As I type this, I stop every few minutes to pull my spine up tall, clasp my hands above my head, and slowly move side to side, gently stretching the muscles around my shoulders and latissimi dorsi, or my “lats.” I place my hands on my lower back, elbows bent, and puff out my chest—bones shift and joints pop. My 4 year-old runs up to me, asking for a spin, and I scoop up her 60- pound body and spin her dizzy. Slowly, I return to my writing position and resume working.
In Loving in the War Years, Cherrie Moraga writes, “A friend of mine told me once how no wonder I had called the first book I co-edited (with Gloria Anzaldúa), This Bridge Called My Back. You have chronic back trouble, she says. Funny I had never considered this most obvious connection … And the spot that hurts the most is the muscle that controls the movement of my fingers and hands while typing.”1 We can “read” the pain metaphorically, as the burden that is placed on women of color to write against colonialism and to forge spaces in the women’s movement; however, Moraga may very well have had repetitive stress syndrome, or a similar musculoskeletal ailment, that could have been improved with strengthening exercises.
In my dissertation that I completed in 2011, I read texts in Chicana literature to examine how mestiza mothers read the social and somatic experiences of their maternal bodies, deploying critical and often oppositional knowledges. Similarly, scholars such as Suzanne Bost and Eden Torres, and emerging graduate student scholars such as Christina L. Gutiérrez and Sara A. Ramírez, are articulating decolonizing theories of the bodies and psyches of Chicanas. But in addition to this bodywork, I’ve been consumed with another kind of bodywork: fitness.
Exercise kept me sane through three degrees and three children. Though I won’t deny that the gym has been a space of frustration—especially as I painfully cardio-ed for excessive amounts of time in my attempts to “bounce back” after my pregnancies—it has also helped me reaffirm my sense of strength. The traditionally male-dominated free weight area has become my most empowering space, where I routinely lift heavy weights to strengthen my lower back that was strained and weakened by years of writing, motherhood, and running on pavement. I delight in my growing muscles and find the task of carrying my children and books far easier. Though one reason I exercise is to maintain low levels of body fat, I am driven more by my desire to prevent injury, manage stress, and strengthen my bones and cardiovascular system.
But, I often find myself alone in the free weights area. Among those who do come, many opt for the 5-pound weights because they want to become “toned but not bulky” (never mind the fact that the average weight of a woman’s purse is 7 pounds!).
However, I don’t judge. In many ways, hegemonic (and gendered) constructions of “fitness” and “fit women” conflict with dominant constructions of Latina bodies. The cultural valorization of “womanish” curves and the masculinization of muscular bodies constrain Latinas’ exercise choices, limiting them to those that emphasize fat loss over muscle strengthening. Further, the media’s constructions of “fit women” as white, upper-class, and hyper-muscular, and the capitalist culture of fitness, with its pricey supplements and apparel, render “fitness” a financially inaccessible and time-consuming endeavor. And, when it comes down to it, men in the weight room can be downright intimidating.
While these rhetorics and images of fitness have led some Latinas to either pursue more socially accepted forms of exercise for women or to nix them all together, many still revere their maternal ancestors for their bodily strength, recalling the girth of their strong arms and legs as they carried loads of laundry, tilled the hard earth for their gardens, and lifted sleeping children off their floor and into their beds. These images of strength need to be remembered and re-embodied.
I fully acknowledge that my pursuit of the level of fitness that I desire is enabled by my privileges of income, transportation, a flexible job, the support of my husband, and the availability of day care. We need to be critical of social/structural inequalities that limit how, when, and where Latinas exercise. I’ve responded to some of these issues by blogging for my local newspaper (Fitness Cultures) and starting a free exercise group (Fulanas Con Ganas).
It’s my mission to ensure that all Latinas have the access to the resources they need, as well as the support and confidence, to pursue the level of fitness that allows them to live their best lives.
- Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios(Boston: South End Press, 1983), v.
Larissa M. Mercado-López received her Ph.D. in English/Latina Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include Chicana feminism, maternal studies, phenomenology, and rhetorics of fitness. Larissa is an adjunct instructor at UTSA for Women’s Studies and Sociology.