Debra Criss: Power is beautiful.


This is the first profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass women in our community share their personal evolutions as they work to define what it means to be powerful.
Power is beautiful.
I remember trying to climb a tree in the front yard of my uncle’s house when I was about 5 years old.  I so badly wanted to climb that tree.  I really believed I could get to the top, but my mom called me down before I could get very far.  “That’s what boys do, stop it, you’re just going to hurt yourself.”
I also remember being scolded for crying when I came down. It just wasn’t allowed. Vulnerability in any form wasn’t allowed. You have to be strong, and being strong is simply not showing emotion.
I also remember endlessly being told by my mother throughout my childhood (and into adulthood) that I could be pretty “if only.” If only my hair were straighter, curlier, darker or lighter. And especially if only I were thin. Not thinner, thin. There was a size at which you became pretty; after that, you moved into chubby, then just fat. Pretty and fat could not coexist. Active and fat also could not coexist.
That’s about the time I said fuck it. I’m not trying to be pretty, and I’m not trying to be thin. If I am not pretty naturally, then why bother?
Fast forward.
After a very difficult few years, in 2012 someone talked me into trying kickboxing. This was ridiculous of course – I was quite certain I would throw up then pass out. Hopefully in that order at least. But I didn’t have anything else to do, so what the hell? I weighed 360 pounds when I walked through that door. I can’t say it was fun, I can’t even say for sure that I remember the entire class, because I seriously may have blacked out.
But I didn’t throw up. I saved that for class two. And four and five.
After class I got the spiel about their gym and what they primarily teach – Krav Maga. I watched a class, was totally terrified but after a few weeks gave it a shot anyway.
You hear stories of people finding something very meaningful for them, and how it just “clicks” for them. This was NOT my experience when I started Krav. The only things clicking were my knees every time I tried to jog around the block.
I’m not sure what kept me going. I hated trying to find a partner before class, as I was certain no one would want to partner with me, nor did I even think it was fair for someone to have to partner with me. At the end of the day, I think what resonated so well with me was that each person is allowed to have their strengths, whatever they may be. I might not move as fast as the next person, but I dare you to get on the receiving end of my left hook or body shot.
Side by side
Left: me, pre-fight. Right: destroying Thai pads.
Over the course of a year and a half I lost about 150lbs. Just fighting. I eventually started sparring classes. I’m pretty sure I smile a little bigger every time I get hit in the mouth. And then about 5 months ago I started teaching a kickboxing class. I cannot begin to tell you what absolute poetry it is to me to be teaching the class that changed my life. It’s kismet.
More important than any of that, since I started Krav the rest of my life has changed. I got a bitchin’ promotion at work. I designed uniforms for Olympic athletes. I bought a house. I have been dating more than ever. I also have allowed myself to have a girly side.  I’ve never had one of those before. I even wear my heels sometimes now instead of just looking at them at the top of the closet in all their beautiful glory. Though to be honest, my boots still get most of the wear.
I put up such a hard, tough front for so long that I thought that’s all I could be. Little did I know how weak I really was. I’ve spent most of my life in deep loneliness because I didn’t know how, and was afraid to, have real relationships with people.  I couldn’t be vulnerable. Beyond not wanting to, I didn’t even know how.
Fighting has changed that for me, too. I’m realizing that it’s not the punches or kicks that have given me control of my life, it’s the humility and inherent vulnerability involved in the sport. That’s what is making me powerful, and that’s what has taught me that I am beautiful.
Debra is the Lead Divisional Designer at Columbia Sportswear heading up the Outerwear, Youth and Equipment design teams.  She’s been in the active apparel industry for 12 years, often specializing in highly athletic product.  Debra recently designed many uniforms for the U.S., Canadian and Russian Freestyle ski teams at the Sochi Olympic games.  She is also a Krav Maga green belt, and works with helping to socialize developmentally disabled young adults.  Debra’s on a mission to not only heal her own body image, but to help others see themselves for who and what they really are as well.  She believes active, strong and beautiful come in all shapes and sizes.
Photos by ILL GANDER

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