I’m not one to be stereotypical; however, I have to admit that more often than not when you walk into a commercial gym, you will see the same thing… males in the weights section flinging dumbbells around until kingdom comes, whilst females are lined up on the cardio machines or sprawled on the ab mats like some contortionist as they follow a booty blaster workout on a phone app.
We are well into the year of 2015, and cultural constructions are still solid as a rock. The gendered interaction order remains in place; men are expected to display their physical dominance, whilst women should resemble the weaker counterpart.
So when I enter the gym in my weightlifting shoes, a big sweatshirt and my lifting straps and belt, I am an anomaly. When I step up to that bar pumped to get a personal best on my deadlift, I am one of few. When I am there pestering the guy next to me to give me a spot on my squats, I am breaking down social barriers and norms. But why is this?
It is because in the past decade or so, there has been a societal movement towards an increasingly thin standard in women and an overall importance has been placed on physical appearance and the number on the scale. Women are rewarded on their level of thinness, rather than their level of strength and power; they are not praised on how much they deadlift, rather they are complimented on their waist size, the thinness of their arms, and again the number that shows up on the scale.
I began writing this article with the full intention of stating the physical benefits of women lifting weights, in hope that it may spark interest in women to fall in love with the iron; but I then realised that you could read up on the ‘top 10 reasons to lift weights’ on any fitness website or in any fitness magazine. What are less published and less known are the benefits of breaking down those cultural constructions, the reasons that will long surpass the physical aspects of why I started weightlifting… here are just a few.
The deep respect at how powerful and strong the female body can be. Lifting weights is a mind game; it is all based on whether you believe in your physical and mental strength to pull, push or squat that weight. It wasn’t until I truly began to believe in myself, my own strength and my capabilities that I began to shift some heavy weight. It is the realisation
when you come out of the gym after such a challenging and gruelling workout, having just pulled, pushed or squatted more than you would ever think, that’s when you know that the female body is just as powerful as the male descendent. And you are proud of that.
You begin to focus on the mental more than the physical changes. As a recovered anorexic,
and just by being a female, when I began to work out there was one thing I wanted; a rocking body. Chiselled abs, ‘toned’ legs, a curvaceous bum. Yet, as my workouts turned from bodybuilding to a greater focus on powerlifting, the ab checks in the mirror got less frequent, the dissatisfaction with my body was no longer, all I felt was confidence in what I had. I began to focus on what I loved about myself rather than what I loathed.
Your focus on numbers makes a shift. When you step onto the scale and see a number glaring back, you no longer hold meaning to it, it is just a number to you. You realise that your confidence and self-worth isn’t derived from your weight, it derives from the strength you have created. You now focus more on numbers in the form of 1 rep maxes, and for once in your life your goal is to strive to make those numbers higher.
You no longer feel like you need to represent what a woman should be or what the woman’s body should look like. You begin to realise that how you want to train shouldn’t be confined to a certain gender. There is only one person that you work out for, and that is for yourself. You don’t enter that gym to comply with social norms, you don’t work out to impress the guy you like, and you don’t go to the gym to socialise with your friends on a treadmill. You work out to improve what you did the last time, you work out to get stronger and you work out to constantly challenge yourself.
5. Lifting weights is a form of therapy, strange sounding as it is. In that hour or two that you are in the gym, nothing else matters. Troubles at work, a fight with a partner, children driving you up the wall; none of that matters when you are lifting weights. You focus solely on your power, your strength and your next challenge.
These are just a few of many points that I can make about building strength. It’s not something that you can buy off the internet and gain in 3 weeks and it’s not something that comes easy; but once it starts to happen, that’s when the magic starts to happen.
Now I’m not feminist but there are few things that are as empowering as lifting weights as a woman; it enables women to embody male traits such as power, strength and masculinity. Social norms should not be seen as black and white anymore, but should be seen on a continuum, a spectrum. Women should be able to embody the ‘socially acceptable’ traits of men, and such with men embodying the
traits of women, without a second thought.
A contribution by Alice Wearn, BSc and MSc Sport & Exercise Psychology, for PsychLievrpool.