Confessions of a Yukon Arm Wrestling Champion, Women’s Division
I wore a baby doll summer dress to the concert that Saturday night, even though it was 25 below zero. I had only worn it once before. The chest and stomach were made of a see-through material, and I didn’t know whether it was too revealing, but I zipped into the dress and glanced in the mirror. My chest looked big. I inherited my mother’s hearty breasts and my father’s flat feet and wide shoulders. I have been asked countless times If I’m a competitive swimmer. Well, you should be, they say. You’ve got the shoulders for it.
It was a weird but typical night in Whitehorse: two folksy, local musicians would play in the living room of a cramped townhouse, followed by a women’s-only arm-wrestling competition, followed by a Led Zeppelin dance party where no one actually danced.
I hadn’t planned on competing. I even told my roommate, JoJo, to stop me from signing up if I got tipsy and decided it was a good idea, but when we walked into the house I couldn’t help myself. I knew I could win, and that awakened a strange part of my non-competitive self. There was the featherweight category for girls under 125 pounds. The only person who signed up was the women singing on stage in boot cut jeans and red lipstick. The midweight category, for those who weighed between 125 and 165 pounds (I fit in on the heavier end), had the longest list of names. I knew all the women. One was a graphic designer for the government, the other a barista, another a friend’s ex-girlfriend who played roller derby. Whitehorse is the kind of small, northern, government town where if you’re young,”artsy,” and left-leaning, you’ll run into the same people all the time: potlucks, protests, the ski trails, and the corner store that sells over-priced organic produce. The ultra-weight category for women over 165 pounds was empty.
My first arm-wrestling competition took place last year at the Elderado bar in Dawson City, the famous Yukon gold rush town. A group of friends and I drove the nine hours north of Whitehorse to take part in the Thaw-Di-Gras Celebration. It’s a weekend to celebrate the town awakening from its 24 hours of winter darkness. There’s a competition at the old brothel where Yukoners decide who has the prettiest cat, a tricycle race, and of course the arm wrestling.
I won, easily. I wrestled a couple locals and a few of my friends. It felt both weird and exciting to reef my opponents’ arms into the table with little effort. Every women I beat looked at me afterwards like a stunned deer. I didn’t know what to do then except blush and laugh. I walked back to the table where my friends sat and avoided their eyes. First place got $30 worth of free drinks at the bar, and a red ribbon that I stuck to my fridge. I told myself I would never do it again.
When I was 12 I asked my 220 pound father to stand on my stomach while I lay on the living room floor on my back. He was in his spandex cross country ski outfit, cooking grilled cheese. Just try, I remember asking. I could tell he didn’t think it was a good idea, but he did it anyway. That’s how my parents raised us, learning by trial and error. He walked from the kitchen and pressed his flat, hairy feet jut below my ribs and balanced there, his arms stretched out for balance. I clenched my stomach muscles. And for a few moments we stayed like that, like some weird circus act.
I was always a strong girl — so much that it surprised me. In grade eight, just as I my breasts were starting to bud, the gym teacher told me I had to wrestle against the boys because I was too powerful for the girls. So I would roll around the mat with a boy I had a crush on, or with the guy with a mullet who smelled like warm cheese. I knew I could beat them, too. I could heave my body on top of theirs and pin their shoulders for a win, but should I? Boys chased after girls with tight jeans and cleavage, the little ones they could barely feel perched on their lap. I was not huge in grade eight. But I was not one of those girls. I walked the hallways in my forest green gymnastics tracksuit, the jacket zipped to my chin, white sneakers, my hair in a slick ponytail. I didn’t go to sleepovers or steal rum from my parents cupboard on Friday nights. I drank ginger ale and watched CBC in the basement as my dad fiddled with the antennae to try to get a clearer picture.
In grade eleven we played this game where the class split in two and each team ran directly at the other one. The point was to knock an opponent over using your body weight, and after you picked your bruised flesh from the grass you’d join the team that knocked you over. I think it may have been a rugby exercise, but all I can remember is how insane it seemed to let us 15-years-olds go at each other like angry bulls. By that time I had quit gymnastics and my body was adjusting to the lack of exercise; I kept my muscle mass but grew a few pant sizes. After 20 minutes I was the only person left standing only my side — the entire gym class was about to take me down. But they didn’t. I plowed through the arms and legs trying to trip me and arrived at the other side of the field unharmed. My face flushed deep red. Everyone was silent. The only sound was the birds screeching down at me from the pines.
