Up until a few months ago, I never felt very strong. I was a fat kid who grew into a fat teenager, and now I’m a fat adult. For most of my youth in recreational league sports, I was usually the tallest, fattest kid on the team, which in softball meant I was relegated to the position of catcher and in basketball meant I was a shooting guard every year because I was usually slower than everyone else. I played soccer, but being slow is basically a criminal offense in the sport so my parents let me try other things after a couple of seasons. As I got older, the possibility of participating in sports became much more difficult. There’s no recreational leagues for older kids because they turn into actual leagues and travel leagues, and there was no way I was ever going to make the cut at the elite sports program in my high school. To be completely honest, when that time came around, I wasn’t sad about it at all because, at that point, having to play sports was wrapped up in my family’s anti-fatness. It was a way of guaranteeing I was getting some kind of traditional exercise — for whatever reason, spending every minute I could outside of the house with my little brother and our friends didn’t count as “activity” — and I could feel that in the way they didn’t really ask whether or not I wanted to play.
Of course, I was always a great teammate because I was a social kid who was afraid to let people down. I pushed myself hard. In practice, I was rarely ever the first person to sit down for a rest. During game play, I didn’t let anything, not even injuries to my body, get in the way of finishing with everyone else. At the same time, my mom was already indoctrinating me into the cult of diet and wellness culture. And as I was with anything that was designed to “make me better,” I was a diligent student and tried my best to succeed in whatever the task was at hand. In the four years after she started me on fad diets when I was nine, we tried everything from Weight Watchers to the cabbage soup diet to the South Beach Diet (a favorite of hers since the guy who invented it actually worked in Miami Beach, near where we lived). All of it was about restricting food intake and maximizing energy output. The less you eat, the more you do with your body, the more weight you’ll lose. Knowing what I know about how bodies work now, it feels crazy that anyone believed this. But in the 90s, this idea was pervasive, and no one was challenging it in a very public way. By the time high school started, my body was in pain most of the time, and the fatigue I experienced even impacted how I was doing in my classes. Something had to give.
After freshman year, my mom’s alcoholism made it nearly impossible for her to control and monitor my diet and exercise habits, so I never repaired my relationship with intentional movement. We just kind of dropped off on all of it, and in my mind, working out in any capacity remained connected to the web of diet culture tenets I was forced to engage in for a significant chunk of my childhood. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t the last time I’d get wrapped up in diet culture nonsense. In my early twenties, I tried again to lose weight through a restrictive diet and high intensity exercise and ended up losing over 100 pounds, but it still went the way it always does. Sure, the weight loss made a lot of everyday activities easier to do, but I never felt well. Again, I was just in a lot of pain and tired all the time. And again, I didn’t spend any time trying to untangle the web I mentioned before. I just did the things I thought I “needed” to do and then looked for the results of those things. I taught myself, once again, that intentional movement wasn’t sustainable, and I dropped off.
More often than not, “better” means thinner, and thinner means more beautiful. We’re more likely to see someone praise another person for their ability to remain a size 4 for their whole life than we are to see someone shower that person with praise for being able to complete a half marathon just a year after they failed at completing a 5K. In fact, most people wouldn’t really think of that as the incredible win that it is. Instead, they’d focus on the aesthetic benefits of training for something like that by telling the person they’ve never looked better or by asking what kind of exercise and diet regimen keeps them looking so trim. Our conception of what “better” means has nothing to do with the amount of discipline and hard work it would take to reach a strength goal. In turn, we approach everything related to physical strength and ability this way. It’s never about the person’s actual capabilities or how they’ve been able to transform those capabilities over time. It’s about their pants size or the amount of muscle mass we can see through their shirts or, particularly for women, it’s about being that one particular shape deemed most worthy of affection in our society.
Due to my relationship with diet and exercise culture, I thought about most people’s relationships with exercise this way for a long time, too. I was convinced that everyone was just doing it because they had been pilled at some point to believe that the worst thing they could ever be was fat, so they were doing everything in their power to avoid it or reverse it. And much of the anti-fatness that still swirls around us constantly didn’t help dispel that for me.
By July 2022, it became unbearable. I couldn’t imagine working another entire school year with the pain I was experiencing. I spent a couple of weeks researching what I could do, and every single result — from write ups on blogs to actual scientific studies — said the exact same thing: I had to start doing some regular intentional movement to get blood flowing properly through the joint and to make the muscles around my knee stronger so they can better support my knee when it’s weak. As I read, I realized that, essentially, I would have to sacrifice what little free time I have (and what little money I have) in order to train at the gym, and I’d have to put myself in more physical pain in order to try to improve the mobility of my knee. I knew from my good friend who participates regularly in strongman and powerlifting competitions regardless of problems he’s encountered with his own knees that his strength coach was good at helping people with injuries and joint problems, so I asked for his number. I sat on that phone number for another two weeks before finally texting him. In mid-August, I finally got there.
When I first started working out at the strength gym, I just thought it was going to be something I did because I wanted to improve the health and longevity of my knee. But something switched on inside of me after the first month. Through the people at the gym, my coach, and the good friend I mentioned before, I started to learn about the culture of strength sports, and I started to learn what many of the people who participate in strength sports actually look like. Perhaps most importantly, I started to learn about the discipline, practice, and pain it takes to become as strong as they are.
The thing I learned over a couple of months of being there is that, actually, fat people are a lot stronger than everyone thinks. Our mobility is often impacted by our size, and we move differently than people who are thin, but our movements take more energy which means even if we get tired quicker, it’s sometimes easier for us to build muscle mass. Building muscle mass, ultimately, is what makes you stronger. Simply doing things like sitting down and getting up is similar to doing a bodyweight squat. Carrying your body around all day as you move from place to place impacts the strength of your muscles in your calves and in your quads.
