fitness · Guest Post

Even World-Record Breaking Strongwomen Feel Pressured to be Smaller (Guest Post)

IPF World Champion Natalie Hanson was recently interviewed by Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler on their podcast, Stronger By Science. (Skip ahead 1h 48m, if you want to hear the section I’m referencing.) In the interview, she said that one of the biggest barriers to women reaching their strength goals is the persistent desire to be smaller.

Hanson, who recently broke a world record for bench press and also works as a powerlifting coach, says that a common barrier to the sport for women is that they have to deal with social pressures around body image and aesthetic appearance. “Don’t get too bulky,” is a message that might get joked about “but it still carries through. It’s a component we shouldn’t overlook.” She says it’s less common with women who are fully bought into the sport, and more likely an issue for “general population” women who have an interest in starting powerlifting. They hear from men “that they are going to get big and buff, and that’s a problem.” She points out that “A guy is never going to hear that.” “That discrepancy when women begin a strength journey and men is stark, and alarming to [her] that it’s still a thing.” So, when women reach out to her for coaching, “they are interested in powerlifting and joining the sport, and they want to drop a weight class.” She describes this challenge as “interesting and concerning.”

It is important to point out, and Eric and Greg comment on this, that amongst strength athletes, it is universally understood that folks are stronger when they are larger. This is easier for men to accept than it is for women, and they have seen the impact of this pressure on women when they choose to at least remain in their current weight class, if not drop one, even though it reduces their success in their chosen sport.

Hanson also mentions incidences where she’s had to deal with comments from men about her body size, even in the gym where she trains regularly. “I’d been powerlifting for about a year and I was just going up a weight class. . . I had put on a lot of weight, muscle and fat, and generally got bigger, and that’s fine. And I looked a lot stronger. And I was training at the gym . . . and some older guy walked up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re a thoroughbred.’” She expresses her confusion in the moment and how it changed her feeling about working out at that gym. She thinks he meant it as a compliment, but she was clearly baffled that he felt that it was ok to comment on her body at all.

Her advice to men, “If you wouldn’t say this to a friend that’s a male, don’t say it to a friend that’s a female.” She clarifies that she knows that guys who are really close will “give each other shit,” but she’s talking about how men talk with acquaintances.

I find it startling to learn that a woman at the top of her game has to deal with these pressures, and that the women she trains are still focusing on their size over performance goals, even when they are there ostensibly to become a world class lifter. Hanson acknowledges that she is happy to work on aesthetic goals with her clients, if that is what women would rather work on, but that the two goals–to be a competitive lifter and to be smaller–work at cross-purposes. Having a larger body makes you a stronger lifter. And women who are faced with this choice–to be the best lifter they can be, but have a larger body, or to be less of a lifter but comply more closely with society’s expectations–many of the women she works with choose the latter.

And it makes me sad to learn this, as I like imagining when I watch an amazing lift pulled from an incredible female athlete, that she has broken through the barriers the rest of us must wrestle with. Somehow, it seems, she’s accepted that she’s going to stand out, and she chooses her personal goals over bullshit pressures from outside of herself. Apparently, however, she’s likely dealing with the bullshit, too.

It occurs to me that this means we really don’t know how strong women can be. Because as long as women are battling pressures to be less-than at the same time that they are competing, they are hobbling themselves. In order to really test women’s strength, women need to feel equally safe as men pursuing the sport to its limits. And at that time, maybe we can comment on a woman’s body and lifting without it being an issue. As Hanson says, “it would be great if we got to a point where we were all so comfortable and proud of our bodies and what our bodies are capable of that we could freely talk about things like that, say ‘you’re looking jacked’ or ‘you’re looking huge,’ without it being a potential trigger or offensive comment.” Until that time, we should “stop making comments on how women look.”

What do you think?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

fitness

Why I Rarely Discuss My “Weight Loss” (Guest Post)

“Marjorie, I wanted to check in with you. Several of us have noticed that you’ve rather dramatically changed shape lately.”

