Strength, coercion, and questions about the baseline. (Content warning throughout; topics run the gamut.)
By Erin Brown, with art from Lola
Connected: “Movement Patterns: Alignment & Efficiency in the Fitness Industry” by Jen Sinkler
They never even pretended to listen to me.
I remember waiting all day for my dad to get home. Something was wrong with my eye, and my mom was legitimately busy caring for my younger sister, running the house, and also navigating cancer. I couldn’t shut my right eye or turn up that corner of my mouth. I was standing on the walkway when he got home, explaining that something was very wrong. He walked past me, not having absorbed a word, saying, “You’ll be winking in no time.” Turns out I’d had a stroke. The neighbor would later suggest my parents look into it.
This is the kind of thing my therapist in college would have loved to talk about. I had come in with PTSD, once my depression and anxiety got bad enough that I’d quit leaving the house, seeking skills to address triggers from a multitude of sexual assaults.
I was clear: “Here is the fire, here is the trauma, here is how it shows up in insidious ways: Where do I go from here?” Instead he insisted we talk about my relationship to my dad, as if there were no way I could be right about my own issues. Instead reduced to relationship with Father.
In high school I was on the debate team. I was good, and the boys I would compete against were dismayed. There isn’t another word. Every time my partner and I would walk into a round, we would watch them as they laughed and nudged each other as if to say, “We’ve got this.” Patronizing doesn’t begin to cover it. Adding to being two girls, I was blonde and dressed sluttier than was couth, and she was goth with accommodations required for dyslexia. We would receive a lot of feedback from judges about our clothes.
All hilarious to them.
But debate is pretty cut and dried. Speakers are ranked, and rounds are won relatively objectively based on who makes the better argument from a logistical perspective. And when we won and won and won and won, each time it was as though they could not believe what just happened. I want to tell you that by the end, they respected us and realized they had underestimated us.
But really, they just still didn’t get it.
Especially when it comes to talking, offering expertise they seemed to believe on a visceral level was their birthright, they didn’t get it. The boys who were good were encouraged to go into politics, while it was asserted that I was a bitch. The same skill set — one I was better at — signaled leadership skills in them and character flaws in me.
I was the top-ranking speaker in the state my first (and only) year. I dropped out, and the coach who spent a lot of time encouraging the boys to continue never asked me about continuing. I think my partner stole our giant trophy from the school and made a bong out of it. I’m kind of glad the coach didn’t get to keep it in his classroom.
The stories are so many. So many, and so exactly the same that they aren’t even all that interesting. But if I tell you any, I know I have to tell you several, because even as it’s happening to you, you are already course-correcting your own thoughts. Blaming yourself: It can’t be what it clearly is. And so we do that to one another. Don’t “cry sexism,” just be better. Never mind the outcomes, the responses, or the fact that I have never found tone of voice, outfit, or endless patience and graciousness (or whatever else is supposed to lead to listening) to make a difference.
I don’t know that it exists.
And by listening I don’t mean deferring to me as the expert on everything: I am not that. Knowing that is a pretty big piece of self-awareness.
I mean talking to me like I’m a person. Possibly considering or even seeking my perspective.
One time, at a small barbecue with friends, two men I knew well were talking about social media. One of them had a small following garnered from work he does, and he had recently been trolled for the first time. Of the three of us, I was the only one who had been a public figure online for many years, including a mass of experience with online trolling, death threats, insults, and so much feedback. I said something about my experience and both looked at me like I had absolutely no business engaging in the conversation. I was to listen. Not to add a single thing. I walked away laughing, and they went back to each other, unfazed. The casual dismissal of actual expertise, without even knowing it.
There has never been a conversation between myself and the men in the subset of the fitness industry I’ve existed in alongside them because they couldn’t see me to begin with.
Not as a peer. Not as an asset. Not as anything.
I wasn’t the one with the tits they ogled. I was fat (a word I’m not sure I have the right to use at my size, but one that has been hurled at me in an effort to demean my voice for as long as my memory can draw back), a feminist (since my earliest journaling days, long before hashtags were a thing, and it certainly wasn’t cool), and I had way too much to say about way too much.
It is as though our voices exist on some strange octave unintelligible to them. Impossible to understand or consider. Or pretend to.
It’s funny to me now: I had outlined a speech for them. The men. One I would never give.
Just prior, I’d given a speech about the intersections of body image and rape culture at an event created for women after the original conference it was associated with all but excluded them from presenting. I received the only standing ovation ever seen at either event. The man who ran the co-ed event (which takes place about a 40-minute drive from my house) was there, and I erroneously presumed I would be tapped to speak at that one, as well.
What would I say to that group, I wondered. What would I want to say to the men about body politics, about what they are missing in the way they do their jobs, or even just the way they interact with women in these professional spaces? I wrote it out, the speech I would never be asked to give. A couple of years later, one of their coveted presenters would be accused of sexual harassment and assault, there at the event. I didn’t wait for the call this time. It didn’t cross my mind that they would want someone to speak on those issues. I am a person right down the road who is known for speaking to just that, but they don’t care. They don’t seem to know I exist, even when I am right in front of them.
They simply don’t see me. Or they don’t see me as valuable to them in any way, which is basically the same thing.
I don’t even wonder about them anymore. These “good men,” the ones I’m supposed to support and go out of my way to exclude from critique. They don’t think I matter. I can count on my hands the number who actually engage in my work when I’m not nude in the photo. I know them by name. I’ve been doing this public work for almost a decade.
These “good guys” sent my friend, who had been drugged in their company, off in an ambulance to wake up alone in a hospital in a city she did not live in. To wander into the back alley of the hospital to meet her cab driver at 4 a.m., still drenched from the rain in the clothes she was dropped off in. Good guys who had gone to a good training at a good gym that has rainbows everywhere and is all about inclusivity. The good guys with wives, who support women, who are down to learn in an openly gay space about fitness and community.
These are the really good ones, right? Not only did none of them make sure she was safe, but the answer they gave her panicked husband when he called the next morning was, “Hey, bud, we’re finishing up breakfast. I’ll call you back when we’re done.”
