By Rebecca Fox
The last time I maxed out my squat at the gym, a new female lifter came up to me to congratulate me. “Omg you are amazing. How did you get so strong? I want to be strong like you one day!” I thanked her profusely, and we talked about consistency and years of practice.
What I wish I had said – what I want to say every time – is “Then you better be prepared to get bigger. Or to spend a lot of your time fighting getting bigger.”
I’m fat. I’ve been fat on and off all of my life. The “off” periods were the times when I was on strict diets and counted every calorie, often not eating all day so I could have the joy of one full meal at dinner time. I’ve also always been a regular worker-outer. I did boot camps for a while, triathlons after that, then CrossFit, and finally found my athletic home with powerlifting. My love of lifting forced me to reckon with my reality: that I am an easy gainer of both fat and muscle.
When women start lifting, one of the first questions to their coach is usually “Will I get bulky?” “Bulky” is powerlifting’s code word for fat. They are reassured “No, you won’t. You will get ‘toned’” (aka acceptable feminine muscles with a flat stomach and visible breasts). Inevitably, they point at one of my many thin lifting sisters: “See, she is a competitive lifter.”
What if we didn’t respond that way?
What if we said, “You might.”
What if we said, “Your clothes will get tight. Body shit will come up for you. But it won’t matter when you start poking your pecs to feel how strong your chest is, when you carry heavy bags up flights of stairs.”
What if we said, “With great strength comes great bulk.”
What if we said “The women who tend to squat and bench the heaviest are often the heaviest.” (Because it’s true, the majority of women with big squats and benches are either fat or have muscles that are deemed “masculine” by society.)
As powerlifting has gotten more female, it has also gotten more body positive. Many amazing fat activists have talked about why “body positivity” is a weak replacement for fat acceptance. In particular, I encourage you to check out yrfatfriend and the thefatsextherapist on Instagram. Their arguments discuss how body positivity ignores the reality of living in “undesirable bodies” – bodies that are fat, Black, Brown, trans, and/or GNC. Body positivity says “learn to love yourself” instead of struggling with how society has taught us to hate fat bodies.
Body positivity also ignores how being fat impacts your daily life and how this shows up in powerlifting spaces. For me, this has meant judges who can’t determine the depth of my squat. It has also meant watching every powerlifting meme account constantly talk shit about super heavyweights. I particularly enjoy the ones that shows us as whales.
On a more basic level, it means that walking into a new gym is hard. How much diet talk will there be? Will people give me the dreaded “good for you”? Will they assume that I don’t know what I am doing? Will I be too scared to ask people for hand offs?
Powerlifting has a body positivity problem in which we pretend that learning to love ourselves is enough. It isn’t. I love myself. I love my body and that special combination of hard/soft that defines being a fat powerlifter. Still, loving my body doesn’t mean other people think of me as the athlete I am and treat me with respect.
In competitive powerlifting spaces, one nearly constant reminder of powerlifting’s fatphobia is the focus on “cutting” weight (aka restricting and manipulating food and liquids to stay competitive in a given weight class versus to avoid our fear of getting fatter). In order to see the fallacy in that, hang out in the women’s bathroom before any meet. Listen to women describe how they feel light-headed, and how they hope they can eat after the weigh in. Watch them bomb out on the platform when they don’t have the calorie reserves to keep pushing or to hit new PRs. Sure, you got a gold medal in a local meet in the 72kg class, but did you lift as heavy as you would have had you eaten a full meal in the last 24 hours? Where’s the glory: that gold medal or a new PR?
Trust me, I get it. When I weigh in before a meet it is incredibly hard to have those numbers on the scale not be the ones that matter. It is hard to set up for my first squat without thinking “Shit, I went up ten pounds” instead of “Holy crap! My squat went up 40.”
Here’s the thing: body positivity will always bite you in the ass. It doesn’t go deep enough, it doesn’t pull at the root. Until you struggle with your fear of being fat – of looking like me – every time you get bulky even as you get stronger, the fatphobic voices in your head will come back. Those voices encourage you to stop showing up at the gym, to take up cardio, and to cut to maintain your weight class. Those voices will undermine your gains and your love of lifting.
It’s not easy, I struggle with it every day. But it’s worth it. I promise you. Your gains and your body are worth it.
About The Author
Rebecca Fox lives in Brooklyn, NY where she is a proud member of Murder of Crows Barbell Club. She is the NY state record holder in the 84 plus, Masters 1 division (the strongest, fat, middle age woman in New York State).
When she isn’t powerlifting, she is swimming laps for the joy of it, hanging with her partner and beloved chosen family, napping with her kitty, or working in LGBTQ philanthropy. You can follow her at @ms_rebecca_e_fox
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