A few weeks ago, I had the misfortune of getting a bus around school time. The first thing I noticed was that boys in general have zero awareness around personal space. Manspreaders-in-training, they flap their arms about, stretch out their legs and generally occupy every possible inch.
The girls, by contrast, were almost hyper aware about how much room they took up.
Since this kind of behaviour isn’t determined by our DNA, I remain fascinated by the unconscious conditioning we receive from birth that slots girls into a smaller pen and gives boys the run of the field. But as a woman, I’ve also wondered and envied what that kind of freedom and self-assuredness feels like.
A few months ago, I was interviewing a trans man named Derek about the things he had noticed after his transition.
Among many things – which included needing to be mindful when he was walking behind solitary women so as to not startle them – one of them was the confidence he now felt as a man. It was almost as if by changing genders, he now had access to a reservoir of power that previously had been denied to him as a woman.
A large part of this reservoir, of course, is made of power that comes at a woman’s expense. We live in a patriarchal world, we haven’t attained gender equality, women shrink so that men can expand, and frankly, it stinks.
But something changed in my life that has given me a taste of what it might be like to draw strength from that reservoir.
A couple of years ago, I started taking up weight training. Some of this was born out of practicality – my husband had passed away and I found myself needing to actually be physically stronger to do things around the house now that he was no longer here. But mentally, I was falling apart and needed something to focus on.
During that year, I obsessively tinkered with my diet because I was paranoid that building muscle would make me look stocky. This was fuelled by the fact that my clothes wouldn’t fit across my shoulders or my thighs. I was trying to gain strength but was held back by the aesthetic of what a woman should look like: feminine and slim.
This year, something changed. I got a new trainer named Jack and discovered that he is a competitive powerlifter. At the same time, my local gym was running a powerlifting competition and they asked me to sign up because women – shocker – are under-represented at these types of events.
At first, I didn’t want to. Powerlifting is a competitive type of lifting, where you do three lifts – squat, bench and deadlift – and you do them at the heaviest weight you can handle for one repetition. It also seemed overwhelmingly male.
I had overcome a lot two years ago to enter the male-dominated weights space comfortably – initially, I was intimidated by the environment, guys swaggering around, and lacked the confidence to use the equipment.
But powerlifting seemed to be next-level scary. Strong girls are widely celebrated at the moment, but it still seems to be up to a point. You can be strong as long as you look a certain way. This was uncharted territory for me.
Yet, Jack encouraged me to sign up as a way to help focus my training. And, in doing so, he inadvertently kick-started an internal revolution in terms of how I view fitness, food and empowerment.
When you replace the aspiration for slimness with a body that physically can do a lot, it makes you realise how absolutely useless everything you think you know about female body standards actually is
The first thing with training for a powerlifting competition is that you hit new goals of what you can lift every week. Seeing your body get quantifiably stronger gives you the motivation to keep going. The second and most valuable thing is that it intrinsically makes you understand how important food is in terms of powering your body.
A lot of us are so caught in a cycle of restriction and binge, that we tend to forget that food is essentially fuel. There is no compromising when it comes to powerlifting – if you don’t eat enough, your body simply will not be able to lift the weight.
At first, I started worrying again about my body getting bigger, but it takes an incredible amount of work and food for women to put on properly big muscle. I only got slightly bigger and then when I flapped about it, I thought about not being able to lift the weight I wanted if I didn’t eat properly, it seemed ridiculous that that was going to be thing holding me back.
Because really, what is the point of a body that looks good but can’t do much?
When you replace the aspiration for slimness with a body that physically can do a lot, it makes you realise how absolutely useless everything you think you know about female body standards actually is.
But above all, there is a sense of actual power that your body has, which as a woman, I have never felt before. Men never really have to think much about their physicality, because often they are naturally bigger and stronger. But women are constantly aware of it. Not only do we contend with being smaller, the world pressures us into staying physically smaller because slimness is presented as the ultimate goal for happiness and attractiveness.
It is the biggest load of bullshit. I am more or less the same weight I was when I began training, give or take a couple of kilograms, but because I changed the purpose of my body, it can do more. And I won that competition. And since then, I carry myself completely differently because my body's purpose isn't to shrink and be as small as possible – it's to be powerful and proudly strong.
Above all, I literally feel this sense of quiet confidence coursing through me. I hold myself differently around men – I’m not rude with it, but if I see a group of men walking towards me who have no intention of budging to accommodate me, I don’t get out of their way.
I look them in the eye, I keep my body strong and grounded and every time, they make way.
All of this stems from strength I generated myself. It’s something no one can take away from me; it makes me feel safer and more capable.
I don’t have many regrets but one is that this wasn’t taught to me at a younger age. While boys were taught that physical strength was something to strive towards and celebrate, the same was simply not true for girls. But perhaps that will change.
Jack told me something that made me smile, which is that at his gym there is a young girl – around 11 or 12 – who benches weights with supervision. Some gym bro went up to her and said: “Are you sure you want to be doing that, you might get stronger and more muscular?”
And she looked at him witheringly and said: “That’s the whole point.”