Introduction

AH here we go, another blog about health and fitness. I know what you might be thinking but I can assure you, my goal is not to preach or push another female body ideal onto you. Besides, Instagram can already do that for you. Instead, I aim to open up discussion around why women might be shying away from being their own #BodyGoals and discuss the benefits of weight lifting beyond outward appearance- Yes!  Your health is important too. But first, I think it is important to talk about why the sport of power lifting and bodybuilding can be so intimidating and sometimes even, off putting.

Social Media and #FITSPIRATION 

“Today, beauty (and the ideal body weight) is not exactly in the eye of the beholder, but in the body image presented by the media and sold to a malleable public” (Bonafini & Pozzilli, 65)

If you are active on Social Media specifically Instagram, you are likely no stranger to the hash tag “#fitspiration” (fitness inspiration). The intention behind “Fitspiration” is to inspire people to live healthy and fit lifestyles through motivating and encouraging exercise and diet related images and quotes (Holland & Tiggermand, 1). In addition to this are the women who have infamously been deemed “Instagram fit chicks” or “IG Fitness Models.”  If you are unfamiliar with these women, here’s a little glimpse:

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This concept sparked the idea that “strong is the new skinny”. Gone are the days women strived to be skinny, they now want to be strong, lean and toned. Fitness models and the Fitspiration hash tag have become a social media phenomenon. The issue here is that while the intentions behind these kinds of posts can be positive (not always), they promote outward appearance over health benefits of diet and exercise. Additionally, they only showcase one body type, one that is lean and toned- a body type unattainable for most women (Holland & Tiggermand, 1). Some Fitspiration posts also normalize the experience of pain, suffering and even puking (GURL.. WHAT!?):

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Um…

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Is this ridiculous, or is this ridiculous?

In a study done on #Fitspiration posts, researchers found that women who post Fitspiration images on Instagram were more likely to engage in harmful eating and exercise behaviours that put their physical and mental health at risk (Holland & Tiggermand, 3). The same study found that nearly a 5th of the women who posted fitspiration photos were at risk for a “clinically significant eating disorder,” and suggested that for some women, “posting fitspiration is a culturally sanctioned way of rationalizing dietary restriction, disordered eating, and over-exercising” (3). It seems as though this whole fitspiration trend might be more harmful than motivational after all. These “inspirational” messages that essentially say ‘everything other than quitting is acceptable’, in conjunction with all the attractive, lean and toned female fitness models plastered all over our Instagram feeds, will inevitably make us feel like sh** about ourselves.

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But I Don’t Want to Look Like A Man!

Okay, I’ll admit it- even I have used some variation of this line before. Before I knew anything about weight lifting, I always assumed it would make me look ‘masculine’. If you have ever thought this way, don’t feel too bad, because athletic women who demonstrate signs of strength, muscle and sweat are often considered ‘outside the boundaries of appropriate femininity since traditionally these displays have been associated with masculinity’ (Lowe, 10). In her book on female bodybuilders, Maria R. Lowe breaks down two ways in which athletic women have historically been treated
1. Being labeled deviant — unfeminine, manlike, or lesbian, to name a few; or
2. Being recast to fit within the dominant patriarchal views of femininity” (10)

We live in a world that is constantly telling women what it means to be feminine and womanly. For decades, the ideal body image for women has constantly shifted, “the metamorphosis of the ideal woman follows the shifting role of women in society from mother and mistress to career-orientated individual” (Bonafini & Pozzilli, 65). Because you know, as women we can only be one “type” of woman *eyeroll*.  It has been ideal for women to be curvy, skinny and lean but not all at once (64). This can be very problematic and overwhelming for the female figure. We have to be beautiful, have flat stomachs, thigh gaps all while somehow still being curvy?!?! I don’t know about you, but I cannot keep up.

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Individualism and freedom do not exist when we are bombarded with such ideals and expectations. Bring weight lifting into this mix and it is a recipe for confusion. Society literally has a fear of women with muscles.  The strong, muscular, body has been regarded as masculine or as linked directly to masculinity (Couture, 124; Weigers, 147-8). Therefore, when women gain a considerable amount of muscle, they challenge the norms of what it means to be “womanly.” Society and the media have not made the image of muscles on women acceptable or attractive (up until recently). It is to no surprise then that women may begin to wonder, ‘how am I supposed to maintain my femaleness while lifting heavy and gaining muscle?’. It is truly unfair that many women will deprive themselves of reaching their full potential in the name of formulated femininity.

