Noelle’s Story: Powerlifting led me on my own path to healing
Founding Pesas y Poder began with my own personal journey to powerlifting. This project emerged from a desire to share my newfound source of resilience and joy with my friends in El Salvador, my students in Milwaukee and my children. This is the story of how I rediscovered my own strength.
As a girl coming of age in southern California, I felt enormous pressure to be thin. I suffered from extreme self-loathing of my body, never comfortable in my own skin. Desperate to find respect and acceptance, but without the maturity to know how to earn it, I starved myself throughout my teens and I partied, becoming enmeshed in a world of drugs and alcohol. This insecurity, as well as the substances and the lack of food that kept me perpetually dazed, helps explain many of the problems that I had in school. I dropped out of high school, and soon after, found myself living alone with few options. At seventeen, I enlisted in the military, determined to prove my worth.
I craved the physical challenge that I found in the Army. Unfortunately, my military career was cut short; when I was twenty years old, a snowboarding accident in the Alps shattered my first lumbar vertebra and compressed my spinal cord by 50%. The doctors were initially uncertain whether I would walk again. In the aftermath of the accident, I spent nearly a year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, doing physical therapy and putting my life together, before receiving an honorable medical discharge. As a high school dropout, the prospects of an unexpected civilian life, now with a bad back, were less than stellar. Upon my discharge, I could not bring myself to return home to California and an adolescence that I had worked so hard to put behind me.
Since I had never been to the Rockies, I decided to begin again in Colorado, returning to school on my veterans’ benefits at a community college while I worked as a wrangler on a dude ranch and taught skiing despite the metal rods that held my back together. Indeed, the hard physical work, throwing hay bales and constantly moving, kept the pain at bay for several years, and clean living in the mountains granted me an inner peace that had eluded me in my adolescence.
However, as my studies became more serious and following the birth of my son, inactivity began to creep into my life. Intellectual pursuits and motherhood, rather than outdoor adventures, began to structure my daily experience. The chronic pain also crept into my life. At first, I did not notice. It came quietly, with small aches, occasional sleeplessness, and aan unconscious avoidance of certain movements. My body changed and felt foreign during the pregnancy and breastfeeding, growing matronly for the first time. It simply did not feel like me.
I threw myself into my studies and eventually pursued a PhD in political science, which required long hours sitting in wooden chairs in the university library. Soon enough, I could not carry books across the campus or lift my son. Two years of demanding fieldwork, conducting research on violence committed against Central American migrants during their passage across Mexico for my dissertation, also took a toll on my health. For the first year, I spent long days walking door-to-door conducting interviews in rural El Salvador, and my weight dropped precipitously. I had become so intent on my work that I often skipped meals. In the second year of research, I lived in a Catholic migrant shelter in Mexico, where access to a full night’s sleep, clean water, and nutritious food was limited. A series of illnesses sapped my strength. When I returned home, I was pregnant again and caught in a whirlwind of obligations without paid maternity leave. I dealt with recovery after my second c-section birth, taught a college course, wrote up the research results and completed my dissertation. While nursing, I competed on the academic job market for a position after graduation and traveled to job interviews across the country. By the end of the year in which my daughter was born, I could not walk without pain. And for me, with my history of substance abuse, pain pills are not an option for coping.
However, I had won a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship that gave me my first taste of leisure time since childhood. At lunch, when writers’ block would hit me at my computer or the stories of violence that I had collected became too terrible to re-read or self-doubt would creep in, I would leave my office for the gym. I hired a personal trainer to show me a few free weight exercises, and I adapted a few exercises from my physical therapy routine following my accident. The gym became a place I could escape my head, a place of respite from research and writing on violence. It replaced the destructive escapes I had known in my youth. Every day became an opportunity to prove my worth to myself, prove my strength, remember who I am, what I’ve done, what I can do. The iron gave me that opportunity.
When I began weight training, I had no ambition of becoming a powerlifter. I did not know that the sport of powerlifting existed. However, I trained hard. People quickly began to notice the changes in my physique and often asked if I was a bodybuilder. I cannot do bodybuilding with my history of mild body dysmorphia and insecurity; to focus on the aesthetics of my body would be my death. Instead, I want to rebel against society’s emphasis on appearances, and especially against the pressure on women to conform to a particular beauty ideal. I want to focus on what my body can do, not what it looks like. I want to make peace with myself.
I found a place where other people share this passion for strength when I moved to Milwaukee to assume a tenure-track professor position after my postdoctoral fellowship. I walked into an old school gym in my new neighborhood where powerlifters practice their sport. I hired a coach and on the 19th anniversary of my spinal cord injury, I competed in my first local powerlifting meet. At forty years old, I became hooked on powerlifting and cured my chronic back pain.
Since November 2017, I have competed in USAPL-sanctioned powerlifting meets at both the local and national level, including winning a spot on the national bench press team to attend a world championship. Despite those successes, I do not always set records or win. As I age, I also suffer injuries, frustrations and setbacks in the sport. My totals never improve as quickly as I would like. However, the ritual of reaffirmation that lifting weight provides re-centers me. Very slowly, through this gym ritual, I am coming to embody a practice of forgiving my weaknesses, as well as celebrating my own strengths.
While I want to focus on what I can do, and not what I look like, I am grateful that as I age, my body is beginning to look more and more commensurate with how I feel on the inside. It is as though my outside is finally catching up to my attitude. As a petite young woman, I struggled with the way people treated me: dismissively. I felt chronically underestimated. In response, I starved myself thin and abused my body with substances. Then came the pregnancies and I felt like a stranger in my own body, which was so soft and maternal, not how I feel about myself at all. For me, the post-childbearing years, allowing myself to grow physically and powerlifting have been so empowering. I hope every woman gets to experience the good health, focus on strength rather than beauty, and the sense of empowerment that aging and powerlifting are bringing me. A few wrinkles, a few muscles and a sport have changed the way I engage the world.
Today, I teach university classes on international relations, human security, international migration and the politics of street gangs, but I take my training as seriously as an athlete would. I continue to compete, I received my USAPL club coaching certification, and now I advise my university powerlifting team. My university students are rooting for me, even while they know to avoid me in the campus gym. I want to show them, and my children, what it means to be a strong woman.
Meanwhile, my academic research on violence and survival at borders has shifted to exploring violence and survival within our bodies. In this way, my professional and my personal life have become intertwined. With Pesas y Poder, I seek to turn resistance training in the gym into resistance to the structural injustice that I research in El Salvador.