April 25, 2016

Health : Strength

Mission Cliffs, San Francisco.
In medical school, when I first started the intense workout program p90x one of my older brothers asked me how I stayed motivated to do it.  I responded that I really liked feeling strong, and he asked, "What does a woman need to be strong for?"

Around the same time, one of my classmates who was looking for a way to get fit before his wedding, heard that I was doing p90x. I was told that he raised his eyebrows skeptically and said, "Really? I would never have thought she would do something like that."  

After I came back from a trip climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a male patient of mine asked me where I had been.  When I told him, he gave a small laugh and said, "You don't look like the type of person to climb mountains."

At the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. February 2014
These comments, and the many others I've heard, are benign in intention and nature. They are less about an individual and more about a culture of boxed-in identities.  Like anyone else, I possess my own set of labels that form an outward portrait of who I am, before time is taken to consider the variety and range of our internal selves.

As an Asian, I'm expected to be more academic than athletic.  As an introvert, I'm anticipated to be more bookish than physical.  As a petite person, physical strength is rarely a given.  As a woman, it's not inherent that I would be interested in having muscles. As a physician, my first role is the care of others, with self-care being a secondary consideration if there is time and space.

It's not that these expectations are always false. I did grow up more interested in books and studying;  investment in nurturing has often resulted in neglect of my own health; I don't find lifting weights naturally enjoyable.  But these expectations, and the surprise that comes from proving them wrong, can make it hard to freely change or expand your identity.  Because no one expects you to be physically strong, because often they assume the opposite, you feel less able to ever take on that identity. You might even feel like you don't have any desire to, just because the thought has never been encouraged.

Red Rock, Nevada. October 2015
I often see this in my patients. For women in particular, when I encourage them to incorporate physical strength in their lives, I see the skepticism in their faces. They shake their heads, expressing their disinterest or disbelief; they nod their heads politely, humoring my suggestion without real investment. My female patients have developed power in their identities in different ways, most of which are based in emotional and intellectual strength: raising their families, working multiple jobs, recovering from substance use, helping others recover from substance use, caring for their elderly parents.

These are all admirable sources of personal strength. I think it's important to diversify our sources of strength, and for me personally, investing in physical power has been life-changing and a continual source of healthy self-identity.  I've mentioned this before in my post on physicality, because it's a running theme for me in terms of what has been key in self-care, and in advising others on their health.  All parts of our identity are subject to feeling fragile, worn down by circumstances beyond our control. I've seen my patients broken down by their children getting into trouble, their identities losing outline from losing a job, crippled by doubt about their willpower when they start drinking again, disappointed in their role as a daughter or wife when their loved ones suffer.

Because physical strength is less dependent on these external circumstances, it can really help provide a grounded identity that we can control. And it gives a concrete, visible sense of possibility that you can fill any shape you want to. Being able to hold a plank, do a push-up, climb a wall, hold a balancing pose--any physical, visceral visual of strength is an amazing source of power that you can feel. The patients I've had who do pursue the advice to incorporate strength training in any way they can--small increments of yoga, weights--have always reported how surprised they are at the confidence and well-being they gain from it.

As a petite Asian woman working in an academic field, I love being unexpectedly physically strong.  I love being able to rock climb this mountain and to feel this is strength I've developed on my own, that can't be taken from me by what happens at work or other parts of life. I think this is vital and attainable for every woman, and I hope to continue sharing ways I found to make it attainable for myself.


  1. Kimbo, this post resonated for me so much. I love how you are always challenging external narratives of who we are and who we should be. Keep on writing!

    1. Thanks, Amy! So much of this comes from knowing people like you who advocate for continued growth & empowerment. Thanks for the inspiration <3

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  3. What a great reflection on physical strength and letting go of cultural self-identities. It reminded me of a Ted talk on how physical strength through our bodies can bring us greater mental resilience and strength: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en

    1. Thanks for the link! There are so many ways that people talk about the mind-body connection and I love hearing more about that--I'll check it out!


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