Similarly, a man has never stepped in as I was being harassed, which has been a regular part of being in public since I got breasts around age 12. Not when I was a child, not as an adult, not as a mother with her baby has a man even acknowledged that he notices another man shouting at me, following me, insulting me when I don’t respond as though it’s a welcomed advance. I’m supposed to be thankful. Hell, telling you that grown men have been predatory to me regularly since I was 12 is supposed to read as some kind of brag.
And I regularly feel unsafe, but not daily. There’s privilege in not walking out of the house knowing the odds you could be murdered because of your identity are so high that optimism isn’t an affordable luxury. Meanwhile, so many men who have shown up to the conversation report being afraid, too. Their fear is that they can’t say or do whatever they want to without someone correcting them.
This concern is leveled as the most egregious affront there is: feedback.
I’m supposed to say not all men. And I’m happy to say that, honestly. Even not all cis men. Yes, I know some really great guys. But where are they in real time? I know a handful who pay attention. Who can hear my voice. Who seek to understand what I mean, seek my perspective and see me as valuable: in my identity, in my decade of work with trauma, in my two decades of activism. As I’m writing this, I am thinking specifically of two. Two men. And this isn’t just about me and my voice. It’s so much bigger a pattern. Like Jen said, it’s scalable. Can you listen to someone different than you? What will that make you examine yourself?
Do you care?
It’s just interesting to me now. Not a chip on my shoulder or a bone to pick, but simply existing and observing is an interesting social experiment. I notice the smattering of men who like me and take interest in what I do. Who ask questions about what I think about something, or about my work. Usually they’re poking holes in what I say, but it makes for good dialogue, really. Even then, though, when they talk about the podcasts they listen to, the people they respect, the authors of the books they read, they’re all men.
When I ask directly who they are most inspired by who is a woman, or the last woman author they’ve read that they’d recommend, they’re often stumped. I’m not playing “gotcha” — I’m really interested in which women men listen to.
I’m interested because I’m not it.
I often look at myself and wonder if it’s just me, or something I’m missing. These guys, who I respect and like and agree with on so many things, have never so much as listened to even a 10-minute podcast of mine. They haven’t read my book on raising a daughter when they are raising a daughter.
Maybe they do read what women write, value the work we put into the world, our perspectives, and we don’t know.
Sometimes it messes with my sense of worthiness: Is it just that all of these men people listen to are doing better work? Is it me?
Are our experiences the same? I’m curious.
Even the ones who do the work around understanding misogyny, who teach about it, who do and say really great things about sexism, specifically, cannot withstand the idea that maybe I know more about my own experience than they do. And put me in a position where they might answer to me? Forget it.
But this isn’t really why we are here. Because this denial, this lack of listening, this need to show up to their own shortcomings but choosing not to over and over; this saying you care about perspectives that are different from your own, reducing the harm you cause others, but not being able to name an author, a book, a podcast, an any-voice-at-all of a marginalized identity other than our own? Well, fuck, it’s us, too.
And I mean all of us.
Most folks have aspects of their identity that are steeped in privilege, and thus we become underdeveloped in this area of our identity. That’s how it works. We try to avoid the work of development, deny it, instead focusing on how we are “good.” I feel like I’m supposed to say something encouraging, because it’s so easy to get stuck in the shame of it.
But I just don’t think it has to be so shameful. It’s the lifting of a veil. It’s surrender to the idea that you (and me and all of us) don’t know what we don’t know. Haven’t experienced what we haven’t experienced. And are accountable for the ways we show up that are harmful, even if it’s unintentional.
It’s an ongoing process because it’s all by design, it’s systemic, it’s in the very air we breathe.
Realizing that is part of how we develop as a person. That’s not shameful, it’s necessary for living a rich life and also concerning yourself with your impact on others.
These examples are so useful, insofar as you believe them. (This is a very important part, the believing.)
We believe you.
We want to examine how exactly these things show up: What language, what behaviors, what patterns exist? Can we see ourselves in them? Can we do better?
We are a people in the midst of collective and personal identity crisis.
Trying to understand our own experience (not as told to us), with many of us grappling with how much we didn’t see others’ experiences, or believe them.
The idea that your opinion is the most valuable at any given moment is a conditioned one. The idea that your opinion needs to be watered down, delivered with a smile, credited to someone else and if it’s not heard you should probably blame your outfit or the sound of your voice is conditioned, too.
For some of us that means wrestling with entitlement. Learning for the first time that sometimes you don’t know, or that the expert doesn’t look or sound like you.
That looks like it’s hard.
For some of us that means the heartache of confirmation that the abuses you’ve suffered weren’t just you or because of you. It helps with your sense of truth, but there is mourning there, too.
For some of us it’s seeing ugliness we didn’t want to believe in, and the guilt of not knowing more, sooner. Acknowledging our silence, or finally acknowledging the silence of our friends. Or the realization that it is a systemic and purposeful lack of understanding.
Because at the core of understanding yourself and your behavior (in context) — or choosing not to — is identity development. It’s why white people generally hate anyone saying the words “white people.” An aspect of privilege is not questioning it. So you don’t notice somehow that everyone presented to you as an expert looks like you. You don’t spend time thinking about what it means to be white. In history. In present. You don’t consider yourself within the context of whiteness. To the point that someone saying the words “white people” is immediately upsetting. No, we don’t think about whiteness.
So here we all are in the lesson of identity. Some of us denying any of it matters, and some of us really struggling with what that means about us. Some of us really tired of articulating these patterns. So many of us opening up to the possibilities for ourselves.
And the thing is, what we want is better. For everyone. What does it mean to determine who you are for yourself instead of by these exhaustive and exhausting, arbitrary, and harmful rules?
We want relationships that are healthy and egalitarian, whatever that means to each set of people in the relationship. We want to wear lipstick or not, to choose how people how address us, to appear how the hell we want to appear. To identify however we feel. To have sex in ways that consider everyone’s pleasure and consent. To get to feel healthy and expressive and well in our sexual selves. To make decisions for our lives and about our bodies and who we are that feel good and right for us. The respect and privacy to do so. Because life is hard enough without all the contortion.
The “rules” we are following and not questioning are old, and violent, and oppressive. And many of them just plain boring. Is it real that putting together the perfect, appropriate aesthetic makes people respect you? Is anyone having that experience?
Do we want that? For whose input matters to be based on such measures, or do we care about whose input would be the most valuable?
