Gender, Embodiment, and Weight Lifting

[Content note: sexualized violence and objectification of women]


I want to talk about embodiment and how it differs by gender. Embodiment is a bit of a nebulous concept, but basically it means a deep knowing of your body and its capabilities, and a feeling of groundedness rather than disassociation. It’s that knowing that tells my brother when he looks at a rock five feet away that he can do a two-foot jump and make it safely. It’s that trust that allows baseball players to dive for a ball and trust their body knows how to land. It’s that feeling that lets you throw a punch and know how it’s going to land.If you’ve ever been on a rocky beach, a beach strewn with boulders to get down to the water, and seen young men stride confidently, maybe even jump from one to the next, while their female companions tentatively step, test, then shift their full weight, maybe taking the hand of their boyfriend or friend, that’s the gendered difference in embodiment. Of course, not all men are embodied and not all women are disembodied. But research shows that a lot more men are embodied than women, and that men and women talk about their bodies in very different ways. This is likely because we live in a culture that prizes men as the subjects and relegates women to object status. How do you find embodiment as an object? It is likely because boys are taught from a young age that being boisterously in their bodies is their birthright, while girls are taught to lock it down. To be sweet and quiet. To play with dolls and tea sets while their brothers run around with toy guns and throw balls and frisbees. It is likely because boys are taught to throw while girls are assumed to…throw like a girl. It is likely because the worst epithets aimed at men are those that compare them to women.

It is likely because women live under the threat of intimate violence every damn day of their lives. Because we are taught to walk in pairs. Because we are taught that the wrong skirt means we are culpable for our own violation. Because god-damned skinny jeans mean we were “asking for it”. Because some men will not back off until another man claims ownership of us. Because we are told that taking up space puts us in danger. And so we shrink into ourselves. We shrink away from the gaze and the words and the threats and the violence. We disassemble that mind-body connection in pursuit of enough peace to get through the day.

And even in the pursuits that should embody us, like exercise (more on this later) we are taught to keep ourselves small. We are told that women lift 8-15 pounds. We are told that women can’t do pull-ups and can only do push-ups from our knees and never taught how to graduate to full push-ups because why would a woman need to be strong enough to push a person off of her? We are taught to do “the “partial pushup” because it only requires a partial amount of effort, and consequently imparts a partial amount of strength development.” (Follow the link for source material.) We are told that we should spend our time doing cardio or pilates, not throwing around iron and sandbags. We are told that strong women get bulky and that bulky women are unfeminine (both points being grade-A bullshit). We are shown fitspo that purports to be about female strength but is really just another way to highlight tits and ass and extreme leanness.

And so we learn how to cardio ourselves into oblivion, but don’t see the results we’re told we should see. We lift and lift and lift but don’t get any stronger because stalling out at 15 pounds means you’re lifting less than some people’s backpacks. And because we aren’t taught to lift heavy, we don’t actually know what working hard in the weight room feels like.

I started lifting heavy about a year and a half ago and it was a revelation. I got under the bar, faced my fears, and started to trust my body. It is empowering to squat 115 pounds after doing bodyweight squats all your life. It is empowering as hell to deadlift 135 pounds (and it makes moving a fuck of a lot easier!). And it requires a hell of a lot of trust and connection with your body to do it right. How do you activate your posterior chain if you’ve never truly felt your body before? My graduate research (forthcoming) showed that women survivors of intimate partner violence who engage in empowerment-oriented exercise (defined, for my study, as strength-training, martial arts, and yoga) had higher levels of embodiment than those who engage in aerobic-based exercise (running, walking, zumba, etc). Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. You can easily throw on a podcast or bumpin’ playlist, head out and suddenly realize you’ve run three kilometres without being all that present to it. But there’s no way in hell you can clean a 40 pound sandbag off the floor without being connected to your body, without being grounded in your body, without trusting your body to do what it needs to do every step of the way. There’s no way you can spar and not be in your body. There’s no way you can “find the edge” in dancer pose and not be aware of your body.

