by: Heather Fawn
Healthy living should be a normal thing, not a fad, and not done solely for people to admire you….
I picked up a barbell for the first time in my life about eleven months ago. I didn’t take anything about weight-lifting seriously when I was in high school, and I have hardly touched any weights since. My high school girls’ track coach had prescribed a general dumbbell and weight machine routine for her runners, and I mindlessly carried it out whilst trying not to make eye contact with the rowdy boys in the weight room. The spring that I really focused on adding extras to my workout routine, a cute girl at a graduation party told me I had a nice back. I instantly recognized this as confirmation that my efforts had been fruitful, and I felt proud of my diligence. Even so, it hardly changed my nonchalance toward the grunting, screaming, and banging room of sweat, mirrors, and testosterone where I had labored to tweak my musculature.
Before September of last year, I viewed intense weight training, creatine powder, and the like the same way I currently view things like Axe Body Spray or Red Pill propaganda (Basically pick-up artist sexism sympathizers who objectify women, citing society’s misandry as their main motivation). It seemed to me that working out was mostly high-maintenance bullshit marketed to men whose self-esteem rests solely on whether or not other people acknowledge their masculinity on a daily basis. In the same way that a thin, body-conscious white woman easily steps into a yoga studio in L.A. (yay stereotypes!), a weight room is generally most welcoming to a “bro-type” who might have possibly believed, when it was trendy to do so, that head-to-toe Ed Hardy and not calling a girl back were how you live your life. What’s worse, when trying to do any kind of research about how weight-training should be approached by women, there is an inevitable “lose that weight & get sexy girl!” mentality. Form videos on YouTube are simply oozing with comments about a woman’s body or her lack of knowledge or how fuckable she is, and only in online communities where moderators are serious about inclusion do I see less sexist banter.
What I’m trying to say is, for a petite 30-year-old woman who has had issues with sexual harassment, who didn’t know the first thing about handling a barbell, who felt like the weight-lifting side of the gym was filled with men who would point out any mistakes as confirmation that women are inferior and physically incapable, joining a gym was intimidating as fuck. Luckily there were two reasons I felt somewhat comfortable diving into the labyrinth of weightlifting. One, I had mentally prepared myself for a fraternity mindset a year earlier when I almost sold my body to Uncle Sam. And second, I had the implicit permission to inhabit the mirror-lined side of the gym because I was working out with a man. Yes, even for an equality-minded person, there are still places I fear to tread because of the mental barriers I feel.
Lucky for me, the man I was with when I crossed the threshold into this intimidating endeavor is an excellent teacher. Funny, kind, and genuinely interested in helping me learn and then stepping back. He never made me feel like it was a Men vs. Women event, no matter how weak I was or what issues I had. We have grown, and continue to grow, beautiful lats, quads, and biceps together. Here in Japan, if our schedules don’t align, I can walk into the gym with my plan in hand, and get my ass as close to the grass (I can’t find a video of a woman doing this that isn’t about her getting a “sexy butt”, and I can’t find a video that isn’t excessively verbose, so I give up) as anybody else.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Firstly, I learned that if you can check your giant, swollen ego at the door, and let a guy tell you how to do something, it’s not being a bad example of a capable woman to allow that to occur. Second, I learned that there is a special feeling of accomplishment and capability when watching your lifting numbers go up. When I first started, I couldn’t even lift a barbell to do an overhead press, and now my stats are at an almost advanced level. I am so happy to see my progress, and to feel stronger. I see a difference in my appearance and it’s nothing that you’d likely see being advertised as feminine or beautiful, and I don’t care.
Third, as I said before, the Internet isn’t very good at welcoming women into the bro’s club of weight-lifting. Even though women compete and can lift much heavier weight than the average person might guess, there isn’t an excess of advice aimed at catering weight-lifting to their bodies, and there is a “gymbro” mentality that pressures men to prove their manliness. For example, one very popular YouTube personality likes to encourage men by saying, “Don’t let women steal your gains,” in response to questions about breakups and relationship issues. Basically, he means that relationships get in the way of working out/building muscle (aka gains). Which is entirely plausible – people do have to make scheduling sacrifices to get to the gym. But “Don’t let women steal your gains,” is the kind of brospeak that alienates women who are looking for lifting advice and puts a negative spin on relationships. It’s pessimism disguised as motivation, first of all. It’s also a dismissive attitude with which to approach dating, which creates a vicious cycle of bad experiences with the opposite sex. Furthermore, for all this personality knows, many of his viewers could be gay, but I doubt he has even considered that possibility. His attitude trivializes romantic relationships, which are some of the most important connections we forge as adults. As far as phrases like, “Go hard or go home,” I get that people should push themselves, but there shouldn’t be any pressure to prove one’s masculinity by pushing to the point of injury. The only person to whom you have anything to prove, when you’re adding weight to a workout, is yourself.