This all is a lot. It’s so much: reconsidering who you are, who you thought you were supposed to be, and how that plays out in context. Most of us are looking at ourselves, our identities, our own communities, and recognizing the different kinds of unhealthy bypassing, assumptions, and conditions we find there.
But this examination leads to growth. Study.
You probably recall puberty and whatever that meant for you. Lots of folks are in the puberty of their identity now. Some stunted so severely they can’t see straight.
On the other side of puberty is a more seasoned sense of self. Within self. In context. Even in integrity.
And also, more fun. Remember fun? Joy? Really important things, also.
What are we missing about ourselves? What ideas about who and what we are “supposed to” be doing we still subscribe to? That’s kind of a fun unravel. It’s freeing. The more space and freedom we seek to create for others, the more we find for ourselves, too. What are the options? What joy is outside of the box we tried to confine ourselves to? Explore while acknowledging that each of our confines is different for so many reasons. Let’s find out what that means.
We will misstep. That’s not to dismiss it, only acknowledge that there isn’t any way not to, I don’t think, because there is no caucus of any group of folks to consult on things. There is no consensus. We are in revolutionary times, and there is disagreement about what forward looks like, even in terms of vocabulary. But we are open to critique. We are open to discussion.
We refuse to be the very people who couldn’t even begin to hear us.
We refuse to be the very people who couldn’t even begin to hear us.
This is something of an opening argument. Where we’ve been, what we’ve been up against in terms of moving what is. How this is going, from the places we sit? Let’s move toward nuance, discussion, the dicey parts, and also what’s good? Who is doing amazing shit? Where can we learn from? Can it be fun? Yes. Yes, when we achieve a basic level of respect, fuck yes.
As for the people who aren’t listening, however and wherever they are, however and wherever we find that in ourselves, I’m hopeful that we all get on board. Truly. I’m always hoping for folks who misstep to move differently. I ask that of myself. I work alongside those who are willing to do the same.
I think it gets interesting from here.
is author of five books, cofounder of Ferine mag, and a facilitator and activist from Lawrence, KS. Her work primarily explores cultural narratives, identity, emotional labor, and autonomy. More at iamerinbrown.com and @IamErinBrown.
Lola is a fifth-grade student currently residing in the Midwest. She is a self-proclaimed history buff and bookworm, gravitating mostly to nonfiction work about revolutionaries. In her free time she practices Brazilian jiujitsu, listens to music, and plays with her dog, Bader (named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
A beginners guide
By Erin Brown
Guilt can be an unfortunate although natural reaction to learning about one’s own privilege. It's not very actionable or useful, but it seems an understandable part of discovering for the first time, or again a new layer of the systemic power structures that you benefit from. If you’ve not been forced to face these things before, this can feel overwhelming. Privilege lends itself to a serious lack of identity development in that area. The very privilege that allowed you to not confront systemic abuse also created a version of you that has very little tolerance for learning about it, which is called fragility.
I've seen suggested that the best thing to do with these feelings is to deny them. Push them down somewhere you put ugly feelings you don't enjoy. But to me, this messaging plays right into the conditioning I've been handed about every other difficult feeling. I don't actually believe you can ignore what comes up. I don't believe you can tuck away unpleasantness and not suffer physically. But, what you do with these feelings does matter. Who you share them with, what space they take up, when they are prioritized and by whom: that's worth addressing.
1) Keep in mind your feelings aren't the point. If you are a white person reading about police brutality, for example, and feeling helpless and guilty, do not add those feelings to the commentary on the piece. Your feelings of helplessness reading an article on a subject are not equitable to the person experiencing terror. Just reading your position is emotional labor, and possibly derailing of the entire conversation. It’s asking for your feelings to be centered in a place they do not belong. The more entitled you have felt in the past to insert yourself everywhere, the harder this will be to grasp. So ask yourself before you add your two cents somewhere: Do my feelings need to be centered here? If not, don't insert yourself.
2) Sit with the discomfort. It’s actually pretty whack to be raised and systemically miseducated in such a way that learning accurate history and how present systems uphold the same abuses creates such discomfort. But that is the reality. So in order to be actively anti-oppression, we have to build up a thicker skin. The discomfort gets easier if you allow for it. It comes and goes quicker. You begin to feel less fragile and less thrown off. You'll be stronger. But as you sit in the discomfort of new information or guilt about it, make sure your feelings are directed toward your own miseducation and not the person providing you with accurate information.
3) If it's not about you, it's not about you. Cultural critiques are not personal character attacks. It's ridiculous to request 13,987 prefixes be written to everything a person writes just to avoid someone taking it personally. "Not all men, not all white women, not all straight people" etc., are not necessary additions to pieces examining the conditioned problematic behaviors of a group. If it's not about you (i.e., you don't exhibit the behaviors being discussed) then it's not about you. No need to make sure the writer knows you believe yourself to be an exception.
Some days I feel a little fragile when reading another article about white women ruining feminism. I take a deep breath, remind myself I'm fully capable of receiving critique (and I'd better be if I mean to be a leader in any way) and go back to read again. It is always better to actively stand against poor behavior in those with whom you identify than to ask that they not be criticized.
Take what you can from the piece, share it if you believe it's valuable for people in your life, and move on without centering yourself.
4) Process with appropriate people. If you need to process feelings of guilt, overwhelm or moments of fragility, talk to other people who share your positionality and have the energy for it. Sometimes dealing with emotions requires external processing — just don't take it to an inappropriate party. I've heard this explained like a funeral. If your coworker passes away and you need to process your grief, you don't call the widow. Be mindful of the position you are putting someone in when asking to work through this with you and make sure you are doing so with someone who has the emotional energy to do so.
It takes time and emotional energy to become less fragile around issues where you experience privilege and lack accurate information. Make room for your own thoughts and process your feelings, but be sure to do so in spaces that are appropriate. It is possible to give yourself room as your lens expands while not centering your experience where it doesn't belong.
is an author, international speaker, and poet from Lawrence, Kansas. Her work focuses on women and autonomy. It includes themes of positive body image, eradicating rape culture, addressing white feminism, honoring the power of our voices, self-care over martyrdom, reproductive justice, intersectional thinking and inclusive leadership. With an activism history approaching two decades, the only thing she is sure of is how much more she has to learn.