I was perhaps 20 years old and in college when this was said to me, and up to that point in my life, I’d been generally a larger-than-average person but had recently dropped several dress sizes. The kind, albeit awkward, comment was made by the postmodernist, feminist drama professor I worked for at the time. I remember bristling–changed shape?! What she meant was that I had gotten dramatically smaller rather quickly, and she was worried I had an eating disorder or was doing some other acts of self-harm. I suspected, however, that she would not show the same level of interest in students who had dramatically gotten larger in a short time period, and this struck me as hypocritical and like mincing words. Why not just ask me if I had intentionally lost weight?

Today, you will rarely hear me use that language, although I do technically weigh less than I have much of my life. If we must discuss it, I would prefer to discuss that I’ve changed size, although even that is not a very useful metric.

And a big part of the reason why goes back to that conversation, and what was going on in my life at that time. The thing is, I was losing weight, getting smaller, because I was sick with an illness that nearly claimed my life. I didn’t know it yet, but that “changing shape,” was one of the first symptoms of a major autoimmune disease. What I knew at the time was that I was exhausted, sleeping 12 or 14 hours a day and needing more. I felt sick and nauseous and had no interest in food. I had to force myself to eat, making myself add butter and peanut butter to the half bagel I’d force down, because I knew I needed the calories, but derived no pleasure from it. For more than half a year, I experienced this general malaise and got no answers from the doctors I visited. Did I think maybe I was depressed? No, I didn’t feel sad, just tired. Any chance I could be pregnant? Not unless it was an immaculate conception!

So I got smaller. I wasn’t on a diet, and my changing size was not intentional. It was NOT evidence of living a healthier life. I wasn’t taking better care of myself, and I certainly didn’t feel better in my skin. And the hypocrisy of our usual language around weight loss really began to dawn on me. When people say “weight loss,” it is usually used synonymously with dieting–with intentionally limiting one’s food intake to become a smaller size, usually under the guise of being “healthier.”

And of course, the drama professor wasn’t actually observing my weight in any case–she was observing my size (or my shape, as she put it). I took up less space than I had before. But even if she had seen me jump on a scale, that information would not have been any more useful than my apparent reduction of space. Weight does not equate health. It wouldn’t have told her if I was being safe to get to that size, any more than it told the doctors if I was shrinking due to burgeoning chronic illness, a mental health crisis, or divine intervention!

Today, with my now multiple autoimmune conditions more-or-less under control, my weight is still a pretty useless measure of my health and well-being. Over the past 20 years, I’ve gone up and down in size a few times, most often due to health crises, hospitalizations, medication changes and the like. However, about 8 years ago my health stabilized, and I began a slow, intentional transformation of how I live my life. As a result, over several years, I have changed shape–I have become quite a bit smaller. And, when I felt ready, I started going to the gym and became a dedicated weightlifter. I now lift with the explicit intent of increasing my size, and presumably, my weight will continue to change along the way. But it is not a very useful measure of my progress. I do not lift weights to “burn calories” or become smaller. I am far more interested in how many sets and reps I’ve done for a particular lift. And if I “gain weight” because I’ve become more muscular, I would consider that a win!

I’m not embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about how my body has changed over the years, I just don’t think it’s very useful. The larger-bodied people who are looking to me for advice probably don’t want to be told about how fast I got smaller while potentially dying in the hospital. One month of hospital food interspersed with several major surgeries will do wonders for your waistline! (Truly, I looked awful–all the “weight” I’d lost during that time period was muscle. My body had eaten itself up to rebuild and heal after surgery. I was just as fat, but I’d lost about 20 pounds.)

My weight is simply not meaningful data. My size (and shape) continues to change, but without context, no one can correctly identify if those are healthy or unhealthy changes for me. And so I tend to avoid the whole subject–yes, I’ve changed size and “lost a lot of weight,” but without knowing more about the journey, it really doesn’t tell you anything at all about me.

