On a hike along the California coastline one summer afternoon the guide asked me, out of the blue, what kind of sport I played.
"Volleyball? Basketball? Soccer?"
"Oh, nothing, I don't really like sports. I'm not very coordinated." My mind flashed back to me stumbling after a runaway kickball into the outfield in middle school, the coach hollering in a Texas drawl, "Girl, what in the heck are you doing?"
"I lift weights."
"Oh. Huh. That's different."
After training for a couple of years I guess my muscles have started to look like they were built on a court or a field, but instead they're Franken-muscles, grown in a gym laboratory. The strength gains I've made are no different than if I had played a sport, but for me strength is the point, rather than the byproduct. I must admit, too, that with all the diametric pushing and pulling and all the hinging and squatting I've been doing, I'm not quite as uncoordinated as that embarrassed pre-teen in the outfield. And, surprisingly, that vigorous hike turned out to be pretty easy. Maybe the guide was simply perplexed as to why I wasn't huffing and puffing up the steep inclines we tackled that afternoon.
I'm not a powerlifter, Crossfit competitor, or personal trainer, nor do I even come close to their strength or aesthetics. Lifting is simply my exercise and my hobby, although it feels more important than that. I spend a lot of time reading about it, thinking about it, and doing it, and apparently now I have some muscles to show for it. And, those muscles can be a provocation and an affront, especially as a woman.
I know, because I remember a time, before l started training, when another woman's muscles got on my nerves too, as much as I'm ashamed to admit that now. One evening, when meeting an acquaintance, I immediately noticed her built shoulders and solid arms in her sleeveless dress. She looked like a better specimen than the rest of us, confident and graceful with rocky curves. How annoying. Her body looked so… on purpose, so deliberate. Her lines were just a little too present in her dress, her posture too straight. I heard someone else give her a backhanded compliment, "You must spend a lot of time in the gym." "Thanks!" she replied, "Actually I just see a personal trainer twice a week." Jeez, what a bitch, spending two whole hours a week on her health and fitness.
Much later, after I'd started lifting, I showed my friends a YouTube clip of one of my favorite fitness personalities doing chin-ups, a feat I'm still hoping to master. Unanimously, they thought it was cool, but they couldn't help comment on her body. Wow, she's built! Man, her legs are huge. Yeah, she's bulky (the most dreaded descriptor). I realized that my perspective had changed since I met that acquaintance whose muscles had intimidated me. The functionality of this body, dominating the pull-up bar, trumped any other criteria for beauty. I was surprised to find that, for me, strength had become the very embodiment of loveliness.
Even in online fitness communities the refrain "she looks masculine" is common when we're confronted with images of athletic women. I would argue that commenters are responding only in part to the shapes of those fit bodies, but also to what they represent: time and effort spent on themselves. When a body becomes a project, a piece of work, it can perturb. First, because the endeavor can seem self-serving, and indeed it is; improving one's fitness is a perfect way to serve oneself, and the evidence of that self-care is clearly written on the body for all to view. And, second, because it looks downright different than what we're accustomed to seeing. We're inured to softer bodies in real life and thin bodies on the screen, but our eye still gets caught on strong ones, precisely because they are a rarer sight.
Some people might prefer a slender Gwyneth arm, others a shapely Cameron bicep. That's fine, both are beautiful, and ultimately, that's none of my business, and it should be the last thing on my mind when I am hitting the weights. "Does that stranger think my shoulders will get too big if I do this push-up?" No, that's not the best pep-talk in the gym.
There's nothing wrong with chasing a particular physique, whether it be built or slim, but in that hunt, we should be open to the possibility that our ideals about beauty and form might change. Let's be honest, we're critiquing other bodies all the time, and no matter what shape we are, someone's bound to have an opinion about it. And, if they happen to express it, hopefully we can at least get a laugh out of it. My favorite anti-compliment I ever got was from a total stranger who said, "you carry your fat well, but you need to be careful." Like my fat was a wild animal that could attack me any moment.
Obviously our culture has a long way to go on the road to body acceptance. Criticism on both ends of the spectrum is out of control. Too fat, too thin, too bulky, too flabby. Yes, we're judging, harshly, parroting headlines from tabloids, our minds packed with images of professionally beautiful bodies. Things can get better in the media, of course. They can stop photoshop-carving women's bodies for a change. But, we can also start with ourselves. And, treating our bodies like the miraculous machines that they are, capable of improvements in strength and power, is one way to expand our idea of what a great body is. And, what's more, unlike changing your height or your jawline, improved strength is attainable. Functionality might not be paramount in how we define beauty, but at least we can add it to the list. It's certainly not easy to love ourselves, much less our physical beings, every moment, but coming back to strength, working toward it, helps. On good days, I really like my squat-built glutes, on others I wish they were a little bit easier to stuff into jeans. But, the more I train, the less tense my own body-conflict is. Self-care in all forms, especially exercise, can be a powerful antidote to criticism.
The woman on YouTube doing pull-ups will be able, years from now, to swing her own luggage off the carousel, sling huge jugs of water, and carry her wiggling grandchildren easily. We're all motivated by different fitness goals. It might be looking good in a bikini. It might be rehabbing an old injury. Or, you might want to improve performance in your given sport (congratulations if you're one of the lucky ones who doesn't embarrass oneself playing a casual game of kickball). Right now, my motivation is my future self. Not some idealized version, but me in 60 years. First of all, in my vision, I am alive! Hooray for that! And, what's more, I'm healthy and in shape. Because, thanks to the trend in lifting, we now have examples of women looking strong and solid in their 70's and 80's and beyond. If we start now and keep working at it, the muscle that we build might stick around and help us out later.
Access to information on health has never been greater, and interest in fitness is booming. From where I sit, women seem to be heading to the weight room in droves in search of beauty and strength. And, along the way to shapely biceps and healthy glutes, those women are going to face resistance, questions, opinions, and judgments. They're going to have to admit that they spend time in the gym, that their bodies are on purpose. In fact, they built them deliberately. Athletes or amateurs, they can define themselves and their training however they like. If they want to enjoy the strength that they've gained on the field or court, wonderful. Or, if they want to disturb hiking guides with powerful quads, fantastic. Or, they can simply stand a bit straighter, a bit more at home in the bodies that they built.