Choosing to tackle the culture that allows for this abuse to continue instead of the most recent symptoms of it. With great reverence for the survivors currently under fire and all of those silently bearing witness to their own pain. Content warning: sexual assault.
By Erin Brown
Everytime another sexual assault comes to the forefront of the newsfeeds, along with it you can expect the same storylines handed to the accused and the accuser. It’s painful as it tugs at so many people’s darkest hours, the ones they were taught to shove down somewhere to avoid this exact thing they are watching flicker across their screens. This is what could have become of me if I spoke up.
It pokes at the kind of pain points you can’t wish away or shove somewhere. There are so many daily ways they come straight to the surface. And we have questions. Questions like: How do we know she didn’t really want it? How do we know she isn’t seeking attention or simply changed her mind? What was she wearing? Did she look available for sex? We are so very much confused about consent. We want it to be a contractual obligation. Where a notary public is involved and we can see so clearly that someone was “allowed” to have sex with someone else.
But doesn’t that sound like a terrible transaction? Because everytime I read (yet another) account of a rape where onlookers stand around supposing with one another as to whether or not there was really a crime- I read it with the lens of someone who really understands sex as a pleasurable thing. And I see, so clearly, that there was no “yes.”
We see this kind of sex normalized in media all the time, too. Probably because it’s normal. One person on her back, looking away, thinking of something else. Another pounding away on top of her. Where, in the context of the story, consent is present. But the people involved are not involved with one another. We don’t see as much of the big “yeses.” The eye contact. The intimacy even in just really fucking someone like you mean it.
We don’t see the moans, the heads thrown back, the actual euphoria of riding out an orgasm. Of answering to the question, “again?” readily and without hesitation.
As someone who has been doing work to eradicate what we call “rape culture” (a culture wherein sexual assault is not just a normal occurrence, but without consequence to the rapist and much consequence to those abused) for a couple of decades, It is the likes of me who folks are pointing at with “feminist killjoy” memes. I even have a hat with the phrase knitted on it. When ironically, what I’m advocating for is pleasure. And I’ve very little moral attachment to what that looks like between two consenting parties.
The entire argument of consent as a murky subject is turned completely on its head when sex is not viewed as a conquest but a mutual pursuit of pleasure. But that involves a level of respect, concern on impact and a concerted effort not just to get off or to perform but to actively seek the satisfaction of ones lover. To notice how they move when you touch them, what their face does, what each kind of moan means… when we are in this place there is no question as to who is consenting because it’s all so clear. Not in the way that sometimes people’s bodies begin to respond favorably to unwanted sexual touch, but a from the beginning, through the middle, all the way to that question lingering in the air “again?” YES. Yes all the way through.
If we aren’t seeking that, then can we at the very least begin to look at this aspect of our culture’s approach to sex? Are we bad at sex? So bad at seeking to fulfill the desire of our chosen sexual partners that when someone is so detached from their bodies that they will be in therapy about this moment for decades, we don’t even notice. Because it feels markedly similar to the last time one person laid on her back and the other person pounded away at them. Because the approach is not only heteronormative, it paints sex as something akin to a round of golf. But this one with less holes and significantly less thoughtfulness as to how to get to them.
Ongoing consent between actively engaged partners is not necessarily a constant check in as to “Are you OK?” But rather a thermometer for pleasure. “Do you like it like that?” “Will you do this for me?” A response is less an indication of safety but of turning the dial. “Slower.” “Faster.” “Right there, just like that.” “Just. Like. That.”
No one saying “just like that” emphatically with her eyes locked on her partner is feeling that consent is a murky subject. Because she is arriving at her pleasure with a partner who has concerned themselves with how she feels. So much so that they were willing to communicate clearly, trust her to know her body better than anyone, and study the ways in which to play her like an instrument. And she is given the space to do the same. Lovers plucking on one another’s strings in ways that make you moan involuntarily when you recall it the next day.
I don’t think I’m a killjoy. I know it not to be the case in the moments when I sip my morning coffee and my cunny hums in the memory of the night before. I’m fully aware of my yes. The frigid killjoy narrative is another way to discount the multitudes we contain and why we might be angry. In this case, specifically, as to how we are touched and if we decided or were even asked to begin with.
So I don’t know what to do with the assholes. The people we know sought out to cause someone great harm in a violent way and did it (or continue to do it) with rape. It is damaging and terrible and takes away a sense of safety in ones body specifically around one of it’s most pleasurable opportunities. But with 90-93% of rapists being men, it can’t just be these jerks we think might fit the bill. It’s all these men we know, too. The good guys.
As I watch them defend themselves, I’ve begun considering the possibility that some of them truly didn’t know the difference. That while they very much inflicted painful trauma on to another person, they honestly didn’t know any different than thoughtlessly seeking a means to an end. Their eruption. Their conquest. Their bragging rights. Their rocks off. And because they at no point concerned themselves with the wellbeing, the emotional welfare, the body signals, the voice or the basic pleasure of the person they were hammering at- they didn’t notice they were raping them. Someone who was not going to hum about it the next day. Someone who now bears the weight of not being seen or heard or cared about in such an intimate way. And as I stare at that sentence rereading it, I wonder how long I can find new ways to ask for basic respect before we are clear that these are all crimes. Coming in at different costs, to different identities, weighing down the bootstraps we keep trying to pull ourselves along by. I don’t know how much lower the bar can be for decency. But I’m beginning to see the ways we don’t understand sex.
To anyone having the kind of sex where one party does whatever version of “aimlessly pound” that pertains to your sex life while the other stares into the distance, I wish for you a more juicy experience. One so clear, so vibrant, so delicious that consent is an embodiment you can possess. And at least one more person can see clearly. A hell yes is not only worth the pursuit, it’s the whole thing. Anything less respects nothing but ejaculate, at any cost. And doesn’t begin to show a basic appreciation for the pleasure capacity for anyone involved.