Which isn’t to denigrate cardio-based exercise. It’s great. It’s good for your heart and clears your mind and if it makes you feel good, do it. But I think we should question why women are taught to do hours of cardio and lift light and long rather than lifting heavy and increasing their capacity. I think we should also look at how much time it takes to do an hour of cardio plus three sets of 20 reps of a million stupid isolated movements (how many different tricep exercises can we do in order to combat the “batwings” every magazine shames us for?). I used to spend easily an hour and a half at the gym. Sometimes two hours. Now I’m in and out in forty minutes and I’ve worked a hell of a lot harder. Because I simply couldn’t sustain that level of intensity for two hours. Of those forty minutes I’m probably only actively lifting for about 15, because working hard needs recovery.

And I can feel the difference. I can feel it in how I walk, with confidence and ease. I can feel it in how my shoulders naturally settle back and down. I can feel it in how I no longer cower when strange men yell at me, I gut-check and then proceed in the safest way, with the confidence in my body to step-to if needed (though, like many women, I’ve never been taught how to fight or take a punch properly, though I do know how to throw a punch after taking a boxing class). I don’t think I could win in a fight at this point (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in my future), but I trust my body to make it hard as hell for the other person to win. I trust that just having an embodied presence makes predators less likely to target me.

And I want to be clear: I am not stating that women who are less embodied, who don’t or can’t lift weights, are in any way responsible for being victimized or being vulnerable. Rather, I am calling to account a society that depends on female weakness, that valourizes it, that fetishizes it. And I am suggesting that while we do the big, society-level work, we can also do the individual, personal-level work. We can empower and embody ourselves by throwing away Self Magazine and getting under the bar.


P.S. Doing a Creative Commons search for “barbell” garners you more Prince Alberts than you’ll know what to do with. Learned that one the hard way.

32 thoughts on “Gender, Embodiment, and Weight Lifting

  1. Your definition of embodiment sounds a lot like proprioception. Could you explain how they differ for your work (which sounds fascinating, awesome, & important…but I’m another PhD student that studies physical activity).

    1. Yeah! I use Menzel’s definition, which is “a state, and, hopefully, a trait in which one experiences one’s body as an essential aspect of the often interrelated experiences of competence, interpersonal relatedness, power, self-expression, vitality, and well-being” (2005, p. 2). She further lists the fundamental aspects of embodiment as being “respect for and care of the body, physical freedom, instrumentality and functionality, empowerment, a relative lack of externally oriented self-consciousness about the body, the ability to know and voice bodily experiences and needs, and a deep mind/body connection” (ibid.

      I really simplified the definition because it’s a bit of a mouthful, but perhaps I should clarify a bit more.

      1. I would say it is more holistic than proprioception–likely proprioception plays a part in embodiment but it is a larger and somewhat more abstract concept.

  2. Wow, I never made the connection between “modified” push-ups and the disempowerment as a woman of being unable to push someone’s body weight off of yourself.

    When you publish or finish your dissertation I’d really love to read your research. I am a rape crisis/domestic violence counselor and this information could really be something useful to provide my clients regarding their self-care and healing.

    1. I’m hoping to get a published article or two out of my research but I think it will also be available in its entirety through my university so I will share it when available. And I also used to be a victim services worker which is a big part of why I focused on what I did, and what drove me when I felt like giving up. 🙂 Thank you for the work that you do.

  3. Awesome!! I’m an aerobics teacher & PT and a grad student in Women & Gender Studies. I’m working on similar topics; I did a TEDx talk about this a few years ago that sort of sparked my need to do another degree, lol 😉 Can’t wait to see more of your posts!!!!

  4. I absolutely LOVED this blog and I shared the heck out of it. I’m a martial artist plus I love to lift heavy so I was literally cheering when I read this. I stopped buying women’s fitness magazines because I was sick of seeing models with tiny pink weights and reading articles on how to tone and fit into your little black dress in 14 days. What happened to encouraging women to start doing compound lifts and getting them to look at a proggressive weights programme with the goal of lifting heavier and getting those awesome PBs?!

