“Why do you do that?”
The tone of incredulity was hard to miss. My mother, who I love very much and is, and has always been, very different from me, clearly could not fathom why I would want to learn to lift heavier weights. You see, I’ve recently hired a personal trainer to teach me the big barbell lifts, and while I am thrilled about it, my mother is clearly concerned.
I don’t share her fears. And I LOVE lifting weights. Why?
Lifting gives me a sense of mastery of a skill–a skill that few have pursued with seriousness, male or female, but especially us females. We aren’t encouraged, of course, but there is something wonderful about feeling really and truly capable at lifting heavy things. Or perhaps in part, it is because it is not encouraged? There is definitely something subversive about the pursuit of strength for a woman–a willingness to stand out, to stand up proud, and to possibly pursue taking up MORE space in a world that encourages us to achieve endless smallness instead.
Lifting gives me a space to focus purely upon myself and my own goals. I do it for myself, because I like it, and I enjoy the results. I know not everyone here supports aesthetic goals associated with exercise, but I admit, I like the definition in my arms when I flex. I like the subtle ripple of muscles on my back when I move. I celebrate these changes in my physique as evidence that my body, at least to some extent, is something I can mold to my desires. I grew up bigger and softer than most of my peers, and I falsely believed it was my fate to remain that way. Redefining my goals with lifting has shown me that I have more control than that over my appearance–they aren’t always dramatic these changes, and I’ll likely never look like a fitness model, but they are real, and measurable proof that I can have some impact on my appearance, to look more on the outside like the strong person I know I am on the inside. Lifting helps my appearance more closely mirror an authentic sense of myself.
Truly though, the goal for me is so much more than the pursuit of an aesthetic; I enjoy feeling strong. Feeling and truly being strong helps me feel safe and in control. I like how it allows me to move with confidence through the world, literally changing how I show up. Because of my lifting, I hold my shoulders and head up a bit higher, walk a bit more confidently, move with more self-assurance. Lifting also reduces my pain so I move a bit less like the “old lady” I can feel like some days, and it gives me agency to improve upon challenges that otherwise I’d have no venue to improve. I am strong enough to dig my own holes, open my own jars, and assemble my own Ikea cupboards. Lifting gives me the confidence to do these physical tasks and to believe I can be competent at them.
Lifting builds my mental toughness. Learning that what I thought were my limits were in fact surmountable feats has helped me to challenge other assumptions I’ve had about myself. Pushing the boundaries of strength in a climate that does not encourage me to do so has helped me to ignore naysayers who would try to hold me back in other aspects of my life. It is easier (although still not always easy) for me to speak up when I have had many opportunities to stand up for my space at the gym. It is easier for me to speak my truth when I have had to listen to myself and acknowledge my truth as an athlete.
Lifting challenges my own belief that I am a sickly person, who will always suffer poor health, bad luck, and the chronic pain that comes with it. I can be proactive in this way, when so much of my health is so out of my control. In this one element of my life, I can choose to increase the odds in my favor. It won’t grow back missing organs or wipe away the scars of surgeries. It doesn’t allow me to quit all my medications, although maybe it helps me manage with lower doses. It doesn’t end all my pain, although maybe it reduces the severity. It doesn’t mean I can suddenly ignore troublesome symptoms, although it may help me notice important changes sooner. I am not a genuinely healthy person, but lifting certainly makes me healthier.
Lifting for me is a celebration of life and abundance. I recognize my ability to lift is a gift and a privilege. Not everyone can do what I am doing. I have not always been able to do what I am doing. I may, some day, no longer get to do what I am doing today. I am so grateful for this time, for this opportunity to push myself and to have the health and strength and resources to lift like I do, as often as I get to do it. I love lifting weights because it brings me joy and gratitude for this moment. That is why I do it.
Now it’s your turn–do you have a powerful reason why you move the way you do? Please share your thoughts below!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found joyfully picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.