But the most useful thing I can share with anyone choosing to spend their time looky-looing at someone else’s lived trauma, for clues as to if the circumstances were a little “murky.” If she was wrong about her experience. Is that the quickest route to avoiding trauma or consequence for it (which side you concern yourself with here is very telling and obvious, by the way), is to approach sex as an act to be shared with someone who truly wants to share it with you. Emphatically. To seek to provide pleasure to the person you are with and allow for it in return. An exchange so palpable, you buzz afterward, the lingering effects of hormones and blissful orgasm. Raise the bar that high, or no deal. You either care about how you affect others or you don’t. You either view others as holes or as beings also worthy and deserving of their sexual pleasure and delight. You either seek to play lovers like instruments, to the tune of the songs they most enjoy… or you seek to lazily get your rocks off. If you are the latter you might be causing more harm than you think. Time’s up.
*The gendered nature of this language reflects the statistical significance of who is most commonly affected by these narratives but is in no way meant to minimize damage caused by womxn or any other identity of abuser. All of these stories matter.
is an author, international speaker, and poet from Lawrence, Kansas. Her work focuses on women and autonomy. It includes themes of positive body image, eradicating rape culture, addressing white feminism, honoring the power of our voices, self-care over martyrdom, reproductive justice, intersectional thinking and inclusive leadership. With an activism history approaching two decades, the only thing she is sure of is how much more she has to learn.
Athletes and experts weigh in with their best strategies for overcoming performance-mindset issues by boosting your mental game.
By Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake
Jen K. was worried.
With three powerlifting meets under her belt and her fourth one month away, she found herself facing an unexpected challenge not in her body, but her mind. She was approaching training weights she had never lifted and while her training cycle had gone off thus far without a hitch, fear and doubt began to creep in anyway.
“I’ve hit a mental wall, so to speak, with my performance,” she shared after a particularly frustrating training session. “My brain simply cannot grasp that I will ever lift past a certain weight in my squat, bench, and deadlift.”
Whether you’re a veteran competitor, a fresh face, or anywhere in-between, the benchmarks to success are generally the same: show up, do the work, and repeat. Our bodies, however, do not function independently of our brains and no matter how consistent you've been in prep, sometimes our minds can attempt to get the best of us.
And if the big day comes and you believe you can’t — or don’t believe you can — you very likely won’t achieve your goals.
Mind Over Matter, A Negotiation
American record-holding Olympic weightlifter Quiana Welch is familiar with the influence her mind has on her performance. As life-long athlete in gymnastics, volleyball, football, and CrossFit, she can easily relate to feelings of self-doubt the closer she comes to competition day.
“I definitely think to myself, ‘Oh snap, Q. Are you ready for this? The meet is so close! You gotta get it together.’”
And she’s not alone. “The most common performance barrier I encounter with my athletes all boil down to the same thing: confidence and self-doubt,” says Dr. Peter Olusoga, athlete, coach, and sport Psychology Lecturer and consultant at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. “Any athlete who tells you they never experience a negative thought, or a little anxiety and self-doubt, is bluffing.”
Exactly how these negative thoughts show up for competitors vary. “Some athletes think they are going to fail because they are fearful or lack confidence,” states Heather Pearson, strength and conditioning coach, sports psychologist, and founder of 1Body4Life. “Some athletes think they lack the ability to keep calm under pressure, and some hit a mental block whereby their mind believes they cannot run any further, return from injury with their original capability, or lift any more weight on a lift.”
Training for competition isn't easy and in theory, an optimal level of arousal will lead to improvements in your performance; As your arousal increases so does your performance — but only up to a point. Negative perceptions left unchecked early in training can result in a drop in arousal and increase in anxiety and fear. This can lead to performance plateaus, failed attempts, or worse, quitting.
The good news? A mental sticking point during the lead-up to a competition (or a daunting task at work or a new job interview), can be overcome with the right tools. With practice, you can flip the script and change your mindset to help influence a positive outcome.
“Mindset is all about perception,” says Heather, and our perceptions can change with helpful mindset boosting practices. “You can train your brain for anything,” she says.
Robust in Body, and Mind
“When I first started powerlifting, my performance anxiety was hugely defeating. In my very first meets, I would lift less than what I could lift in the gym because I was so nervous, I would feel tremendously drained.” – American record-holding powerlifter, Jennifer Thompson
No one competes without the expectation and desire to do well. It’s easy to get hooked into perceptions that influence how we perform, and when negative thoughts creep in, tempting to ignore them in favor of pushing through and appearing as if all is fine. The issue arises when we give too much credence to thoughts we perceive as negative and start — and keep — listening to them as if they’re true.
And very likely, “They're not,” Dr. Olusoga asserts. “They're just thoughts, and helping athletes unhook themselves from negative thoughts is often a starting point for addressing performance issues.”
Feeling stuck in a negative mental feedback loop? Decrease performance anxiety and build a more resilient mindset with these specific strategies from sports psychlogist Heather Pearson:
“I take nice deep breaths to keep me calm. Freaking out never helps.” Quiana Welch
Twice a day, close your mouth, inhale through your nose for four seconds, and hold your breath for seven seconds. Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds making a whooshing sound. Repeat 4 times for a total of 90 seconds.
This breathing technique allows more oxygen to enter your body, promoting a state of calmness and balance. Implement this breathing practice pre-training session or pre-competition, particularly the night before a big competition to help you sleep.
Word association is simply associating a word with things that make you feel happy, calm, serene and peaceful.
To practice, sit in a quiet room, close your eyes, and think of a word you want to use. Then, think about everything that makes you happy, peaceful, joyful and loving while thinking of this word.
Word association requires diligent practice— and a timer — during training to reap positive effects at competition. “You need to practice this daily for five minutes so when you think of this word you instantly feel calm and at peace,” says Heather.
Positive Self-Talk and Thought Stoppage
“When negative thoughts creep into my head I picture a filing cabinet in my head. I put those thoughts into a drawer and close it shut.” – Jennifer Thompson
Positive self-talk is straightforward: speak to yourself in affirmations, the same way you would to a colleague or teammate who needs more confidence. In your head or out loud repeat, “I am strong, I can do one more rep,” “I just need to focus and I can do this, come on, power through.”
Thought stoppage is slightly different to positive self-talk. When you have a negative thought, instantly change it for a positive one. For example you might think, “I’m am so weak today” but you stop, recognize the negative thought, and change it to “I am going to lift this weight today.”
“Both of these techniques promote a positive physiological response in the mind and the body,” Heather says.
