The single most significant moment I have had regarding my self image was when I began power lifting.
How It All Started
I had just graduated high school. Other than working for the summer, I really had nothing to do with my time because I was between high school and college - and who gives summer assignments for college classes? So I wandered into the gym near my house, got on a treadmill and started running. While I ran, I thought about a lot of things. Sometimes I would think about puzzles I worked on or people I dated. Other times, I would think about the things that happened at work.
One day, I thought about howI wanted to do something new and different, something that I could use to turn heads and inspire people - and I wondered what it would be like to try weightlifting.
A couple days later when I saw a friend from high school lifting weights, so I took the opportunity to step foot - for the first of many times - into the free weight section of the gym. From there, I knew I had found a place I would be regularly.
Moving forward in time, I learned how to perform the main compound lifts: deadlifts, squats, bench press and overhead press. It was amazing.
Learning to lift was mostly discovering the limitations and unlocking the potential strength of my body. Generally, I practiced a certain lift at a lower weight to warm up, added weight after each short rest period until I reached a weight where I genuinely struggled, and pushed myself to the limit every single time. It was incredibly intense and impressively demanding. I woke up the next day, in a kind of pain only some people would recognize and savor - the kind of soreness that comes from an amazing workout, and the kind of soreness that tells you that your body recognizes your efforts to become stronger and is trying its best to heal you for your next workout.
I even noticed that my diet improved. Because I was lifting heavy weights (depending on the type of exercise I was doing for the day, between 85 and 200 lbs) three to four times a week, I ended up eating way more than the suggested 2000 calories per day, but I was putting such a high energy demand on my body that I had to eat - and I didn't feel bad about the amount I ate. I just had to make sure I was getting a sufficient amount of nutrients, which my dad helped me with since he was the family cook. He was incredibly supportive and made sure I had healthy, clean food to eat and fruits and vegetables to snack on between meals.
After a couple weeks of putting effort and time into myself, I felt more amazing than I looked - and I looked pretty damn good. I found that I had more energy, slept better at night, could do everyday tasks easier, had an easier time dealing with stress, could socialize with people better, and my mood improved drastically. Combining all that with the fact that I was fit and strong, I felt amazing about myself.
I felt like I owned my body and no one could take that from me.
Some people thought it was really cool that I was lifting weights. I heard many positive things from the women in my life that were incredibly supportive, and multiple affirmations for my efforts to break through gender norms while doing something I enjoy and am passionate about.
Others continually expressed their concerns over how my body would look if I continued lifting.
"Oh, aren't you going to get bulky from lifting weights?"
"Aren't you worried you're going to look like a man?"
"Are you just going to the free weight section to get attention?"
"If you look too muscular, you're going to scare away men."
I couldn't believe some of the things that were said to me. I was amazed by some of the comments that came out of people's mouths regarding something that was, by nature, a gender neutral activity. There were people that, whether they realized it or not, could have made me feel bad about doing something that was good for my health.
But I didn't let that stop me.
I chose to ignore the people who weren't careful about their words, and I continued lifting because it was something I enjoyed that helped me improve my self image and my physical health.
In my workouts, I never push myself past what my body could handle - if a weight is too heavy, I won't force myself to do it only to destroy my body in the process.
There's a significant difference in lifting heavy weights with the intent to get stronger and lifting heavy weights with the intent to show off. The latter of the two is the way that everyone gets hurt by straining their body beyond what it is ready for, and frankly, I think that's just stupid.
Embracing the Change
Overall, learning to lift had a significant impact on the way I viewed myself and the world around me. Not only did my physical health improve, but mentally, emotionally, and socially, everything in my life improved.
Since then, I've also been able to inspire and teach other women who are interested in getting stronger. To me, that's a wonderful thing because it helps break gender norms, pushes personal boundaries, refines self-discipline, and helps people take ownership of their image in a society where it seems like the one thing you can't control is your image.
Everyone has their own ways of taking ownership of their body and their life, and mine required that I push my own boundaries constantly in an effort to improve myself. You don't have to lift heavy weights to be more confident. Small things like taking a second look in the mirror when you like the way you look, pausing to just breathe, or taking time to consciously acknowledge how your body feels can help you appreciate yourself and own your space in the world.
Your body is your own, and no one else's. Go out and own your space.
Be a force to reckon with in the world.