Many of the so-called “fitness” models we see on social media present the same thin bodies we’ve always called beautiful – the only difference is that those bodies are now in neon sports bras and spandex shorts. The diverse bodies of real women are not represented by the “one-size-fits-all,” airbrushed “perfection” of fitness models. As my passion for the sport of weightlifting developed, so too did my appreciation for the many ways fitness can be embodied.
Fourth-year sociology student Keyanna Russell said that being bombarded with these images takes a toll on her perception of body image.
“I think it has added to the thoughts about my own body, honestly all negative,” Russell said. “[It] makes it impossible not to compare yourself to one another.”
Too often fitness is presented as something we look at rather than something we do. The truth is, strength and fitness don’t exist in a still frame – they are skills we demonstrate through movement, not how we look in a gym selfie. If we really want to celebrate strong women, we need to concern ourselves with more than how “toned” they look.
Fourth-year psychology student Antonina Pavilanis has felt the pressure of trying to live up to these standards first-hand.
“I thought cardio was the way to lose weight and believed that [it] would make me love my body,” she said. “I resorted to eating less, and got what I wanted: ‘the perfect body.’ But I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.”
My approach to food and fitness completely changed when I got into the sport of Olympic weightlifting. With weightlifting, it is necessary to fuel your body the right way so you can train properly. I went from “how little food can I survive on today?” to “how can I best nourish and fuel my body to perform?” Getting serious about weightlifting meant letting go of the desire to look “fit” in order to truly get stronger and become a better weightlifter.
This was challenging at first, but eventually, something just kind of clicked. I realized that my goals were bigger than how my body looked. I became empowered by what I could accomplish in the gym, and this made it easier to eat more to further feed that progress.
I also realized that being strong lead to the best kind of confidence I could ever have. I am happy with how my body looks, how it feels and how it’s performing; I’m not just striving to look like some “fit chick” I see on Instagram.
I find weightlifting empowering because the only thing that matters is the number on the bar. Nobody cares whether you actually look fit or not. The most respected women in this sport are praised for the serious weight they can throw overhead, not how they look in their singlet walking up to the platform.
Weightlifting has helped my body image by allowing me to focus on what my body can do rather than what it can look like.
Pavilanis offered her own thoughts on body image.
“Body image is about confidence, and confidence comes from feeling good. That took me a really long time to understand,” she said. “I’ve learned that what makes you feel good in your own body is what you give it, not what you take away.”
For me, it was finding confidence in strength that helped me learn to value my body for what it is capable of, but that’s not to say it has to be about strength for everybody. Being guided by a passion for something you love is what brings us confidence – not reaching a certain body fat, size, or weight goal.