Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Ideal Image of a Woman

by Inna Koppel, SSC | April 20, 2021

inna koppel in the middle of a press at a strengthlifting meet

The barbell as a cultural icon representing strength has been unjustly assigned only to men. Although the benefits of barbell training to women are the same, the stigma of appearing “manly” is an obstacle to making strength training widely available to both sexes. But modern western culture worships the appearance of malnourishment as the ideal female aesthetic. This is a recent distortion, a byproduct of a reliance for survival on community and industry rather than self. A look back into history from the Paleolithic era to the Greeks and through the Renaissance reveals that the ideal image of a woman was gravid – fertile, nearly plump in appearance; the popular aesthetic of the ancients favored a female with a curvy figure, a substantial abdomen, and large hips.

The idealized woman of antiquity had the strength to bear and protect her young, with material reserve on her bones to forestall the death rattle of disease. Modernity has brought with it a celebration of female frailty, together with a host of nervous and physical ailments. We would all do well to re-imagine what is ideal in femininity and so reclaim our ancient belief in the intrinsic value of strength.

We are in fact an obese, gluttonous people, and the elevation of skinniness to the pinnacle of beauty may well be a backlash to this. But muscular, strong women are not skinny, any more than they are fat. It's time to educate women about the advantages of strength – and about the aesthetics of strong women.

There is reason to be optimistic that given the right conditions attitudes can change. Until relatively recently basketball was seen as a man’s sport and women were discouraged from participating, let alone having their own professional league. The stigma was banished by the simple use of the tool, in this case the basketball, by women. Likewise, the more that women are seen using barbells in their workouts, the more normal the activity for women will become.

I had my own journey of discovering the proper tools of strength. I spent the early part of my fitness career searching for the “right way” to become fit, and only when I attended my first Starting Strength Seminar did I understand the simplicity of the solution. I learned that strength was the foundation for all of the fitness I was trying to achieve, that the barbell was not going to disfigure me, and that I was going to be much better in my group fitness classes if I got strong first. In fact, my initial interest in barbell training was precipitated by an attempt to heal overuse injuries from all of the cardio workouts I was doing.

I also knew that as a gym owner I had to find a way to get my members stronger, so that they could withstand the stress of the workouts and not suffer the injuries and pain I was experiencing. The use of the barbell didn’t just get me stronger than I have ever been in my life, it healed my overuse injuries, it tightened up all of the places on my body that I disliked and gave me the athletic aesthetic I could not achieve with basic aerobic fitness. My performance while teaching aerobic classes – despite being in my mid-40s – greatly improved with increased strength, and made my body more tolerant of the stress aerobics puts on joints and connective tissue. I was able to stave off injury, recover better from my workouts, and I saw a big improvement in body composition.

Over the next five years, I coached hundreds of women, teaching them the basic barbell lifts, helping them to overcome the fear of barbell training and building a big community of female lifters, mostly mothers and grandmothers. Their fears about becoming “bulky” like men – their reluctance to engage the tools of men in the form of the barbell – quickly dissipated when they saw that “bulk” was actually hard to achieve, and in fact strength gains required a lot of work. Those who practiced good nutrition habits saw improved aesthetics and muscle development in places they struggled with before, and ended up loving the more athletic appearance their bodies took. The anxiety common among the aerobics-conditioned bourgeoisie about becoming “too big” was mitigated by improved health and a new confidence in their abilities, changing the focus from how their bodies looked to what their bodies could do.

So why don’t more women take advantage of the physical salvation that barbells offer? What arguments are needed to convince a generation of sarcopenic marathoners to stop beating the pavement, start moving iron, and start growing muscle? Ultimately, arguments about the health and appearance benefits of barbell training are doomed to failure in a culture that prizes the appearance of malnourishment above all else. And until the image of the spindly enfeebled female ceases to be the aesthetic ideal, women will always avoid barbell gyms out of fear of “bulking,” a word that means nothing other than appearing substantial and strong. The best way for you to contribute to this important shift in perception is to participate in it – get stronger.

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