Lifting weights helped me understand that women can take up space
The scene: 9 a.m. on a Sunday. I had just gotten an air conditioner delivered to me, and it was dropped off on the first floor in my apartment building. I live in a fourth-floor walk-up in New York City. There are no elevators.
The challenge: Getting the 65-pound AC unit up three flights of stairs, by myself. I’m 4’11’’ and 115 pounds.
I bent down, reminded myself to lift with my legs, and hoisted the unit up to my chest. Then I started walking. At every landing, I exhaled and took a breath in. Some minutes later, I set the AC on my kitchen table and fist-pumped. I felt invincible, like Wonder Woman after she had punched some Germans.
I had been weight-lifting since November 2017.
I started lifting weights after years of that vicious, unhealthy cycle of eating a cheeseburger and then running for 30 minutes to assuage my “guilt.” Also, I hated cardio.
I was inspired by an article by Casey Johnston on The Hairpin (RIP) that discussed the benefits of strength training (she now writes the Ask a Swole Woman column for Self). What stood out to me: “It’s much easier to lose body fat with more muscle mass because your resting metabolism will be higher.” So if you have more muscle, you will burn more calories just by existing. I was intrigued. I could get smaller—something I thought was important at the time—and I could still eat.
So I read some tutorials on lifting and started doing squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. I began with an Olympic female barbell (which weighs 35 pounds), and now I’m at 135 pounds on my squat, 145 pounds on my deadlift, and 80 pounds on my bench. As I jokingly say to my friends, “If any of you were ever to collapse and you weigh less than 135 pounds, I can carry you on my back.” I’m happier with my body now than I have been in, well, ever.
I grew up with three older sisters in a house where being a size 0 wasn’t an aspiration—it was the norm.
My oldest sister prided herself on always being 90 pounds. (except when she was pregnant and ballooned to…100 pounds.). Until the age of 24, I was a size 0 who only saw arm and belly fat when I looked in the mirror. Then I became a size 4 who only saw fat on my body, and hated my body for failing to stay small. My family noticed the changes in my body, remarking, “You should do more cardio so your waist will get smaller,” or, more bluntly, “You got fat.”
It’s a cultural thing in my Vietnamese family. Vietnamese songs and poetry are filled with small, soft-spoken women who are beautiful because they are small. That is one thing American culture has in common with Asian culture. Women are more valuable when we don’t take up space. Be quiet, count those calories, run off the excess parts of you, get smaller until you disappear.
I’m not writing this to argue that skinny women have it hard too. I’m writing this because, for so long, women have focused so much on the way our body looks and the size of our clothes, rather than on what our bodies can do. We want to lose weight and get smaller, but for what? Our bodies are capable of doing some amazing things, no matter the size.
Last year, I devoured the first season of Netflix’s Glow over a single weekend. I marveled at the women in the cast, watching them do back-flips, pull-ups, and body-slams. Those women came in all shapes and sizes, and they weren’t afraid to sweat, snarl, and be strong. It was beautiful.
As Betty Gilpin wrote in Glamour, Glow helped her move from a person who wanted to be the “smallest person in the room” to someone who ate “protein and vegetables and treats every day so that I’d be strong enough to throw Alison Brie into the air,” who “stood taller” and “took up space.”
When I started lifting, I knew I wasn’t doing it so I could star in a wrestling show. But I did know that being a small, single woman in New York City was hard, physically. Take something as simple as going to the grocery store. You want to go to Trader Joe’s because you love their soy chorizo and reasonably priced organic produce? That’s great, but be prepared to carry those two heavy bags of groceries to the train, then ride the train for 30 minutes, then carry them 10 minutes to your apartment building and up three flights of stairs. You’re so out of breath and exhausted by the end that you order Seamless instead of make dinner.
Or when you’re on a plane with your suitcase and you’re constantly looking for someone to put it in the overhead bin for you because you can’t lift more than 10 pounds above your head.
Or when you need to carry a 65-pound AC unit up three flights of stairs.
I didn’t have a partner who could do those things for me. All I had was my body, and I wanted us to be better partners to each other.
So I picked up a barbell and went from there. I stopped starving my body, and fed it (a fun side-effect of lifting weights: your muscles are ravenous so you’re hungry ALL THE TIME). I stopped willing my body to be smaller and instead tended to it; when I pulled my back muscle last month at the gym, my body and I took a break and got a back massage.
That’s not to say I don’t still see belly fat when I look at myself in the mirror, or I don’t have goals for where I want us to be physically (I want to deadlift 200 pounds). But instead of focusing on aesthetic “flaws,” I focus on what my body can do—fat, muscle, and all. I’m proud of us.
Recently I went on a trip with my sister for my 30th birthday. On the plane, instead of asking a stranger, she asked me to put her suitcase in the overhead bin. I did it with an intake of breath and a smile.