Strong Not Skinny

Getting back into fitness and gym, I’ve not only been learning (or relearning) lessons about exercise and mentality, but about gym and fitness culture. These are things that I noticed years ago, but that didn’t really effect me then like they have been recently. Things like the comparisons we make between ourselves and others, and of course, how easy it is to get caught up in beauty expectations and the number on those scales.

I’ve put a bit of muscle back on in the last month (thank God). I’ve noticed it, and a couple of my friends have noticed it. And I’m so happy about it because that’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to do. In fact, if you rewind back to five years ago, hypertrophy (muscle growth) was essentially my only goal. But back then, I was frustrated when the scales showed that I was losing weight. Now, I’m frustrated and embarrassed that I’m gaining weight.

Here’s the thing about weight. The best way to lose fat and tone up is actually to build muscle. Women can’t naturally build muscle like men can, so we don’t get bulky. Instead, by building muscle we tend to look slimmer and more defined. But muscle is heavy. So generally, when people put muscle mass on, their weight actually tends to increase. It’s important, I’ve found, to let female clients with the goal of toning/weight-loss know that this is the case. Sometimes (actually quite often) we can’t only use the scales to check our progress, but we should be using how we feel (quality of sleep, energy levels, strength, mental health, etc.) in reaching our goals. And a lot of the time, we’ll find that what the scales say and what we see when we look in the mirror are completely at odds.

This has been the case for me. I feel stronger, healthier, and just generally pretty good about myself. When I look in the mirror, I look healthier and more athletic. But when I jump on the bathroom scales (because let’s face it, everyone gets curious), suddenly my progress and happy vibes don’t seem to matter anymore. All that matters in my head is that apparently I’ve put on three kilos since last year. And while this is silly for anyone to get caught up on, it’s even more stupid for me to fixate on. If the scales read this number five years ago when I was the fittest I’ve ever been, I would have been ecstatic… But I just can’t seem to let go of the fact that I used to weigh ten kilos less.

The reason I used to be so much lighter, though, is because I was so stressed. Five years ago I was battling constantly with anxiety and increasingly severe depression. I was in a job with absolutely no security, and always worried about money and my future. I was just generally a more anxious, negative, and unhealthy person, despite the fact that I was physically “healthy”.
(For those who don’t know, cortisol (our lovely stress hormone), can do really bad things to your body. Chronic stress is a really serious thing because a constant presence of cortisol can be quite harmful to your body in many different ways. It’s one of the reasons that people who go through trauma can take such a long time to even just physically recover from it. For me, stress manifested in losing weight.)

Five years on, not only has my body matured just that bit extra into adulthood, but I’m just in a healthier space. I’m pretty safely within the average weight for my height, age, and sex, and while I’m not as physically active as I once was, I’m generally fit and active. And yet those damn numbers still somehow have the power to make me upset.

See, two years ago I lost even more weight. I got to below 60kg at one point and at roughly 17% body fat. For those of you who don’t know much about the body… that’s pretty scary. Like if I had been a professional runner, maybe not. But because of my condition (explained more here) I wasn’t exercising much at all. And this is the crazy thing: people started telling me how good I looked.
Not people I worked with. Anyone with some knowledge of health and fitness was as concerned as I was about it (bless those coworkers who privately checked in to see if everything was alright). But generally speaking, my friends and family saw that I was skinnier and so started telling me how hot, pretty, beautiful, or even healthy(?!) I looked. And I think, over time, I started to believe them.

Even after all this time, with all the education going around about health and weight, people still think that being unhealthily skinny is “beautiful”. And I bought into it. I started actually trying to stay that skinny. I didn’t want to get healthier if it meant putting weight back on. Once I prized my athleticism, independence, and strength… now I prized being nice to look at and maybe more wanted by Christian men because now my muscles or strength wouldn’t threaten their masculinity.
And I knew that I shouldn’t be thinking like that. I knew the truth about health and weight and fitness. But our society is so entrenched in ridiculous beauty standards and outward attraction that for about a year or so, it overtook me.

I’m very thankful to God for the men that mentored and taught me to be a personal trainer, and some of the men I had the privilege to work with in the gym. For the men who told me that they prefer strong women, because it means they’re healthy (and have similar interests to them). For the men who encourage women to start lifting weights, and to aim for strong, not skinny. I’m thankful for the women I’ve known who prize muscle growth, strength, power, and athletic performance over being little, pretty, and skinny. The women who’ve taught other women not to be oppressed in their health and wellbeing by those numbers on the scale, but to exercise for strength and health. Because, even though it’s been a little while since I’ve had the joy of working with these people, the confidence they built in me and the lessons they taught me were just little things to help me be the woman I am today… the woman who can look down at the scales and for a second be disappointed. But then who can shake her head, grin, and curse society’s stupid beauty standards for women. And then who can flex in the mirror just for good measure, and walk out of the bathroom with her head held high.

Ladies (and men, too), I’m not saying that weight is altogether irrelevant. If you’re medically overweight, underweight, or obese, your weight and BMI might be appropriate ways to measure health and progress for a little while. But for a lot of us, and especially those who are within a healthy/average weight range, we don’t need to let our happiness and confidence be negatively affected by those scales. How ridiculous it is for them to have that kind of power over us!

No, I’d much rather be strong, not skinny. I lost that idea for a little while, and I might have to remind myself from time to time. Maybe we might have to keep reminding each other. #strongnotskinny

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