The Benefits of Working Out for Strength

It’s high time for women to reclaim the real strength behind exercise.,

It’s high time for women to reclaim the real strength behind exercise.

When I was a teenager in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much about exercising to become strong. I ran a season of track and cross-country my freshman year of high school, but I was at the back of the pack. (OK, behind the pack.) I didn’t aspire to become athletic. I aspired to mold, refine, perfect my post-puberty body — which was decidedly less lean than my childhood body — into a conventionally beautiful one. Which meant a smaller one. And the now fully hatched fitness industrial complex offered me a cornucopia of resources promising to help me achieve this goal.

But working out for strength? That was a fringe benefit. The pursuit of visible muscle — once a bold feminist action — had become, for many women, a secondary goal. It would be years before that would change for me, and for many American women.

A child of the 80s, I had grown up playing with Mattel’s Great Shape Barbie, who sported a teal spandex catsuit, leg warmers and the not-so-subtle tagline: “She works out & looks great!” I coveted Hasbro’s Get in Shape, Girl! workout sets — toy kits “for today’s young girl” that came with various combinations of exercise books, audiocassettes and kid-sized workout equipment, including pastel hand weights, a ballet barre and a floor mat. I remember how exercising to the tapes made me feel like a grown-up, in the same way that wearing my mom’s lipstick did. Working out, I gathered, was just what ladies did.

In middle school, my fitness bible was “Beauty and Fitness With ‘Saved by the Bell,'” a slim 1992 manual featuring inspiration from stars Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley and Lark Voorhies. “Working out can be a total blast!” the book promises. “Elizabeth, Lark and Tiffani all work out regularly, and they love it.” I devoured issues of Seventeenand YMfor tips on how to improve each region of my body, awkwardly attempting to follow along with the photo guides of sweatless, perfectly made-up teen girls exercising on neon-hued mats.

As I entered high school, I became most loyal to a home workout VHS series called The Firm. (Get it?) Night after night, I summoned a shirtless fitness model named Tracy James onto our old wood-paneled television and followed his advice, delivered in a thick Jersey accent, for developing six-pack abs. (Mr. James, I recently learned, was essentially just a well-developed hunk The Firm hired to host this particular video. He was later voted Cosmopolitan’s Man of the Year and also appeared on the covers of romance novels.) After absorbing his introduction to the concept of situps, I followed along as nameless ladies in shiny leotards instructed me to reach, crunch and tune into my abdominals, my ankles wrapped in weights.

I wanted muscle — badly. I wanted “well-defined” arms that, I thought, would look nice in tank tops. I wanted a firm stomach. I wanted sleek thighs and a compact butt. (I spotted my first patches of cellulite around age 16.) But the women’s fitness industry focus on cosmetic transformation had blinded me to exercise’s more profound potential.

It wasn’t until I became pregnant, at 36, that I began to truly appreciate the value of strength. During most of my pregnancy, I felt powerful knowing I was growing a new life inside me. But after my son was born, I felt diminished. I’d endured a third-trimester blood pressure spike and an emergency C-section. For the first time, I didn’t trust my body. For weeks that turned into months after giving birth, consumed by caring for a newborn, my husband and I rarely left home, and usually only to shuffle to the drugstore for diapers.

When I tried to locate my abs, I couldn’t find them. And I don’t mean in the mirror. Standing in my bedroom one morning with my breast-milk-stained Gap sleep shirt raised, I poked and pressed, attempting to flex and feel at least a remnant of resistance. Instead, I felt only a void.

I didn’t want my pre-baby body “back.” I didn’t feel like the person I was before I gave birth, and trying to re-create her felt like going backward. Yet I did want to feel in control again, to feel strong again. Strong enough to nurture a baby, a marriage and a career. The pursuit of physical power now felt urgent.

***

In the last decade, the women’s fitness industry has started to change, slowly but steadily. As a culture, we still aren’t fully comfortable with women choosing to increase rather than decrease their size. Women’s bodybuilding remains a kind of sideshow sport, due in part to a fundamental lack of understanding of “Why?” Why would a woman feel compelled to get that big? But there are signs of progress, evidenced perhaps most potently by the rise of CrossFit, the popular hard-core strength-building regimen whose devotees are nearly 50 percent women.

When women first show up to CrossFit gyms, writes journalist J. C. Herz in “Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness,” they balk at the prospect of someday becoming as large — as “ripped” — as the more seasoned female lifters. “But then two months go by, and these women decide they want to climb a rope or dead lift their body weight.” And eventually, “their bodies become a byproduct of what they’re able to do.”

Shannon Kim Wagner, founder of the Women’s Strength Coalition, a group dedicated to helping members of all gender identities build muscle, described her experience with weight training this way: “For me, picking up a barbell meant focusing on my body, for the first time, in a way that had nothing to do with shrinking or making myself smaller. It felt radical to search for safety in myself, as opposed to looking for it in approval from others. When I chose to stop getting smaller in my physical body, I stopped existing for other people.”

Today, I exercise not only for physical but also mental strength. I exercise to feel the endorphin high of accomplishment and to manage life’s lows. I exercise to remind myself I can persevere, and that I am not alone. Most of the women I know (as well as the many women I’ve interviewed across the country) consider regular physical activity essential to their emotional and physical well-being. My mom, who is in her early 70s, calls her weekly cardio dance classes “a surefire source of joy.”

Not long ago, when I mentioned Get in Shape, Girl! on social media, an acquaintance sent me this note: I totally remember Get in Shape, Girl! and could sing the ad jingle for you. I grew up chubby and was overweight by college — precisely because I started dieting by fifth grade. I remember asking for it for my birthday or Christmas, thinking, This will be the thing that makes me “normal,” by which I meant “thin.” Of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s and early 30s that I realized physical exercise didn’t have to be punitive.

I now know how fortunate I am to be living in an era when a growing number of fitness professionals sell exercise not as a punishment, but as a celebration of what our bodies can do; an era when women are encouraged to cultivate strength not for anyone else’s pleasure but our own. Increasingly, it’s just what ladies do.

Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City. This essay was adapted from her new book, “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World,” a cultural history of women’s fitness.

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