Nancy Brown: My Goal is to Bring Students Out of the Mirror and Into Their Bodies

Nancy is a strength and movement coach based out of JDI Barbell in Long Island City. She is also completing an MFA in Writing at Columbia University, where she writes about how changes in physiology effect changes in perception.

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How did you get into lifting? What was your initial motivation then, and what is it now?

My motivation has completely changed! (Laughs) I started lifting for two reasons. One, I wanted to get rid of my cellulite, and two, I wanted to meet a guy.

I was going upstate for a music conference, and I had a huge, heavy bag with me that I was dragging up the stairs of the Marcy JMZ stop. This guy who looked like he worked out took my bag and carried it up the stairs. It was so different from what I was used to, and I thought, “Maybe if I join a gym, I’ll meet a guy like that!” I even put out a Craigslist Missed Connection. That same guy actually ended up being at the gym that I joined, but I never said a word to him.

Now I find that, if anything, lifting might alienate men, at least ones who don’t lift, but I don’t care. I enjoy the process of just showing up every time and seeing progress. I enjoy what it’s done for me in terms of my character, too. It teaches long term gratification. I’ve learned consistency, and how to stay present and make each rep count.

I also love being physically strong, capable, and at home in my body. I feel the way I did when I was a child: I have so much joy in movement now. I am inhabiting my body, instead of worrying about how everyone else sees my body. I am living in my body instead of in the mirror.

Would you say you’re doing less body-checking?

I still like to look at my glutes, so I don’t know if I could honestly say that I don’t do body-checking anymore. I will say that I am much gentler with my body.

I used to do bikini competitions. I got very close to achieving the look that I wanted. I don’t look like that anymore, but I’m friends with my body now. I’m not constantly picking it apart in the same way. My relationship is different. I felt a sense of real self-aversion before I started lifting, and a lack of control over my body and my health that was very disempowering and discouraging.

You said you were close to achieving your “ideal look” at the time. What was still missing from the way that you looked?

When I did my first competition, I’d only been lifting for a year-and-a-half. I didn’t have the glute mass. Once you diet down to your stage weight, you lose a lot of muscle. I hadn’t really done that much heavy barbell work, and my coach at the time didn’t want me to. My body fat distribution is not very even, so even though I was shredded and had striations in my delts, I never saw my hamstrings.

I was probably happiest with the way that I looked six weeks out from stage. By the time I got to the stage I was incredibly lean, and nobody thought I was sexy. But it wasn’t about that anymore anyway. I was more into in the process.

I’m curious to know whether or not having the glute mass then would have led you to be happy with your body, or if you would have found something else that wasn’t “enough”.

I’m sure I could have found something else to worry about.

I ask to address what I feel is a common theme for women that was potentially imbedded in us at a young age, and that is that we are never “done” with our bodies. There’s always a constant reaching for an additional goal, and I wonder what we could accomplish if we weren’ttrying to “fix” our bodies. What potential are we not living up to?

Here’s the thing: I actually do think I felt very good about how my body looked. What was so devastating about it, though, is that even though I achieved this incredible look, it didn’t get me what I really wanted, which was love, and real, genuine positive attention. And, I was still very down on my face. So then what’s the next step? Plastic surgery? Then what if I still didn’t get the love that I wanted? Then what?

Really what I wanted was to just feel ok. I could have gotten my body to the point where maybe I wasn’t picking on it anymore, but I would still have found something about myself that was deficient. I was still stuck in the mindset of there being something wrong with me that I had to fix.

Ah, I see. So what it comes down to then is looking for external validation instead of internal validation, and not feeling as though you have self worth that extends beyond your physical appearance.

In my personal experience, when I felt unfulfilled in my life, or felt as though I wasn’t smart or worthy of love and attention, my go-to would be to fixate on my body, and to buy expensive clothes and makeup. I’d try to make myself 
look worthy of love and attention. Consumer culture and the fashion industry thrive on the idea that we can fix ourselves by altering our appearance. It’s like wearing a costume, or a mask, because you’re not good enough as you are.