Image description: A woman’s silhouette, rear view. She’s sitting looking over a city at sunset. Photo from Unsplash.
beach body · body image · Guest Post

Marjorie thinks only she can decide she’s “beach body ready” (Guest post)

I care about how I look. I care about what size I am (within a range), and that I have visible muscles, at least a little bit. I like feeling pretty. I like feeling strong and moving in a way that suggests I’m capable and athletic.

I have reached the point in my life that I mostly don’t care about how I look to YOU. I don’t care if I’m slender enough for nameless, faceless society (or a BMI chart). I don’t care if you think I’m pretty enough. I don’t care if you like the “tone” of my arms or if you think my muscles are too masculine. I don’t do it for you. I like the look of my arms. I do it for me.

And this is my first problem with the notion of being beach body ready–and Sam touched on this in her post already: it is defined by someone else–mainstream society or the media or Hollywood? It isn’t about MY values and preferences. These narrowly defined beauty standards, based on strict definitions of heteronormative femininity, white European body types and features, don’t represent the genuinely wonderful diversity of humanity. I care about how I look, but not in comparison to these narrow standards. Gratefully, somewhere along the way, I have internalized how arbitrary these standards are, and I’ve become ok with letting them go.

This isn’t to say that I don’t care what other people think of my appearance, but I am working on that being as tightly defined as possible. I care that my appearance is perceived as professional when I’m at work. I want to be recognized as safe and welcoming when I’m out in the community. How I dress, do my hair, and wear make-up impacts how people interact with me. Unfortunately, I have witnessed how my size changes these interactions, too. But I don’t maintain a smaller size because others approve of it more. I do it for me. In contrast, I absolutely wear make-up for other people, and I look forward to the day that I feel like I can put it aside and be treated with the same level of respect.

My other problem* with the notion of being “beach body ready,” is the implication of temporary status–I must do something to BECOME ready for the beach. Rather than simply showing up, at the beach. And this smacks of the obsessive, distracting, disempowering process of endless pursuit of body transformation that helps keep people from having the confidence to go about and live their best lives. I have no interest in pursuing temporary changes. It doesn’t feel good. It feels like punishment, restriction, and self-harm. Making lasting changes in lifestyle that impact my appearance have been empowering, and I would argue were necessarily empowering to “stick.” Who wants to spend the rest of their lives feeling less-than? Improving how I take care of myself has allowed me to feel stronger, more capable, more energized, and more in control. And I like how I look–yes, I’m smaller than I used to be (which is the least empowering consequence), and I’m also stronger, have greater endurance, and am more at ease in my own skin. No temporary pursuit of a “beach body” would have the same result.

I think it would be good if the feminist goal wasn’t to NEVER care how we look. I would like us to give each person the power to define for themselves how they want to look and to what degree it is important in their lives. Just as we want everyone to have the freedom to define success in other aspects of their lives like relationships, work, and family. The pursuit of an aesthetic is only oppressive if it is holding us back. I love that Cate discovered that she could change the stimulus (her clothes) and feel better about her body. And I agree with Tracy that many (most?) of us have work to do to heal the wounds of a lifetime of internalized body shaming, myself included. Part of that work for me has been making peace with the fact that I do have aesthetic goals for myself. I’m ok with working on it, as long as I am choosing the direction of “progress,” not society. Focusing on what I want for me, alongside having plenty of other goals to measure success by, keeps my self-talk pretty friendly. So, I get to decide how I show up at the proverbial beach, and in my opinion, I’m ready!

*My THIRD problem is that I live where the ocean water stays at hypothermic temperatures year-round, the air temperature rarely gets above 70 degrees (21 celsius), and the wind never stops blowing. So even in summer, you probably need a jacket.

