A Fear of Strong Women

It’s not really a secret: I regularly publish snippets of my CrossFit journey on Instagram. I’m having an absolute blast, and I recommend it to almost everyone.*

*Disclaimer: Unless you have a severe heart condition or pre-existing health condition that prevents you from rigorous physical activity, then I advise you to talk to your doctor first… AND THEN IF THAT DOC’S COOL WITH IT, I RECOMMEND IT TO YOU, TOO.

Anyway, I recently saw this quote that I haven’t been able to get off my mind. Part of me mentally shouted, “YASSS, I AGREE” but the other half of me didn’t feel right about it. So I decided that, if I share this quote with you, I make an important correction:

“The myth that women shouldn’t lift heavy weights is only perpetuated by women who fear hard work who are misled to believe that strength can only be found in an undesireable, manly body and men who fear strong women.”

My good friend Jan Dayleg (owner and head coach at a CrossFit gym in Curaçao called CrossFit 5 Triple 9) and I used to run a fitness blog together while I was in college (a blog which sadly no longer exists because it’s one of my many serial entrepreneurship adventures that bit the dust early). One of our biggest shared gripes was what has often been referred to as “Pink Dumbbell Syndrome.” It all boils down to this single, oft-heard phrase:

“I like to exercise, but I don’t like to lift heavy weights because I don’t want to get too big/bulky/manly/hefty/muscular.” 

(Presumably, this person seeks out the smaller, sometimes pink, often neon colored dumbbells, and does many reps with these weights in order to maintain their existing physique or helplessly pursue their dream physique).

I hate this sentiment more than I hate a lot of things, but that said, I also wholeheartedly understand why someone might say this phrase. There are literally centuries–no, millennia– of evolutionary behavior backing that sentiment, and it’s only now that we’re really starting to examine it.

A Lengthy History of Big Men & Small Women

When we think about our paleolithic ancestors, the male Homo erectus (our bipedal, hunter-gatherer great-grandpa’s) needed to be strong. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t hunt as well as their strong friends, and they wouldn’t bring back enough meat for the family. They literally would not be able to bring home bacon without strength. The male Homo erectus also needed strength to fight off potential aggressors, predators, and others vying for the alpha-male spot. So it’s natural that evolutionarily, they were selected to be stronger and muscular.

On the other hand, the female Homo erectus tended to be 25% smaller than their male counterparts. This is a significantly greater disparity than what is now found the sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens, but could perhaps account why size is such a touchy subject for us. Up until recently, male humans always been vying for the top spot in physical strength & dominance, and men probably chose smaller women in the interest of being able to dominate them as well. It would be tough to dominate (and make babies) with a larger female human (UGH, rape-y and horrible dudes are not limited to our species). ANYWAY. You get the point. Strength would be counterproductive to this dichotomy. In short, women have been naturally selected to be a little bit weaker.

Fast-forward to 2000 AD, and we are now at a point in societal development in which it’s not biologically required for men to be physically stronger than women. Or stronger than one another. That said, we have been conditioned, for all of these THOUSANDS of years, that physical strength is something that men have in order to be better than each other. It has been attractive for a woman to be skinny, to have curves, to exhibit the capability to reproduce (via estrogen & strategically placed fat for nourishing fetuses and children) and maybe be genetically pre-disposed to being healthy without much exercise. Think about it: in the U.S. idolize models with tiny waists, and in 2013, we were literally the #1 country in the world when it comes to number of breast augmentations. But the skinny arms? The skinny legs? The constant jokes about opening jars for women? Men being regularly insulted by being called women? Society has essentially decided that women should be skinny, weak, and fragile, and need a man to help us. (Unfortunately.)

The point of this: it’s natural for women to think they need to fit some sort of mold to be attractive. Traditionally attractive women are probably not extremely muscular, so it’s easy to assume that traditionally attractive women aren’t competitive weightlifters.

EXCEPT THAT…

camille-publicity-photo
Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet (Competitive CrossFit Athlete)
… ASSUMPTION…

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Christmas Abbott (Competitive CrossFit Athlete)
… IS FALSE.

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Morghan King (Rio 2016 Olympic Weightlifter)

Dispelling Women’s Fears

FEAR #1: “I won’t look attractive anymore.”

Being attractive in the eyes of men is completely understandable, but should really, honestly, only be a priority over your own happiness if you feel someone else has a say about what is important to you. You declaring your interest in being attractive to men is you saying that you want to prioritize their interests and desires of a woman’s appearance over your own desires. And if you wish to do that… well that’s fine.

(I want to look hot too, I’m not gonna front.)

BUT! You have to acknowledge that physical strength is not something that men may not be looking for in a woman, and for you to want it, you must want it for yourself. 

Also, looking hot for men isn’t everything. Those women I listed are objectively attractive – and admittedly I feel a little skeezy for pointing out hot weightlifting women at all – but despite them being aesthetically #blessed, that’s really not what I admire about them most. I admire their tenacity, their hard work, and their accomplishments. To assume they lift and did all that for the eyes of men is an insult to their hard work.

