Five years ago I couldn’t walk three blocks without an embarrassing amount of huffing, puffing, and sweating. I would cancel invitations if there was any amount of walking. The shame of falling behind or asking to take breaks was unbearable. That’s if I got close to getting out the door. Frequently, I would cancel because I didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I would rather stay at home and lose myself in a book.
Growing up, exercise was all gym class embarrassment. Jiggling too much during jumping jacks. Being last at the mile run, every. single. time. Pullup? Ha. This time around I was determined not to fight my body. I wanted to find an outlet of physical activity that brought me joy, that helped me reconnect my body and my mind.
I started working with a personal trainer once a week for half an hour. That half hour was all I could handle. I would immediately come home and take a nap. It was humbling and horrible. What kept me coming back was this wonderful secret about being a large woman that no one tells you: sometimes, when you’re big, you’re also strong as hell. Even though I was soaked in sweat and lying on the floor at the end of my workout, I was still using heavier weights than many other women in the gym who had been training longer. And that felt goood.
Having a victory, something that I was objectively better at than at least a few other people, gave me a boost I sorely needed after so many years of thinking I was the worst at all things exercise. Over time, I learned to focus more on my own body and mind, on improving myself from within. The effort of moving under the bar, pushing against gravity, pushing against my mind when it screamed out, “that’s too heavy,”–I couldn’t get enough. For the first time, I wanted to put in the time to get better at an exercise, not because I had to do it to lose weight, but because I felt at home in my own skin. I started to crave the overpowering, quiet intensity in my mind and body that I get when I lift. I wanted know my limit. How much weight could I move?
After two years of slow and steady improvement, the owner of my gym noticed how strong I was becoming and challenged me to try a weightlifting competition of some kind. I saw World’s Strongest Man on ESPN and thought, “Giant dudes pulling trucks. That looks like fun! I wonder if they have that for women?” I found North American Strongman and for the first time saw women who looked like me moving weight I was only dreaming of lifting.
With strongman, it was love at first lift. The variety of events kept me from getting bored and let me enjoy my strengths as well as forced me to work on my weaknesses. In any given competition I might have an event that tests maximal strength, like an axle clean and press for heaviest weight followed by a yoke carry for time, where speed counts as much as strength. Plus I need physical and mental endurance to get through five events in a day long competition.
My life is full of experiences that me-of-five-years-ago would not have imagined. I have a dozen competitions under my belt, including finishing solidly in the middle at America’s Strongest Woman twice and the Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships. I have competed alongside the women who inspired me to lift. I train and am friends with men and women both push and support me in ways I have never known. I have (and continue to) test the limits of what my body can do.
In weightlifting, I didn’t just find exercise that I love, I found my confidence. Under the bar I am powerful, I am competent, and I exceed expectations: I am my ideal self. I nurtured that pearl of confidence and over time learned to use it as a tool to give me a boost in other areas of my life. I can close my eyes and relive the feeling of a breaking a personal record. I have a body that doesn’t bend or break under a 550lb yoke, why would it bend or break because a stranger thinks I’m too fat to be wearing skirt that shows off my butt or a coworker thinks my project is crap?
I no longer hide. Wear bright colors? Try a hip hop dance class? Aerial yoga? Improv comedy class? Get a massage? Sure, why not! I am free to enjoy it or hate it, be good or bad at it, without self-judgement.
I still have times when I am unsure of myself–when I don’t believe what I look like matches how I feel. Sometimes I see muscular calves and quads the size of tree trunks, broad shoulders that carry a couple 40lb bags of mulch without flinching, a core that easily stabilizes all this. Sometimes I still see a lazy, fat girl. Now I’m better able to reason with myself, give myself a pep talk, and carry on with my head held high.
Sharon Moss is a nonprofit nerd living in Columbus, Ohio. She shares her life with a couple cats, a mastiff mix, and a spouse who always makes sure she’s well fed after training. If you stand too close, she will pick you up.