Ariel photo of waves crashing on beach. Photo from Unsplash
fitness

Keeping Fit While Healing from Hysterectomy (Guest Post)

Several weeks ago, I had a complete, laparoscopic hysterectomy. This means that my uterus, cervix and fallopian tubes were removed (with the assistance of robots) via my vagina.

Leading up to the surgery, I was highly interested in maintaining my strength and fitness during recovery. After all, I am not someone who has spent a lifetime enjoying fitness. I’m a relative newcomer, with perhaps 5 or 6 years of routine activity, and my identity as a “fit person” still feels very much tentative. I did not want weeks of suddenly sedentary life to create a lack of fitness hole too large for me to climb out of again.

The general guidelines for any woman after hysterectomy is to avoid lifting anything “heavy” for several weeks, avoid leaning over or bending, picking things up off of the floor, or “straining.” The goal is to give the abdominal muscles a break, since they’ve been cut through in several locations, and to avoid downward pressure on the pelvic floor, which will be more susceptible to prolapse without the structure of the uterus to help hold organs up and away from the vagina and bowels.

But what does “heavy” mean? And how do I know if I’m putting pressure on my pelvic floor? What does normal healing feel like and what does it feel like when something goes wrong? How long should I wait before I get back to normal activities? After doing a lot of research, including a pre-surgical appointment with a physical therapist, I conclude that science doesn’t have clear cut answers to these questions.

So I, and women like me, are left to our own devices and the individual inclings of our doctors, to come up with a plan. One of the resources I found spoke to the fact that surgeons aren’t given a lot of information about recovery either, so each surgeon does what they think is best based on personal experience and anecdote. They’re stuck with their best guess, too. And since they don’t want to get in trouble later, they are inclined to be very conservative in their recommendations, to be on the safe side of things.

Well, that’s just not how I roll. I want to be careful, yes, but I also don’t want to do more harm than good by being unnecessarily sedentary. Sitting around, losing my strength and stamina, it seems to me, could create as many problems as I am attempting to avoid. So, I made a fitness plan for myself, with some guidance from the aforementioned physical therapist, and I am working on following it until I feel ready to get back into the gym.

Weeks 1 and 2–”Take it easy”
During these weeks it is ok to get up and move around as much as I feel inclined to do so, but no intentional workouts. Short walks are ok. Avoid straining, including during bowel movements. (Superfun video on how to move your bowels correctly without risking/exacerbating prolapse here.)
How do I know I’ve done too much? I’m especially tired. My abdominal area hurts. There’s a pressing feeling in my vagina like it’s full. Apparently, however, it is normal to feel some shifting of pressure in the abdomen as the bowels “figure out” their new position in your belly. This sensation will come and go as things move around. You know you’re in the danger zone if it feels like something is going to fall out of your vagina or if there’s a tearing feeling or sudden, heavy bleeding.

Weeks 3-6–”Messing around with light weights”
I bought some quality resistance bands, and I’ve figured out some programming that allows me to do moves without feeling like I’m putting tension on my abdominal cavity or pelvic floor. Since it is very light resistance (compared to my strength level–these things are all relative), I am doing a resistance workout most days (4-6 days/week). Also, since the resistance is low, I’ve kept the volume high, starting with 3 sets of 10-20 reps (per side, if applicable) and increasing up to 5 sets as I feel up to it. I am doing each move slowly, exhaling during the challenging part of the move to help my pelvic floor relax.
In addition to this “lifting” program, I take a walk every day I feel up to it, aiming for about 10,000 total steps at the end of each day.

workout 1: Full body workout

  • Seated single-leg extension (with leg weights strapped to my ankles)
  • Standing, supported (leaning on a chair) single-leg hamstring curl
  • Seated double chest press (with bands anchored to a door)
  • Seated double row (with bands anchored to a door)

workout 2: Full body workout

  • Supported, shallow static lunge
  • Narrow stance, mini squats with resistance (band looped under my feet)
  • Seated double press-up (with resistance band anchored under my feet)
  • Seated double pull-down (with band anchored to the door)

workout 3: This day is a mix of “physical therapy” exercises from my various previous injuries (shoulder and glutes) and a little bonus “guns” work, to help feed my ego a bit.

