Growing Pains

By Maddy Spivak

Art by Sophie Williams

CW: body image/diet culture

For as long as I can remember, I have been bigger than many of my peers. I was born larger than my twin brother. I grew early, a chubby middle-schooler with breasts by fifth grade. At the staggering height of 5 feet, 9 inches, I was the tallest student in my seventh grade class. You can imagine how relieved I was when the boys around me finally hit their growth spurts. Much has changed since then — as a college freshman, I have big hair and hips and thighs, and I love it all. I love my big hands and my big feet, my frame that takes up space. I wear “street size” clothing, not fitting into a 00, or a 0, or a 2, or 4 or 6. Though I feel good in my body, healthy and happy, I am constantly greeted with messages telling me I should be smaller.

Last fall, I began to acknowledge how these messages were impacting me, an impressionable young woman. I knew that I had internalized the desire to shrink; a smaller number on the scale made me euphoric, as did a smaller dress size. I loved looking at myself in the mirror in the morning, at my thinnest, and hated my bloated reflection after eating dinner. Something had to change. I could not go on this way, hating myself, hating food, plagued by diet culture, wishing I had a different body. I was sick and tired of feeling weak. So, I tried something new: I vowed to focus on getting stronger instead of thinner.

In December 2020, I began weightlifting in hopes that it might improve my relationship with my body (I must admit, the internalized diet culture within me also knew that muscle burns more calories than fat, and damn, I still wanted to burn extra calories). My younger brother graciously taught me the ins and outs of lifting: correct form, rest days, the importance of stretching, protein intake, and so on. I had never particularly enjoyed purposeful exercise before; I would count down the minutes until I was done, count the calories out, count my steps on the treadmill, dreading every second. But something about lifting was different. The sense of accomplishment that I used to feel when the number on the scale would drop was replaced by the endorphin rush that followed increases in my bench, squat, and deadlift maxes. I was actually beginning to feel stronger, to experience my body in entirely new ways. I felt soreness in foreign muscles, slept better at night, and had an easier time hiking and jogging and bringing groceries up the stairs. I came to look forward to my workouts, the endorphin rush after each set, gradually being able to lift more and more. Suddenly, taking a rest day required more willpower than getting myself to walk across the freezing street to the gym. Physically and mentally, I felt better than I ever had. But still, I focused more on how my body looked than how it felt. I based my self-worth more on the number on the scale than on the things my body could do.

Lifting has caused my body to grow in ways that are completely new to me. My body now bulges at my hamstrings, my biceps, and the lower parts of my quads; lines of definition have emerged where previously my skin was smooth. Seeing these changes in the mirror for the first time was an overwhelming experience. I knew that these changes were signs of progress: signs of growth. Yet, seeing parts of my body get bigger shook me to my core. In a world where women are told to shrink to be beautiful, how was I supposed to accept the growth in my arms and thighs? I went to bed at night pained by confrontations with the mirror.

Despite my ambivalence about my growing body, I kept lifting. It was just too difficult to give up something that I had come to enjoy so much, something that I knew deep down was amazing for my body. I kept at it, and with time, my relationship with my body changed. I became proud of the growth. I would notice that my arms were pumped after pull day and sprint up the stairs from my basement, asking my family members to “feel my biceps! Aren’t they huge?” I became proud of the new dips and curves in my body, and now pay no mind as they become exaggerated by further training. I went through a paradigm shift in which my body became my home, deserving of nourishment and love and regular exertion. I now understand that pushing and testing and improving my strength is a form of self love.

I have learned to focus on how my body feels and what it can do rather than how it looks. Society tells me that my body is at its best when it is at its thinnest. I say that it is at its best when I am happiest. I feel happiest in a nourished, fueled, strong body that gets stronger every day. I am happiest when I know that my body can accomplish great things. Strength training has connected my mind with my body in a way that I had never imagined possible and I have never felt more like myself. The path has been long and hard, but I continue to walk on it. I am still only a beginner, and I continue to work on my strength and fight internalized diet culture every day.

