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Becoming a powerlifter - women who lift and body image

Since getting to know the online powerlifting scene, one thing that has really struck me is the way female lifters regard their bodies.

Even the healthier side of fitness writing and community can be a world full of lean, ripped, dehydrated fitness models and figure competitors. We know athletes come in all shapes and sizes, but it's not what we see out there, illustrating articles, on Instagram, in the catalogues where we buy our leggings.

The fitness world often says "sure, women can be strong and fit, but they must also be small and lean and young".

One of the things I really enjoyed about my taster of The Bigness Project is that it celebrates and is completely unapologetic about women taking up space.

Women are often discouraged from taking up space, we need to be small, so much so that we are told not to fuel our bodies and succumb to permanent hunger in order to achieve it.

When I entered the online social world of women in powerlifting, I found a very different outlook.

Check my gains

One of the Facebook groups I am part of has "Thick Thigh Thursday" where members post pictures of their leg gains. I've seen women post images with the apology "this isn't a great picture, my thighs are bigger than this in real life"

Can we take a second and think about how amazing that is? Women who are looking at their big, strong legs and being proud of them, and wanting to share them, and congratulating each other on them.

Positive role models

I've also noticed the positive impact on my own self-image, from seeing lots of images of strong, healthy women lifting. I feel a lot more comfortable with my own body, through seeing comparable women feeling comfortable in theirs. One of the exercises I sometimes set personal training clients who want to improve their self-confidence is to look at, even collect (Pinterest is great for this) diverse images of beauty. Not just conventionally attractive, young, slim women, but weathered old women with sparkling eyes, plus size women who look happy in their skin, women of different cultures where beauty ideals are different to ours. The images we view affect how we think about beauty, and how we think about ourselves. The more we can pull back from the tight definition of female beauty portrayed in Western media, the more we realise that there is really nothing "wrong" with the way we look.

In powerlifting communities there are women in all weight classes, slight women who are fiercely strong, women with a healthy amount of body fat* squatting in short shorts. Women who don't actually care if their deadlift face is pretty, because no one gets to criticise you when you can deadlift twice their bodyweight.

[*I'd like to make a point here because it's not widely mentioned: Women in figure competition and fitness models tend to have under 20% body fat, often substantially less - in order to make their musculature visible. A healthy amount of body fat for a woman is 23-30% The photo shoots and competitions happen when they "peak" and have the least amount of fat in their training cycle, they then tend to put some back on for their bulking or rest seasons, because sustaining a body that lean is difficult, uncomfortable and unhealthy. It's the choice they make for their sport, and that's cool, but it's not what the rest of us can reasonably aspire to full time.]

Eating without shame

It's refreshing to be part of a community of women who value eating well, and take pride in the function of their bodies. There was a time in my youth when I would avoid eating in front of people, lest they judged me for doing so while not being thin enough. It's glorious to talk to women who eat unabashedly for strength.

This is one of the reasons why I love strength training for women. It puts the goals in a healthy place and it gives a clean break from "eat less, be thinner". Body composition changes happen when you lift, you gain muscle and it's pretty hard to gain fat eating healthily and training hard. I've lost inches from my arms, legs and waist in the last 6 months - but I don't really care about that any more. It's all about the thick thighs.

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