  • Double-leg glute bridges
  • Single-leg glute bridges (when they feel ok–sometimes it feels like too much abdominal engagement)
  • Banded monster walk
  • Lying double biceps curl (with band anchored to the door)
  • Lying double triceps extension (with bands anchored to the door)
  • Internal and external shoulder rotations (with bands)

Weeks 6-8–”Back at the Gym, light weights”
I haven’t entered into this stage, yet. The PT I consulted said I should probably start at about half of whatever my weights were pre-surgery and slowly work myself up to those weights again. She predicted it would take me 4 months to get back to my pre-surgery strength.

Week 12–Back to “normal”
This is when my surgeon predicts I can get back to my “usual activities” without much risk of interfering with healing.

I’m trying to listen to my body, and honestly, what feels good one day doesn’t always feel ok the next, so each day’s plan is a moving target. But I generally feel better when I have some kind of plan and a program to work with, and I feel pretty good about this one for now. Based on how I feel right now, I’m going to be surprised if I feel up to going back to the gym 6 weeks after the procedure. I’m not going to force it, if I don’t feel ready, and knowing that I have a well-rounded program at home helps me not be impatient to enter that next stage in recovery. I will keep you posted on how it’s going!

Do you have experience with returning to exercise after hysterectomy? I’d love to hear from you below!

————

If you found this article while looking for resources along these lines, here’s a few more that I found along the way that seemed reliable and helpful. I read several articles on lifting and prolapse, as that seems to be the largest risk specifically for returning to lifting heavy post-hysterectomy.

–Michelle Kenway Physiotherapy (in Australia): exercises to do in preparation for hysterectomy. I also appreciated (and borrowed from) her exercise video here. She also has videos and ebooks you can order, which I was tempted by but ultimately decided not to purchase myself. I’d be interested to hear from you, if you did!

–Girls Gone Strong has many articles regarding women’s physiology and lifting, including on working around prolapse here and here

–Sparks People article on getting back into exercise after hysterectomy

Guide to Lifting with Prolapse from Core Exercise Solutions

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

Image description: green resistance bands with yellow handles in a bucket
fitness · Guest Post

Be Careful! Don’t overdo it! And other useless advice. (Guest Post)

Don’t tell me to be careful.

Don’t tell me to watch out, go slow, or hold up a minute.

If you want me to avoid a certain risk, give me actionable advice. “Keeping up with your lifting will help protect your knees when you run,” is useful, empowering information. “I hope you don’t hurt your knees,” is not.

When you tell me to “listen to my body,” but you don’t tell me what to listen for, you aren’t being helpful.

When you tell me not to overdo it, but don’t explain what “it” is or how to monitor when I’ve gone too far, you are being paternalistic. Decide now–what is your goal? Are you actually trying to help me grow, which means transferring the power of choice to me, giving me enough information to be able to judge the right decisions for myself? Or, do you really just want to be in control, to tell me what to do and expect me to do it without question? If you actually want to be helpful, I need you to stop telling me to “be careful.”

And when I inevitably experience consequences to my choices, resist the urge to justify your fears, at least long enough to find out what I’ve learned and if I think the consequences are worth it. Show me an athlete who has never had to work through an injury. Show me an exceptional person who didn’t have to do more than others thought was prudent or possible.

I’m tired of having my judgement questioned. I’m annoyed at having to constantly justify and explain what I know and how I know it. I’m frustrated with managing the endlessly unhelpful anxieties of other people.

Either be a partner with me on this path I’ve chosen, or step aside and stay out of my way.

