The January gym influx, shortly followed by abandonment for the rest of the year is a common occurrence. As a relatively unfit, awkward female, the thought of going to the gym used to terrify me. The wrath of hyper-masculine men dominating the weights section and filling the mirrors used to haunt me as I stuck to the running machines. However, last October I threw myself into the deep end and started power-lifting with the University of York Barbell society. It was one of the best decisions I have made during my degree and here’s why.
There are many misconceptions about power-lifting, gyms and weights in general. Girls often fear the prospect of getting “too bulky,” despite the fact that muscle gain is a long-term commitment that does not happen over night and besides, the masculisation of being “bulky” is something women should frankly not be ashamed of. It may be the age of Kim Kardashian and “#thic” but power-lifting for me is least about the aesthetics. Upon joining, it was one of my priorities (I won’t lie) but this soon changed as I realised it was becoming a resolution to my third year stress and spiraling mental health.
Although gym intimidation and anxiety is applicable to anyone, this article sways towards women’s intimidation and how power-lifting can be a source of female empowerment, mainly due to my own experience (as a woman.) Women have been historically targeted by the fitness industry with the pressure to look a certain way that encourages them to do excessive cardio and avoid the weights section. It results from a historic, gendered aesthetic that promotes men as muscly and women as slim and slender – remember the thigh gap trend? Power-lifting has many benefits, but for me it was one way in which I could reject the fitness culture of fad diets, detox teas and hours spent on treadmills. It was a way of saying no to the gendered, normalized standards of exercise and feeling empowered by my own rejection of these standards. And through it, I found heaps of empowerment and self-fulfillment and so do many others,
“Despite competing as an individual in Powerlifting, we are all one big team. In Barbell everyone’s progress is important and you will always get support with your training, whether you are in the GB team or have never stepped into the gym before. Watching beginners, and in particular girls, fall in love with the sport brings a massive smile to my face as we are slowly breaking the stereotype that girls can’t be strong. These girls inspire me to make Barbell the most inclusive and friendly club there is.” [Georgie McDonald, Barbell President]
The “This Girl Can” campaign was developed by Sport England to promote women’s participation in all forms of sport. The first television advertisement was aired on 12th January 2015. It was soon escalated by accompanying cinema, outdoor and social media attention. It promotes the idea that all women regardless of shape, size and ability can get involved in sports and that women should not be judged by their appearance. Basically, it says a big f*ck you to those guys who stare at girls in the gym, and the niggling anxiety at the back of women’s heads when looking at themselves in a sports bra. Exercise has been so tainted by the fitness industry as a pursuit of aesthetic goals tailored to those who already have that ‘bikini body’. It can be intimidating and off putting. This Girl Can removes the aesthetics from gym culture and encourages women to exercise for the wealth of other reasons. So many women exercise from a point of self hate, when it should be self-love.
“I started training out of self-hate. I think a lot of girls (sadly) do that with the gym. But after a while I moved from the treadmill to the weights, and then I discovered powerlifting. Now, I powerlift out of self-love. I do it because it’s amazing to push and challenge yourself for just your own sake, and to see the results that only come from hard work. It’s amazing to have a space where you always go full out and get to try to be the most strong, determined, and powerful you’ve ever been in a room full of people cheering for each other to be better than last time.” [Kajsa Elisabeth Dinesson, Barbell Treasurer]
Mental health and physical health are often presented in opposition. After initially being motivated by the physical benefits and wanting to be stronger, I soon realised how it was making me feel. How, when I came out of the gym I wanted to jump up and down with excitement that I pushed myself, and I had done it. How it gave me a warm buzz of happiness after each session. How it made me fall instantly asleep at night after weeks spent staring at the ceiling in a spiraling pit of anxiety. How I could now walk into a gym packed with guys and not feel an ounce of apprehension. Now I don’t dread exercising but embrace it. It has become a necessity for maintaining a positive and motivated mindset. My only regret is that I did not discover it sooner and wasted time slaving away at the running machines.
There is nothing more inspiring than looking round during a group training session and seeing everyone (girls and guys) supporting one another, regardless of standard. Despite power-lifting being an individualized sport, it always feels like you are part of a team. Dan Turner offers an insight into the sense of community the society creates,
“Powerlifting to me is all about going in the gym and being a little bit better than I was the day before. It’s a community where whether you’re lifting 20kg or 300kg people will cheer you on just the same. it’s about having something to focus on that isn’t my PhD and is the first sports community that I’ve felt is truly inclusive.”
On the outside it may seem intimidating but on the inside it is all about encouragement. It is simply empowering and something I would encourage anyone to do. Obviously, exercise does not end here but for me, power-lifting appealed as I had always been adverse to team sport as it used to fill me with dread. The physicality of power-lifting it all about you, the bar and weights. You are your own critique and source of empowerment. Power-lifting for me, has been a source of mental and physical self-care. An exercise that I self indulge in completely without any guilt. It makes me feel strong and free from my unrelenting whirlwind of thoughts. Try it, I am pretty sure you will love it too.
For all information about University of York Barbell society, you can visit the YUSU page here.