Dumbbelles: Overcoming the Stigma of Women Who Weightlift
Over the summer, I began to feel more comfortable lifting among the men. All those hours in the weight room were starting to pay off—I continued to lose weight, and I was starting to get some muscle definition. So out went the short-sleeved workout gear in favor of my new sleeveless collection. My husband used this as an opportunity to taunt. “New tank top?” he’d say as I left the house for the gym. “Are the straps shrinking?” I tried to ignore his comments, but he was hitting a sore spot. Truth be told, I was growing fond of the muscles, but I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious about them. I was unable to escape the feeling that this just wasn’t how women were supposed to look. I kept thinking of all those female muscle-heads, with their orange skin and bulging veins.
And I understood that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Body image is the real reason women aren’t lifting weights. We aren’t supposed to be strong. Just look at Michelle Obama and her pumped-up biceps. The first lady’s sleeveless dresses have sparked conversation everywhere from ABC News to the opinion section of the New York Times. “She’s made her point,” columnist David Brooks quipped. “Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.” If the incredibly fit and beautiful Michelle Obama is ridiculed, what can the rest of us expect?
“Looking fit or slender is the primary goal for women,” says Charlotte Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden. Messages about the perfect female body bombard us from every angle. “People look at celebrities who have personal trainers, and they want to look like them,” says Lou Schuler, an author and strength-conditioning coach. “That’s their ideal body type.”
The logical extension of that beauty myth, of course, is the belief that muscles don’t look good on a woman, and, taking it further, that if you use heavy weights you’re going to grow huge ones. We see pictures of female bodybuilders with veins popping out of their Hulk-like shoulders, and we fear looking like them. I certainly did. “In terms of weight training and women being muscle-bound, our society is very conservative,” Wright, my trainer, says. “Women believe that anything above 10 pounds, number one, they don’t believe that they can lift it. And number two, they think they’re going to cause an overabundance of muscle. That it’s going to either put their husbands and boyfriends to shame or make them feel manly somehow.”
It took me a while to become comfortable at the gym, but as I started to look and feel better—and as the pounds fell off—my confidence began to soar. If people wanted to look, let ’em. The muscles in my shoulders and back ripple now and I’m working on the six-pack. Maybe I enjoy working out in those tank tops more than I should, but it’s not like I’m some oiled-female-Schwarzenegger psycho. Far from it. Still, I’m jacked enough that the other day, my seven-year-old son informed my husband that Mommy is stronger than he is.
I still lift heavy three times a week, and the plates are getting bigger. Big enough to attract even more attention than before. When I started, I didn’t put any weights at all on the leg-press machine. Now, it’s 355 pounds. I can bench-press 115, squat 185, do six unassisted pull-ups, and do tricep dips between two benches with a 45-pound plate on my lap. But I’m still one of the only women working out in the weight room.
What’s it going to take for other women to join Wright and me, to drop those pink Barbie bells and pick up some weights that will actually help them? It may just take time. “No one wants to be that solo pioneer, the one who gets stared at,” Schuler says. “Maybe another generation needs to come up with all of the women lifting the black plates and that will change everyone’s attitude.” He compares it to the hordes of girls who, in direct contrast to 40 years ago, are now being encouraged to play sports like soccer and hockey.
And a few promising signs point to shifting attitudes about women and weightlifting. A muscular Hope Solo combined buff with beautiful on Dancing with the Stars in 2011. Women are also increasingly seeking out information about weightlifting. After Schuler published The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle, in 2005, he was overwhelmed with letters from women asking whether they could also use the workouts, which seemed to have been designed for men. The answer was an emphatic yes, but Schuler, sensing an emerging market, published a follow-up book, The New Rules of Lifting for Women. It’s gone on to become his most popular book, selling more than 100,000 copies. Clearly, there is a new demand for instruction, which bodes well for lifting—and women.
In late November, I jogged up the stairs to the second floor of the gym, tightening the Velcro on my black weightlifting gloves. I watched a guy in his mid-forties with a bit of a gut and the requisite Under Armour attire grunt out some squats. After he finished, I headed over. He clanged the barbell onto the holding rack with one final “oomph.”
“You done?” I asked.
“Just finished.” He looked at me, taking in my 5-foot-6 frame, Tufts baseball hat, and tight black workout capris. “Here, let me take those plates off for you.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said, and then proceeded to toss two more 25-pound plates on the bar. Looking stunned, he walked over to the water fountain.
As I finished my first set, I noticed more people staring at me. It was quite a cross section: skinny soccer moms with rolled-up mats strolling to the back room for yoga class, thick-necked dudes sitting on padded weight benches who’d just dropped their 40-pound dumbbells, and a pencil-thin male runner who’d come upstairs to stretch. All eyes on me. I don’t think I was grunting or making any squat-induced bodily sounds, but then again, my iPod was blasting Nelly’s “Here Comes the Boom.”
Part of me wanted to rerack my barbell and return those looks one by one. But I had kids and a husband waiting for me at home, and I had three more sets of squats to do, so I took a swig from my water bottle and got back to it.