Weight lifting: the reason women experience comparison culture in the gym, according to Poorna Bell

Posted by for Strong Women

In this extract from Poorna Bell’s new book, Stronger, she explains why comparison culture in the gym and a fear of gaining muscle is deeply rooted in the patriarchy. 

It’s a general belief that men know more about strength just because their bodies produce more testosterone, enabling them to build muscle more easily. Some men do, some men don’t. But these binary ideas of what each gender should or shouldn’t do, what they have more claim to, isn’t based on anything substantial and worse, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

It certainly doesn’t benefit men, many of whom I have no doubt feel intimidated and weirded out by the expectation to have big arms and a six-pack. And as we have seen, it doesn’t benefit women, who are conversely ridiculed or put off from gaining muscle

It doesn’t benefit non-binary or trans people who are excluded from the conversation entirely and prevented from being physically active and accessing something that might make them feel mentally great. It doesn’t create good, positive spaces for physical activity where people are included, made to feel accepted for who they are rather than excluded for who they aren’t. 

But there’s often a failure to look at the power imbalances within gender, within diet culture, and a tendency to blame women for the fact that they may feel unhappy with themselves by comparing themselves to others.

When women police other women, or even when girls are mean to each other at school, people love to write this off as something that is just in our nature. The truth is that so much of this can be linked to the issue of scarcity – which is caused by the lack of opportunities and by beauty standards set by being in a patriarchal system.

Poorna Bell sits in a weights room of a gym smiling at the camera.
Poorna Bell: fear of getting bulky is caused by beauty standards set by being in a patriarchal system.

“The tendency to just point the finger at the people who are suffering the most in the hands of this power imbalance is a classic tactic,” Megan Crabbe, body positive advocate, told me. “It’s very clever because, from the outside, you might think it’s about women putting down other women but we have internalised this the same way that we internalise all kinds of misogyny and we uphold this because we’ve been taught that this is the only way to exist.”

It also overlooks all the crap women receive from men when they attempt to build muscle. If I’m thinking about my own experience, while other women have made me feel self conscious about my body fat, I’ve only ever been made to feel bad about my muscle by men. Shortly after competing at the Euros in 2019 – my first ever international powerlifting competition, where I deadlifted 120kg and squatted 90kg – I was hanging out with some friends by a swimming pool. 

Although I was well into the empowerment aspect of powerlifting and proud that my body had done some amazing things, that old internal monologue came back when one of our male friends said to me completely unsolicited: ‘You look great, but don’t build any more muscle.’

Why do men feel they have the right to comment on women’s bodies in this way? Is it because they view muscle and physical strength as their domain? Is it because they are scared of physically strong women? 

This is what I felt I was battling for a while. I didn’t want to lose desirability but I noticed how all the compliments I got were from women who admired my strength and never from men. I also saw how visibly uncomfortable men got when I went on a date and mentioned I did powerlifting.

I realised that trying to get the people in my life who did not do powerlifting to accept or understand it was a futile exercise. But to be fair to them, if someone had tried to explain all of this to me several years ago, I wouldn’t have understood it either. It’s not just about unravelling what you think you know about your own body, societal expectations and strength, it’s also about having visible role models in mainstream media or movements pushing back against sexist ideals or calling out mansplaining in gyms.

While I don’t engage with trolls online, I will challenge people in front of me to get them to confront their own thinking. For instance, when men say things like ‘you’re strong for a woman’, in the past I would have said thank you. But I’ve realised I don’t want to thank them because the subtext of what they are saying is: ‘you’re strong for a woman and women are usually weak.’ Now what I say is: ‘I’m strong, full stop.’ And more often than not, they usually apologise because they hadn’t realised that what they thought was a compliment is actually backhanded. 

Poorna Bell will be going Live on @StrongWomenUK on Instagram on 6 May at 6:30pm GMT to interview Aisha Nash, yogi and anti-diet activist. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK to be notified and to get the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts. 

Images: Aline Aronsky

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