Imagery and Visualization
From speeding the rehab process post-injury, blasting through training plateaus, gaining confidence against competitors, and attaining more effort in lifting heavier weight, imagery and visualization is a powerful and authoritative tool.
“I always visualize how I want my performance to go. I walk myself through every step and imagine how it is going to feel. I walk my mind through my opener all the way to the third attempt in each lift. I imagine how the weight will feel, and that I will be fast and strong.” – Jen Thompson
Your brain works on a sensory basis and the more senses you use, the stronger an imprint you can create of exactly what you desire to achieve.
To practice using imagery, find a quiet room, close your eyes and use all your senses to create an experience. Take a back squat for example, feel, hear, and see your body go through all the motions from start to finish. Smell the gym. Feel the knurling on the bar as you wrap your hands around it. Hear the clangs of the plates as you position the weight on your back and step away from the rack. Listen to the deep inhale of your breath and feel the bracing in your core as you descend. Feel your quads and back tense as you push your way upward.
Finish the visualization by feeling the emotions, like happiness and elation, as you complete your task (or in this case, lift).
Imagery works best in real time to mimic the exact situation correctly, so during training, practice before you begin lifting and in between sets. For powerlifters on competition day, practice as soon as you arrive at the venue and scoped out the lifting area, before you begin to warm-up, and between your attempts. Your brain relies on repetition, and visualizing a specific situation in real time establishes these thoughts as a predictor of the outcome, leading to huge gains in confidence, strength, motivation, and recovery.
The Final Word
Many of the most successful athletes in the world use mental training as part of their daily regimen, and for good reason: they work. But you don't have to be an elite athlete to reap the benefits of these simple — and free! —techniques to maximize your performance. Mental toughness may often be held up as the ideal but, "Sometimes when athletes experience what is perfectly natural, like thoughts they consider negative about their performance, they might not want to admit having these thoughts, and might see them as a sign of being mentally weak, which might actually exacerbate the problem," says Dr. Olugosa.
"Being flexible [in our approach] is perhaps more important than being strong, when we talk about the mental aspects of sport."
Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake is a USAPL-certified Club Coach, RKC2 kettlebell trainer, and mat Pilates fan, and is driven to invite as many as interested to discover how fun strong can be through a variety of entry points. Her clients range from her home base at The Movement Minneapolis gym to all over the globe via her online crew through Unapologetically Strong Coaching. When she’s not training herself or clients, you can find her with her nose in a book, or snacking and asking, “Are you going to finish that?” Photo cred: Martin Rittenberry
Pussy Consciousness is a concept and course taught by founder and doula Kalah Hill. In this interview, Hill and interviewer Jen Sinkler discuss its background, depth, ideology, and the women behind it.
*Founders' note: We affirm that all experiences of womanhood and personhood are valuable. We understand that "pussy" is both not essential to womanhood and is defined differently by different individuals regardless of anatomy.
That’s a perfect segue, and I’ve hit record, if that’s all right. I won't use anything you've said up to this point, unless...it’s up to you.
You can use whatever you want.
Aggressive transparency, I love it.
Yeah, serious. This is the real deal right now, Jenny. I have no other direction than straight-up integrity and authenticity and just opening myself up to the complete unknown.
I really feel so happy. It’s like what you said earlier, you’re having a great time in your shit, right?
Oh, totally. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Pussy is both an anatomy and a nonanatomical space. For me it is a physical place of origin where all humans come from. Knowing our place of origin is important. Pussy is also a form of expansive consciousness. When we honor our lineage and where we come from, we can clearly know where we want to go. Making conscious choices that are deliberate and in reverence to that which allowed us to become embodied in the first place is important to distinguish.
While some of us hold the physical anatomy, we all hold within our constitutions the space of conception. Whether that’s actual conception or the conception of a new idea or way of being doesn’t matter. We all have access to pussy as it’s our original home.
Femininity, to me, is an expression or experience of an energetic feminine source. The qualities of feminine energy include, creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, freedom, orgasmic, natural, fluid, restful, soft, fierce, nurturer, ecstatic, multifaceted, cyclical, nonlinear, and sublime.
The feminine is the source of inspired action. In our unique expressions of femininity, we can find clarity of action and bring forth that which we want to create in this world. Femininity sets the tone at which our masculine energies are inspired to take linear action. The two need each other in order to self-actualize.
We must start with the feminine so that our actions are in service to creation. Femininity holds a large capacity to encompass the whole of our experience. With this we live, we love, we hurt, we die. Paradox is the reality of the feminine. It’s in these contrasts that our feminine can shine.
The beauty of feminine experience is one that is bittersweet. The feminine revels in all the flavors, smells, and tastes. She inspires books, art, wars, debates, gold medals, and most of all, love. Live a life in service to your feminine and you’ll be free.
When you say pussy consciousness, what do you mean, and what might that look like?
Pussy consciousness is this level of consciousness that embraces that truth, and honors it, and respects it, and celebrates it, and takes pleasure in it, and simultaneously and paradoxically, takes grief in it, takes sorrow, takes sadness, takes pain, and all of the evils and the violence of the world, as well, because those are truths, too, and really, life doesn't leave anything behind. Life is governed by nature, and so we don’t have any control over the laws of nature.
And for me, it’s a level of consciousness where I allow myself to fully embrace those laws of nature, to not try to control them anymore, so that I can actually live, so I can actually let my life speak through me and my life come through me on purpose, always because it always is, always has been.
Somehow, life spoke through us and we became human without any sense of control, without any sense of conditioning, or programming, or understanding of who we were as individuals. It just happened, and that’s what life does, and pussy holds that. It’s one of our greatest access points to that level of consciousness.
During the course, I recall you talking about a deeper level of consciousness. You didn't say higher. You said deeper.
Deeper, yes. Yes, deeper. So something that’s really common in the personal development, kind of new age-y spiritual world is getting high. Getting high is awesome. LSD was super good for a lot of reasons and helped I think a lot of people get into this level of enlightenment and this understanding of letting go of the mind and the identifications that we have around it, and I think it’s good to traverse the atmosphere and the clouds. I mean, even on a political level we’ve put a lot of money into NASA, for example.
