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Strength Training and the Feminine Ideal (Guest Post)

ryan1I’ve always been fairly healthy, exercising at the gym and playing team sports. I started working out properly about 6 months ago; and by properly I mean strength training, with a trainer (thanks Ashley Woodward) at the gym, and eating right. My aim was to get healthier, stronger, and build more muscle (because guns, right?).

I started because I saw many of the women I admired lifting heavy shit, running marathons and kicking butt. And so I thought there must be something to this. Turns out there is!

When I started I was doing squats on a Smith Machine with nothing but the weight of the bar, and deadlifting with two 20 pound dumbbells. I now squat nearly 90% of my body weight, and can lift 180 pounds off the ground (last week I was even bench pressing more than the dude next to me. It felt awesome!). These weights are nothing on what some people lift, and it will always be a work in progress, but I am the strongest that I have ever been and it feels great!

But it feels great not just because of the physical strength (which really is terrific) or because how healthy and awake I feel, but also because of how empowering it is. For me, going to the gym is not political. It’s a reward and time out from thinking about philosophy and other things in my life. But hell, I am sick to death of people embracing and promoting the view of the ideal woman as soft, demure and weak. Comments like “yes, I admire her strong physique, but all that muscle really isn’t feminine.” Why is the feminine ideal weak? Why are people promoting the view that what it is to be a woman is incapable?

When I first started working out people said to me “be careful, you don’t want to get too muscly,” “you don’t want to get roped into that bodybuilding stuff”; as if I was some defenceless maiden threatened by the deceptive, predatory, throbbing bodybuilding association (I faced similar warnings about getting my PhD, “careful, you don’t want to live your life with your head in the books, hidden in the library,” “you don’t want to give up your chances of a family and a wedding”). These comments were said with love, but what is communicated is clear: we women are not the protectors but the protected.

Strength training is a great way to say F that, and to see just what you can do, rather than what you are told you can and should do.

nanette Back shot

Nanette Ryan is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University.  She is primarily interested in moral and political philosophy, epistemology, and their intersection.

10 thoughts on “Strength Training and the Feminine Ideal (Guest Post)

  1. Strength training was always empowering to me – I’ll take that sort of empowerment over the crap that Kim Kar-Trash-ian and her ilk sell!

  2. Such an empowering post! I got similar comments about my PhD (“You’ll blink and it will be too late to have kids”) and working out (“Men don’t like women with muscles”). At the end of the day I realized that I love being a woman with muscles. I love feeling strong. I love not struggling with a heavy door. Being strong on the outside helps me feel strong on the inside too. And I totally admire female body builders. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful post!

  3. I mentioned to my mom that I had started strength training. She noticed that our female server had some serious biceps (that I was admiring enviously). She proceeded to rant about how “unfeminine” muscles are. Now, my mother is dealing too early with some health issues brought on in part by never being active, so I bit my tongue…

    BUT, “feminine” as a concept has generally been used to confine and limit women. Either forget “feminine” or re-define it. Furthermore, being weak will hurt us as we get older. The “frailty” of older women is sometimes due in part to a lack of strength in their earlier years.

  4. I admire you, I was fit and fabulous 4 years ago even at age 54. I maintained my fitness mainly with alternating walking and running. I hadn’t quite hit the gym but was serioulsly thinking about it. Illness struck, and after it I was left with severe chronic abdominal pain. I hurt whenever I try anything physical, somedays I want to defy the pain and take it to task with some seriously full on strength training. I am perusing your site looking for stories relating to fitness and pain.
    Love your Guns
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

  5. This post hit a nerve – other people telling you “what you want”! Drives me crazy. Maybe it’s just badly worded, well-intentioned advice, and maybe it’s not, but only one person gets to decide “what I want”, and that person is me.

    (Just back from my first ever strength training session. I can bench… the bar. Let’s see where I can take this…)

  6. YAAS!! Thank you for an awesome post. I am t the point in my 128 lb weight loss journey, where I will be introducing a weight lifting regime along with rec sports, biking, pilates, yoga and a whole host of activites I enjoy doing now that I am lighter on feet. Your post gives me courage. You look incredible!!!!!

  7. This is really, really important, I think. And can I just add that I absolutely love this blog.

    Though I haven’t devoted as much of my philosophical education–I’m still relatively young–to the intersection of feminism and conceptions of fitness, I see a whole lot wrong with the current way of thinking about fitness. And I’m just discovering there are a lot of other people calling BS, both in scholarly and non-scholarly contexts.

    The most basic conception of fitness posits fitness and fatness as mutually exclusive. And more often than not fitness entails thinness, particularly for women. Mass, size, and body shape exhaust the markers of fitness in the popular mind. The problems with the way the we think about fitness, and how to achieve it, are fundamentally undeveloped and misleading. Let me enumerate some here:

    1. You can’t be fat and fit.
    2. To be fit you must be thin.
    3. Fitness is disconnected from physical prowess, functionality, and embodied subjectivity. What seems to matter is looking strong, looking functional, looking thin.
    4. Fitness does not include well-being or mental health.
    5. Fitness in everyday conversation often excludes strength and musculoskeletal health in favor of thinness and a vague concept of endurance.
    6. In medical contexts, fitness is synonymous with cardiovascular health (and there is a lot of misleading information in medicine and the fitness industry about how to achieve fitness).

    The necessary background is that I am myself obese. When I started a popular novice strength training program last year (Starting Strength–I am a huge proponent of it and its intermediate successor, Texas Method ). I suppose I ought to summarize instead of ramble. In short, I made more progress toward paradigmatic indicators of health (weight loss, BMI, waist size, etc.) and alternative indicators of health (perceived functionality, mental health, well-being, empowerment, confidence, etc.) when I focused on strength training, when I focused on making gains, which is incidentally something I came to love. Strength training also helped me disentangle fitness and thinness both conceptually and at an embodied level.

    I often get asked by people why I don’t put all my effort into weight loss, why I strength train, when I’m still obese. First, weight loss is not the immediate product of training. There is no kind of training I’m aware of where the most immediate and primary effect is weight loss. Training involves gradual improvement in the intensity or proficiency of the performance of some movement. And in even in the case of exercise, or free physical activity, there is a more immediate goal. It makes more sense to devote time and energy to things one can actually do. One cannot will away weight. No exercise magically makes weight disappear, but I can jog increasingly far and fast or lift progressively heavier weight. To the question at the beginning of the paragraph, one might give a long and complex answer that involves philosophical, medical, psychological, and sociological research, but there’s also a both concise and honest answer: it works best for me.

    1. Christopher you are preaching to the choir! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Congrats too on finding an approach that works for you and that you feel good about. We need more voices to speak against the dominant messaging.

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