In my teens, I was all “knees and elbows”.
In my 20’s I was obsessively thin.
At 30, after giving birth to my second child, I felt my metabolism lurch. Suddenly I couldn’t eat all that I wanted and stay perfectly thin. Although I never reached the stage of being overweight, I knew that the slowing of my metabolism would not improve and I would be gaining weight for the rest of my life if I did not change something. My family told me that it was natural to gain weight in my 30’s—and so it is—but I was not one to be content with developing a “mature figure”. I bought a Tae-Bo tape, later a copy of Body-for-Life, and eventually The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. I joined a gym and found a veteran bodybuilder to train me.
As my body began to firm and change, I looked for information on what I should do to continue to improve and found that there was comparatively very little written on how women should train differently than men. Much of the available material discussed the socially attractive side of female fitness, the toned look. Simply “toned” did not seem to be what I wanted since I was already thin, but I also knew that I was not destined to look like Lenda Murray. I wanted a look between these end marks; later I realized that what I wanted to achieve was a fit, lightly muscled, but highly feminine look. My quest for knowledge has eventually been rewarded by an ever-expanding web of information, and by a vast amount of self-discovery.
As my body has developed, so has much more. The gaining of strength in my arms and my legs is proportional to an increase in strength of mind and spirit. Strangely, for me, the biggest reward of bodybuilding, has ultimately come down to increased confidence as manifested in not only physical power, but also in increased control of my mind, spirit, and body.
In its simplest form, confidence comes down to vanity and with the outward changes in my body has come the simple enjoyment of my increased attractiveness. For the first time in my life, I get noticed in public and I wear shorts and sleeveless shirts without hesitation. Being lean and lithe and firm is often cause for an increase in attention from both sexes; however, being a woman, this can often be negative as it is inevitably said that a thin and fit woman is “lucky.” The fact that she sweats it out in a gym an hour or more each day and denies herself those extra cookies is of little note. I have born much criticism from family and friends about being “obsessed” and needing to “live a little.” What is often dismissed as shear vanity in a female is often, in reality, a sense of pride and increased self-worth that comes from enjoying the payoff of that hard work in the gym.
Beyond that simple pride comes a deeper confidence that if I can change my body, I can change my life. I am in control. I see much less hesitation in my manner and face most tasks these days with a sureness that I never before possessed. As I learned that lifting a weight at a particular angle developed a specific segment of the muscle, so have I seen that looking at an outside issue from disparate angles can more fully develop the mind. As I have learned to be patient and control both the positive and the negative movements of the weight, so I have learned patience in other aspects of my life. Control causes an increase in development and strength in many areas, not just bodybuilding.
And finally, I have realized the simple physical pleasure of possessing strength. I can lift more, run harder and am more active at 34 than I was 10 years ago. Hundreds of articles and books and web sites are dedicated to listing the various benefits of weight and cardio-vascular training, but it comes down to feeling good and feeling strong, being able to do what you want or need with a minimum of help. Physical strength is its own reward. The independence that accompanies increased physical strength further increases confidence in my own abilities.
So it follows that I am happy with the progress I have made, but I can never see a point when I will be content to stop improving my body, as I hope to never reach the day when I have nothing more I wish to learn. So where do I fit into society?
Bodybuilding is still a rather unconventional sport for women. For every group of guys lifting hard in the gym, there will be a singular female. Generally, women are accepted once we have been noted as being dedicated, but to other women we are still very much on the outside. It becomes tiresome explaining that: no, I am not afraid of getting big, or yes, I really do eat carbs, and finally, NO, you CAN NOT see my stomach! Women have even been so bold as to ask if, at my low body fat, I still have a period. My grandmother illuminated the “fact” for me that it just wasn’t feminine to push my body so hard and men did not LIKE girls with muscles; women were meant to be soft.
In confronting such gender Stereotypes, I appreciate that my body has natural, genetic limits, and that it is inherently unique, and thus responds to training and dietary changes as such. My mind however is far less limited than my body and my range of perception is inexhaustible if only I choose to open my eyes and my mind ever wider.
As to my Granny’s belief that men do not like women with muscles, I will agree to a certain extent, as there are men who indeed are not attracted to “buff” women, just as there are men and women who do not prefer redheads or tall girls. But there are another group of men who do not like muscular women more on the basis of what the muscle signifies about that woman. A woman who is in good shape is a woman who has goals and obvious strength; she must be dedicated to strengthening her body, and she will usually be unafraid, if not proud, to show it. Some men do not like the manifestation of physical strength because they feel that it somehow lessens their own masculinity to be seen with such an obviously strong female, but others like less the signs of personal pride and character in a fit woman’s appearance, which all but scream that this is indeed a woman who can achieve and will not be held in check if she does not want to be.
Conversely, there are men who are attracted to that lone woman sweating it out in the squat rack, not because of her looks so much as because HERE he sees determination and more than physical strength, HERE is character. This woman has the pride and self-respect to build her body and the courage to persevere in spite of some harsh criticism. A man who recognizes this woman as being someone outside the norm also knows that these character traits will follow this buff chick beyond the walls of the weight room.
As I proceed in with my own insatiable quest for perfection I find that this is a personal sport and we each gain different insights from it. I have learned to make better use of my other gifts as I have developed the confidence to change my body. I have learned that any changes that I wish to make in my life are up to me to make. When I get up and go to the gym at 4:30 a.m. to improve myself, it is for me that I am going, and it MUST be only for me. This strength that I find inside can only be useful when I develop it to please myself; it is not a gift that I can give another person, nor something I do to please those around me.
While it is nice that my husband likes my stomach and it is great that I am asked how I got arms like these, when it comes down to it, at 4:30 every morning, it is up to me to do what needs to be done in the weight room. And after that . . . it is up to me and only me to do what needs to be done to keep improving myself for the rest of the day.