Updated: Jan 3
Women are often sold the idea of 'fitness' by promising to shrink them. Declaring that you want to be smaller through dieting is often congratulated and celebrated, and the fitness industry make a packet from it. Women are sold the idea that losing weight is the key to fitness and wellbeing. It isn't.
This messaging is everywhere, and it is problematic. It results in women being afraid to lift weights for fear of getting physically bigger in any way, yet lifting weights and developing functional strength through learning how to squat, hinge, lunge, twist, pull and press safely and efficiently is one of the most beneficial all round Good Things we can do for ourselves. Developing muscle and strength however, as a woman is more challenging in terms of acceptance, because it invites a whole new category of physical changes and commentary from others upon those changes, that challenge our perceptions of what the ideal female form should look like.
It has taken me a while to mentally push away from the dominant 'get smaller' narrative, and especially as a female PT. I have had my body commented on just as often, and sometimes negatively, and more often labelled with adjectives to which I am never sure how to respond.
I mean words such as ‘Hench’, which is typically used to describe a well-defined, strong male physique. I am a woman with a functioning healthy body that has some muscle definition, but I’m by no means a bodybuilder or elite athlete. This word being associated with my body was telling me I didn't have as much 'womanly' softness anymore, and looking at myself I was sometimes taken aback by the slight masculine edge my body had developed. As a result of course a new level of self consciousness seeped in. However, this was juxtaposed with the feeling of immense joy and satisfaction of post-training rush - this delicious post workout high is what sold strength training to me, as a regular practice and then a new career. The dramatic impact it had on my mental state during my recovery was unexpected and transformative. The work I had been doing for my mental health recovery had also changed me physically. I was becoming leaner and physically much stronger, more capable and confident yet I was confused about how it felt to be referred to with a term associated with a male physique.
What did this mean for my own idea of femininity and being a woman? I questioned my own concept of femininity – largely the one we have drilled into us from a very young age, that smaller is better, delicate is better, and thinner, flatter, curvier here please – but not there. The number on the bathroom scales becomes a volatile and dangerous lens through which women see themselves - and worst of all, is prioritised over emotional and physical health. There is an unrelenting pressure on women to be smaller, smoother and appropriate for whatever trend is dominating at the time.
I came into my teens witnessing the Super Waif imagery of the Nineties, this idea that women should be smaller is hard to shake. As I started training more, half of me fought with the idea of achieving a lower body weight, and the other half was suppressing my desire to be more muscular. The conflict was real - and all this was in sharp contrast to the feeling of being fully present in my body and not dismayed by the mirror for the first time in my life. I felt more dense and solid, and I felt better.
The new feelings I was experiencing of strength and power were now being represented to the world by some visible biceps and chunkier quads, and it was confronting. I felt harder and tougher in terms of resilience, and I was enjoying this new energy I found. I wanted more of it and if that meant I was being labelled as Hench, and then so be it. I now embrace that new muscular from and try to run with it. For me, my body is always more about the physical representation of an internal process which takes consistent hard work and grit. So ultimately, anyone who refers to me as Hench is also calling my mind Hench too and you know what ? I'll have that.