So we engage with space. We engage with getting high quite well, and it’s acceptable as a culture for us to get really high in all different kind of paradigms. You know, climbing mountaintops. I think of all the different ways getting high is supported, and that’s great and needed because it gives us this really broad viewpoint. It gives us this space of how we’re connected to the whole. It’s very broad and macro. Pussy consciousness is kind of...I don’t want to say the opposite of it, because pussy consciousness encompasses that, as well, because it encompasses paradox, but I’m talking about deep dive.
I’m talking about diving to the core and getting to the fire. What sustains.
It’s this experience of going into the deep and maybe not returning. I think about diagnoses such as depression or hysteria. Our culture doesn't really promote us going into these deeper places as often, into these deeper emotions and deeper spaces into the dark. We revere the light and the heavens and getting high.
Pussy is a bit edgy, and the power that’s held there is really sustainable. Slow and steady wins the race. Pussy’s never in a rush. We’re not skyrocketing, you know? We’re not doing that.
We’re really excavating and taking our time. With excavation, you think of archeological digs. You have to be really careful. You can’t just ram a freaking drill into the ground. You have to really manage your dig because there are really beautiful, delicate artifacts underneath that are preserved, and they’re very fragile, but they’re very valuable, right? It’s about remembering that value in going deep and being in the muck, and in the shit, and in the dark, and how traversing that is very different than, you know, skiing down a mountain or whatever the adrenaline rush is for the day.
There’s no end point. It’s really not a goal-oriented way of consciousness. Yeah, I don't know how else to say it other than don’t expect anything. Don’t have a goal towards anything or some sort of idea of an outcome. It’s more playful than that, but it’s also more relaxed in a way, like gentle, and calm. Very feminine. Very deep.
There's not much to say. Like, at that level of depth, you don't really need to talk that much.
The thing about the feminine that’s awesome and badass is that she is really supportive. She’s really caring, and she’s really nurturing. However, she’s also really fierce and doesn't fuck around. Like, she doesn't fuck around. So if you’re fucking around, she’s going to practice some tough love, and she’s going to flip your shit upside down to wake you up. So it’s this very fierce energy of tough love. It’s like when you see a mom basically being like, do not touch that hot stove, it will burn you, it’s like, wow, you wake up, you know?
And it’s all out of love, this really fierce kind of mama love that’s tough, a not-in-my-house kind of thing.
I had been doing a daily self-pleasure practice, which comes and goes for me throughout my whole life. So I’m very skilled and I’ve had a lot of practice, so that on top of the meditation, on top of the surrender of asking, “What is my purpose? Speak through me,” my daily prayers and intentions are always around the questions, “How can I be of service? What wants to come through me?”
Kalah Hill: All of my external kind of grasping and my external hooks really fell away, and all I had was this really empty dark space to be in, and I let myself go there probably for the first time in my life.
I felt I had the reserves and the strength in place with all the practices I had been doing that I could go so deep into grief and so deep into sadness that I knew that I would be okay. I had complete faith the whole time. I knew that it was a massive opportunity for me, and I spoke to it in that way from day one. Then, because I know as a postpartum doula that self-care goes out the window when you’re in the depths of something so vulnerable, that you need community care at that point. So my friends, my lovely, lovey, beautiful friends were there, and I called them in.
Sadness is super clear. When you’re sad, you’re not bullshitting yourself at all, and you can actually receive a lot of really valuable nuggets of information about the truth in deep sadness. Sadness is super honest. So I went there.
It’s absolutely beautiful, and so that’s what happens when you go to the spaces that are scary and dark. You actually start to remember that love is the truth of everything.
You know that in your class, I’d been expecting to check out my pussy in the mirror all the time — which did happen — but pussy consciousness was not even close to being about sex, or sex alone, because you really took me through a lot of my own grief, different injuries at different points of my life that I had been really attached to.
I’m still peeling back my own grip on habits and patterns that had been playing out at each level. Each of the spirals gets deeper, and looking at the grief was a big part of what we did.
Well, that’s what I did, that’s not what everybody has to do, though, right? You don’t even pretend to put this idea of pussy consciousness into a package like, “Here’s what you’ll get!” It’s like, fuck, who knows? Let’s find out.
Let’s find out. Exactly. Let’s find out. Are you ready? You know, are you ready for the invitation to say yes to the love that is there for you in every moment? And love is not about butterflies, and unicorns, and fairies all the time. It can be, but love is all encompassing. Love remembers that every single moment of your life has been on purpose since the big bang fucking theory, or the first orgasm, which I call the big bang. It’s always been on purpose, and coming back to remembering that is needed to be done in support of other people.
This is not something that we do alone. We need each other, and I think we’ve forgotten that in a lot of ways, and that’s why a lot of people aren’t at peace, because we’ve been told a lot of bullshit about charging forward, and doing it on your own, and hard work pays off, and grind, grind, grind, and don’t feel too much. Don’t think too much. Don't engage too much, because it’s a scary, scary world. We’ve been repressed, repressed, repressed, repressed, and we’ve forgotten the truth of our expansive nature and our ability to really go to some far out, deep fucking places.
Costa Rica is such a place of healing. Always has been, always will be. Many, many people come down specifically to Guanacaste region for healing, and it’s just a magical, special place. I didn't know where I was going to live. I was like, maybe British Columbia, maybe Costa Rica. After being down here for two days, it was like a no-brainer. I was like, yes, and honestly, my pussy told me.
About two years ago now, I started to have just spontaneous orgasms occur, and a lot of times it would happen when I was driving. They say that the Kundalini rising or the Shakti rising happens when you’re doing something that you don't have to think about too much. Driving is very familiar, and many of us can kind of drive without thinking too hard about it, and so a lot of this would happen in the car, and I remember talking to my friends like, is this normal?
It starts with a tingling sensation in my pussy like an orgasm, like I’m starting to get turned on, and then it builds, and builds and builds, and it’s almost like a wavelike state, and I have to breathe or else I’m going to come in public, or you know, at a yoga class, and I have to concentrate. I start really breathing into it, and I started to do meditation around it every time it would spontaneously arise, and I started to gain a sense of control over the direction of it.
I started to bring it up as opposed to down and out. Instead of releasing the pleasure, I started to sustain it. I started to breathe it up and in and maintain this higher energy. My postpartum doula training was really opening for me, super healing.
