lifter because I had not seen representations of people like me doing it.  I was not on social media until after I did a couple of meets, so I had not seen women my age in competitive powerlifting, other mothers building during the time of life that popular culture has coerced many into thinking is the time for living for others, almost exclusively, and no longer the self.  The martyr mother.  The working mother and wife who still makes delicious meals and does it in shoes that cramp the toes and still has the time and energy to lull a little one to sleep with a patient song and then has the energy to have sex with her lover after—as if the move from one role to the next can click as easily as kicking off a pair of high-heeled shoes.  

Not that I needed to have seen other women in their late 30s, early 40s competing to conceive of it as a possibility … I am used to being the odd one out—the one woman among hundreds of male Marines, the white girl among my friend groups in elementary and middle school, the tattooed college professor who proudly stems from a blue-collared family.  But still I see how having seen people like me do something that I had not pictured doing myself could beget the possibility.  Conception into reality.  Here I think about diverse Barbies turned doctor or skateboarder.  Kids see toys that look like them and they might conceive and then they might act on that visualization.  Never having seen the possibility, I signed up for my first meet after a good friend of mine suggested I do it since my squat, she had said, was impressive.

On the origin of my lifting without representation, at least conscious representation as motivator, I think about my biological father, who, I’m told, had loved powerlifting himself.  My brother also loves it.  But I don’t trace my obsession with lifting to a family inclination.  We are more than our hard-wired dispositions.  

On further thinking, I suppose, if I associate my lifting origin to representation, I would tack it to seeing another girl bench pressing in the high school weight room.  I didn’t know her.  Short of being a girl she didn’t look anything like me.  But being a girl was enough for me to remember her face, even now, and not anyone else’s in the weight room that day.  I saw her pushing up the bar, like she was saying “Back off me,” and I thought wow.  I thought I can do that.  When she got off the bench I got on the bench and felt for the first time the wobble of a 45 lb bar.  I did it over and over again that day and then over and over again the next day and then it wobbled less and I added weight, and then I had a friend who knew I had been lifting after school so she came with me and then she wobbled the bar into a steady line and then we added weight and then added more and now, over 20 years between seeing my feeder inspiration girl to toe-dipping into powerlifting to total identity submersion as a means of self-preservation, I’ve PRd into my becoming someone for whom others might see and think for themselves the same thing:  If she’s doing it, I can definitely do it.  What a cycle to be a part of—one that I hope my daughter will one day enter as a way to harness and evolve her own identity, her own sense of self through strength.

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