“I’ve never seen shoulders like yours on a female figure before,” the old man said to me while shaking his head side to side. His body language leaned in as though he wanted to reach out and touch my shoulders but knew enough about acceptable social norms to stop himself. I had just been lowered from a fun 5.11 that required multiple side pulls and spread eagle hip mobility that looked like I was plié-ing up the wall. As soon as I was on the floor, he commented on the flexibility of my movement and then laid the shoulders remark on me. By now, you might be imaging me as a linebacker or maybe an Australian body builder all bronzed up with a few layers of baby oil to give me that extra shine. It’s true, my shoulders are muscular, they look strong and they are strong, but I don’t look like I am wearing shoulder pads. Immediately the man regretted the words that eat his mouth. Perhaps he thought I was about to hulk out on him? Instead, I uncomfortably laughed and said “yeahhh, I climb a lot.” I wanted to get away from him as fast as humanly possible. My urge to escape did not stem from my creeper radar sounding its alarms, but rather I wanted to run to the bathroom and hide my gargantuoun shoulders from the world.
The comment stuck with me for days and I found myself feeling ridiculously self-conscious. In our society, women’s bodies are expected to have the perfect balance of softeness, curve, bone and gaps. The recipe is written and while most women spend their entire lives pursuing that ideal, most will never achieve it. I could go into the endless causes and contributors to the success or failures of body perfectionism, but that’s not what I’m here for. For days, I allowed a seemingly harmless and honest comment erode the very confidence I have been working on for my entire adult life. We can all agree the man’s choice of words were lacking creativity (and if you don’t, you’re an asshole), but what I chose to hear was entirely different from what he said. What I heard was *”Oh. My. God. I’ve only seen shoulders like those on silverback gorillas and The Rock. Lay off the roids and protein shakes, toots.” Yeah, yeah, I know, nobody says “toots” anymore, but it just sounded more shovenistic so I thought it was necessary. Of course the old climber did not say any of those things and instead of receiving his words and responding accordingly, I chose to cower away and take offense. No Jenna, no.
My entire life, up until the ripe old age of 27, I was certain I would never be able to do a single pull-up. For my adult life I have been extremely active; climbing, backcountry skiing, backpacking and consistently working out at a regular ol’ sausage fest gym. Was I capable of doing the thing s I love without giong into cardiac arrest? For sure. Did I have cardiovascular strength? Yes. Was I strong? Sort of. in order to get stronger, I began utilizing body weight excersizes. Push-ups, planks, lunges, squats and eventually pull-ups. Every day I practiced on my hangboard (a textured board that has multiple finger holds to hang from as a climbing trainer). Each day I would hang as long as I could until my finger scraped off and I collapsed to the floor. Eventually I began reverse pull-ups and lowered myself as slowly as possible. After two months of daily practice, I was able to do my first full wide grip pull-up. Not long after I was able to bust out four, then six and then ten without hesitation. Why am I breaking down my stupid workout regimen? Because of the shoulders, duh. My muscular AND feminine shoulders are a direct result from a personal goal I thought I would never achieve. One pull-up, a modest dream you might think. You’d be surprised how many people think they’ll never be able to do one. Once I was able to do the first one, I felt incredibly powerful. For the first time in my life, I thought “holy shit, when the zombie apocalypse comes or I’m on the Discovery Channel’s next latest and greatest survivalist show, I’ll actually be able to lift my entire body out of harms way.”
How could I have let one measly combination of words wreck my growth? Well, I did, but just for a little bit.
*A list of things I heard in place of his original comments:
“Are you wearing shoulder pads under your skin?”
“How do you manage to find shirts that fit you with all of those gains?”
“Your shoulders are massive, like humongous, like, do you have to walk sideways to go through doorways?”