Another huge change I have is my sense of capability. Women, myself included, often feel like there are some things that they cannot physically do in day-to-day life. Lifting heavy weights with barbells helps with core (torso) strength as well as strength in major muscle groups. If that sounds too science-y, just imagine being able to carry all your groceries in one hand up a bunch of stairs because you have a heavy bag in the other hand, taking apart a spinning bike and moving it uphill and into a car without putting it on the wet ground, or picking up a bike to carry it a block down the street because the chain came off and you can’t wheel it anywhere. I can do all those things now. To me, that’s pretty cool, and was worth taking the time to listen to someone tell me exactly how to hold and lift a barbell. Being physically independent and physically strong is really important and the more you can do, the more you expand your mind to see that you can take on greater challenges, both physical and mental. Society should be pushing for people to have capable and strong bodies. Not that “gymbrodom” needs to be a widespread thing, but people who care about themselves and the people around them should care about their physical condition as they age. I think people who are curious about any kind of exercise should be encouraged, be able to try what they want, and never judged for making an effort.
One thing I am still coming to grips with as I dodge Internet bias for genuinely helpful information is the science behind nutrition for maintaining good health and strength. People are obsessive and dogmatic when it comes to food – especially if the food is labeled “good” or “bad.” There are countless vegan, vegetarian, and health blogs, and with the increasingly popular phenomenon of Crossfit gyms, models, and competitions, “clean” eating is another huge trend. The problem is that people are always looking for the holy grail of food, and I think that is dangerous. It’s yet another standard that people need to uphold, lest they appear to be failures to other indoctrinated saps. But all I want to know is how to keep my muscles from falling off and, how to maintain the same clothing size. Healthy eating should be a normal thing – not a fad, and not done solely for people to admire you. It also shouldn’t be a pedantic thing that slowly mutates into an eating disorder.
The distracting, oppressive, judgemental atmosphere that lingers around people from puberty to death – this pressure to look fuckable, is not conducive to healthy eating. Of course, fast food, bacon marketing genius, and a 40-hour work week are also health-inhibiting, but I like to think people are starting to outsmart these things. I think it’s a lot harder to outsmart peer pressure and internalized standards of desirability. But still, what you put in your face is your business, unless a doctor smacks it out of your hand before you can eat it. Being informed on nutrition is my bottom line, and I will not bother to read an illegible cursive-font blog about being a raw Crossfit model 100% organic cacao coconut oil gluten-free goddess any more than I will read a gymbro’s protein fart six-pack selfie blog about how he’s so strong and the only people who don’t eat clean are land whales and people who didn’t get prom dates. You are tainting the message and ruining it for us all!
I do not, just to be clear, subscribe to the idea that “strong is the new skinny.” I know that fitness modeling is becoming more mainstream, and that signs of physical strength are attractive qualities that more people are noticing in women, but I don’t believe that it is the gold standard for humans of any gender. A pressure to be strong should not suddenly take the place of the pressure to be thin. There shouldn’t be any pressure in the first place. If you want to squat because you think it’ll give you a “sexy butt” then that’s your business, but don’t let the media’s butt obsession get you down! The media is constantly cycling through what is “desirable” and your body is more than a trendy commodity.
Because I’ve had such a positive experience with strength training, I do want to take a moment to mention that Crossfit is breaking ground with the idea that people with a range of physical abilities, regardless of gender, can be strong, athletic badasses, and although I have no experience with Crossfit, I do think that it is pretty exciting that it is so inclusive. I have talked about the need for inclusivity when it comes to gender, but I also know that weight-lifting can be expanded, through the dedicated efforts of awesome people, to include many sizes, ages, and abilities. Again, for anyone who is interested in starting out or getting stronger, knowing that they are in the company of grandmothers, women with amputations (I love this video), people who use wheelchairs, and many more people on the ability spectrum can motivate them to push beyond what they think they are capable of, and, if nothing else, break that emotional barrier of entering the weight room. If you want to be there, then you belong there.
For anyone interested in starting out, I recommend Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. There are many resources online because of his book. Once you get an idea of how to use a barbell, Strengthstandards.com will give you a range of programs to choose from. Not everyone (myself included) has access to a gym that would be conducive to power cleans or power snatches, so those have to be optional.
Another great resource is Reddit’s Bodyweight Fitness community, if you are opposed to, or otherwise not inclined to, joining a gym.