If you regularly lift heavy weights, you will get muscular. No matter how many articles try to myth-bust that fact and allege that if you’re a woman who lifts, you’ll get “toned” and “shapely,” the truth is the truth. When women lift, we gain muscle. And I’ve learned to love that. There’s nothing inherently masculine about having muscle. In fact, powerlifting has helped me feel more feminine than I ever have before.
Every woman who lifts heavy things has heard it before: “Lifting makes you bulky.” “I don’t want to look muscular.” And there are countless articles debunking those myths. I am not here to debunk a single thing. I’ve learned to love how my body has changed. In fact, powerlifting has helped me feel more feminine than I ever have before.
In my second year of college, I stopped getting my period. By then, I no longer had the consistency and community of a high school sports team. That lack of physical activity, combined with an on-campus Subway that was open until 2 in the morning and the ability to buy whatever food I wanted without clearing it with my mom first, caused my physical health to suffer.
So, I started working out. A couple of times a week, I would head over to the campus gym, jump on the elliptical, and want to die for 15 to 30 minutes. I tried everything to make cardio work for me. I tried to run. I tried the rowing machine. But it all sucked. With cardio, time seemed to move at a glacial pace. And watching women around me sprint 5 miles while I struggled to jog just 1 mile made my self-esteem plummet.
And I never looked back.
It felt so familiar to me. In high school, I’d thrown discus and shotput, so while the rest of the track team (literally) sprinted laps around us, our workouts had focused on strength. Putting the weights on the bar and getting the work done made me feel so proud of myself. And the thing about me is that I’m not good at not being good at something. And I’m good at powerlifting. I love it.
So, this could be the end of the story, right? Girl finds passion she loves. Girl continues passion. Girl lives happily ever after. Except society doesn’t allow us to enjoy things without existential reflection.
See, I’m not always seen as a woman who is lifting hundreds of pounds a week, but specifically as a Black woman who is lifting heavy. Cultural messaging already pigeonholes Black women as overly masculine and aggressive. Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes in the world, was once asked by a reporter if she was intimidated by Maria Sharapova’s “supermodel good looks.”
And the silent (and oftentimes not silent) undercurrent of their rivalry was their marked physical differences. In Sharapova’s memoir, she says of Williams: “…her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall.” Even while Williams was dominating Sharapova on the court (Sharapova had won over Williams only 3 out of 23 matchups), for many years Sharapova led Williams in endorsements due to her marketability (read: whiteness).
Even in the strength industry, lifters like Quiana Welch face criticism that places their strong Black bodies front and center. Disgusting racist comments are often made, likening Welch’s body to “every primate you can think of.” While white female lifters can receive negative comments, Black women are subjected to comments that strip us of not only our womanhood but also our humanity.
Beautiful, strong Black women like Serena Williams and Quiana Welch have made me so proud of my body, yet the way they are treated terrifies me. This was especially true when navigating a dating world that outwardly values whiteness, thinness, and physical weakness. These expectations made me feel like I was setting myself up for failure by powerlifting. Even though being strong has drastically improved my mental and physical health, I held a fear that men would think I was too strong to date. That people would perceive me as unattractive.
If you haven’t seen the facts, according to data pulled from websites like OkCupid, Black women are much less likely to be interacted with on dating apps than women of other races. Most Black women have grown up feeling undesirable in one way or another. And things get even more complicated when it comes to our bodies.
So I avoided telling men I was a powerlifter. There was something inside me that wanted them to think I was demure and soft. Rather than saying I couldn’t meet up with someone because I was going to the gym, I’d make up some excuse as to why I wasn’t free. My sexuality and my fitness are such important parts of my life, but I kept them completely separated for fear that knowledge of the latter would make men look differently at the former. Sometimes, that voice is still there — but the stronger I get, the less I care.
I’m obsessed with my strength, and I see it as beautiful. I see how my strength has changed my body, and I see that as beautiful as well.
Powerlifting was a way for me to take control of my health and my appearance. And even though Black women are often unfairly judged by a world that wants to strip us of our femininity and beauty, seeing Black women being unapologetically strong, from the greatest athletes in the world to women lifting alongside me, helps me move away from thinking that being strong is anything but feminine.
And by the way, on the romantic front, it hasn’t been all bad. While I do sometimes keep powerlifting to myself when dating, some men are impressed by a woman who kicks ass in the gym. I was once seeing someone who asked me what lower-body workouts I did because his max squat was my warmup. My being stronger than him didn’t stop him from seeing my femininity and sexuality. He saw me as a whole person.
It would be a nice, neat story if I said that all my fears changed when I met the right man (he wasn’t). But that’s not what happened. I just stopped caring.
I don’t actually know if “not all men” find women who lift weights unattractive. And honestly, I’m not that interested in finding out. What I do know is that when I started powerlifting, for the first time, I started to find myself attractive. Through powerlifting, I have abandoned the societal pressure on my body to look a certain way. I want it to perform well, and that frame of mind helps me rethink what it means to be feminine. Bulk and all.
The fat ass is just a bonus.
Chika Ekemezie is a freelance writer and editor who writes about sex, dating, and the politics of life. You can find her work in publications like Bustle, Cosmopolitan, ZORA, and Elite Daily, and you can always find her on Twitter and Instagram. She’s currently based in Washington, D.C., but you can never take the Jersey out of the girl.