My introduction to weight training came when I was about fourteen, when my gym teacher decided to devote a whole week to it in high school. I was a clumsy girl who enjoyed coming to school with make-up every day and had incurred the wrath of my teacher because of it, and so if she was going to hate me, I was going to hate her and everything that she stood for. And so the charms of weight training week was mostly lost on me at that point. The only thing I really remember about it was being nervous about setting the weight too high, because I didn’t want to risk bulking up.
Fast forward a few years, and the same vanity that made me want to wear make-up to school every day has now convinced me to start working out on a regular basis. I started where many girls start – with cardio, but I eventually allowed myself to be talked into trying out weight training.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with weight training, there are two different kinds: toning, which involves doing higher reps with lighter weights in order to build long, lean muscles, and mass building, which involves doing lower reps with heavier weights in order to build larger muscles. In the beginning, you couldn’t pry me away from toning if my life depended on it.
Because, you see, I had the same misconceptions that I think a lot of girls have about mass building: that it is grossly and obscenely unfeminine. That if a woman were to pick up a thirty pound weight, she’d suddenly puff out and turn dramatically into Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with a deep voice and a hairy chest. So I did my toning exercises, and I maintained my image of the long, lean ballerina woman that I wanted to be.
And before long, I got bored.
And not only that, but when I finally did achieve my ballerina body, I wasn’t personally satisfied with it. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with having a very slight figure – there isn’t, really. But I was coming from being 170 pounds of curves to being 120 pounds of bone, and I didn’t find that it suited me. I longed for shape. I longed for something different.
And so, I decided to try out mass building. And that’s how I discovered that a lot of my previous conceptions about it were entirely false.
First of all – women have absolutely nothing to fear from mass building, even if they don’t want large muscles. Although not true in every case, because there are some women who are simply blessed by the genetic lottery, it is impossible for a woman’s body to build muscle in the same way as a man’s. When men become large through mass building, it is an entirely different shape than women who become large through mass building. For several months now, I have been focused primarily on it, and as much as I’ve built muscle, I’m still very lean, simply because my body is not built to gain substantial size.
But turning my attention toward mass building also taught me something about the way that society views women who do just that. If you’re a woman and you tell someone that you’re looking to gain some muscle, you’ll generally hear the same comments made, over and over.
“Oh, you shouldn’t do that. You don’t want to look like a man, do you?”
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll look too masculine?”
“Men don’t like muscular women, you know.”
Let’s forget about the fact that mass building will not turn me overnight into a body builder for a minute. Let’s pretend that this imaginary reality that all of these people are so concerned about actually happened – I actually did chest press with fifty pounds and turn – poof! – into a female bodybuilder. What’s so wrong with that? Why are we so opposed to the idea of women with muscles and, even worse, why does a woman with muscles automatically equate a man?
Because, here’s the thing: getting into mass building has taught me to notice women with muscles more frequently than I did before, and women with muscles are just as beautiful and diverse as any other group of women. Some women with muscles are as masculine as the stereotype claims, speaking abruptly and connecting only with men. Some women with muscles are incredibly feminine, showing up at the gym every day in full make-up and then changing from their yoga pants to a short, pink dress afterwards. Some women with muscles are mothers, some have husbands, some are lesbians, some go to school, some work full-time, some are bodybuilding competitors, and some just like the way they look with a body strong enough to deadlift me. And every single one of these women are totally justified in what they are, and I don’t understand why so many people feel the need to dismiss them all as wrong.
The issue of body positivity is still a relatively new issue as far as the general public is concerned, and in my opinion, it’s an issue that hasn’t reached its full potential yet. We speak often about the positivity of heavier women as opposed to skinnier women, but in all of this, muscular women generally go unmentioned. We rarely talk about how odd it is that we as women are actively discouraged against gaining muscle, against making our bodies as strong as we’d like them to be. There’s nothing wrong with preferring your body to have a bit more fat on it, but there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to be fit and hard. It’s all beautiful, and it’s all just as feminine as we want it to be. Part of there being no one ‘correct’ way to have a body involves allowing woman to strive for the body that she wants, to do her mass building or her toning or her pizza binges as she feels fit. It’s all good, and it’s all beautiful, and no one should ever have to feel like they need to sacrifice their femininity in order to look a certain way.
So if you’re a woman who wants to try out mass building, then go right ahead and have fun with it! Chances are, you won’t get as large as most men who do mass building exercises, but you will gain some good muscle and be just as absolutely stunning as you perceive yourself to be (and just as feminine as you want to be as well – nobody can ever steal that from you). And to all those who feel that muscular women are too ‘masculine’ to be beautiful – why? Is it because muscles are commonly represented as a sign of strength, and our society perceives there to be something inherently wrong with strong women? Why is it that only men can get away with being strong and taking up the amount of space that muscles demand? What is wrong with a woman who does this too?
And to all you women out there, whether you be muscular, thin, heavy, overweight, feminine, masculine, or whatever – don’t ever let anyone tell you what you are and how you should be. You should be allowed to look the way you want and be the way that makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable being one way, then don’t be it! All that matters, regardless of what anyone around you says, is that you are happy with yourself and that you feel like you are beautiful in your own way.