Nobody expected my roommate JoJo to win in the first round that night, the featherweights. JoJo looks like a Scandinavian princess and wears loose, cotton dresses from the ’50s. She’s a quiet nurse who laughs easily. I wondered if the crowd thought it was cute when the featherweights wrestled. They squirmed and gasped and shrieked, each trying to pin the other’s twiggy arm to the table. JoJo and the musician looked so out of place wrestling like that, like two children who’d slipped on their parents’ shoes and were parading around the house. After she won, JoJo walked to the center of the living room to receive her prize: a bottle of red wine with a trophy and a sparkler balancing on top. It lit into a sizzling fit. JoJo beamed and lifted the wine into the air.
The table was chest-height and constructed that morning from a couple two-by-fours. My first opponent was short with bulky arms. I beat her quickly, but not without effort. The second women I was up against was more gussied up. She approached me, looking toward her friends and laughing. What’s so funny? I asked. You, it’s you! she said. You just took that other girl down! I don’t want to wrestle you. When I beat her, she threw her head back. You’re a monster! She screamed and pranced back to her seat. With every arm I reefed to the table, the more self-conscious of my arms, of my whole body, I became. The roller derby girl called me a tank after I beat her.
My boyfriends have always been playful about my strength. My high school boyfriend was a heavy-set basketball player who joked once that my forearms were bigger than his. At the time I didn’t care. My parents raised me with such confidence that I didn’t notice the years in my late teens when my body ballooned into what my older brother called a big girl figure. I just bought larger pants and continued on with my happy-go-lucky adolescence. I am now 26: fit, solid, and for the most part at peace with the shape I see in the mirror. My last partner, a wiry french-Canadian entrepreneur who lived in a school bus, joked that he could be my manager as we traveled the world competing in arm-wrestling competitions. I don’t know what it is, he said multiple times when we were dating, I just like bigger girls! This is what I am attracted to!
But when I returned from travelling in Asia a year into the relationship, I had thinned from hiking and multiple bouts of food poisoning. He drove his bus to the airport and scanned my body as we waited for my bags. Look at you! I will help you stay like this if you want. We will do yoga and drink smoothies all the time!
The thing about having a body that’s shaped like a brick is that it can be hard to continuously convince yourself this is sexy. Petite is sexualized. Breasts are sexy. Curves are hot. Big asses. Meaty thighs. Flat stomachs. Round stomachs. But solid? Shoulders that take up more than their share on the couch at a crowded potluck? I am lucky to be so strong. That’s what they tell me. I can work labor jobs and keep up with the boys. I would be natural at so many sports: hockey, wrestling, shot put. This is all true. I have worked falling trees with a chainsaw. I can knock people over easily. But I don’t care about keeping up with the boys. I want to slip my flat feet into a pair of dainty high heels, pull a silk dress over my shoulders and float through a garden party. And I shouldn’t care, right? Children of the ’80s grew up on the model that we are snowflakes, unique and perfect in our own way. If only we believed it. I was raised in a household where my parents told me I was smart, beautiful, fun, creative — yet still I struggle. The outside world can wear you down. I wear myself down.
By the time I won the competition, JoJo was drunk off her prize. She had finished the entire bottle of red wine. I just feel so great right now, she whispered in my ear. I never win anything! There’s something so raw about all of this. I love it. Winning was a simple joy for JoJo, like being the first to cross the finish line in a potato sack race. She didn’t worry about the size of her arms or the shape of her back, whether it was curved like a 17-year-old farm hand who lives off corner store beef jerky and Budweiser.
My last competitor was wearing a beige flight suit. I couldn’t tell how strong she was underneath the baggy material, but she was a few inches taller than I was and had short, red hair and matching lipstick. She had beaten all her competitors with ease. When we walked up to the table, the crowd started chanting flight suit, flight suit, flight suit; she looked like a bad-ass helicopter pilot, and I was the girl in the possibly too-revealing frilly dress. I didn’t think I was going to beat her. I would walk away laughing like all the other girls who’d lost.
We placed our elbows on the table and clasped hands. She was strong, but I pressed her arm toward the table in one smooth motion. She bit her bottom lip and heaved her entire body weight into the fight so that her feet left the ground, but it was not enough. Bang. I won. Half of me felt the buzz of the win, the other half became aware of my body in the spotlight.
I left the party early, slipping into my Sorel boots and down jacket before anyone had time to congratulate me.
And off I went, a monster into the night.
Nadine Sander-Green lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, a town in Northern Canada where long underwear and gumboots are always in fashion. She likes to write, ski, drink good beer, and bake bread. You can email her here.