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Strong Enough: Respect The Physical Space of Black Women

Strong Enough: Respect The Physical Space of Black Women

Black women have been subjected to unfair scrutiny in multiple spaces for too long. Physical limitations are often imposed on women of color based on societal biases and discrimination.

When we speak up about mistreatment– as many have experienced in higher education—Black women are often labeled “angry”– and others interrupt them during meetings or exclude them. It is exhausting.

This is not about New Year’s resolutions or being a “strong Black woman.” I often have to decide when to step away in problematic physical situations. It is about recognizing the space and regularly engaging in self-awareness.  I practice doing both by including pull-ups as part of my exercise routine.

As a Black female classical pianist for more than three decades, recording artist, professor and administrator at the University of Illinois working in academia for 15 years, I find the pull-up exercise therapeutic as it helps me claim my power for self-check-in.

Black actresses Angela Bassett, Ayo Edebiri, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph continue to draw admiration for their talent, grace, physical strength and presence on and off the red carpet. They are role models for fitness and personal power.

A 2023 study shows the pull-up exercise is one of the most challenging tests of upper body strength.  As with being a musician, it also requires practice, patience, and perseverance.

Physical Education (P.E.) was my least favorite subject in grade school. I was more fascinated with music and spelling.  When our elementary school class was forced to stay indoors due to inclement weather, I was thrilled. Outside of school, piano lessons were my top priority. In high school, I was in marching band, which allowed me to be exempt from P.E.

At age 12, a once-trusted mentor questioned whether I could achieve my goal of becoming a concert pianist because of my race. I began increasing my piano practice time to several hours a day. By the time I reached high school, a typical practice day for me was four to five hours a day on weekdays and up to eight to nine hours on weekends.

As an undergraduate student, it was 10 hours every day, including holidays. As a graduate student, my practice schedule was six to eight hours per day.

Because I was not exercising regularly, this eventually took a physical toll on my upper body. Medical testing revealed nothing, so I moved forward with an exercise routine.

I have been lifting weights and doing other bodyweight exercises consistently since 2015. I started my pull-up journey in July 2017, and I was able to land my first pull-up in November 2017.

There is an intersection between being a classical musician and the physical power required for pull-ups. In both spaces, colleagues and fellow gym-goers directly and indirectly attempt to infer what I can and cannot do.

Many Black women embrace their physical strength, such as the world’s oldest female bodybuilder Ernestine Shepherd and Guinness book record holder and powerlifter Tamara Walcott.

There are also stories of women doing pull-ups online and sharing this power with others.

In classical music, performers pay attention to control of smaller muscles and musical interpretation. Many musicians frown upon lifting weights or strenuous activity. But a 2023 study shows musicians benefit from warmups of all muscles.

Considering the benefits of exercise long term and expanding human capabilities, journalist and runner Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D. writes in his 2021 book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, that “we can’t talk about the limits of endurance without considering the brain and perception of effort.”

In addition, recent studies also show the benefits of daily exercise for those who sit for prolonged periods of time.

Having successfully recorded and commercially released piano music over the last three and a half years, I attribute this to my mental and physical stamina acquired through strength training, stretching, knowing when to step away, and especially pull-ups.

Studies do show women tend to have 40-75% less upper body strength than men. However, it doesn’t mean that women are incapable of lifting their body weight and more.

Journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden, in her 2020 book, “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery,” writes that recovery provides “a ritual for taking care of yourself that gives you a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy.” It also creates a “formalized way to stop everything else and help you focus on resting.”

With pull-ups, awareness and breathing are crucial before the start, during, and at the end of the movement. Yes, I am strong, and I am worthy of being in these spaces.

Women of color continue to claim physical and mental strength when deciding to start a new project or set a new goal despite resistance from others. It is also acceptable to say “no” and step away when a situation is problematic.

We can claim our power and truly own our physical strength in every space.

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