1/25/22

Strengthening, not Shrinking

by Sarah Peterson

I say this with only love for myself: I am remarkably bad at most sports. After realizing as a child that I was both impressively slow and deeply uncoordinated, I used my lack of interest in sportsballing to feed a narrative that I was destined to live a life of the mind. Through the end of college I pretty much avoided all activities that would cause me to break a sweat, but at some point that changed. In my 20s, I started to “work out” for the first time in my life.

Studies have looked into what motivates people to exercise, and it’s no surprise that many people do so because they want to stay healthy and become fit. But when you dig a little deeper, a gender difference emerges in why people choose to work out, and weight loss is the reason most commonly named by women in a recent study. Men, on the other hand, named weight loss least frequently of the choices offered. It’s hard to believe that anyone - or at least anyone who has ever been to a commercial gym - will find this result surprising.

As someone who has lived my entire life in a bigger body, my reasons for hitting the gym in my 20s were certainly motivated by weight loss. When I was in graduate school I went to the gym nearly every day, and I did lose weight. I was the smallest I’ve ever been as an adult at 24, the year I started teaching. Like the vast majority of us who live in bigger bodies, I’ve gone through repeated cycles of intentional weight loss followed by unintentional regain - my weights as an adult have a range of more than 100 pounds. As much as a diet and exercise regime is considered the way to lose weight, the majority of people who intentionally lose weight gain back more than they ever lost, with a side serving of additional health risks. If another treatment was prescribed for weight loss and had the same success rate as dieting, it would be considered snake oil.

I moved to Seattle when I was 21. Mostly because I needed to make friends, I started hiking, backpacking, lake swimming, and snowboarding - among other classic PNW outdoorsy hobbies. I learned to enjoy these activities, but I didn’t really think of them as exercise. Exercise was work - not to be enjoyed, and something one did to be fit, both physically and morally. I would go to the gym when I was “being good” and skip it when I was, well, less than good. “Being good” meant being smaller - but I never could be good enough to become small. Every time I went to the gym, it made me feel bad about myself. Huffing and puffing on the elliptical machine was a signifier of my moral failure. I stopped going. 

If you search on social media for fitness content, you’ll find an unending stream of images of women’s bodies. These bodies are overwhelmingly lean and young (and mostly white), and are accompanied by tips for how to go about obtaining a body like one in the picture. Sometimes posts will describe a “fitness journey”, and show a time-lapse series of images of a woman who shrunk her body successfully. The comments on these posts invariably congratulate her for doing so.

It’s revolutionary for a woman to work out with no expectation that her body will become smaller, and it’s especially revolutionary for a fat woman to work out with no desire for her body to become smaller.

Over the last few months, I’ve started a regular weight lifting practice. I love how powerful I feel when I hoist something heavy. I love seeing the weight I can lift increase over time. I find real joy in being good at doing something athletic for the first time. I have absolutely no interest in making my body smaller through these workouts. And for the first time in my life, I can’t wait to get to the gym.

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Read more about how HATCH community partner Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu creates a fitness environment that celebrates strength and power on their website.