Has your mindset shifted, and if so, what helped it along? What would you offer to someone who still feels stuck there?

What helped it along was getting so close to where I wanted and being disappointed.

I had long platinum blonde, Barbie hair, and I was very lean. Seeing the way people treated me was very intense. It all started to seem not very real. I started to see how flimsy the image I was projecting was. Whatever people are perceiving about you, based on your physical appearance, has nothing to do with what’s going on inside of you.

When I had the long blonde hair, or the lavender hair, people were calling me “Princess.” Men were constantly trying to do favors for me. Then I shaved my head and saw a seismic shift in the way I was treated. People began perceiving me as very aggressive, or very assertive and masculine. It was jarring.

Focusing on my body started to feel very hollow. That’s not to say it’s not something I still struggle with. The voices are still there. My mother raised me to believe that my looks were my ticket to love, and to get where I wanted to go. She constantly assesses and criticizes people based on the way that they look.

So, those voices are always going to be there, right? But I can choose the level at which I engage with them. It’s been radical for me to come to JDI, and meet all these women that are doing athletics because they enjoy them. They are doing it for themselves. I get emotional watching videos of female Olympic weightlifters, and realizing that they’re not going to the gym trying to get a “better” butt. They go because they are passionate about the sport, and they are actively choosing to get away from the standard beauty ideal when they put on muscle.

Muscle that is needed to excel in the sport, but not necessarily applauded by society.

These women have changed their priorities, and it’s powerful.

When I was a trainer at Equinox, a woman came up to me and said: “I just have to tell you, you have the best butt on the planet. I wanted to tell you because I know you work on it.” In my head, I wanted to tell her, no, I don’t work on it. I just lift weights, and everything else is a bonus.

I’m at a point where the struggle is still there in the background, but my first priority is athletic performance. People have an extremely hard time understanding that. They want to police women’s bodies, especially female bodybuilders. Some can’t wrap their head around the fact that women may prioritize their sport over what’s considered conventionally attractive. It seems like the social cost is too high. People actually think: “Oh, she must not know that is unattractive.” 
I used to do it too. Years ago, I remember looking through a book with portraits of female bodybuilders. I thought: “They must not know what they look like.” No. They’re the most muscular women on the planet. They know exactly what they look like, they just don’t fucking care what anybody else thinks about their sexual attractiveness. Maybe they don’t even want to be sexually attractive at all. That is so mind blowing to people. The social cost seems to high to pay for success in the sport.

I’m very interested in what helps people transcend that level of thinking. I’m hearing you say you got to the top of what you’ve been taught to want, but it still didn’t make you happy. That applies to so many fields, and is helped along with advertising telling us to reach and to want. External motivation doesn’t make you happy.

Absolutely. That was my experience.

It’s not something people can tell you, but something that you just have to go through. That’s why I love what you’re doing with your class.

In the class, my goal is to bring the students out of the mirror and into their bodies. We begin class with mindfulness meditation to get people to realize they are in a body. This way they can see that even things they believe are just in their head, such as emotions, actually register in the body.

The first twenty minutes we spend just in the body. Thoughts will come up, we return to the body. Afterwards, we lift. This allows us to focus on athletic performance and getting the numbers up.

One of the most powerful things about the class is that afterwards, we talk about things; we unpack things. We discuss body image, beauty standards, gender issues, and self perception.

It gives us a space to process those things. It’s that combination that I hope will help my students relate better to their bodies.

One of the things the WSC is beginning to work on is getting grants and/or donor funding to provide low- to no-cost training. This way we can increase access to those who may not otherwise have the funding to participate. We are looking to make fitness more accessible, so that literally everyone can have these benefits, not just the people who can afford it.

I was just talking about this the other day. One of the reasons I wanted to offer the class is the fact that my private training is prohibitive. I charge a good amount of money, because this is my livelihood, and what I have to offer is a much higher quality than what most people offer.

With the class, I wanted to have a venue for people that couldn’t afford to pay for private sessions. That was one of the main drivers behind setting this all up.

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