Women in weightlifting: The fierce in femininity


Olivia Hewang

Female dominated sports have embraced a mentality of concealing unimaginable strength with grace, promoting the societal ideal of female delicacy. Through weightlifting, though, women can learn to value their strength as a contribution to their femininity, not a deterrent of it.

“That was pretty good for a girl,” a stranger’s voice made its way through my AirPods as I hopped down from a decent muscle-up attempt. I managed an eye roll. I wish I could say I’ve gotten used to those extra words I hear all too often. “That was pretty good” would have been just fine. I turned on my heels and walked away, mulling over the possibility that one day people won’t have to put down the entire female population just to toss someone a backhanded compliment.

I dropped my gym bag on the turf, leaned onto the squat rack and closed my eyes. Traditionally, femininity correlates with delicacy. Politeness. Gentleness. I lifted my chin and glanced at myself in the mirror. I am so powerful. Unfortunately, society’s beauty standards would take one look at me and my “man shoulders” and decide that I didn’t quite make the cut for the feminine ideal. I went “overboard” with the “10-minute toned arm workout” YouTube videos. I’m not nearly gentle enough to be seen as delicate, but I’m filled with grit and drive. That’s a trade I’m willing to make any day.

I lift the bar from the rack and start my set, keeping my breath in rhythm with my thoughts. Stereotypically female sports — gymnastics, dance, figure skating — require so much strength and endurance; and yet the ultimate goal is to conceal that strength behind grace. Unsurprisingly, that same pattern finds its way into nearly every corner of gender expectations for women: Put in all the work but make it look easy. Just keep it elegant. Don’t be dramatic about it. Leave the strength and heavy lifting to the men.

As a result, it can feel uncomfortable for women, including me, to embody their strength and effort. To me, weightlifting is the best way to continue to remind myself that my strength is not feminine or masculine or “good for a girl.” It is mine to define. I see my progress through the increasing weight I’m able to squat, or through the definition in my back. I’m getting stronger, and I don’t owe it to the ego-sensitive dudes in the gym to stick to light weights and cardio to ensure their security in their own strength.

Beyond encouraging me to value my strength, weightlifting has changed my lifestyle entirely. I come home from the gym, excited for a big dinner. I see exercise as a privilege to better myself, not as a punishment for not looking a certain way. Women have been programmed to think that a fitness journey starts with limiting their serving size, or cutting out food groups, but through weightlifting — truly strengthening my body — I’ve seen the greatest period of mental growth. Food is fuel. To be strong, I need to be nourished. We all do.

Truly, I go to the gym every day for me — to regain my appetite, feel strong in my own skin and because I like doing hard things. But a little part of me also hopes that by showing up at the gym every day, with intentions as strong as my shoulders, that I’ll encourage other women to see their strength as something to cherish and build upon — not as a fault in their graceful appearance in this world.