Lifting Weights: A Feminist Manifesto

“woman holding black weight plate” by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

If you made it to this story because you’re 97 minutes deep into content about fat to muscle ratios and the most efficient way to get a ‘bikini body’ (free tip: you have a body, put a bikini on it, voila!) I’m sorry to disappoint you.

This is a story about about how lifting weights can help transform you as a woman, but it runs much deeper than the old ‘muscle burns three times / seven times / a billion times (delete as applicable) more calories than fat’ chestnut.

Mainstream feminine’ culture is about making women smaller and less capable. Everything from the insidious diet industry that encourages us to ‘lose weight’, ‘shed pounds’, ‘fit into the jeans you wore as a hip-less, boob-less 10 year old’, to false nails, which are just impractical — ever tried searching for change for the parking meter in the bottom of your wallet with 0.5 inch nail extensions?! To high heels — yes I’m great at running in them too, but I promise you I run much faster in my very un-sexy barefoot trails shoes — not to mention they actually deform our bodies (blisters and corns in the short term, shortened calf muscles and bunions in the long term) and increasingly expensive and copious hair and beauty treatments which suck up a much larger chunk of our financial resources than they do for men.

Things that are considered societal norms for women are all, if you actually think about it (and there’s the kicker — most of us just don’t) small, creeping, every day ways to hold women back. If you wanted to dominate a whole section of society, a really good way to start would be to make sure that they were smaller, weaker, couldn’t move as quickly as you, had less financial resources and were preoccupied with surface level things that they had been led to believe are the things they should really be focussing on to get ahead — like airbrushing their ‘cellulite’ (um, natural body fat? Why does it have to have it’s own name? Might it be because a exploitative beauty industry saw an opportunity to create an insecurity in women, and then take advantage of said insecurity for financial gain?) out of selfies that they will post on Instagram?

Of course before the days of cellulite cream (overpriced moisturiser) and pervasive beauty advertising (emotional abuse) and ‘detox teas’ (laxatives), the patriarchy had that whole system down pat. Women are naturally smaller and weaker and slower than men. Women were less financially resourced because their role was in the home, not the workplace, and again because of this traditional gender role structure, women were pre-occupied with child care and house work. Pretty much all of society was in agreement that this was the way things should be. We were much easier to control then.

As time advanced and women gained more independence, autonomy and relative freedom in all areas of life, the requirements for a successful patriarchy remained the same — the oppressed must be smaller, weaker, slower, poorer and more pre-occupied with things that will not advance them as a group — than the oppressors. And so the techniques became more sophisticated. So sophisticated in fact, that women have been fooled into thinking that these small ways that are used to hold us back are things that are necessary for our enjoyment of and success in life. We even compete amongst ourselves to be more ‘beautiful’, thin, ‘sexy’ and ‘feminine’. Genius. Men don’t even need to hold us back anymore. We just do it to our damn selves.

So after that necessary and very cathartic feminist lecture, back to the original premise of this story… Why lifting weights is good for people who drive a vulva. (You’re welcome).

As a recovering codependent woman who is addicted to male attention as my primary form of self medication, I have throughout various periods of my life tried to squash myself into the ‘feminine’ mold that society has designed for me. After I cut off my long hair because I like it short, I tried to grow it out. I’ve had a very unhealthy relationship with food, including, but not limited to, using starvation and binging and purging, to try to be thinner and get rid of my cellulite. I’ve experimented with all of the following, to try to be more feminine, none of which lasted long as they were so impractical: fake tan (can’t wash effectively, it comes off and looks gross and streaky and weird), fake nails (can’t do literally anything useful, also unhygenic gunk gets stuck underneath them, they destroy the natural nail bed), false eyelashes (hours of my life wasted trying to stick the damn things on).

And despite leaving those things behind because, quite frankly, I would rather fail as woman than spend my life getting bunion surgery, scraping the cheese out from my acrylic nail extensions and not eating all day only to eat a whole pizza and throw it back up, I still spend much more money on my personal care routine than my boyfriend and I get up earlier than him to get ready for work because I feel I have to spend that extra time putting on make up, styling my hair and choosing the correct kind of outfit — not too frumpy, not too slutty, professional, yet stylish, yet accessible, yet still something I like…

However, recently I have found a small and magical way to rebel against who society tells me I should be, how I should look and how much space I am allowed to take up, physically and metaphorically.

I lift weights.

When you lift weights you cannot help but get bigger. You naturally begin to take up more space in the world. You get stronger. I am about 2kg heavier than when I started lifting weights seriously. Some of the extra weight is muscle and some of it is fat. (Due to past experiences with unhealthy eating it’s not good for me to be over analytical of macros, so sometimes, ice cream etc…) I care much less about what the scale says because I feel, I am, much stronger, than I have ever been. I go make-up less more often. Because I am stronger, I feel more empowered, I feel a little bit less like I need make-up. I just care less what other people think of me. I feel more attractive to myself, so I don’t need to feel attractive to society. More often, I just let my pixie crop dry naturally and stick a baseball cap on it, shock horror, like a boy!! My muscles are becoming more defined all over my body. I don’t look skinnier and I am buying bigger clothes and I’m not upset about it. In fact, I feel like a badass.

Another awesome bonus is that the kind of gym you join to lift weights is usually a bare bones, basic kind of place — and that’s reflected in the price. You don’t need to spend £120 a month on a gym membership to grow your quads and biceps — hurrah! You could even just get a second hand set of dumbells from Gumtree / Craigslist / Ebay and watch some instructional videos on Youtube to get started. Hence, even less time and money spent — double hurrah!!

Of course as with seemingly everything in the modern world — there are potential pitfalls. My personal top tips for avoiding these are as follows:

  • Do not follow #girlswholift on Instagram. Don’t make this about other people and their bodies. And don’t fool yourself that 3 hours of scrolling on those insanely built asses will ‘inspire’ you. Remember — we’re trying to break free of being time poor and comparing and competing.
  • Do not get into a world of weight lifting supplements and over complicate the whole thing / spend all your previously allocated to make-up budget on pre-workout. When you lift weights you’ll find that you want and need more food. Lifting weights changes your metabolism. You’ll find that to keep doing it well (which means recovering well) you need a good balance of protein, carbs and fat. Try to get those from healthy sources (you know what they are). Add in a protein shake of your choice after a workout if you like. It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated or expensive than that.
  • Make it about the weights on the stack, not the weight on the scale. Again, you will get heavier. Your body will change in positive ways but not the ways you’ve become accustomed to thinking are positive. You’ll get bigger and heavier as you get stronger. Spend more time marvelling at how your weights and reps have increased. Focus on how much more you’re lifting this month than last month. Lifting weights is a crazy easy way to watch your undeniable progress. This feels super awesome.

Will lifting weights smash the patriarchy with one overly enthusiastic drop of a dumbell onto the rubberised floor of the gym? No, of course not.

But more women feeling stronger and more empowered, spending less time and money on the trivial stuff and being more focussed on the real stuff, getting bigger and taking up more space, physically and metaphorically, little by little, that is what will turn the tides, for all of us individually, and for women as a global group.

If lifting weights can be your gateway to more of that, like it has been for me, I’ll see you at the gym babe.

Creator of Lovingly Fierce© - Helping women recover from codependency, reclaim their lives with confidence and live Lovingly Fierce. IG: @jowestwood