Outside of the context of a gym or a strength competition, I could see that these people face the same stigmas, same lack of comfortable seating on airplanes, same anti-fatness in the media, same medical fatphobia, same jabs about what they choose to eat or not, same stares by people in public, same comments on their health and fitness levels as the rest of us even though they’re all athletes. Their success goes against everything we’re taught to know and believe is true about the people around us: that you have to look a certain way and fall into a specific weight class to be physically fit and powerful, that you have to want to work out in order to fit our specific criteria of aesthetic excellence, that your goals for being “better” have to be tangled up in diet and wellness culture, that your health is determined by the size that you are. They defy every single one of these standards just by doing what they do. And they didn’t let anti-fatness and fatphobia keep them from doing it. They kept showing up to the gym to improve their strength. They kept showing up for themselves and for their goals. They’re some of the strongest people in the world, and no one can take that away from them.
Learning from these people has helped me reorient my own sense of what being physically “better” really means. “Better” has nothing to do with our societal conception of it. “Better” has nothing to do with fad diets and wellness trends and doing HIIT (high intensity interval training) exercises that make you fucking miserable. “Better” isn’t conforming to the beauty standards set by our society long before we were born. “Better” isn’t hating our bodies until we “fix” them. In the strength world, “better” is often defined by how hard you work to increase the amount of weight on the barbell. And “better” isn’t necessarily a place you get to, but the path you’re traveling on to get there all the time.
Because I believed for so long that peak performance had to look or be a specific way, I didn’t really think I’d ever be able to exercise and heal my relationship with intentional movement. I’ve known for a long time that losing weight wasn’t going to make me “better” but I never thought I could be better in a way that wasn’t completely caught up in the web of lies I’ve been raised to believe are true. But there is a sports world outside of diet, wellness, and weight loss culture that I can be part of. A world where I can set my intentions as being “strong as fuck” and “able to fist fight politicians and win” and find movements I can do to help me get there and find people who are down to support me in that without wondering what else I’m doing “for my health.” A world where I can increase the weight on certain lifts by 5 to 10 pounds every two weeks because I’ve put in the time and dedication to be able to do that. A world where, with just a little perseverance, I can go from benching 55 pounds and squatting 45 pounds to benching 95 pounds and squatting 85 pounds in a matter of a few months. The new calluses on my hands remind me that the temporary pain I feel in my body now is a testament to my growth and a result of stepping up to take care of the place that will house me for the rest of my life.
Love articles about strength training!!
Thank you so much for reading!
Thank you so much for this. I appreciate your reflections and your journey so much.
I appreciate YOU for reading it!!
i absolutely LOVE your pieces about weight lifting, stef! i have been trying to find a place where i can start a program of my own but have been striking out so far. your story encourages me to keep looking. thank you!
Meg!! If you ever want to talk about it, I’m always available! I hope you find a great place soon!
Have you tried looking into Casey Johnston’s program? I haven’t tried her Couch to Barbell workout program but you can find a lot of tips and recommendations on the archive of her Ask A Swole Woman column https://askaswolewoman.com/
such a beautiful meditation – thank you!
Thank you for reading!
i loved reading this–thanks so much for sharing it.
Thank you so much for reading!
Stef I love this! Thank you so much for sharing your experience here. 💛
Thank you for reading it!
I love love LOVE this article. I had career as a personal trainer up until the covid shutdowns, and I’ve been powerlifting for about 10 years. Being a powerlifter and growing up in that community, you understand that strength and health come in all sorts of body types, and literally nobody can dispute it
because the proof is right in front of your eyes. It’s an amazing and supportive community. Being a trainer, it was kind of insane to have to reprogram people’s minds from thinking “I want to be skinny” to “I want to feel good, regardless of my body size.” However, people definitely come around to it, and I think our society is making the necessary steps, however small, into accepting that fat people can be healthy. Good luck on the rest of your powerlifting journey. If you’re ever in Central California, hit me up for a lift session.
M, thank you for sharing your experiences. That’s so rad you’ve been doing it for so long! I hope to get there some day. Thank you for the well wishes and the offer!!
So proud of you, brother! This is the strength-training manifesto we needed.
You are my brother!! Couldn’t have done it without you!!
Thank you for this. I remember when I was younger ESPN would show these world strongest people competition(where they were pulling vans & lifting kegs) & it was cool to see that they didn’t look like the muscled people I’d see at Muscle Beach.
Thank you for reading! Yes, watching old strongman competitions has been a lot of fun!
How is your knee doing??? Did it get better w the strength training?
Quinn, thank you for asking! Yes, it’s gotten significantly better. MUCH, MUCH less pain. Lately, I actually only feel pain when I’ve moved it in some weird or wonky direction. It’s improved a lot!
Thanks so much for writing this! I love reading articles about lifting!
Thank you for reading!!
Aaaah this is awesome! I really loved this reflection on the impacts of 90’s diet culture (so incredibly toxic) and on finding a culture and a way of relating to your body that is healing. This was excellent. (Actually, your writing about strength training a while back helped inspired me to finally get into lifting weights (at home). Been working a steady program for like four weeks now. Keep up the awesome work!)
Nico!! Thank you so much for reading!! I would love to hear about your at-home routine sometime. Let me know if you’re down to talk about it!
Hell yeah 🏋️♀️
Thank you for this article! I love that the emphasis of training is not about weight, fatphobia, looks, or our toxic culture and gender expectations. Its so much more than that. So much better that than nonsense. Thank you for sharing!
Great piece, Stef. Loved it! Always learning from you