The Anatomy of a Powerlifter

Woman lifting heavy weights
Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

My mornings begin by stepping on the scale. Usually, there’s a wave of disappointment that washes over me. Some days, it’s a trickle of excitement when that number goes down. This never-ending cycle is difficult to break. Even though I’ve lost fifty pounds over four years, I have this fear that the fat I’ve lost is going to reappear on me overnight, no matter how many hours I spend in the gym or how many calories I restrict. I can always picture my old body in the center of my brain like a not-so-distant memory.

The woman I was taught to be was quiet and small. My mother raised me to believe in all the warped westernized beauty standards that no woman could possibly live up to. Childhood memories of my mother openly calling herself fat, pushing her stomach in at the sides, and wishing she were skinny felt like an everyday occurrence. I’ve seen my mother eat a handful of lettuce and two boiled eggs and tell herself she’s full. That it’s enough. I’ve seen the look of frustration and sorrow when she leaves a mall fitting room. She’s spent thousands of dollars over the years buying ridiculous weight loss products—everything from Thighmasters to Fit Tea shakes, to a miniature tub of powder simply labeled “Fat Burner.” I’ve lost count of how many diets she’s tried, all just as extreme as the last.

Her way of thinking trickled into my adolescent mind along with too much media consumption. My childhood revolved around the “heroin-chic” era, when rail-thin models like Kate Moss were plastered all over magazines and billboards, and actresses were criticized for weighing over one-hundred-and-thirty-pounds. I was embarrassed for not looking gaunt. My ten-year-old self needed to be as small as possible. If my mother thought she was fat, then what did that make me? I felt shame for wanting to feed my body. Even now, there are days when I regret eating, which, to anyone with a normal relationship with food, would seem ridiculous. Some days I feel it as soon as I finish breakfast.

The term “fat admirer” is most commonly used to describe someone (in most cases men) who is attracted to an overweight person (in most cases women). There are even online communities, like fantasyfeeder.com, that bring fat admirers together. Men can pay via PayPal or Venmo to watch cam girls eat in real time. In an interview with The Sun, popular cam girl gainer Amanda Faye said, “I do stuffing videos—where I eat massive amounts of food, funnel feeding videos—where I funnel down liquids through a tube, and weight gain shake chugs—where I down large amounts of liquid in little time.” She does this so her stomach can look full for the camera. Amanda charges between $10–$50 for her services. When asked about the types of food men request her to eat, Faye describes, “One guy paid me to eat 13 pears and crack open a coconut to drink its milk while half naked on camera.” I understand why women like Amanda choose this career path. She is in control of her business and of her body—both are things women are rarely allowed to have agency over.

The first man I ever loved also loved fat women. Because I was nineteen and fat, I didn’t hesitate to take off my clothes for him, nor did I stop him from shooting boudoir-type pictures as I laid across his bed. At the time, we had been dating for nearly a year, so I trusted him as he directed me to get on my knees and bend over. I felt sexy and wanted with every picture he took. I never had that type of attention before. I spent my early teen years yo-yo dieting like my mother, and by the time I left high school, I was almost two-hundred-pounds. So when the first man I ever loved told me he loved my fat body, I believed him fiercely.

I was a naïve undergrad who craved the attention this thirty-year-old man gave me. I was one-hundred-and-forty miles from home, the furthest I’d ever been, and I clung to the idea of this man loving me and my body. Even as I gained more weight throughout college, he never called me fat. Instead, he told me that I was even more of a woman than the skinny girls on campus. I never questioned why he always wanted to stay in, and most of our dates consisted of picking up fast food and going back to his place. I didn’t think it was odd how he touched my stomach before sex, or that he liked to serve me food in bed. It felt romantic at the time. He was embracing my curves, giving me all the affection and approval I could ever want.

I still have resentment towards him. Towards the confidence I felt when I was with him, especially when he became controlling and psychologically abusive the longer we dated. Now, it’s clear that he isolated me from making friends my own age, from having a life outside of him. I hate to admit that I stayed with him for so long because I knew I wouldn’t find anyone who could love my fat body. That I should feel lucky that someone like him found someone like me attractive. That because I was a fat girl, I should take whatever I could get. Years later, I realized he only liked me because of my body. That I could’ve been any woman as long as I stayed fat. Even now, I know my body is nothing like the way it was at nineteen. I’ve transformed myself into a physically, and some days mentally, stronger person after falling in love with powerlifting. Still, I have this fear of becoming my past self, of becoming a woman so dependent on a man’s love and approval that she doesn’t recognize herself.

After college, I decided to commit to losing weight. I started by walking around my neighborhood. It worked for a while. I lost twenty pounds quickly by jogging for thirty minutes and trying to eat less. Then it became an obsession. I was either counting calories throughout the day or starving myself until dinner, where I would eat so fast I could feel my stomach expand. But it was working. The major calorie deficit was making me lose weight quicker. The quicker I lost weight, the more compliments I received. The more compliments I received, the easier it was to overlook my hunger pains and fatigue. I was living with my parents in Houston at the time, and they noticed how much weight I lost. They created a home gym in a spare bedroom and equipped it with a treadmill, kickboxing bag, and six-pound medicine ball. There was also a pair of two-pound free-weights. They were pink and bought in the early 90’s when my mother was obsessed with Tae Bo. I used them in hopes of becoming small. According to all the women’s fitness experts in Shape and Women’s Health, women should work on toning and cardio, not lifting weights. Now, I know how unfair the fitness industry is. How easy it is to break a girl down.

