the paradox of the female athlete

I am a muscular woman.  I want to believe that it is good genetics and a very active, athletic childhood that made me predisposed to build muscle.  However, I also know that there have been many roadblocks to my success along the way.  I want to dive into some of the personal struggles that I have had to overcome to achieve my goal: to sculpt the beautiful body I want.  I am on this crazy journey called life just like the rest of us, and I appreciate any insight I glean from others.  I hope this post lets you know that you are not alone, the struggle is real, and there are things we can do to work towards the body and health we want.

Like I said I have been a muscular person my whole life.  Recently I was cleaning out a spare bedroom and found pictures from my childhood.  The picture below is from a dance recital when I was five years old.

May 1992, age 5

Yes, I was a giant kid! Once you get over that shock notice my quads, they were strong. I was no “shrinking violet.” I am not sure if it was my gender or just my mom’s family but my muscles were not viewed positively.  I was “bulky” or “thick” as my mother would explain to me.  My body shapes were not described in positive, or feminine ways, they were not encouraged.  When I looked at the picture as a young person, I saw a chubby little girl looking back at me.  I did not like the way I looked.  I did not like the “fat” on my frame.

In that environment, with those words of “encouragement,” I embraced the diet my mother put me on in elementary school.  I tried my best to eat low-fat, many veggies, and fruits. When we went school clothes shopping, I became frustrated when the legs of the pants would not fit correctly and I had to size up. I would get upset when the clothes I wanted to wear were, “made for skinny girls, not girls with tummies and thick legs.”  I started to hate my body, hate how it looked.  Most importantly, I hated how it made my mother disappointed in me.  To me it felt like my body was betraying me, making it hard for my mother to love and accept me.

On the flip side, I was a star athlete. I learned to swim before I could walk and started on a swim team at the age of three.  I started setting records at the age of seven; pool, age group, and league, several of them still stand, twenty years later.  I was one of the fastest swimmers in the state of Ohio throughout my childhood; I went three years never losing a race.  I made it to states each year of high school.  My junior year I was the state champion in the 100-yard breaststroke, set the state record, as well as being the runner-up in the 100 yard butterfly.

high school state meet 2004
High School State Championships 2004

My family could not have been prouder.  My mother made it to every meet, became a swimming official, and paid for me to train and compete throughout the Mid-west.  During my illustrious swimming career, she was there supporting me, giving herself the title of my nutritionist. At the same time, she was telling me I weighed too much, the number on the scale was too high for a girl.  I started Weight Watchers at the age of twelve to make the number on the scale go down.  I would get discouraged when the number would not move, no matter how much I used the weightlfiting machines and upped my cardio. There was never a correlation in my head, or surrounding support system between my muscles, my athletic ability, and my weight. Muscle weighs more than fat, muscular people weigh more than sedentary people of the same height and frame size.

My personal story I hope highlights the catch-22 that women face when trying to build muscle, gain strength, and be top athletes.  From an early age, the ideal, feminine form that was constructed by others for me and by me was thin, lithe, and most importantly weighed as little as possible.  Think ballerina, runner, or yogi. It did not take into consideration my frame, my genetics, my talents, or my goals. My culture, my gender, and my mother ingrained in my head what my body should look like.  The beautiful, biological machine that made my swimming achievements possible was never celebrated; it was unattractive, unfeminine, and unwanted.

I think that this feminine construct, this beauty ideal is why so many women have a hard time losing weight, working out, and lifting free weights. Women in some cultures are to diet only to lose weight, maybe incorporate light cardiovascular activity, but not lift weights.  I lost 80 pounds before I started to lift heavy (my first reason was to combat loose skin). When I started to show physical improvements through weight training, my mother said in a concerned voice, “it’s great you are losing the weight and lifting, but be careful.  Don’t get too bulky, you don’t want to look like a man.”  What does that even mean?  You do not want to look like you can open your own doors? You do not want to look like you can take care of yourself?

I am an amazing athlete, tragically I starved myself for most of my twenty-year swimming career.  What could I have done if I had been feeding my metabolism and my muscles correctly?  What can I do now? What can you do?

You have to discount the outside voices, societal beauty standards, even your own family.   You have to be true to yourself, find your own beauty and fitness ideal.  What do you think is beautiful?  What do you want to look like?  What do you want your body to be able to do or what fitness goals do you have?

Asking questions like that are going to help you get your head in the game and better frame your ideal body.  I do not want anyone to feel ashamed about his or her appearance or body.  I want them to be able to do everything they want to achieve in the body they have.  It is not about what your body looks like, but what it can do.  I want to do handstand push-ups unassisted, I want six-pack abs (vanity), and I want to have amazing arms in my sixties.  I think all of those things are possible and will make me beautiful to myself.

When I look at the dance picture from above now, I see a little girl with strong arms, and defined legs.  When I look at my swimming pictures, I see a determined athlete, a badass teenager who refused to quit.  When I look in the mirror now I see a woman who is learning to love herself no matter what the number on the scale says.  The weights/numbers that matter now are the ones I put on the bar in the gym.  I am proud of the bulky, veiny arms that help me do push-ups and pull-ups.  I love my muscular calves and legs.  I have a butt because I lift, not because I starve myself thin.

stay strong
post workout in my garage gym July 2017

Someday, when I have a daughter, and she has to size up in jeans because of her swole legs… I will just smile and say, “gains, baby girl, gains!”

One Body, One Life.  Make it Count!


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