When I first learned to lift weights in high school in the late 1980s, my coach explained that it was OK for us to lift weights because as women, we wouldn’t bulk up. He was one of those old-school guys who wore stripey gym socks and would whack you with a wet towel, so naturally I trusted his advice.
When I started this site in 1996 (!!) over 20 (!!!) years ago, I promoted the same message: “It’s OK to lift weights! You won’t get hyuge because blah blah blah no testosterone!”
Since then, of course, lots of well-meaning coaches have tried to explain this to female clients in order to get them to actually touch a heavy weight.
This isn’t wrong, exactly. Not technically, anyway.
It’s true that the average woman will have a fraction of the testosterone of the average man of the same age. Testosterone is one of the primary anabolic (building-up) hormones that promotes muscle gain.
And, if you’ve ever seen the effects of testosterone supplementation, especially at supra-physiological (higher-than-normal) doses, you’ll understand how powerful this hormone can be.
(Side note: Never assume anyone who makes a living — or even a serious hobby — from their physique is “natural”. Just saying.)
For most women, it’s hard to “bulk up”.
Some estimates say that the average woman who’s training hard might be very lucky to gain 1 lb of muscle a month at most.
In one sense, it’s appropriate to tell our female clients about this physiological fact.
It’s important to set expectations based on evidence and reality.
But over the years, I’ve started to wonder WHY we try to assuage fears about “bulking up” in the first place.
Why do we effectively assume that being bigger is always bad?
Why do we tell women not to worry about getting bigger?
Why do we implicitly suggest that “getting bigger” is a legitimate fear rather than a fucked up worldview about what size means?
(Not to mention a particularly white, middle-class, Anglo North American heterosexual neurosis.)
What about the women who DO get bigger?
Are they broken?
Why does it make any goddamned sense at all to try to shrink everyone, all the time?
Can we ever be small enough, thin enough, lean enough, invisible enough? Of course not.
(The fact that there’s a size 0 testifies to this. What the hell is a zero? Nothingness? Obliteration? What’s smaller than 0? Size -2? Are you a black hole?)
Speaking of women’s clothing, most grown-up women’s clothes are specifically cut to impede you from moving around or lifting your arms. Try an overhead press in a woman’s suit jacket and you’ll see what I mean.
Plus, they’re cut with the assumption that you should have toothpick arms even if you’re 6′ tall. Nothing wrong with either toothpick or log arms, it would just be nice to have the choice when it comes to dressing up like an adult.
We are afraid of size.
One of middle-class white North American culture’s worst insults is “fat”.
(Oh shit I just said the F-word.)
If you think about it, that’s not only insane…
That’s got nothing to do with how bodies actually are, or work.
Some bodies are bigger.
Some bodies are smaller.
Some bodies are in-between.
Some bodies, when they train, get smaller… and some get bigger… and some stay more or less the same, just fitter.
Some bodies have more body fat, some bodies have less.
That’s just how things are.
I often like to use these slides about body variation when I present on coaching.
The idea is not that certain kinds of training will make you one way or another (as people often suggest).
In other words, wrestling won’t magically turn you into a human tank, nor will marathon running magically turn you into a bundle of sticks held together by tendons. All the swimming in the world won’t turn my stumpy, dense, sinks-in-water ass into Michael Phelps.
You have to already be going down that path of human-tank-ness or stick-bundle-tude or reincarnated water snake to get there.
The idea is:
Human bodies are incredibly diverse and variable.
Instead of “fixing ourselves” (because we aren’t broken), we find our niche.
We find the sports and activities and movements that we love, and that love us back.
We move in ways that feel good, that express our physical strengths and gifts — no matter what those are.
And there are so, so many ways to move.
Stop trying to jam YOUR unique body into someone else’s workout plan, or activity roster, or stupid rules.
For years, I felt embarrassed by my thickness.
(Thickness is relative, of course. I’m only 5 feet tall, so any claims to being a monster are more like claims to being an angry gnome.)
My sisters and I — all of the Sturdy Stump Tribe — joked (but not really) about our “thunder thighs”. I despaired of ever finding boots that fit my calves. Shopping for pants… I can’t even.
Then it dawned on me…
Feeling shame about my body’s natural configuration isn’t cool.
Not only that:
There is a long history of categorizing bodies in Western culture.
And that history is ableist, sexist and racist as fuck.
Shame about bodies of all kinds — because they’re differently abled, because they’re one shape or another, because they’re a certain colour, or height, or gender configuration, or whatever, is a longstanding tradition.
Hair. Butts. Boobs. Bellies. Noses. Eyes. Skin colour. Skull shape. Lips. The list is endless.
