A few weeks back, I got into a Twitter squabble with another woman. She launched into a spiel about women and weightlifting and lamented that not enough women embrace heavy weights. I would agree with that, since I rarely see a lot of ladies hitting the heavy weight rack. Then she tweeted to her 242,000 followers: “Women can’t just bulk. Nope. Don’t worry. Not happening.”
Hmm, say what?
Fuming, I hit ‘reply’ and lit up my iPhone keyboard to give her a 140-character piece of my mind:
“I disagree with being unable to bulk. Some girls do, me included. Some of us can get boxy. It depends on genetics/training.” Then added: “For example this is me not trying to bulk, just heavy lifting:”
“BUT is ‘bulky’ necessarily bad? I like it :)”
It’s a fair question: Is it really such a terrible thing to be bulky or jacked as a woman?
‘Bulky’ is defined as “having great volume in proportion to weight.” And part of the reason women recoil at the word has to do with lingering ideals about a woman’s body, historically defined by Photoshopped, size-two waists and flat (but not chiseled!) stomachs. Thankfully, the messaging geared toward women lately has been “strong is the new skinny.” Yet there still exists this notion that women need to strength train differently than men: Ladies should stick with light weights, while men can go HAM.
In reality, women can and should train just as intensely as men if they want to, and we can get strong as hell too. But most don’t because “bulking up” is a very real, pervasive fear that keeps a lot of women from even looking in the direction of heavy weights. I understand there could be other hang-ups (like fear of judgment or feeling unsure about where to start), but this misguided perception of bulking is probably the most common. (After all, “bulking” in the traditional weightlifting sense has way more to do with diet than it has to do with lifting weights.)
What’s worse, this fear is perpetuated by people who share their unsolicited thoughts on how a woman’s body should look: “You want to look toned, not bulky,” they might say. I remember lifting at a gym in Hong Kong once, being floored by the audacity of people who told me they admired how strong I was, but warned me not to lift so heavy to avoid getting any bigger. It seems that even within my Asian culture, the norms work against me too.
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Not surprisingly then, most marketing materials around women’s strength training programs emphasize words such as “long,” “lean,” “toned,” or “sexy.”
But seriously, what’s so terrible about “bulky?”
Bulky is just as much an arbitrary label as lean, long, toned, or sexy is. We all have mental pictures we associate with these terms, which guides our perceptions and reactions when we see these traits in other people. What appears to be bulky to one person might look pretty normal and even desirable to someone else! And the thing is, most people think of something like this when they think of bulky:
Sure, some women can look like this, but not through natural means (read: steroids), and certainly not by lifting for a couple of months (read: years, maybe decades).
Even experts agree. “It’s generally true [that women don’t bulk], but in the end, it’s not always true for every single person,” says JC Deen, certified personal trainer and owner of JCD Fitness. “Women who do bulk have a predisposition to building muscle. It’s a spectrum, and you’re probably closer to the end of easily gaining muscle on that spectrum.”
OK, before you go running for your 2-pound weights, stay with me. I look bigger and stronger thanks to my genes, the specific strength training program I follow, and the delicious food that feeds my “gains.” I’m not all muscle—about 15 percent is made of coffee, obviously—but there’s no doubt that I have more mass than my other girlfriends who lift. And guess what? That’s OK. In fact, it’s freakin’ awesome.
I’m so unashamed about my strength training because it makes me feel like I can do anything, and I’m totally addicted to that feeling. I take pride in working toward a strength goal (10 pull-ups, here I come!) and looking like I spend time lifting weights. More importantly, I appreciate what my improved physical strength allows me to do—things like move my own couch like a boss or haul bags of groceries up the stairs on my own.
I say all this now, but for a long time, the dissonance between the changes in my body and the you-won’t-get-bulky marketing promises made me secretly wish that I could (or should) be a touch smaller. It felt like a double standard—as if the people encouraging women to lift heavy were supporting girl power and strength, but suggesting that looking bulky or jacked to signify that strength would be gross, ew.
In the end, there’s no use fighting my genetics. I’ve often had to reframe my mindset to see gaining mass more easily as my genetic superpower, rather than a curse. Frankly, I am damn proud of the progress I’ve made and of the work I continue to put in, as evidenced by the many photos of me flexing that exist on the interwebs. Flexing is fun, and it’s my sort of tongue-in-cheek way of showing off—judgment be damned!
So—take it from me—it’s not terrible to be bulky (if you would even consider me bulky to begin with). When women pass on heavy weights and say, “Oh I don’t want get bulky!” like it’s a terrible thing, I can’t help but think that underneath that statement is a serious misunderstanding of physiology, someone giving herself an excuse to quit before she even starts, or worse, possibly hating her genetics.
And that, I think, is a terrible thing.