I was lucky to have someone willing and patient enough to teach me how to lift. But what about the people who have no little brothers to teach them? Who fear growing, looking masculine, or gaining weight? I am fed up with beauty standards of thinness harming women and their health. Strength is not a masculine characteristic, and women should not be applauded for shrinkage when men are applauded for muscular growth. Lifting weights is beneficial for the human body and mind. It is good for bone health, the immune system, mental health, metabolism, stress relief, and the cardiovascular system.[1] Most importantly, lifting teaches us to respect, love, and nourish our bodies. Is that not a lesson that everyone deserves to learn, regardless of their gender?

A limited amount of research has been conducted on the relationship between gender and exercise style of choice, but we can turn to this small body of literature to better understand why women consistently choose cardio over lifting. According to a 2010 article reviewing several studies on the intersections between gender and exercise style of choice, most women choose not to lift due to “evaluation concerns”; put simply, women tend to fear being watched, scrutinized, or negatively judged by others in the gym.[2] The studies found that fat-burning exercises are generally deemed feminine and strength-building exercises are generally deemed masculine, so women fear being seen as masculine for participating in weight lifting.[3] In certain incidences, men were observed to be “possessive” over the weights room, discouraging women from entering the hyper-masculine space.[4] This contributes to women using weights less frequently than men and experiencing more discomfort than their male counterparts. Researchers have also found that women might choose not to lift to avoid looking “too muscular.”[5] A vicious cycle exists in which strength is masculinized, so women do not lift at high rates, so those few women who do choose to lift feel even more out of place, fueling insecurity related to evaluation concerns.

I have experienced these feelings myself. This past winter term, I became something of a regular at Zimmerman Fitness Center and often found myself surrounded by male students when I was lifting. I try to ignore the stares that I get when I walk past, or when I throw a lot of weight onto the bar. I try to ignore the fact that I am identifiably other. I try to ignore the feeling that my form must be perfect, and that I must lift heavy, because I don’t want the men in the gym to think that women are weak or incapable.

How can we change women’s apprehension about lifting and encourage them to develop their strength? Research has suggested that before we can get more women lifting, we must address their evaluation concerns. One proposal suggests that “women who are relatively experienced lifters build a mass of women lifters, by recruiting novices and helping them gain skills.”[6] This might counter the masculinization of strength training and help women rid themselves of the feeling or fear of being watched. Personally, I find this solution to be somewhat problematic; it puts the burden of solving the issue on women alone. Still, I regularly bring friends to the gym with me, and having another woman as a lifting buddy does prove to be a comforting and encouraging experience.

Another option is to reframe lifting as an opportunity for women to find empowerment. Many of the women who participated in a 2018 study felt that power was “being in control of their exercise choices, taking pride in their physical achievements and having a body that responded to challenges.”[7] By reframing physical strength as a form of empowerment, we might better foster communities for women interested in lifting.

As we continue to work towards achieving these goals, I hope this article might challenge readers’ conceptions of strength and gender. To those who frequent the gym: please, make it as welcome a place as possible. Everyone has the right to pursue fitness. And to those reading who might be new to lifting: it can be anxiety-inducing to feel different or weaker in the gym. But if you want to get out there, get out there. The gym belongs to you just as much as it does to anyone else. We mustn't fear being big; we should fear forcing ourselves to be small.

[1] Jessica Salvatore and Jeanne Marecek. "Gender in the gym: Evaluation concerns as barriers to women’s weight lifting." Sex Roles 63, no. 7 (2010): 556-567.

[2] Salvatore and Marecek, “Gender in the Gym,” 2.

[3] Salvatore and Marecek, “Gender in the Gym,” 6.

[4] A Clark, "Women’s embodied experiences of fitness: an ethnographic study of women who participate in a mixed gendered UK gym." PhD diss., Canterbury Christ Church University, (2018): 192.

[5] Salvatore and Marecek, “Gender in the Gym,” 10.

[6] Salvatore and Marecek, “Gender in the Gym,” 11.

[7] Clark, “Women’s Embodied Experiences,” 123.