SEX-TESTING OF FEMALE ATHLETES

If you are not familiar with the history of sex-testing or gender verification in sports, GURL- wait till you hear this…

Before I spill the tea, let us first note that women’s movement into sport “represents a genuine quest by women for equality, control of their own bodies, and self-definition, and as such it represents a challenge to the ideological basis of male domination” (Messner, 198). Meaning, female athletes take pride in their success as women in a male dominated field, and work really damn hard to get to where they are in the patriarchal world of sports. With that said, there exists a test that is used in the Olympics and other sporting events that legitimates the gender of athletes to verify one’s eligibility to compete in a single sex sporting event. Essentially, women who have dedicated their lives and built great strength and athleticism can be questioned for their sex BECAUSE OF THEIR STRENGTH AND ATHLETICISM.

Between 1968 and 1998, sex testing was mandatory for all athletes competing in women’s Olympic events. This process required testing skin cells, commonly scraped from the inside of an athlete’s mouth for any indication of a Y chromosome (the male chromosome). Female athletes whose tests proved they had the XX sex chromosomes were eligible to compete in women’s events, while others who showed Y chromosome, were “subjected to greater scrutiny and may be disqualified unless and until they are able to present sufficient evidence of their femininity to athletic officials” (Wackwitz, 553-4). These tests do not look the same today, as questions of female athlete’s sex are dealt with on a case by case basis when their strength, skills and outward appearance challenge the norms of femininity (553). The madness does not stop there- today, female athletes can also be tested for hyperandrogenism – ‘a medical condition that causes an excessive amount of testosterone in the body‘ that can potentially disqualify them from competing.

Dutee Chand

In the summer of 2014, Dutee Chand, a professional sprinter and Olympic athlete was
dumbfounded when she realized she had undergone a gender verification test.inside2_1461933923.jpg

Without her knowledge, Dutee had an ultrasound and blood test done for the purpose of sex testing in Delhi, India. After her success in June 2014 at a national championship in Taipei, competitors and coaches took to the I.A.A.F (International Association of Athletics Federations) to report concerns that “her physique seemed suspiciously masculine: Her muscles were too pronounced, her stride was too impressive for someone who was only five feet tall” (Padawer, 2016). Results came back that her ““male hormone” levels were too high, meaning she produced more androgens, mostly testosterone, than most women did” (Padawer, 2016). Following these test results, officials told Dutee that she could not compete for a year and that she could return to her national team after lowering her testosterone levels (Padawer, 2016). 

Similar to Dutee Chand, tennis stars, Serena and Venus Williams and mixed martial arts professional, Ronda Rousey have been ridiculed for their muscular appearance. A member apart of the Olympic committee referred to the Williams sisters as the “Williams brothers”. Rousey  (right) has been slammed on social media for being “too masculine,” and Twitter users have said Serena Williams (left) is “built like a man” and she was even ridiculed for the way her body looked in what media referred to as a catsuit, but in actuality this was clearly a jab at her muscular, powerful body (Schultz, 351).

When women like Chand are being questioned for their sex based on their athletic skill and muscular appearance, and some of the best athletes in the world are deemed too masculine by society, it’s no wonder there is a stigma around women and weightlifting. The process of gender verification testing must undoubtedly be one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing practices for women (and men) to undergo. I think it is safe to assume no woman wants to be questioned on the sex they were genetically born into.

OKAY, TAKE A BREATHE. I ASSURE YOU, THERE ARE PLENTY OF POSITIVE SIDES TO WEIGHTLIFTING. 

With all this madness I have discussed thus far, I know it might be difficult to see the positive end of weight lifting for women. I came across this video on Instagram (ironic, I know) and I feel the need to share before I continue…

CLICK HERE TO WATCH: https://www.instagram.com/p/BNhOB0ghSr5/

Now that you have watched this very inspiring video, I ask you to keep its message in the back of your mind for the rest of this post and hopefully, for the rest of your life. As women, our focus should be less on outward appearance and more so inner health. Lets be real, once our inner health is in check, our outer appearance will inevitably improve. Okay disclaimer, I am about to get real personal here. Coming from a woman who has dealt with eating disorders, obsessing over calories and working out, I can confidently say the moment I stopped stressing over what I looked like on the outside, I was able to see exercising in a new light. Today, I view weightlifting as a fun and challenging activity and I swear this is me now:

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But in all seriousness, weightlifting has so many health benefits for women (and men too, of course) including increased metabolism, especially through resistance weight training, a healthier waist circumference, reduced back pain, stabilized body fat and weight, and the long term preservation of lean mass. Not to mention weightlifting, and exercising in general improves mental health. An article from one of my favourite websites http://www.bodybuilding.com highlights the top 8 reasons women should weightlift, this list includes, 1) more effective fat loss, 2) increased calorie expenditure, 3) curves (okay I know I said not to focus on outward appearance but curves will be inevitable, so hurray for creating your own curves and your own #BodyGoals), 4) quality sleep (YAAAAS) 5) increased energy, 6) heart health 7) bone health and finally, 8) stress relief (DOUBLE YAAAAS). Now try telling yourself weightlifting is not good for you!

