A guest blog by Autumn Barlow
In this blog post I want to write about female body image, fitness … and joy. Celebration. Positivity. Love. Support. And laughter.
Twelve weeks ago, I would not have imagined I would be writing that. Indeed, you only have to stray onto the internet to be assailed by a ream of blog posts and articles which warn you about the trials and pitfalls of simply being in possession of a female-presenting body. You will always be too big, too small, too muscular, too rounded, too angular, just too real.
Twelve weeks ago, I decided to join a gym. I had a few reasons; after the death of our dog, I lost all motivation to go walking or cycling, and a history of medicinal steroids for Crohn’s Disease has left my bones thinner than average. The best thing for bone density, I found, was “resistance” training, also known as strength training, also known as … weightlifting. In my case, I chose powerlifting.
I googled. I read article after article that warned me about the terrors I was about to face. The articles told me I was going to be doing A Good Thing but that no one else would understand. I would have strangers warning me to “not get too muscular.” I would have men looking at me in the gym and trying to “mansplain” things to me. I read case studies and facebook posts where women documented their struggles to be taken seriously in the weights room. The negatives were endless; women struggling to eat enough for their training because society was judging them. Women trying to hide their toned arms. Women being used as bad examples to others – the woman who overheard a trainer tell his client not to use the big weights “Or you’ll look like her over there.”
I compiled a mental list of witty comebacks and strode into the gym with a face like a slapped arse. Come on, I snarled. Let’s have it.
Three months later, and I’m still waiting to be able to use those cutting retorts.
There is a website I have been following which talks about the everyday oppressions that many people experience; it discusses issues of race, sex, gender, able-ism and concepts of the “other”. I have read it, daily, for many months.
I recently unfollowed it.
Day after day, to be told that whatever you do – in whatever way you try to understand and be an ally – you will always be, somehow, wrong or privileged or in some way too entitled to ever really understand – that is draining. I ended up feeling like the very fact that I was trying to educate myself on issues was a problem! My desire to understand was a symptom of my education privilege, my intellectual privilege, these walls not of my own making that would forever see me on the other side, the evil oppressor.
When you go looking for wrongs, you can find them very easily. I went into the gym fired up and ready to take on the world because I had been told that the world was out to get me.
I am not dismissing the horrible and negative experiences that many women have had in the gym. And men, too; how terrifying is it for anyone to walk into a place where everything is unfamiliar and the rules are unwritten? No wonder that many people, if they find the courage to step inside, leap straight onto a running machine – they are near the door and they are simple to work out how to use – and they never make it to the sweaty freeweights section in a dark corner. I judge no one on their choices in the gym. Everyone who is there is damn brave.
And I acknowledge the disgusting comments that some women have heard; the well-meaning patronising advice; the sneers; the dismissals; and the abuse. I do.
But that’s not what this post is about. Not today. This post is about my experience … and my profound gratitude to my allies. Those who have tried to be an ally. You have succeeded. Thank you.
I hope that you, too, have people in your life – friends or family or strangers – who have helped you and supported you. It’s not always done overtly or directly. It might be the man in the gym who you don’t know, who chooses to stand at an angle while he does his biceps curls, so that he is not facing you head-on and intimidating you. Did you notice that he did that? It’s a small thing. But an important one. For all the douche-canoes I have heard of, that like to stand behind a woman who is squatting a heavy barbell, there are a dozen men who hold a respectful distance.
These allies, unacknowledged, unthanked. They don’t need a website to tell them that they are never going to understand me. Yet they can support, be respectful, be encouraging. And they do.
This, then, is for my parents. When I told them I had managed to deadlift 50kg after a few months of training, they did not shriek with alarm about how “big” I was going to get. They laughed and said “But that’s more than 100lb! Well done!” This, too, is for my husband. When I told him I was going to start lifting weights, he did not look scared and feel emasculated that I would no longer need him to open jars. He smiled and said, “Have fun!” This, then, is for the fitness instructor who said, “Finally a woman wants to do the weights!” This, then, is for the man in the power-rack before me, who said, “Do you want me to unload my weights or is this your warm-up weight?” His max was my warm-up weight and I appreciated his unforced comment. There was no assumption that I wanted a lighter weight. Small things. But … yes, important ones.
I could have driven myself crazy with the imagined terrors the internet warned me about. The experiences of other women, the online comments, the bad times. And I know I am not immune and some doofus will make a stupid remark at some point.
But hey … I’ve still got those witty come-back lines I need to use, right?