Looking hot is a priority that arose through a patriarchal society – as in, a world where men were typically in charge and their opinions mattered more than women’s. Obviously, we’re moving away from that, but not without some significant struggles. The first step to moving away from a patriarchal society is to admit that the world doesn’t revolve around men & their opinions. #SorryNotSorry

FEAR #2: “I will get bulky”

If you feel that lifting heavy weights once, twice, even repeatedly for years, is going to cause you to bulge like a lumpy wet sponge, you are essentially operating under the assumption that muscles and strength are things that are sometimes accidentally obtained. Sure, there are cases of genetic predisposition to high musculature, but not everywhere, and it spits in the face of athletes who do work hard, who strive to accomplish those physiques. You can’t look like Arnold Schwarzeneggar overnight, or even over years. You need supplements, weird isolation exercises, and probably a lot of steroids to ever get so big that you become grotesque. You have to TRY to look like him.

Trust me. Touching heavy weights won’t morph you into a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Another fact that’s important to emphasize: not only does lifting heavy weights not really make you big, but lifting light weights almost guarantees you will not significantly change your physique (unless you have a great diet, but even then, diet and fitness go hand in hand). After all, how can your body get stronger if you don’t challenge it to get stronger with progressions of weight? It won’t. You’ll just be really good at lifting little weights. And you don’t need much muscle or fat burn to do that.

FEAR #3: “I don’t want to hurt myself.”

The last fear of heavy weights that I’ve heard about is that women are simply afraid they will hurt themselves. This is a notion that’s also conditioned into us over time. Ladies, think about the last time you handled power tools, or were told to get out of the mud so you don’t get dirty, or were told to leave the heavy lifting to the men so that you don’t hurt yourself. We are conditioned, from childhood to adulthood, that we are too fragile and should avoid pain. That we are dainty people (… or things?) to be protected. (I got a lot of feelings about that, but we’ll save that for another time…)

Fact: Weights that are lifted improperly are just as harmful to men as they are to women. So regardless of gender: PEOPLE, WATCH YOUR FORM.

Honestly, while Fears #1 and #2 are often common with women (and probably related to sentiments that have been echoed over and over after some DoucheBro’s ranted about being grossed out [read: intimidated] by a strong woman), those fears don’t run as deeply and viscerally as Fear #3. Fear of getting hurt is often what holds back women the most; the fear of the unknown – of not being sure how to move forward with being stronger, especially after being told for years not to hurt themselves. That is, indeed, a legitimate and deeply-rooted fear for women.

And perhaps the best solution I’ve ever seen to this? An informed, passionate, encouraging, and involved coach.

… and then CrossFit happened.

Okay, I won’t get TOO preachy about CrossFit, but it bears mentioning, because CrossFit did something that a lot of fitness programs have failed to do: focus on functional movements (i.e. movements you may use in real life), maintain variety, and do so with a supportive and encouraging community, all while challenging EVERYONE, male and female, to do something that will make them suffer a little in the present in the interest of measurable, visible “gains” in the future.

There have been a number of articles identifying CrossFit as a virtually “genderless” sport — as in, there is a nearly equal ratio of men and women at every “box” (CrossFit jargon for gym). Which is INCREDIBLE, and brings me lots of joy. This is a feminist’s dream, brought to life.

And (contrary to popular belief) there is a strict focus on form and on getting the basics right. As a result, there is often high coach involvement, and that enables women in particular, who might be newer to weightlifting, to get more comfortable with weights that they would mentally be too anxious to lift on their own.

…get to the point, Therese?

This was all a really lengthy blog post, but it all boils down to this one thought that I’ve held in all month. Whether you do CrossFit or some other exercise regimen (to include or not include weightlifting) consider the goal in your process, and what brings you the most joy in it. It would be a blatant lie to pretend people don’t care about looking hot, because we all want to look hot. But being upset and working out in the interest of becoming someone or something else (… any Arrow fans here?) is a very dangerous, unhealthy, and self-deprecating cycle that will either make you fail at your workout routine, or will make you do your workouts with sadness, anger, and resentment. That’s not a fun way to live.

Acknowledge your interest to look hot, but reprioritize a little. Put your happiness and healthiness first. Are you competitive at heart, and get invigorated by challenge and being better than others? (I am, haha.) Find a sport or exercise that allows you to one-up someone. Are you trying to balance stress? Do some yoga. Hike. Cycle. There are thousands of ways you can exercise and find wellness, physically and mentally. Keep your mind open. Don’t let some douchey people stuck in the Stone Age tell you otherwise!

As for CrossFit…

It works for me. I have a serious Napoleon / little-dog complex and feel like I need to one-up people around me. (It’s not the greatest trait to have, but hey, I have it.) But more importantly, CrossFit helps me turn away from my insecurities and focus on channeling my energy toward my abilities.

It gives me peace…. admittedly, post-workout, because of the hell and heartbeats that come with a metabolic conditioning (METCON) workout.

It gives me trust, in my body and in myself; especially in times of stress.

It gives me a renewed love of challenge.

It gives me a community of like-minded people: people who want to support each other, help each other grow, and push each other during times of struggle.

…and sometimes, when I work hard enough, it gives me reminders of my mental & physical growth over time: beautiful, sculpted muscles.

One thought on “A Fear of Strong Women

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