Weightlifting and body image: how Crossfit is helping women to challenge stereotypes

“Don’t lift too heavy, you’ll end up looking like a man.” Those were the words uttered by my mum when I first told her that I had joined a Crossfit gym and that the workouts included heavy weightlifting. Initially, I carried this remark with me; my mum’s opinion regarding women and weightlifting was after all not uncommon; in fact, if popular culture had taught me anything, it was that women and muscles did not go together. Having grown up in the 90s and 00s, it was practically ingrained in me that women were supposed to be skinny and men were supposed to be strong.

I started lifting weights back in 2014 when it was still relatively niche, and the “strong is the new skinny” movement, celebrating big butts and strong thighs, had not yet taken proper hold of the UK. I remember walking into the Crossfit box for the first time, seeing people all around me lifting what to me looked like ridiculous, almost cartoonish, amounts of weight, and with fearful eyes say to my coach: “I’m gonna keep it light, I don’t wanna get too muscly.”

I grew up at a time when the treadmill was considered king. Never-ending cardio sessions were regarded as paramount means to achieving weight loss and, ultimately, a perfect female body which was lean and aerodynamic. Women were starving themselves, following ridiculous diet regimens all the while doing step-classes, spinning sessions, and aerobics to try and burn off those few calories that eventually did make it past their lips. Big bums were bad bums that needed slimming down, biceps and thighs were to be proportionally slim. God forbid that you should ever pick up a dumbell heavier than a pint of milk, because why would you need to be any stronger than that? If you needed something lifted, a jar lid unscrewed, you just had to ask for the aid of a big-bicepted man. The idea of the lean, but weak woman was not just about fashion and aesthetics, it was just as much a testament to male and female stereotypes: muscly women blurred the lines between masculine and feminine; they encroached on macho territory.

Let’s take a look at the day I changed my life by walking into that Crossfit box, and successfully fought the urge to go straight back out again. The coach happened to be a friend of mine, and it was purely out of polite obligation to him that I stayed, because I was, quite frankly, scared witless. When I muttered the infamous “no muscles for me, please,” his expression immediately changed from excited to tired. He had clearly heard that statement a hundred times before. He asked me why, I answered that I did not want to look all manly. “Don’t you wanna be strong?” he asked me. And suddenly I was not sure what to answer, because I had never put much thought into the actual purpose of bigger muscles. I was studying for a bachelor degree in English Literature at the time, I considered myself a feminist, a strong independent woman, and hell yeah I wanted to be strong. But, perfectly conditioned by popular culture as I was, I did not want to be man-strong. Not Hulk strong. I would soon learn.

I don’t remember ever being happy with my body as a teenager or as a young adult. I was an overweight child, always dreading PE class because I hated all kinds of physical exercise. My mother tried all sorts to help me lose weight: diets, various sports, and she even got me a personal trainer at one point, but it all just made me miserable. So I grew up hating my body and believing I could never get good at sports. I blossomed into a chubby, moody goth of a teenager who would rather sit indoors and write angsty poetry than put one foot in front of the other.

But I still wanted to be skinny. At the tender age of fifteen I eventually joined my first of many regular gyms where I would drag myself to spin class, or walk on the treadmill, till I got fed up and cancelled my membership. I was so traumatised from being the chubby child in PE class that I would have minor panic attacks before entering the gym floor, and trying anything new would intimidate the hell out me, and not just sports-wise. My lack of body confidence dictated my behaviour in various aspects of my life. Suddenly I was in my early twenties and no happier with my body, I was full of weltschmerz, awkwardness, and hatred towards popular culture and the way it continuously dictated how I was feeling about myself, no matter how much I tried to deny it.

However, Crossfit changed my life. It took all my courage to go, not just to that initial class, but to every single class of the first two or three months. Doing Crossfit tested every single one of my limits; after years of lacking body confidence, I was so disconnected from my body I couldn’t even do a roly poly. Now I was in an environment where you had to go in head first, leave your ego at the door, and do your best to your ability.

I soon learned that you don’t die from feeling your heart race so hard you’re afraid it’s going to burst out of your chest. When you’ve never allowed yourself to be pushed to the very limit, finally letting it happen is absolutely terrifying, but also liberating. Suddenly I realised that my body could do stuff – cool stuff – that I had never in my wildest imagination thought it would be capable of, and I started appreciating my body for that.

Now, when I’m in the gym and look around at all the awesome women, and none-binaries for that matter, that attend the classes, I see a variety of personal styles, personality types, and sexualities. While popular culture at times paints a stereotypical picture of female weightlifters as freakishly “other”, often as some hybrid between a man and a woman with swollen veiny muscles, a deep voice and often an aggressive sexuality to match, the women I meet in the gym are of every thinkable build: some are very feminine, others not so much. Some come in with extra ambition on the weightlifting front, others are happy to just be able to lift a little heavier than they could when they first entered the gym: some have had children and want to regain some of the strength they lost during pregnancy. What they all have in common is that they know that with physical strength comes confidence. They support each other, high-five and motivate one another, and those who want to take part in friendly competition.

I am still not a size 8, but the difference between me now and me back in 2014 is that I no longer want to be a size 8. I want to be strong. Lifting weights has, perhaps, not cured my weltschmerz, but it has helped me cope with many of my inner demons. I’m no longer a grumpy goth, but more of a cheerful nihilist with big biceps and powerful thighs, and I can honestly say that I love myself for it.

Matilde Christensen

Art by Marie Köhl. Follow on her on Instagram: @marieonetten_tanz

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