Despite progress, gender roles are still deeply entrenched in Western civilisation, portraying the modern woman as a “damsel in distress”. This perception is perpetuated by the media, which attempts to confine women to traditional roles, and is reinforced by women themselves due to preconceived notions about femininity and womanhood.
This common archetype, seen throughout history, has laid the foundation for what characteristics and behaviour is 'appropriate'. It is for these very reasons that many women fear strength training because it goes against the mainstream narrative of what a woman's body should look like. To name a few of these characteristics:
Women should be physically attractive
Women need to be protected and rescued
Women should be thin-framed and weaker than their male counterparts
Women should not be strong
Women should be submissive
We have been conditioned to believe many things about our bodies and consequently have become disconnected from them. We do things that don’t feel right for our bodies (intense and endless cardio, for the sake of it). We ignore our bodies (the early warning signs of a cold or disease). We do things that harm our bodies (starvation diets). In contrast, we struggle to do things that are good for our bodies because we feel they do not fit inside the model we have been given. Some of these things include weight lifting, eating enough calories to support health and well-being, choosing whole foods over diet foods, and resting instead pushing ourselves to the limit because we feel we need to be perfect or perform well at all costs.
Our value as women is not determined by our body fat percentage, our shape or composition. The image we are sold of what a woman should be is rigid, narrow, damaging, and leaves many of us feeling inadequate. In the fitness industry, women’s bodies are criticised and reduced to nothing more than the amount of fat we carry and the type of diets we follow.
In many ways, we have come a long way in redefining ourselves and many counter-culture movements have begun to emerge, but there is still a long way to go for women to truly embrace their physical strength. Women should absolutely lift weights, not just to be physically stronger, but for a myriad of reasons including mental health, self-empowerment, increased bone mineral density, strength for daily life tasks and better management of health issues that affect women more than men (such as autoimmune diseases).
Some of the biggest benefits to strength training (which encompasses bodyweight exercises or lifting weights) are the following:
Becoming more present in the body
Learning movement patterns such as pushing, pulling, squatting, bending and rotating requires us to go inside our bodies and create a mind-body connection. As we perform new and demanding movements we become aware of which parts of the body are working and which areas feel tight or need some more work. It is a practice that teaches us awareness. We can gain a deeper understanding of our bodies, how it feels and how it moves.
Cultivating a stronger mindset
In the process of building physical strength we can develop mental resilience. By embracing the challenges of strength training we are encouraged to adopt a positive mindset, challenge our fears or limitations (what we think we can and can’t achieve), work with visualisation techniques and set realistic goals.
Improves mental wellbeing and stress management
Strength training, in particular, has a positive impact on stress reduction and overall well-being by helping to endorphin release, improve stress hormone regulation and enhance our mood.
Developing strength and learning proper movement patterns will help to slow the loss of bone density which reduces the risk of osteopenia, osteoporosis and fractures. The earlier you can start strength training the better since bone density begins to decline as young as 30 years old for women.
For the love of Strength: My own Journey
It was the summer of 2011 when I left the safety bubble of the cardio-only zone and ventured into the weight room. It was a daunting first step entering the male-dominated space, filled with grunts, bicep flexing and mirror posing. It was a slow and very gradual process of gaining confidence in the weight area, where no other woman was present. I made sure to enter with my training plan. The plan was a shield to not appear lost, to not show that I was unsure of myself and to not interact. It was and is an interesting microcosm.
At its core, the gym is a tool for self-empowerment and, for many, a sanctuary where one can regain a sense of control and positively influence the mind and mental outlook in a sometimes unmanageable and chaotic world.
In its negative state, the gym is a place of judgment by others, a place where one feels they don’t fit in, and a place that remains uncomfortable no matter how long they have been going for. It is my deep wish that the culture at the gym changes to one of inclusivity and acceptance.
During my time at the gym, before I built one inside my home, I received many comments, along my weightlifting journey, all related to my appearance, unpromoted of course.
"Don't get too big", "Don't lift more than the men here", "You're where you should be, you don't need to lose any more body fat", "You're too skinny, women shouldn't have abs". “Why are your biceps bigger than mine?” “Men won’t find you attractive if you lift more than them”.
The comments became more intense as my aesthetic changed to something considered less feminine. It was a difficult process, enjoying the physical changes of having more muscle mass, but then receiving unsolicited comments rejecting that look, both in person and through the media. For many years I struggled with the feeling of wanting two bodies. The one in the gym that showed my strength, which I loved, in the moment, and the body I felt I should have once I got out of my gym clothes. It was a paradox that was difficult to manage.
Now, I am extremely comfortable in my skin but the path to get there took a decade.
I believe we should empower women to make their own choices about their bodies, without judgment or criticism, and apply it to both ends of the spectrum (carrying more body fat or carrying more muscle mass) and to everything in between, with the main goal being a healthy body.
My own weight training journey has been a rewarding one. It has filled me with a sense of inner strength and confidence that was not possible for me to find elsewhere. It has been a beacon of light through darker times in my life when my mental health suffered. It has taught me how to persevere through uncomfortable moments by training with heavy weights. It has shown me how to do things that once were impossible.
Strength training can be an important tool to explore the incredible things your body can do, things you thought you could never do, like a handstand, a pull-up, a push-up. It is a process of getting into your body, discovering its capabilities and pushing yourself beyond what you thought were your limits. It is a truly rewarding process if you allow yourself to be curious about it.