During my senior year of high school a scheduling conflict planted me in aerobics class my last semester. I never would have picked this class; what 16-year-old girl wants to spend an hour in the middle of the school day getting all sweated up and messing her hair? Not me! But I had no choice, the all-powerful beings in the guidance office said it was either aerobics or weightlifting. Great.
On the second day of class we dressed out and spread out in the gym. Our leader, known as “Coach P,” lugged out the 50-pound standard school-issue record player since I guess cassette tapes were still too new-fangled for the public school system in the late ‘80s. The scratchy recording began, and some music that none of us recognized started to play. And then we heard it… “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! We’re doing aerobics to hippie feminist propaganda folk music? Isn’t that illegal? Or something?
There was no time to question in, Coach P was already showing us the choreography and yelling at us to follow along or be doomed to running extra laps around the track later. We realized there was no fighting it, as we were already doing high kicks to Helen Reddy’s verse. So we continued, intermittently giggling at the outdated song and rolling our eyes at each other that this is how we were spending our noon hour. It’ll be over soon enough, we thought.
Oh, silly girls, how wrong we were.
Day three began with the same routine, as did days four and five. And weeks two and three. Five days a week for 18 weeks we aerobicized to I Am Woman. But what else happened in that time was unexpected.
When you hear any song repetitively you can’t help but learn the lyrics. Long after I’d left the gym and proceeded on to Contemporary Lit class I still had the song playing in a loop in my head. After a couple weeks, we let down our too-cool-for-everything attitudes, gave in to the madness, and started singing along while doing our stretches and lunges. A few weeks later, we even began to have fun with it, dramatically emphasizing certain lines, dividing the group into 2 parts as if lead singers and backup chorus: “I am strong…STRONG!…I am invincible…IN-VIN-CIBLE!…” All of this much to the delight of Coach P, who couldn’t help but laugh at our enthusiastic turn of attitude.
A few years after I graduated high school I really found myself embracing the feminist movement, finally understanding what it meant as a whole and to me as a young woman. I was coming into my own as an adult, learning about the world outside of the bubble I’d grown up in, and exploring socio-cultural enlightenment. I was born the same year this song was popular, but it was almost 20 years before it meant anything to me.
Often I’d find that song still playing in my head and it came to have a profound effect on me. Fighting the little-girl shyness that had identified me for most of my life, I’d sing this song to myself when I needed a confidence boost. The comedy of my high school experience coupled with the motivational message played a role in the self confidence I have today.
I made myself a little promise that if I was ever on TV accepting some major award that I would thank Coach P for making me do aerobics to Helen Reddy. Teachers don’t always get the recognition they deserve, and I thought that would be a great public shout-out. But the truth is, I’m never going to be accepting an Oscar so chances are the world won’t hear me say that. But Coach P, you deserve applause and acknowledgment for your contribution to my maturity as a proud feminist. I don’t know if you realized what you were doing at the time or not; I suspect you did. I want you to know the message got through loud and clear.