Whether or not this has inspired you to pick up a dumbbell, step in the squat rack or give the Smith machine a chance (a relationship I promise you will not regret), I hope one of the bigger takeaways I have highlighted is that femininity should have no definitive description, no boundaries, no ideals. At the same time we have learned that there is this ideal body image women should strive for, we have also heard a more important rhetoric that women come in all shapes and sizes and no matter which “category” we fit into, we should embrace it and be the best, healthiest version of ourselves, and ourselves only. YOU GURL, YOU are your own competition. I encourage you to squash those fears of “getting too big,” because I can assure you there is no such thing.

So what are you waiting for?! GURL, PICK UP YOUR WEIGHTS!

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Works Cited

Bea, J. W., Cussler, E. C., Going, S. B., Blew, R. M., Metcalfe, L. L., & Lohman, T. G. (2010). Resistance training predicts six-year body composition change in postmenopausal women. Medicine and science in sports and exercise42(7), 1286.

Bonafini, B. A., & Pozzilli, P. (2011). Body weight and beauty: the changing face of the ideal female body weight. Obesity reviews12(1), 62-65.

Camporesi, S. (2016, August 09). Why Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand deserve to compete (and win) at Rio 2016. Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://theconversation.com/why-caster-semenya-and-dutee-chand-deserve-to-compete-and-win-at-rio-2016-63727

Couture, J. (2016). Triathlon Magazine Canada and the (re)construction of female sporting bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33(2), 124-134.

English, J. (2013, July 26). Strong is the new skinny out in the social media world. CBC News. Retrieved December 2, 2016, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/strong-is-the-new-skinny-out-in-the-social-media-world-1.1311765

Fonooni, N. (n.d.). Ladies and Lifting: How Serious Strength Can Build a Sexy Physique. Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://www.schwarzenegger.com/fitness/post/ladies-and-lifting-how-serious-strength-can-build-a-sexy-physique

Heggie, V. (2010). Testing sex and gender in sports; reinventing, reimagining and reconstructing histories. Endeavour34(4), 157-163.
Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). “Strong beats skinny every time”: Disordered eating and compulsive exercise in women who post fitspiration on Instagram. International Journal of Eating Disorders.

IOC to seek explanation from Shamil Tarpischev over ‘Williams brothers’ slur. (2014). Retrieved December 02, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/oct/20/serena-williams-venus-tarpischev-slur-ioc

Kell, R. T., & Asmundson, G. J. (2009). A comparison of two forms of periodized exercise rehabilitation programs in the management of chronic nonspecific low-back pain. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research23(2), 513-523.

Lowe, M. R. (1998). Women of steel: Female bodybuilders and the struggle for self-definition. NYU Press.

Mekary, R. A., Grøntved, A., Despres, J. P., De Moura, L. P., Asgarzadeh, M., Willett, W. C., … & Hu, F. B. (2015). Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long‐term waist circumference change in men. Obesity23(2), 461-467.

Osterberg, K. L., & Melby, C. L. (2000). Effect of acute resistance exercise on postexercise oxygen consumption and resting metabolic rate in young women. International journal of sport nutrition10(1), 71-81.

Padawar, R. (2016), The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes, nytimes.com, Accessed Dec 2, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/magazine/the-humiliating-practice-of-sex-testing-female-athletes.html?_r=0

Rosdahl, J. (2014, January 13). Why do we find muscular women wildly perplexing? Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://theconversation.com/why-do-we-find-muscular-women-wildly-perplexing-21846

Schultz, J. (2005). Reading the Catsuit Serena Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 US Open. Journal of Sport & Social Issues29(3), 338-357.

Strickland, J. C., & Smith, M. A. (2014). The anxiolytic effects of resistance exercise. Frontiers in psychology5, 753.

Thornton, M. K., & Potteiger, J. A. (2002). Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Medicine and science in sports and exercise34(4), 715-722.

Wackwitz, L. A. (2003, December). Verifying the myth: Olympic sex testing and the category “woman”. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 553-560). Pergamon.
Wiegers, Y. (1998). Male bodybulding: the social construction of a masculine identity. The Journal of Popular Culture32(2), 147-161.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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