  5. Really great article! This is something I have been “chafing” over for a while but have not put into words as well as you have. I do hope you are able to publish your article/research later as I would be interested in seeing the results.

  6. 135 lb deadlifts is not lifting heavy btw. I’m a woman who is 4ft11 and 98 lbs and pulled 205 a few months ago… Probably more now. 135 would still only be an intermediate deadlift for someone as small as me (Google EXRX deadlfting standards) and yes I have a video to proof it and more than willing to show you if you don’t believe me. I wouldn’t consider anyone somewhat strong until they can deadlift 2x their bw… squat 1.5…. Pull ups and dips are easy for me (I am stronger than many of the scrrawny guys in my gym btw)

    1. I’m trying to find a way to respond to this graciously and I am failing. I honestly don’t know why you would post this. Congratulations on your lifts. For me, for my body, at this point in time, 135 lbs is a lot. It makes me feel strong and powerful to lift it. And, in comparison to the 12 lb dumbbells I spent most of my life lifting it is heavy.

      But also, lifting and bodies and being in our bodies is not a competition, and slamming someone because they don’t lift as heavy as you do is a shitty thing to do.

      1. “Empowerment” is a rare mineral mined from the depths of the earth in the deepest forests of Stronglandia, whose reserves are becoming exhausted due to the endless print runs of Cosmopolitan Magazine. As such, all women weightlifters know that the best way to acquire more empowerment is to prevent other women from obtaining it, and defending your own via unending linear increases in one-rep max overhead cossack squats on a Swiss ball while blindfolded and training fasted with BCAAs.

      2. Thank you so much for letting me know. I’ve decided to remove your comment simply because I have seen how that person behaves and can imagine them needing to reply to this and I don’t want that kind of drama or energy here. But I so appreciate you letting me know. Take care!

    2. Wow, how rude. You should have learned by now that you don’t need to tear people down to lift yourself up. I’ve found so much support in the female lifting community but there always a few bad apples, eh? Your attitude reeks of low self esteem. We are all on our own journeys, no need to compare. I’ve been lifting for 2.5 years, 5’3″ and 125lbs, I can dead lift 175lbs. I’m sure you think i’m ‘not strong’…wait, hold on here…i’m looking for my fucks to give….nope, not even one.

  7. I guess my point was that personally I don’t find 135 lb deadlift empowering because it’s light weight. It’s my warm up and I’m very petite…. 135 is beginners for most women… I only feel empowered when I go over 200… Just don’t most of your readers to think that 135 is crazy strong.

    1. I already responded to your first comment, but I wanted to reiterate that what you find empowering is not what I will find empowering is not what some other woman will find empowering. It is a weird jab (and attempt to disempower?) to tell someone else that what empowers them doesn’t count because you can lift more more.

      And for a lot of women who have never lifted more than pink dumbbells 135 lbs IS crazy strong. We’re not all competing in powerlifting competitions.

  8. Jackie, that you’re pointed to googled “standards” of lifting prowess tells me you haven’t been around long. For 99% of us, there will always be someone stronger, a lot of times much, much stronger than we could ever personally achieve. So what are you capable of being inspired by? Is there a metric formula you have to hit, which compels you to leave a comment on someone else’s blog to let them know they’re not up to your standards? I know quite a few national competitors and medalists in weightlifting and powerlifting, and not one of them thinks of motivation in this way. They also certainly don’t gauge their ability to respect others based on who’s stronger.

  9. Jackie, that you’re sharing googled strength “standards” as a basis for your offhand comment tells me you haven’t been lifting for too long. For 99% of us, there will always be someone stronger. And I’m willing to bet those stronger folks don’t use their strength as a gauge for how much they respect or are inspired by others.

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