Anyone who knows or follows me on social media will know that I’m a strong proponent of resistance exercise for women (and men). The benefits are numerous, supporting the development of strength for specific sports or core muscles to help prevent injury, reducing age-related muscle loss, improving body and bone composition and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and later-life cognitive decline. For a fantastic and well referenced review of these benefits that is as relevant to the over 40s as it is for younger people, check out this blog (part 1 and part 2). Given the many and diverse benefits of resistance training, why are the few articles written in support of resistance exercise for women all about achieving the largest derriere possible?
Now, I’m the first to applaud any article that encourages women to take up resistance exercise, whether that be via functional body weight training or lifting weights in the gym. However, I had mixed feelings when I read this article. On the one hand, it’s great to see a positive message, encouraging women to lift weights and dispelling the myth that this will make them look large or bulky (most women simply don’t have the hormone profile to gain large amounts of muscle mass). What irks me is that this article still manages to make weight training for women all about body image and a very narrow acceptable aesthetic.
Obviously, many women do worry that lifting weights will make them look larger and this misconception may be off-putting, so I understand why this myth is being dispelled. However, the section that follows the myth busting reinforces only the aesthetic ‘benefits’ of weight training, reinforcing the thin ideal:
“There are so many tiny women who can lift incredibly heavy weights, and you’d have no idea from looking at them – they simply have a lot of lean muscle mass.”
“Anyone who’s committed to lifting weights will be able to attest that it actually give your [sic] curves in all the right places.”
Sigh. While this can indeed be true, this still supports a narrow ideal aesthetic: the thin, lean ideal, as shared ad nauseum on instragram with the #fitspo or #fitspiration hashtag. Search for either of these and you’ll find image after image of super lean, young, beautiful women with gravity-defying gluteal muscles, tiny waists and minimal body fat. This is just another manifestation of the thin ideal that we see in the media, in films, on TV and on the catwalk. The message is: Yes, by all means lift weights ladies, but don’t let your body fat climb over 20% and don’t even think about getting all horrible and muscly.
Let’s consider the alternatives to this narrow view. What if a woman actively wants to be muscly? What if her sporting performance, be it rugby, power lifting, boxing for example, would actually benefit from having a lot more muscle? What if she actively doesn’t want to look feminine for whatever personal reasons? Much of society would rail against such choices because they do not fit the narrow aesthetic ideal or the stereotypical view of women portrayed by much of the media. We are told we should look feminine but not too sexy (sexy = stupid); slim but not skinny (skinny = sexless); toned but not muscly (muscly = masculine). Not only should women be able to look just the way they want to look, without fear of ridicule, they should also be able to train with goals beyond weight loss and booty building.
The fitness blogger quoted in the article (herself perfectly fitting this slim, toned, feminine ideal) struggles to reference anything other than beauty. “…she’s always been a “girly girl,” but it’s actually when she’s “gross and sweaty” in the gym that she feels most beautiful.” This just plays to the narrow definition of female beauty in our society. Pick up any fitness magazine and it is guaranteed to contain countless images of taut, lycra clad women with a light sheen of sweat to highlight their perfectly honed (small) curves. This is “gross and sweaty”. If you want actual gross and sweaty, come and find me on the Bakerloo line in July. The point is why does going to the gym have to equate with beauty at all? Can’t it simply be to enjoy training?
The blogger then goes on to suggest that there is beauty in everyone (pass the sick bucket now; this isn’t Miss World) from those who lift weights to those who are public speakers (a rather baffling comparison) and concludes, “And it has nothing to do with what you look like. So free yourself of the opinions of others and the beauty standards of society. Pay attention to the moments in life you FEEL beautiful. What are you doing? DO MORE OF THAT.” OK, I get it and hallelujah for shunning the beauty standards of society but stop making it about either looking or feeling beautiful! What about getting stronger and fitter? What about being happy in your own body as it is, healthy or less healthy because we don’t all have the luxury of health throughout our lives? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this message, in part, is being shared but can we please just stop making it all about aesthetics?
How many men join a gym or start personal training facing the implicit assumption that they’re doing it to lose weight or get a bigger bum? My friend’s personal trainer insists on measuring her weight and body fat every week in spite of the fact that she repeatedly tells him she just wants to get stronger. Women should weight train for the myriad of health and mental benefits and if changes to body shape and composition occur then great, if that’s what you want. But we have to stop assuming that women only train for the booty gains. And we have to stop telling women that their body shape and size is their only currency.