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The Stigma of BIG

It seems like every time I get on Instagram, I see a post assuring women that lifting weights won’t make them bulky or “manly.” Generally these posts talk about the difference in levels of free testosterone between men and women. I know these posts are well intentioned. The benefits of resistance training are staggering, from metabolic health to improved bone density (not to mention being able to install your own a/c with ease), and these trainers and lifters just want to recruit more women. And yes, it is true that the hormonal environment of a drug-free woman is not as conducive to muscle building as that of a man. However, I’d like to examine the assumptions behind these warnings and offer something a little more nuanced, something closer to the bone.

What it comes down to, I believe, is a cost-benefit analysis. The woman, or person, who is afraid of getting big, believes that the cost of putting on muscle will outweigh the benefit of putting on muscle. These trainers and fitness gurus want to assure you that there’s nothing to worry about, that, in fact, you’ll get the body of your dreams, the tighter butt, the firmer arms without the thing that seemingly incurs the cost, namely the consequences of carrying muscle mass above and beyond what a Reebok model carries. But they never dig into what those perceived consequences might be. As humans, we want to be happy. As women, we are conditioned, depending on our cultural background, to believe that a thin or an hourglass figure will confer (as a natural outgrowth of status and love) happiness. Behind the fear of getting big are fears of social ostracism, romantic failure, and their natural outgrowth, misery. So if this is the premise we are operating under, we will be terrified of deviating from societal norms. This terror makes us police our bodies and, in turn, police the bodies of others. I too have harbored these fears. If you had showed a photograph of me at my most muscular-looking (about two years ago) to me before I started lifting, I would’ve most certainly said, “No, thanks.”

I recall, in 2008, long before I began lifting, paging through the book Female Bodybuildersby the photographer Martin Schoeller. Although the portraits focus on the face, the shoulders and chest are included, and one can see the veined, glossy shoulders projecting upward and outward, one can see that the quest to lose body fat has left no natural breast tissue behind. Looking into the harrowed faces of these starved-down subjects, I thought, “How do they think that’s attractive? Do they know what they look like?” To the outsider, it is incredible that attractiveness might be beside the point. Feminine appearance and beauty privilege seem too high a price to pay for success in sport. This dismissal of sex appeal seems either antisocial or, worse, unwitting. It seems that there has been a loss of control somewhere, that their bodies must somehow be a mistake. When I first announced, years ago, that I wanted to compete in bodybuilding, in the bikini category, friends and family began to issue warnings. “Don’t get all weird and muscley”; “Be careful.” As though I might lose control and one day awaken roped in dozens of pounds of hideous muscle, bewildered, at rock bottom. But having met such women now, I can tell you that there is nothing accidental about their appearance. In the case of heavyweight female bodybuilders, they work out for hours each day, 5-7 days a week to create these bodies. And yes, they do use drugs. Further, they harbor no delusions about being conventionally attractive. As female bodybuilders have grown, their fan base has shrunk. Even their own governing body, the International Federation of BodyBuilding, has discontinued the category of Women’s Bodybuilding (the heavyweight category). The last-ever Ms. Olympia was crowned in 2014. Replacing the category is Women’s Physique, which has a muscle ceiling written into the judging criteria.

I recently came across a question on Quora, “Is there a way for women to work out and still keep a feminine looking body?” Most of the answers were what you’d expect. They showed photographs of female athletes looking pretty close to what’s considered conventionally attractive. They’re dewy and lithe. And it’s true that if you’re a drug-free female athlete, you might look something like those photographs. But this, again, is a case of trying to assuage the questioner’s fears by convincing her that there is really no cost to working out. But what about the athletes that do fall outside this narrow proscription of femininity? When I scrolled down, I came across an answer that almost made me choke up. A man from New Zealand gave the example of the two-time Olympic gold medalist Valerie Adams. He said, “This is Val Adams. She is the world, Olympic, and Commonwealth shot put champion. She’s big and strong. She needs to be for her sport.” He goes on to show several photographs of her standing next to large men, including her brother, NBA player Steven Adams. Then he shows a picture of her with her daughter. “Here she is with her baby. So yes, you can work out and have a feminine body. Dame Val did. There’s nothing more ‘feminine’ than giving birth.” I don’t believe this man’s aim was to replace a petite, hourglass figure with motherhood as the criteria for femininity. I believe his aim was simply to show that womanhood is not contingent upon having a certain appearance.

If you yourself are afraid of getting big, as I was, I’d like to ask you a few questions. What are you afraid of losing by putting on muscle? Perhaps you could even write it down. I find that when I put my bogeymen on paper, I am able to gain some perspective on them. And then I’d like to ask you, what could you be losing now by not exploring what your body is capable of? Imagine if Valerie Adams had let these fears hold her back. Or Serena Williams. Or Iris Kyle, for that matter, the most decorated bodybuilder, male or female, of all time. For these women, the social costs of carrying around some extra muscle pale in comparison to the incredible adventure of being a world-class athlete. Of course, being a world-class athlete is out of reach for most of us, but the point is not moot.

The biggest question is, if you knew that love would be available to you, that your relationships would remain secure, and if you knew that you would always be on your own side and would not criticize yourself when you looked in the mirror, what would you really like to do? Because I can assure you that love, yes, even romantic attention from men, will be available to you[1], and although some relationships might be compromised, those that matter will endure no matter what changes your body undergoes. And how you speak to yourself about your body is within your power. There is no right answer to these questions. Who am I to tell you what choices to make with your life? Perhaps you have no interest in getting stonger. Many people don’t. But if you’ve read this far, I suspect that is not the case. I suspect you really want to experience being in a stronger body, but you are afraid. This article is for you. Whatever conclusions you come to after reading it, I hope that they are your own, rather than the foregone conclusions of society at large.

(If, however, your conclusion is that you'd like to get strong, get in touch.)

[1] I, for one, did not meet my current partner until I started lifting seriously, and I never would have met him otherwise, because we met at a strength gym.

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