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Sports Series: Bodybuilding and Weight Lifting
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by Ilana Newman
I was, in a word, unathletic as a child. I had the triple burden of being chubby, being nerdy, and being a girl. Growing up Jewish and with my nose in a book amid the corn-fed, sinewy, blonde-ponytailed masses of Dora L. Small Elementary wasn’t a good way to fit in [* The reader may note that the author does not identify as a person of colour; obviously my experience would have been different, and likely more fraught, were I visibly of colour], not when playing soccer and softball were what made you cool.* Hiding in the classroom during recess and obsessively reading Anne of Green Gables did not.
When I was twelve, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. Aside from my homesickness (which was so intense it became physically painful), and my sunburn (tomato isn’t a good skin colour to have), the worst thing was the enforced team sports. My fellow campers and I were regularly ordered onto the soccer field in the baking Massachusetts sun to play endless rounds of soccer. I was deemed insufficiently motivated by the joy of sport to be a forward, so I was usually relegated to defence, where I spent my time just to the right of the net, daydreaming and doing absolutely nothing to help defend our net, while the goalie scowled and kicked the grass at her feet. I was so lacking in soccer verve that the only two times I remember doing anything to aid our team were the two instances when I accidentally blocked the ball– inattentive to the game, I didn’t even notice the ball until it hit me, first in the stomach and then later in the head. My teammates laughed. The counselors despaired. Christine Sinclair I was not.
It probably won’t surprise the reader that I, like many other children with nerdy proclivities, struggled with my body and my self-image for most of my life. In addition to not being athletically inclined, I have major depressive disorder (though this wasn’t diagnosed until I was a teenager) and have struggled with compulsive eating. All of this contributed to innumerable instances of weight gain and loss of the years, wreaking havoc on my metabolism, my self-esteem, and my wardrobe.
Eventually, I’d had enough. I was not as healthy as I wanted to be; I felt unfit and weak. I did a lot of reading on “health at every size,” the body acceptance model founded by Dr. Linda Bacon on the premise that size isn’t necessarily predictive of health, that every body has its own “set point,” or unique ideal weight, and that health and fitness are their own rewards independent of one’s leanness. This took the pressure off me enough to venture gymward, though I wasn’t happy about it: no one likes being bad at something, and I’d never picked up a hand weight in my life, so needless to say I wasn’t an immediate dynamo in the gym. I researched basic weight training exercises and went into the gym armed with a repertoire of bicep curls, dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell shoulder presses, and the leg press machine.
I got bored fast. I also got obsessed fast, and started following innumerable blogs dedicated to women and weight training. I had some train-wreck fascination with bodybuilding, a bizarre and demanding subculture that demands extremes of performative femininity and masculinity, but mostly I was dedicated to building muscle and getting stronger. (Performance artist and bodybuilder Heather Cassils has written extensively about this topic; I recommend their work if this subject interests the reader.*)
Because I was getting stronger. My shoulders and biceps grew, and though I didn’t lose much weight, I felt more able to move by body through the world. I started feeling like I knew what I was about, in the gym, even if I never ventured beyond the free weights section except to stretch. And then I discovered olympic weightlifting.
It was revelatory. I had never before in my life seen women who looked like that, women who could do things like that: powerful, and built like me. Svetlana Podobedova, Natalia Zabolotnaya, Nazik Avdalyan- even if I couldn’t do the amazing things they could, I could see in them role models, the way they looked. And that was a first for me.
L-R: Svetlana Podobedova of Kazakhstan; Nazik Avdalyan of Armenia; Natalia Zabolotnaya of Russia
After months of watching youtube compilations of olympic lifters, I gathered up the courage to sign up for an olympic lifting beginners’ class at my university gym. I’d seen the male lifters on the platforms there before, but I had kept well away from them over in my free weights corner. Now I was on the platform with a wooden dowel rod, working on loosening my hip flexors and building my quads. I was also the only woman in the class, and able to lift the least weight. But I was there, and I loved it. It was weird, frankly, being so motivated; being dedicated to fitness was still novel to me, and even more novel was being dedicated to a specific sport.
A year and change later, I’m not totally transformed. My body doesn’t look radically different, and after having the flu recently, I’ve taken a short vacation from the gym. But I’m strong. I see muscle. I have a better understanding of what my body can do, and therefore a better relationship with my body. Doing this sport has made me a stronger person, and not just literally.
* - Dr. Lianne McTavish, a professor at the University of Alberta, blogs about gender and bodybuilding at Feminist Figure Girl, a site I highly recommend. A particularly germane quote: “Because muscle is associated with hegemonic masculinity, [female bodybuilders must] compensate with over-the-top signs of feminine appeal, such as high heels, long hair, pouty lips, and thick make up. [The] combination of male and female signifiers challenges femininity, revealing it as an unnatural act, a masquerade… While some people find this thrilling, empowering, even erotic, others feel uncomfortable and somehow threatened. Instead of embracing this dis-ease as an opportunity for learning or self-reflection, they resort to gender policing.”
Ilana Newman is a writer, musician, and internet enthusiast based in Toronto. You can find her writing on Judaism at GlobalJewishVoice.com. She also runs Occupy Fitspo, a fitness tumblr, and Ethnomusicologia, an ethnomusicology blog, in her spare time.