This is an excerpt from Big & Bold: Strength Training for the Plus-Size Woman by Morit Summers.
“To the fat women (and all people who have internalized the message that your body is wrong), I was a 10-pound baby. I’ve been fat since day one. I don’t remember when I first internalized the message that my body was wrong, and that because I was, physical achievement would never be within my grasp. In grade school, then junior high and high school, I struggled through laps and presidential fitness tests, humiliated and alienated. The slow one. The sweaty one. I learned how to change in a room full of other girls without ever completely removing my clothes. Is this scene familiar? I often wonder what my relationship to my body and to health and fitness could have been if I knew then what I know now.
Though the resulting changes have been multifaceted, I started powerlifting for political reasons. I believe that physical strength is an avenue to accessing power. The ruling class holds power and thus, it is generally owned and safeguarded by men, especially straight white cis men. Strength is sequestered to those traditionally associated with physical ability, aggression, masculinity—power. Those of us who don’t fit this description—fat people, women, trans, and queer people—are made to feel that strength is not for us and the spaces in which it is learned are built to exclude us. Accessing that power as a fat, queer, femme person of color is a political act. Women and femmes are told from birth that we are, first and foremost, ornamental. We must be docile, fragile, and beautiful. These characteristics are conflated with femininity and womanhood itself. We are told that we must be sexy while also virginal, nurturing yet vulnerable, and above all, beautiful. And to be beautiful, we must be small. Refusing to shrink is a political act.
I didn’t understand all this as clearly as I do now. I did know that I wanted to feel less afraid and more capable. More than that, I wanted to be able to look in a mirror, not at my size or my shape, but at my life, and be proud of the person I was becoming. And yet gyms and fitness culture, as well as the theater and dance world in which I was deeply involved, only ever demanded thinness.
The first time I walked into CrossFit South Brooklyn in January 2016, I had never set foot in a box gym. I felt awkward and out of place. I flashed back to that high school locker room. Gyms can be scary places for fat people, especially femmes. I had been told all my life that I did not belong there, and that I was self-destructive, lazy, and stupid if I did not show up.
But a friend had loaned me a book called Starting Strength and explained how strength training might be different and really helpful for me. I walked in under the fluttering rainbow flags and met people who wanted not to help me be small, but to help me get stronger. I did my first workout and I felt like a superhero. Strength training was the first sport or physical arena in which no one was telling me that my body had to shrink in order to perform. Rather, the fact that I have a large body, a body with the genetic predisposition to grow, was not a hindrance but an advantage. I didn’t know what it could be like to care for my body, to do something to help my body be healthier and more capable of getting through life without weight loss being the goal. What I looked like didn’t matter. The focus was not on the ways in which my body falls short of some societal standard, but on how amazing my body is, how much it can do, and how to do more than the day before.
I had never and have never since experienced anything like the first time I added weight to the bar and squatted it successfully. The first time I lifted 135 pounds, 225, 315, my first total, my first meet. I felt pride, accomplishment, an unprecedented connection to my body, but above all—power. The results were immediate. Not the changes to my appearance (those have occurred very slowly and minimally over the last three years) but the changes to how my body feels, what I can physically accomplish, my approach to fitness and fitness environments, and how I carry myself through the world. Accessing that physical strength was transformative in that it opened the door to all the other ways in which I can empower myself and others. Powerlifting is walking up to a bar every workout, whether you are scared or not, whether you believe you can do it or not, and trying. It is failing and then coming back for the next workout. It has taught me self-discipline, courage, and dedication. Above all, it has taught me that strength and power can be achieved by anyone who is willing to fight for them.”
I don’t know about you, but this story gave me all the feels. I know Anise personally; we actually joke around in the gym all the time about who can lift more weight. I love it! I thrive off competition, but it’s the friendliest competition you have ever seen. We truly and wholeheartedly only want each other to succeed. I watch Anise show up to strength class every week, ready to work. I’ve seen her compete with a smile on her face, and I’ve had the pleasure of having her cheer me on as well. What an honor it’s been to be around such a confident, hardworking woman who also loves to lift heavy. What Anise did not mention in her story is that she is currently working on becoming a strength coach as well.