A tale of two tattoos


We’ve done something a little different on the blog today: two companion pieces. Ellen Fussell pens the first piece, and Belinda White responds. 

Ellen: My physical appearance means it’s no surprise to many people that I am strong. My inner strength is less obvious to the outside world.

One of my gym buddies commented to me recently “you are just so strong in your mind, you never doubt yourself”. It led to a conversation about how I only wished that was the case in all areas of my life and not just when lifting heavy things. But it started me thinking, and I realised how much an increased confidence in my physical abilities has slowly permeated into so many other parts of my world.

Generally speaking, I have never been a risk taker. I feel a great affinity with the Disney Pixar character “Fear” from the movie “Inside Out”. In fact when Fear spoke about only attempting something where the probability of success was greater than 50% my girlfriend nudged me and chuckled in recognition of my modus operandi.

A few years back if someone had asked me to run 5km I wouldn’t have even started. I would have happily walked it, but never run a step out fear of failure. If my husband had asked me to help out by mowing the lawn, I would have just said “I don’t mow lawns” rather than give it a shot out of embarrassment that I wouldn’t actually be able to do it. I refused to line up at the start of a triathlon out of debilitating worry about not being able to make it through.

But it wasn’t just physical challenges I commonly approached with trepidation. It was even sampling new tastes. I had never eaten peanut butter and would steadfastly refuse to go near any egg that showed even the remotest tendency to being runny. Neither for any good reason, other than it was what I had always known.

I’m not sure how or why it happened, but I realised that by not taking leaps of faith I was often missing out on plenty of good stuff. I was letting the fear of failure steal joy . I was missing out on friendship, adventure, the satisfaction of achievement and even tastes. And for what? Just to keep the status quo of success? But is success even success if you didn’t even have to try?

I slowly chipped away at trying things that petrified me. I took bite sized chunks which helped keep the feelings of failure to less suffocating levels. I ran the 5km, I did a triathlon, I ate peanut butter and then eventually a runny egg.

And with each small challenge conquered, I raised the bar just a little. I ran 10km, then a half marathon in a massively crowded event. I learnt to ride a bike with cleats, and fell off lots and lots. I slowly lifted heavier things, in different ways and more regularly, and plenty of times I dropped them. I mowed the lawn all summer, and missed lots of spots. I ate peanut butter and runny eggs every day. I pierced my ears, again (sorry Mum). I got a tattoo (sorry Mum).

I learnt to deal with the moments of failure and recognise them as part of my success. I would embrace the fun and friendship that usually went hand in hand or instead let it fuel my level of determination in conquering whatever it was that needed conquering. I learnt to laugh at myself when I made silly mistakes, at least most of the time.

And slowly, as I conquered all these physical and tangible challenges, I grew faith and confidence in my whole self. And suddenly my physical and mental strength were in balance. And that doesn’t mean that I have achieved resounding success in my life, but instead that I enjoy the attempts regardless of the outcome.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Belinda: Fear has never stopped me from doing things. I think it’s an innate confidence or optimism – I assume everything will turn out great. Sometimes I have moment of doubt right before I take a leap, but it never stops me. I shut that bitch up and do it anyway.

So I was interested to read Ellen’s experience, and hear how other people’s internal monologues work. Ellen and I have a lot in common but are vastly different. (Fun fact: we dated the same guy, consecutively, long before she married my cousin.)

Our lives have turned out so differently. I’m single, childless and live in the city, whereas Ellen has built the dream house in the suburbs with her kids and husband.

But we are both overachievers, avid writers, thinkers about life, and – in the last few years –  fitness people. The  annoying ones who want to eat particular amounts of protein and carbs at each meal, who want to tell you about the PB they just achieved, and who like to get up and train before everyone else has had breakfast.

Difference is, Ellen is really good at it. She started a few years ago and her body responded quickly and enthusiastically. By contrast, I’ve been hanging around in gyms my whole adult life, but am not really very athletic. I have been seriously powerlifting for about three years, and have fought for every tiny gain.

Other people who lift for three years might be squatting twice their bodyweight by this point – I’m still trying to nail 100Kg.

It’s the first thing I’ve ever really committed to, despite a clear lack of talent and aptitude.

When you’re a nerd, you can learn your way to good results in most things. Like, I’m not a massive numbers person, but I studied hard and read a lot and talked to people, and now I have a finance career and am, in some quarters, called an ‘expert’.

But lifting doesn’t work like that. The iron doesn’t care whether you got a distinction or not. It only cares whether your muscles fibres have grown or not.

And so, one of the unexpected outcomes of lifting, for me, is that it keeps me humble. I am not naturally good, but I show up, do the work, never miss a lift, and do what I’m told by my coach.

It can be frustrating, when I see people around me who smash their goals all the time, while my 100kg squat has been on chalkboard, waiting to be ticked off, for more months than I care to remember. But it reminds me we can’t all be good at everything, and sometimes there is value and dignity in simply doing the work.

And despite our different lives, experiences and ways of thinking, Ellen and I ended up getting similar tattoos, weeks apart, by sheer coincidence. They mean different things to us, but both speak to a decision to mark our bodies, as a way to mark our lives and achievements.

So many times in life, we realise what we have in common with others is just as strong as what separates us – whether it’s under a barbell, under pressure, or under a tattooist’s needle.


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