Learn,  Lift

Strength and Body Image

At the grocery store, I reached behind one of the employees to grab something from the frozen foods section. “Excuse me,” he said, “but what kind of exercise do you do?”

As a woman, “excuse me but” can be a dangerous phrase that typically leads to some kind of small, frustrating microaggression that usually has to do with my appearance and the general audacity of being a woman out in public.

However, this was a new question for me. I told him I did crossfit and some powerlifting. “I could tell! You totally look like you do crossfit,” he told me.

We chatted a bit. As I walked away, he complimented me. Not on my appearance, but on my strength. And it felt awesome.

* * *

When I was a teenager, I fell deep into an eating disorder. I’d always been a little bit overweight as a kid. (To that kid who called me “thunder thighs” in 5th Grade – I remember you.)

At a certain point, I was eating under 1200 calories a day and angry. Especially if anyone expressed concern. I lost the weight though. The most disappointing part was how many compliments I got from people who didn’t realize how dangerous that could be to an insecure, 13 year old girl.

I didn’t ask for help until I started bingeing. I was gaining back the weight I’d so diligently lost and it was scaring me. Not because I realized I was unhealthy, but because I wanted to stay that small and tiny.

Later I went to a therapist for EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) with a mixture of binge-eating disorder and bulimia. I struggled so hard with food for all of high school. In other words, I was way too young to develop such a skewed perception of how to nourish my own body.

Years later and I still struggle at times, but not to the same degree. You can recover, but it’s always there a little bit.

These days, I’m finally starting to see a change. I did a yoga teacher training and started running about three years ago. From that, I started weightlifting and, most recently, got started with crossfit. My weight has fluctuated up and down by a little bit, but my strength has consistently improved.

I judge myself less by how much I weigh and more by how much I feel. That’s not to say I’ve given up the scale completely and that I don’t have an emotional attachment to seeing a specific number, but moreso that my desire to perform and grow stronger outweighs that. I’d like to lose those proverbial five pounds, for example, but I also know that when the scale goes up, it might be hormones, or diet, or muscle growth. I accept all of those.

Despite the personal improvements I’ve felt around my own body image and appreciation of what my body is capable of, I’ve found another insidious doubt creeping in: the stronger I become, the less feminine I’ll appear.

Ah, beauty standards. Such a double-edged sword. (More like a room full of razorblades – you’re cut no matter which way you turn.) Too curvy, not curvy enough; too strong, too weak; too heavy, too thin; too big here, not big enough there.

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.

– Naomi Wolf, “The Beauty Myth”

There’s a reason beauty standards for women exist. It’s about compliance in a patriarchal culture. It’s impossible to organize, to focus, to challenge, to fight when you’re too tired, or hungry, or focused on how you appear. I know from personal experience. I think the majority of women know this from personal experience.

These days, however, I’m coming at this mindset from a different perspective. I’ve never considered myself an athlete before but, in hindsight, I realize I always have been. I was a dancer as a child (until I stopped during my eating disorder), I was a yogi, a runner, a prideful New York walker, a crossfitter, and many other things.

These days, I see my body changes in ways that I’ve never idealized before and I find myself grappling with it. At the same time, it’s given me an opportunity to finally, finally, finally look in the mirror and see what I’m capable of instead of what that capability looks like. I look from my own perspective, not society’s. Those “thunder thighs”? They can squat 165lbs. Those “unfeminine” arms? They can get my chin over the pull-up bar about three times before I fall down. My core keeps me stable, and the daily challenge keeps me focused, giving me more determination to succeed in all things.

Feminism is an external struggle. There are systems in place that have and will consistently prevent equality and justice amongst all genders. But it’s internal as well. It’s a little whisper that instills doubt, that makes you question if you’re wrong, or not normal, or stepping out of your place. And the answer to that is always a resounding no.

So as a reminder to myself:

She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.


  • Gustavo Bordoni

    What an amazing text!

    It feels so good to look at yourself in the mirror and see what you are capable of instead what you look like.

    Progression from skills and strength are so rewarding in the long run, and a much healthier one too.

    Glad to see that you see yourself as an athlete, you deserve every little bit of that grocery shop compliment.

  • Anne McCarthy

    I love this and am really happy for you – it’s an eternal process. This reminded me – I’ve been thinking a lot about how people view us from the outside as a woman when considering chopping my hair off. Would I rather be hit on less or be misgendered or called a “dyke”? One thing I’ve noticed since I got into weightlifting… getting hit on changes but it doesn’t stop. It takes on different words, different expressions, different people doing it, etc. It still happens though even if it’s a guy asking if I am an MMA fighter or a boxer or a soccer player. There is still that objectification and act of men feeling like they can look you up and down and freaking compliment you. Anyway – food for thought 🙂

    • Erica V.

      Exactly, I know what you mean. There’s also the unending mansplaining about how to do things in the gym because surely you wouldn’t know how. (Except, one time I did see a woman walk up to a guy and explain, unsolicited, how he could use the machine better and it was such an interesting experience to watch.)

      I think what surprised me about my grocery store experience in particular is that it was one of the rare times that it didn’t feel gendered. 99% of the time, even if it’s a compliment, you could usually add “for a woman” at the end and still be spot on. Granted, all of our experiences happen in a patriarchal culture, but if there are moments that possibly break through that, thank goodness.

      It’s so hard because you know that no matter what you do, you will be viewed from the outside in some form or another. (Which in some ways is normal, but it’s when there are expectations added, particularly ones rooted in oppression, it makes the process that much different.) Even just thinking about your hair, which should be so small, carries a lot of weight and requires strength either way (cutting it or not cutting it, the ramifications of both). But that’s why we have people like each other to help get through that 😉

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