The first weekend training I did was in Philly, and it was super fun. I got some badass doulas in Philly if you ever need them. Really amazing birth community there.
So I did my training with Beth, this fiery redheaded Aries, all tatted up. She’s had three kids. She’s delivered over 500 babies. She’s just badass. So I go to this training. I had my Airbnb. I got kind of a nice one with a bathtub, you know, just to treat myself for the weekend, and after the first day, I broke down. It broke open a piece of me that I had been really resistant to breaking open around lineage and family and around some family traumas as a child.
And old, old stuff came up from when my mom was pregnant with me, stuff that was happening when I was in the womb space, the energy that I was picking up of my mom not having a partner, no one being there to support her, and how that fear translated through to my experience. One of my deepest desires is to take care of my mother. So of course I’m going to be a postpartum doula, right? I want to take care of the mamas.
When I got home and was digesting it all and letting it go through me, that’s when I started having spontaneous orgasms, that’s when this pleasure center reopened in some way. It was pretty trippy and intense, and it started happening in my dreams, full-on orgasmic dreams. I mean, that had always been quite accessible to me, especially as a child. It very much reminds me of how I was when I was a kid, to be honest, because I was in this state at age five very easily. It was almost like my body was remembering on a very visceral, neurological, physiological, biochemical level. My body changed.
When I came to Costa Rica, I had been practicing this orgasmic state, controlling it and also being able to bring it up. Essentially I could start breathing, and I could bring it up, and I could come without even touching myself. So I’d practiced for a while harnessing it, and when I came down here, I was doing a lot of stuff on the beach, near the ocean.
Water is a big one for me. Water helps activate it and just being on the ocean, and putting my hands in the sand, and having the water rush over me and through me was full-fledged orgasmic ecstasy, like, yes, yes, yes, this is where my body wants to be in every moment. Like, please, can we live here? Please, please, please? I don’t know how else to send the signals. This is a direct signal. It’s like air control, air control, please land. Please land here.
This is where you’re meant to land, and I said yes to her, and I’ve never felt more of a sense of place in my life ever than I do now in this moment.
My pussy told me to move here, and I listened, and it’s awesome, and I don’t know if I explained pussy consciousness at all.
You did. It’s different for everyone, right?
It is. It’s different for everyone. Every woman is unique unto herself. Every human is unique unto themselves, and no one will ever have your experience, you know? No one’s ever going to know what it’s like to be Jenny. Only you get to know that. It’s so special and so not unique because everybody has it. Do you know what I mean? It’s so special because it’s different for everyone, but it’s not unique. It’s not special in the sense of only you have it. It’s special because it’s unique unto you.
Your path is your path, essentially.
Your path is your path, and the only person who truly gets to love you fully is you because you’re the only person who really knows you. I don't know what it’s like to be you, and I can love you for all the things that I perceive in you and all the things that I understand through my own perceptions and my own lens, and I can love you from that space, but I can never love you from you, which is the biggest opportunity and the biggest privilege, I believe, of being alive.
And if we’re not taking advantage of that privilege, we are doing a disservice to ourselves first, then to other people in our lives, and then to the planet as a whole. Taking on the responsibility of getting to know yourself means access that you have to yourself that no one else has. Taking advantage of that is where we’re going with pussy consciousness.
There are layers, and the layers involve a lot of external privileges that have to do with injustice and inequalities, our hierarchical system, and a lot of them are illusory and true at the same time.
Let’s take white privilege, for example. White privilege is a truth. It’s a construct of the social norms that we live in. It’s a construct of our external realities and the hierarchies that we’re involved in socially. The only power that’s in it is accessing the platform that you have within the confines of the social structure in which we live so that you can service others from that platform, but that platform is not real. Everyone’s equal. You know what I mean? That platform is only real because we created it so.
I’m curious about how to navigate being injured and also exploring yourself.
You navigate it by trusting that you can hold the brevity of it. Pussy consciousness teaches us that we have so much more capacity than we know, than what we’ve been told that we have. It is completely possible for you to respect the paradigms of this current reality while simultaneously understanding that it’s all fucking bullshit. It is completely possible.
We have been so conditioned for it to be either/or, and that is false.
It doesn't mean you’re not taking responsibility. People think it’s like about going into the mountains and disappearing. That’s not how you get to know yourself. That’s so not it. Pussy consciousness is like, yes, we focus on the self, and it’s so much about relating. The consequences of getting to know yourself actually make you a more active person.
Because you’re plugged in.
Yes, because you’re plugged in. You’re turned on. You’re fucking able to traverse landscapes that you never even thought you would go to, and you’re like, suited up. You’re suited up and fucking ready to go, you know, when you access that privilege of self. It’s like the mothership. To me, it’s the root. It’s the core.
The feminine is the inspiration. So the feminine is the inspiration to action, and I’m talking energetic, so I’m not just talking women and men and everyone, but I’m saying that women have a stronger access point. Hence why I’m starting with women. So with the stronger access point, women can really access their feminine because we already embody feminine even though we have been conditioned rigorously to not do so. We’ve been burned for doing so. We have literally been killed. We have been abused. We have been tarnished. We have been violated. We have been under scrutiny for centuries for accessing our feminine.
So there’s a lot of trauma associated with us uncovering and unmasking ourselves, and so this is why it’s so important for us to get the support that we need and to show up as we are, because if we’re not showing up as we are, we’re not doing the work.
I’m asking you to be here with us as we traverse this really fucking scary landscape. We need each other.
We have deep beliefs about how we’re supposed to be in almost every way that we relate.
You realize that it’s not you. It’s your programming.
There’s a fierceness. Nurturance and care and respect, as well as this fierce fire that never really goes out, and I don’t see it going out ever again in my lifetime. I’m just happy to be in this space of knowing that this is me fully engaged with purpose and having such clarity around why I’m here.
I need everything prior to this moment to be in this moment, so it just opens so much trust for me in the process. I really trust all of it now.
As a bisexual, biracial woman of color, Kalah Hill knows it is her responsibility to activate compassion, freedom, and truth within herself and within others. The potent medicine of compassion comes from radical self-love. As the founder of Pussy Consciousness, her intention is to reclaim the wisdom and integrity of the feminine. She lives in Costa Rica. Find her at @kalah.hill on Instagram.