“Strong is the New Beautiful.” That is what Nike, and subsequently more and more companies like it have been telling us recently. By us, I mean women and girls across America, where fitness and body image have merged to become a multi-billion dollar industry. I was a pretty big proponent of this campaign until I found myself on the Bowdoin groundskeeping crew this summer.

During the summer 2015 job search, I was paralyzed with indecision, a lack of direction and by the overwhelming ambition of my peers. All I knew was that I did not want to be chained to a desk. By the time April rolled around, “Groundskeeping Crew” was one of the last jobs left on Bowdoin’s employment website. My first thought was Hagrid. And then golf carts. As a person who is happiest when active, the job sounded appealing. I didn’t think too far beyond that before I accepted the job.

During my first morning in the break room, I notice one woman (who I immediately am intimidated by), and the rest are men who are neither amused nor impressed that I am standing there. “Anastasia—trash cans with Jake and Hope.” That was my first assignment. 
“What have I done?” repeated in my head throughout the morning. As I got acquainted with the very trash bags around the Quad that I have often, mindlessly dumped crap into, I realized that this would be hard. As friends and classmates passed by with their backpacks on the way to lab, I felt hyper-aware of what this job would mean for me as a girl. I wondered what other people thought as they passed.

Laughs and friendly jabs were the common reaction when I first committed to groundskeeping. I didn’t mind this so much, but it became harder and harder to take myself seriously. 

Throughout my initial weeks on the job, I would regularly incorporate words such as “butch” and “manly” into conversations with friends and fellow students about my duties as groundskeeper. I felt the need to discredit why I was doing what I was doing fearing that if I did not, my femininity would be compromised. Because breaking a sweat every day before 7:30 a.m. in my already sweat-stained t-shirt sounds miserable, right?

Well, the truth is that I kind of love breaking a sweat, and getting dirty, and wearing my tattered, mismatched outfit. The trouble was allowing myself to embrace these qualities rather than apologize for them. The more people appeared confused at my attempts to degrade my own job, which I truly was enjoying, the sooner I realized I was the only one fabricating these thoughts. “Why are you embarrassed? I wish I was doing that,” or “Damn, you must be getting so strong.”

I remember rolling out of the Brunswick Apartments at 6:50 a.m. one morning with another female classmate, both rushing to make our early swipe-ins. I immediately noticed her summery, business casual outfit while I wore the same shirt as the day before, knowing it would be wet again soon enough. She said, “I’m so jealous you get to be outside all day!”

That moment I knew I was wrong. Wrong to have used the word “butch” in this context, especially with myself as the target. I was wrong to assume that people needed to hear a justification for my job. This “aha” moment revealed that for years I have been apologizing for not adhering to a certain stereotype—the classic girly stereotype that I felt alien to growing up with broad swimmer shoulders and a hearty appetite. Somehow, the media and my own experiences led me to believe this discrepancy was a negative thing.

Those days of self-consciously feeling like Rambo as I whacked the weeds in front of Admissions as tours passed by grew into days of gratitude for the beautiful weather and for my more-than-capable body. I felt less alone in the predominately male crew of burly groundskeepers, and more so as an integrated member who could proudly keep up with them (trash talk included). 

In hindsight, as out of place as I felt in the beginning, not one of the crewmembers batted an eye or saw reason for gender accommodations. My perception was too clouded with what a girl “should” be doing to notice that I was as in place as I could’ve been.

The fact that society has to grant women permission to feel both muscular and beautiful at the same time, by way of ad campaigns and merchandise, is counter-productive and maybe a little hypocritical. I am sure that I am not the only girl whose self-esteem has been founded upon a misalignment with some public archetype, especially an archetype that is constantly shifting.     
Accepting yourself for what you like to do—without even thinking to apologize—is the first step to finding what makes you beautiful.

Strong is beautiful, but so are a lot of things; so how about we just start saying “Do what you want, ladies.” Now that’s hot.