Hannah Young

Like many women, I'm bombarded with messages every day--both subtle and explicit--about how I should look, feel, and act.  The fitness industry especially has inundated us with new norms about what a body "should" be.  Coupled with social media and retouching apps, it's now easier than ever to feel insecure about ourselves.  Women have been socialized to believe that they should be smaller, take up less space, and follow only a few select paths of fitness.  Don't get me wrong--I think it's great that women are doing popular online workouts like Blogilates and Kayla Itsines.  It's better for more people to be exercising than not!

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However, the issue is that these programs are often oriented to achieving body image goals.  For instance, the title of Kayla Itsines’ program--Bikini Body Guide (BBG)--suggests that the first priority of working out is getting a 'bikini body.'  Her Instagram account is full of before-and-after shots of her clients, with the “after” shot always being what a fitness magazine would call a 'bikini body,' which is consistently toned with a low body fat percentage.  Similarly, many of Blogilates’ videos have titles like '5 Best Exercises to Flatten Your Lower Belly' and 'The ULTIMATE Hot Body Workout for Flat Abs, Slim Inner Thighs, Perky Butt, and Toned Arms.'

And therein lies the problem.  While men are told to 'lift heavy' so they can 'be strong' and 'manly' as well as 'get big,' women are told the exact opposite.  Our goal as women is supposed to be all about looks; specifically, we’re told to look better.  And 'better' usually means a big, perky butt; flat but toned abs; a thigh gap; and nearly perfect proportions.  The way our bodies look is very much determined by genetics, but magazines, blogs, and models on social media often act as though we should constantly be trying to change our natural selves to be conventionally attractive.  

Coupled with the rise of cosmetic plastic surgery, women are encouraged to work towards an essentially unattainable goal.  This is pretty sexist, and can take a toll on mental health.  At least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the United States, and it’s estimated that 1.0 to 4.2% of American women have suffered from anorexia in their life.  Disordered eating behaviors and obsessive exercise can lead to malnourishment, amenorrhea (losing your period), stress, and even death.  Exercising should be something that brings you joy and keeps your body healthy, but in our current culture it’s marketed as a punishment for not being good enough yet.

I was sucked into this trap, too.  It’s almost impossible to brush off the messages telling you to work out more to 'lose your love handles,' 'tone up,' or 'slim down' for your wedding or another important event.  I religiously followed the Blogilates exercise calendar for many months, telling myself to keep pushing through--even though I hated pilates, and I was bored all the time--because I just had to have a flat stomach, or a thigh gap.  I dreaded working out, but I thought I had to do it or my body would be 'bad.'  I felt no joy in moving my body. It was a routinized form of self-torture.  While these programs are not 100% detrimental (Blogilates is great, especially for beginners), the way that many women use the workout plan is unhealthy.

After a long and arduous personal journey, I finally discovered weightlifting and then powerlifting, the strength sport where you attempt to lift as much possible weight on the three 'big lifts': squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Long story short, it’s the exercise that I truly love.  I look forward to it.  But the most important thing about it is that powerlifting doesn’t care about aesthetics.  Okay, if you’re a competitive lifter going into a meet, you might have to slim down a little to get into a desired weight class.  But that’s really the only time that weight, or body image, matters.  I work out NOT to look different or 'better,' but to push my body to its limits and make myself stronger every day.  Yes, I gained weight consisting of both muscle and fat.  Yes, I now have muscly quads and a wider-than-average back.  But the sport of powerlifting literally does not care what I look like.  All that matters is how much weight I can throw around.

In a world where exercise has become a toxic form of punishment, self-hatred, and comparison to others, powerlifting is an oasis.

I think this mindset is pretty revolutionary.  In a world where exercise has become a toxic form of punishment, self-hatred, and endless comparison to others, powerlifting is an oasis.  Working out for aesthetics just isn’t in the cards anymore.  I’d rather focus on what my body can do than what it looks like.  And honestly, this has completely transformed my workouts themselves: to push myself for the last couple reps, or the last minute of sprints, I don’t have to tell myself that this last rep will shrink my belly fat or tone my legs.  That never worked for me, and I finished my workouts feeling even more insecure. But now I think, finish this rep--you’re making progress, don’t give up now!  This way, I finish my last movement and am happy with what I’ve accomplished.  My measurements and weight are the last thing on my mind.  I’m proud, not for conforming to beauty standards, but for pushing hard and making my only real competition myself.

Powerlifting saved me.  It’s a long process to fix an unhealthy relationship with working out, but I firmly believe that journey is worth it.  I wish I could tell everyone struggling with their exercise routines that they should find something they love, and everything else will follow.  The good news is that it doesn’t have to be powerlifting.  Almost every form of exercise--pilates, dancing, surfing, biking, even group HIIT classes--can be handled such that you focus on functionality rather than aesthetics.  You just have to have the right mindset.  Instead of heading into a yoga class and thinking, Okay, I really hope doing downward dog slims down my arms, try thinking, Wow, my arms are getting so much stronger--I can stay in downward dog for ten seconds more than last week! Go me!  I challenge you to attempt this transformative mindset during the next form of exercise you choose.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Hannah is a student studying sociology at Hamilton College.  You can usually find her powerlifting at the gym, enjoying picnics in Central Park with her friends, or doing an excessive amount of online shopping.

 

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