By 2005, the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness changed the requirements for women bodybuilders due to a declining interest in the sport. Men’s bodybuilding was popular, even thriving. However, if a woman wanted to compete, she had to drop her muscle mass by twenty percent. The same industry that applauded men on getting as big and vascular as possible was telling women to shrink. The coveted Ms. Olympia competition was dropped completely in 2015. Instead, the women’s bodybuilding competition was divided into four subcategories: Bikini, Figure, Fitness, and Physique. Each competition required women to wear high-heels and sparkly bikinis. All of the judges wanted to see a “feminine” physique.

Despite the decline in women’s bodybuilding, there is a growing subculture of men who fetishize muscular women. Muscle worship involves admiring and touching the muscles on a woman. Session wrestling is more extreme and involves a muscular woman wrestling a man into submission. In a 2016 Vice article, journalist Gareth May writes about his experience with session wrestling. He describes being “rag-dolled all over the place” and “poked, prodded, and tortured” into submission. While no physical sex occurs, men find sexual pleasure by being man-handled by a stronger woman. In his article, May interviews pro bodybuilder and adult actress Kelli Provocateur about her thoughts on session wrestling. She tells him, “It's about feeling the woman's power.” She says that every time she wrestles a man, “they want to feel my triceps and my biceps pumping. I'll have guys that will say, 'I just want you to beat the crap outta me.'"

I can see the appeal. I would love to hurt the men who’ve hurt me, but I would be giving them the satisfaction. They would still get off. For a few moments, they would own my body. Or at least, tell me what to do to theirs. I wish I could say that I’ve never received unsolicited messages from men challenging me to an arm-wrestling competition or sending me shirtless pictures of themselves while flexing and asking to compare muscles, but I have. I’m a woman and I’m strong, and that either angers or arouses men, or sometimes both. A few times, men have posed as photographers on Instagram claiming they are looking for physique models. Most of these profiles contain no professional qualifications or even real pictures of the men messaging. A few of them send angry messages when I tell them to leave me alone. Others will send messages of “concern,” telling me that I shouldn’t be lifting so much weight because I will ruin my body.

I began working with my first personal trainer in 2018. I met him while waiting to hear back from graduate programs. We worked out at a local gym that was two minutes from his home. One day, he pulled me into his office and kissed me. It didn’t take long for us to sleep together. It was exciting and reckless. He was twenty years older and had a long-term girlfriend.

I had lost over forty pounds before we met, but my weight loss had plateaued. I was desperate to make the number on the scale go down. He taught me how to squat, bench press, and deadlift. However, once we started our affair, my body became his business. It’s clear now that he never wanted to help me become stronger. He was meaner to me than all of his other, mostly male, clients. Belittling me if I did something wrong before telling me to meet him at his place after our workout. He called me, sometimes twelve times a day, to see what I was eating and called me fat if I ate something bad. He degraded my body in front of other trainers, or told me he didn’t want me to get “too big.” I listened to him because I wanted his attention and approval. I wasn’t that nineteen-year-old fat girl with poor body image. I was the twenty-six-year-old who thought losing weight would make her wanted and therefore happy. The relationship ended quickly once I moved three hours away to attend grad school and he couldn’t sleep with me whenever he wanted. Through social media, I found professional powerlifting women who educated their followers on proper technique. It was clear my trainer didn’t know much.

Going to a campus gym was challenging when most of the young women wore crop tops, full makeup, and the smallest shorts imaginable. I was twenty-seven surrounded by beautiful, young, already thin women who weighed themselves in the locker room. They moved the dials on the weight beam up or down the numbered notches until the scale balanced and a familiar look of disappointment appeared on their faces. I often wonder who made them this way—their mothers, or boyfriends, society in general? Maybe they bought into the same fitness industry bullshit I once believed. There are still people who try to get me to stop powerlifting. It’s one of the most frustrating things to hear. Once, while deadlifting at the campus gym, a male undergrad approached me and asked how much weight I was lifting. When I told him, he looked surprised and said I should try CrossFit.

Powerlifting reminds me that my body is good and worthy of existence. I go to the gym and strain my body because it’s what I want to do. No one told me that after weight loss, I would still be unhappy with my appearance, or that my skin would sag in some places, or I would have even more stretch marks. I remind myself that my body is mine even on days it feels foreign. I allow myself to feel anger when I’m in the gym because I am angry at the men who have hurt me, who harass me online or in person. I allow myself to yell or curse or sometimes slap my face or thighs when I am training because in that moment, I am strong, physically and mentally. In that moment, I am the only one who can lift the weight over or under me. It’s my responsibility to save myself.

The process of building muscles requires that they must first be broken. That in order to grow back stronger, there must be some damage. Muscle memory takes shape when lifting weights. It’s the same movement repeated until brain and body remember the movement. When I’m lifting, I think of the men who controlled my body. I cannot divorce those memories no matter how hard I try. My body will never forget. Powerlifting requires me to break my body, to push myself in ways I could never imagine. I own my body without fear.

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