Allow me to present a couple of vignettes to you, all of which happened to me in the last year:
1. SLOW DOWN!
“Slow down, my dear” she said, “you’re going a mile a minute!” I knew she wouldn’t understand but I had to tell her anyways, “grandma! I squatted one and a half times my body weight!”
I smiled to myself knowing what to expect: The Speech – a speech that, by then, had become a prevalent feature of our conversations. “You’ll injure yourself, sweetie, women are not meant to lift heavy weights! Think of your back when you reach my age… it’s not good for you… when I was your age….” Normally, I quite dislike The Speech and attempt (uselessly, of course) to disarm it by mobilizing reason and a long list of scientific and anecdotal evidence to back my case. This time though, I just smiled and let The Speech follow its natural course until the topic was changed to our favorite topic of discussion: our respective menus du jour (foodiness runs in the family).
Truth is, I don’t always jump into the waters of ‘The Speech’ and let myself be attacked by its sharks. I don’t do it because my grandma is in her 80s and her viewpoint, while one that I obviously don’t agree with, is one that I completely understand. Up until quite recently really, women and weight lifting were seen as mutually exclusive. Barring a few noteworthy cases (i.a.Ivy Russell), before the 1980s at least, weight rooms, as such, were relegated to the domains of men in much the same way as traditional Greek Kαφενεια were (and, to a large extent, still are) spaces inhabited exclusively by men. While I may understand where my grandmother is coming from, The Speech still has a way of rousing up a strong sense of “bloody-hell!” in me because the view that ‘women shouldn’t lift heavy weight’ is by no means confined to those beyond the age of 50. No, we see it reproduced daily in all sorts of banal forms and, those of us who lift, turn blind eye after blind eye, discarding the arguments as baseless, those magazines as useless, those articles as tripe. Most of the time, we just sigh and move on. But how much is too much? A set of pink ludicrously-light dumbbells – ‘for women’. A pink tub of ‘diet’ protein powder designed exclusively for women. A toning workout program for women promising sculpted and elongated muscles. Absurdly high reps and ridiculously low weight – for women. Women-only cardio-centered workout classes.
2. WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THESE?
My aunt picked me up from the gym and I loaded the dumbbells in the back of her car. “The trainer let me borrow a couple of weights for the weekend since the gym will be closed so thanks for the ride.”
“No problem!” she said.
When we got to my house she came out to help me take the weights inside and, right then and there, I knew what was coming.
“Anna, what are you doing with… 12kg weights!? Are you mad!? You’re going to get huge and turn into a man with this!”
She looked at me horrified with a look akin to that one would give a friend upon finding out that they wanted to start saving road kill. I smiled and nodded as I made my way inside (with the Body too tired to circuit-in the Brain into verbalizing an argument that would make it past the power of this all-pervasive myth). It’s funny, you see, because, within the world of female lifters, I’m actually rather weak! And yet, within the cardio-sphere that most magazines herald as the singly way to female fitness, I’m suddenly en route to accidentally – or rather, willfully – altering the coordinates of my gender to those of The Hulk.
It’s as if lifting anything over five kilos would automatically transform Woman into a Man, as if heavy weights were the rings looking to turn us into The Thing!
WHAT CAN WE DO?
How does one counter it all? What can one say?
Slowly, the discourse on what exactly women can and cannot do (must and mustn’t eat, should and should not lift) is changing. The evidence is piling up. Opposition to arguments like those couched within The Speech (arguments claiming that lifting heavy will ‘do our back in’; that women were not ‘designed’ to lift heavy) and within popular narratives of the ‘right’ exercise for women to perform (involving lots of cardio, high reps, and low weight) is rising as more and more people are joining their voices and in unison showing first-hand why strong deserves to be not just the new skinny, the new sexy or ‘the new black’, but the new NORMAL.