And it’s not accidental. Someone or something has to write that list and make sure the rules are enforced (cough cough Lady Gaga body shaming cough).
I don’t mean there’s an evil conspiracy, but isn’t it convenient that the physical social ideal for women just happens to be the body type we most often see among social elites like rich people and A-list celebrities?
And it’s most often white and European and supposedly pleasing to manpeople or least makers of fashion things?
And it spends a lot of time tottering around on pins or jammed into uncomfortable underwear or in weird positions with possibly a broken spine?
What an amazing coincidence!!
Surely accidental though.
If we step back and take a broader view:
This isn’t just a woman problem.
We assume that guys are immune to fear of size.
The concept of “bigorexia”, now recognized by some as a clinical disorder, suggests that the average male gym rat is most likely to get obsessed with becoming monstrous.
While it’s true that the gender of the person most likely to use the term “sidewalk-cracking” in an approving way is male, in reality, many men also struggle with size.
Bigger men often claim the identity of “big guy” to hide shame and insecurity.
If you’re a thick dude and you want to look for fitness role models, you don’t actually have many.
Nearly every men’s health and fitness magazine cover ripples with lumpy lean abs tacked on to a wasp-waisted, shrink-wrapped guy who usually had to work hard to add size. Sure, big biceps are supposedly cool, but there’s rarely a mention of hockey asses, thunder thighs, or tree-stump calves.
Here’s a rare exception — the Game of Thrones strongman Hafthór Björnsson, who is 6’9″ and 416 lb.
When baseball player Prince Fielder hit the ESPN Body Issue, fat fascists came out in force to tell him his body was all wrong.
When the hatas hit Fielder, he shot back:
A lot of people probably think I’m not athletic or don’t even try to work out or whatever, but I do.
Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you can’t be an athlete.
And just because you work out doesn’t mean you’re going to have a 12-pack.
I work out to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability.
Other than that, I’m not going up there trying to be a fitness model.
Thick dudes may struggle to find their icons, but thick gals… well. It’s a pretty barren desert.
Still waiting for the Women’s Health equivalent cover of Hafthóra Björnsdottir to appear.
In fact, I will personally pay you $10 if you find me a women’s fitness magazine that features a stone-lifting Amazon on the cover, like Tina Kirk:
OK, there was that ESPN Body Issue with thrower Amanda Bingson.
And ultra-runner Mirna Valerio in Runner’s World:
It’s time to embrace thickness.
I’m not saying “thick is the new skinny” or whatever bullshit people like to say to make something OK.
I’m not even saying that “thick” is a particular thing, like “you have to be this tall to ride the ride”. Sometimes thickness is more a state of mind than a specific shape or size.
I’m saying humans are diverse and that’s amazing.
I’m saying thick is good and thin is good and everything in between is good and shit that hasn’t even been invented is probably good too.
I’m saying find your joy and your power in YOUR body and its gifts.
I’m saying move, and keep moving, in the ways that love you.
I’m saying HELL YEAH THICK FUCKING PRIDE is what I’m saying.
I’m saying recognize that cultural ideas about bodies probably have some fucked up origins and nothing to do with YOU.
Recently, I was stopped at a crosswalk on my bike, waiting to cross. The street was under construction, so there was a cop directing traffic. While we waited for some cars to pass, he looked me up and down.
Him: “Nice day.”
Me: “Sure is.”
Him: “Where you off to?”
Me: “Wrestling class.”
Him: [pause] “God damn it, your traps are huge.”
Yep, I’ve intimidated a burly cop with my traps. Achievement unlocked!!!
Stop being ashamed and start being proud.
Stop punishing your body and start having fun with it.
Stop shrinking and starving, and start filling out whatever outline YOU make.
Say the words “fat” and “thick” and “big” out loud. Roll around in them.
Even if words like these don’t apply to you (which is, again, perfectly fine), rob them of their power to hurt you, and start using them to inspire you.
SIDEWALK-CRACKING. BEAST. HUGE. MONSTER. CHUNKY.
Maybe your shame words are the opposite: NO BOOBS. SCRAWNY. BONY. SKELETOR. LOOKS LIKE A DUDE.
Maybe your shame words are heterosexist, or racist, or ableist, or some creatively nasty insult that a schoolyard bully jammed into your ribs when you were nine, may that hateful turd of a kid be cursed with eternal hemorrhoids thank you Jebus.
Whatever shit-syllables they are, find your own shame words and stomp on them.
Use, don’t abuse your foundation. Don’t waste it, or waste it away.
Embiggen and enthicken your mind.
The fine folks over at Girls Gone Strong have some good resources on embracing the swole:
Also check out my interview with Cheryl Haworth.