Pathway. Photo from Unsplash.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

fitness

Harassment is not a compliment (Guest post)

A few weeks ago, inspired by my blog post here about the challenges of using my male-dominated gym, I was explaining to the male math teacher in the classroom next to mine what it’s like for me there. His response was something along the lines of, “but doesn’t that just mean you have a kickin’ body?” I was floored, and as usual with me, my best response wasn’t formulated until hours after the conversation. Here is what I wished I’d said:

I want to make it clear, when I am explaining to you about the persistent harassment I receive, I am not tacitly bragging about my sexual appeal. I am not proud of the amount of attention my body gets, and I am usually not flattered when that attention is given. It isn’t fun, cute, or flirtatious to be stared-at, cat-called, leered-at, or followed.

At best, it’s annoying. At worst, it’s threatening and scary. When I am given this unwanted attention, I am immediately put on guard. The person doing it invariably has more power than me, is usually bigger than me, and often has a friend with them. If they are willing to cross one boundary of socially acceptable behavior, what other boundaries are they willing to cross?

So, when I’m explaining to you about how I have stopped running in my neighborhood after a couple of guys followed me for nearly a block in their pick-up truck, don’t think I’m really trying to bring attention to my ass. When I say I have changed my lifting routine so I don’t have to use the cable machine in the center of the room where I get stared at, don’t think I’m pointing out the curve of my cleavage.

It isn’t an accident that women who have faced sexual trauma are much more likely to have significantly higher body fat. (The last data I saw was something like 60-80% of those with “morbid obesity” were predicted to be sexual assault survivors.) It is a real and challenging downside to being a smaller size that I was not prepared for–it is hard to explain how often I feel less safe as a result of the increased attention. It is a near-daily pressure that I must navigate. I am not convinced it is always worth it.

It isn’t fun to be afraid. It isn’t flattering to be harassed. I have a right to move through the world and be safe, feel safe, and to go about my business without being treated like I’m an object on display.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

clothing · fashion · gear · Guest Post

Attention Barbell Apparel: I am your target market

I lift weights. I am cis-female. I buy jeans.

When I go to the mall to buy jeans, I can literally try on every style in Macy’s or Nordstroms and walk away without a single pair that fits me well. I have a narrower-than-average waist (28-29 inches) and wider-than-average thighs (each about 24 inches around). So, I often have to choose between fitting my legs into pants and then having enormous gapping at the waist, or squeezing my legs in tight enough that I’m at risk of losing circulation when I sit down so that it fits around my middle.

Needless to say, I was THRILLED therefore to discover Barbell Apparel, who markets their jeans to lifters–with sizing not just for the waist measurement but with a THIGH measurement too! I enthusiastically became their customer and signed up for their email list to keep up on marketing. These pants are not cheap, and I knew I’d want to restock when they were on sale.

And for the last 2 years, EVERY email I’ve gotten from them since, minus perhaps one at Christmas, has been targeted exclusively to men and their men’s line.

Some weeks ago, I sent them feedback–are they aware that they only market their men’s line? It might be good to have two types of emails–one targeted to the folks buying women’s clothes and one for those buying men’s. Alternately, maybe include images from both lines in each email? It would help me feel valued and part of the club! After all, women lifters already are a minority within a minority (I’ve written about my own experiences with this previously). Any company that helps me feel like I’m in the club will win my appreciation and loyalty!

The response I got back suggested they didn’t get it. “We are excited to announce we will be adding to our women’s line very soon!” Ok, but do you hear me saying that you are excluding me by marketing only the men’s products?

It is frustrating. And I now feel more ambivalent about their products. I love the idea of celebrating my proportions–my big, strong thighs are NOT typically treated as admirable, but here is a clothing line with proud tank tops declaring “Thunder Thighs!” I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they show that pride in their marketing materials, too.

What say you? Do you feel included and celebrated by the manufacturers of products you are loyal to? What types of inclusivity do you value in advertising?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.