Women and Strength Training

A note on women and strength training from Emily: 

Recently, we coaches and interns were brainstorming topics to cover on the CFNH blog. I volunteered to write something about the age-old female fear of getting “too bulky” from strength training. The truth is, there’s been much ink spilled on this topic by fitness gurus and armchair experts alike, and the general consensus is 1) you won’t, and 2) why are you so worried about that, anyway? I was struggling to come up with an angle that hadn’t already been covered more eloquently by a Games athlete or someone with more credentials (see here, here and here).

Then, in a bizarre coincidence, something happened in my own life that gave me an intensely personal perspective on the issue, and I decided I’d try to write something after all.

Here’s the background: A good friend of mine is getting married this summer, and her fiancé and I have become close as well. A couple of weeks ago, he asked if I was free to come over for lunch on a weekend when I knew she would be out of town, saying he had something he wanted to talk to me about. It seemed a little strange, but I tried to focus on the potential positive scenarios: maybe he wanted help planning a surprise for the wedding?

So last weekend, fresh from a CFNH Saturday morning chipper, I headed over to their house. This man sat me down at his kitchen table, but the mood was far from positive. He appeared flustered, hesitant. I was nervous. Where was this going? Was he having doubts about the wedding? Had I done something to offend him or her?

After much hemming and hawing, he finally spit it out: “I just wanted to tell you that… some men… might not be attracted to women who are really muscular.”

What? That was it? He was staging an intervention because he thought I was too muscular?

Shocked and confused, I went silent as he expounded on his point. I picked at my calluses and stared at a spot on the kitchen floor. Finally I mumbled something about how fitness was a really important part of my life, and I wasn’t willing to give it up, and anyone I’m with will need to understand and respect that, and also I had a lot of errands to run and should probably get going.

Over the next day or so, I discussed what had happened with many trusted friends and family members, both male and female. The general consensus was that this guy was way out of line, and I had the right and responsibility to tell him that. So I penned an email explaining how hurtful his words were and why, and went to sleep, confident that the next morning I would wake up to a profuse apology and we could move on.

But instead of recognizing his error, he doubled down. Instead of an apology, I’d received a 1,200-word treatise elaborating on and defending his point, invoking, among other things, notions of masculinity and femininity, evolution, the “primitive subconscious,” and cultural taboos. I’ll spare you the complete text in favor of a few choice quotes (yes, these are direct and unaltered):

1. “…a girl that becomes too buff risks losing suitors, and if I had to guess, appears to trigger a certain evolutionary mechanism that puts her out of bounds of desirability.”

If you choose to stop reading here I completely understand.

Still with me? I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself.

Wait, actually, don’t bother; it gets worse.

2. “Where is that line? Hard to define precisely. But I (shamelessly) went on line and found these photos, to make my point more tangible, in hopes of making it more helpful.”

Immediately following this were several links to Google images providing three examples of women he considered “lean,” and three women he considered “buff.” It took me a moment to work out that “buff” was a euphemism for “bulky”—in other words, the “wrong side” of the line.

I clicked on the links. All six women had visible abs and well-defined shoulder, back and arm muscles. They were photographed in flattering poses or mid-movement displays of strength, and they appeared natural, healthy, and confident.

I squinted. Hard. Were those subtle shoulder striations the difference between “lean” and “bulky”? Was it that extra inch or two in the bicep? Those veins in the forearm? Reflexively I looked down at my own body. Did I look more like specimen A, or specimen D?

I closed the links, feeling sick.

The email continued with some practical advice:

3. “Fortunately, I think there is a middle ground, and giving up Crossfit altogether might not be necessary. … From my experience … lowering the intensity or regularity of exercise or both has a significant impact on body mass.”

Not much to say about that; it’s technically the truth, after all.

As you might imagine, the whole incident evoked a rather hellish cocktail of emotions: shock, rage, hurt, and yes—even if short-lived and unfounded—self-doubt. But mostly I felt a deep sadness. Sadness upon realizing that countless other women must have similar stories of being told that they are “too” something: too fat, too skinny, too muscular, too scrawny, too curvy, too bulky. Sadness that society had not presented this man with more images of strong, athletic women over the course of his life, such that he might have grown up to find them beautiful and inspiring rather than manly and undesirable. Sadness that our culture has such a narrow band of female body types that are considered attractive that, after a year and a half of prioritizing fitness (and, incidentally, losing, not gaining, weight), I had somehow managed to knock myself out of that band, at least in the eyes of one man, who felt entitled to tell me so.

Don’t get me wrong: we all have our aesthetic preferences, both for ourselves and for our partners. That’s okay. What is NOT okay is to assume a one-size-fits-all model of attractiveness, and to communicate that to anyone who does not fit it.  What is NOT okay is to forget that while physiques can change with exercise and nutrition, ultimately, underlying genetics set a certain range for our body size and composition, and suggesting that someone chase measurements outside that range in hopes of appealing to a wider segment of the population is no less absurd than suggesting they change their eye color or their height. What is NOT okay is to make anyone—but especially a woman—who has chosen to pursue health and fitness second-guess those choices, even for an instant, by telling her that the result of her hard work has somehow made her less appealing to a potential partner.

Anyway, the story ends like this: later that day I hit the gym extra hard, and I’m considering buying this guy a CFNH on-ramp gift certificate as a wedding present.

To everyone whom I’ve already told this to, thank you for your outpouring of love and support. My intent in sharing something so personal on this forum is not to seek sympathy, but rather to make others aware that these things DO happen. They happen to people of all body types, at all points in their fitness journey. Don’t perpetrate them, and don’t fall victim to them. Be proud of your body for what it can do, not just how it looks. Build each other up, don’t tear each other down. Maybe I'm preaching to the choir here, but I believe we as a fitness community have a responsibility to fight body-shaming not just inside the gym, but in society at large. So let’s all be ambassadors for the cause.


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