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  • Lily Li

Dieting, Weightlifting, and Ideal Body

Weight training has long been stereotyped as a masculine pursuit. As a child, I would never be willing to imagine myself in a gym setting, not to mention putting dedicated effort into muscle building: "That’s ridiculous, that’s unfeminine," I imagined someone saying in judgment of me.

Some background: in my early teen years I was always hungry. Only the sensation of an empty stomach made me feel safe. My weight was always slightly below the healthy weight range, my ribs were clearly noticeable: that was a flag of my pride.

Maintaining a BMI of 17.5 ("normal" ranges from 18.5 to 24.9) for over a year, my body protested against my decisions. I had amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) for a year, was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome twice, and had a false diagnosis of hyperprolactinemia due to constant starvation. Exercising was excruciatingly difficult with my glucopenia, but the harder activity for me was eating. I ate plain food, strictly forbidding salt and oil in my diet. I even developed a self-trained protective mechanism causing gastric acid reflux when high calorie food touched my lips. My hair began to fall out; hair loss made me fear putting my hands in my hair. It took me some persistence, planning, and a certain amount of psychopathy to feel this diet was normal. I was tumbling, floating, dry-washed in the flow of beauty capitalism in the media; I didn’t care, I was in my own eyes a successful heroine slaughtering indulgences.

My previous diet lacked carbohydrates, sodium, and fat

My friend from years ago came over to visit. She was terrified at how withered I looked, “you should feed yourself.” I took it as a compliment. I found emotional security in a frankly abnormal approach to my own health choices.

This friend later confessed to me that she thought the way I looked was as sorry as a deflated tube guy at car dealerships.

My journey of weight-lifting started in the summer of 2022, likewise out of unconscious insecurity about my body. Maybe I'm skinny enough for the eastern beauty standard, but I’m not fit enough to be beautiful in western aesthetics, I thought. I started this exercise under the guise of “doing this for the health of my body,” which was the internal awkwardness clinging to my self-perception.

Challenges and confusion came overwhelmingly. Where to start? The free weight section included dumbbells weighing from 5 lbs to 100 lbs plus. There were less than 10 women in the entire gym, but all the lighter weights were occupied. What to wear? Bigger or smaller chest, skinny or muscular legs, stomach fat or abs, the criteria for good-looking was updated to a higher level. I doubted if weight training widened the dimensions of beauty or merely served as a form of self-punishment. I doubted if I could lift enough to be here or if I looked toned or muscular enough to fit in.

Despite these initial conundrums, I soon fell in love with this seemingly repetitive, monotonous motion of moving weights as it became an inseparable part of my life.

Weightlifting has been known to improve physical strength, but to me, it has brought more profound psychological changes. This new element in my daily routine energized my days with regular doses of endorphins. Even feeling fatigued or overwhelmed from time to time, walking into the gym and thriving through a workout made me feel much more concentrated afterward. In my logic, resistance training is an extremely rewarding process: a fixed, specific, numerical goal; splitting up the task by concentrating on certain muscle groups; defining intensity, repetitions, weights, and intervals; carrying out the procedures; and becoming used to the sensation of lactic acid buildup as a reminder of your rigorous work. Weightlifting sets me up for an achievable and moderated program to become powerful.

Different from dieting where I limitlessly restricted my calorie intake, weight lifting diverted me to focus more on nutritionally balanced meals. I became more aware of my body not only by a single numerical measurement of my weight but also by how many pounds I could carry in a single-legged deadlift and my strength improvement in measurable terms. I became more accepting of my body as I was able to appreciate a spectrum of body types under the umbrella of fit, beautiful, and healthy.

Taking more time to understand the culture of bodybuilding and reflecting on the definition of beauty has disintegrated my previous pursuit of an ideal body image. In Howard Schatz’s photography series, Athlete, he explores different variations of famous athletes’ body shapes: bodybuilders with rippling muscles, bone-thin marathon runners, towering long-jumpers, massive wrestlers, and power-lifters. As top professional athletes, they all have distinct different physiques and all of them are considered strong and ideal in their respective fields. Weight lifting provided me with a worldview of a prism glass, where the standardised criterion of beauty is separated into its constituent colours, called a spectrum.

Howard Schatz's photography series, Athlete

We all entered the weight room with different motives: some to fulfil their sports requirements, some to improve athletic performances, some for bodybuilding, and some as a part of their life. As a female in the Stevenson weight room, I’ve had numerous empowering moments of girl power and harnessed a supportive community. Small gestures of helping to re-rack the barbell or receiving help from an unfamiliar student and getting a defense from unintentional sexist comments have transformed into great motivational power in this space with unusual dynamics of energy. Let’s always thrive for a more inclusive environment in the weight room and encourage new people to take part in this fruitful exercise.


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