I read a post on This is Female Powerlifting that I enjoyed; wrote a whole thing and then realized I had a blog post! So let’s talk about external validation and wanting to look a certain way (maybe because of said validations, maybe not!).
I empathize with the writer’s many points and she touches on some things that I have also noticed in the lifting world and without. There is a laudable endeavor to transition away from making conscious assumptions about bodies’ capabilities based on observation and preconceived ideas/bias about what an athletic strong body ought to look like. I appreciate that in its complexity and I think general good-intent. The author expressed anxiety about having that view while still wanting to look a certain way, and being conflicted about that, so I write this to share my on take on this topic (and of course, welcome discussion!). Anyone who has spent any time in strength sports knows that those strong and capable bodies look like lots of different things. But I think it’s okay to want yours to be one thing while not holding that standard for everyone else.
I also sympathize with the author in that I was not ever categorized as “athletic” growing up. Now (in part to compensate), I actively endeavor to “look strong” – that is, to look visibly muscular. I find the aesthetic attractive and desirable for reasons that are more about telling a story with my appearance than about generally appearing sexually “desirable” (something usually assumed to be a root cause when it comes to how women present themselves,not without cause). My narrative is sometimes about demonstrating that I am strong – big muscles on women aren’t common, and thus I may automatically be labelled an “uncommon woman” as well as a strong one (as well as potentially less flattering things). I like it, and it makes me feel good and powerful. It’s something I am happy to invest extra energy into, and I utterly respect that many people choose not to/don’t want to/etc.
I do not assume that my goal is every female lifter’s goal, and I also make an active effort not to assume I know something about someone’s body based on its appearance (my work and experiences have taught me that those assumptions are often wrong). However, people are always going to have general assumptions about basic visible characteristics. Most people also don’t know enough about strength training or muscle in general to know that you can lift hundreds of pounds and not look like a physique competitor. That may very gradually be changing, but it’s going to take a while (I am happy to contribute to changing it).
I don’t think anyone needs to feel guilty or conflicted about wanting to look a certain way; it is a pretty basic human concern. We make millions of unconscious decisions based on what we see, and wanting to control or design your visible body is really, really understandable and it doesn’t make you a narcissist, or not hardcore enough about strength. It also doesn’t mean you tacitly endorse judging people based on how they look. It just means you care about how YOU look, and that is okay. It doesn’t make you anymore vain than the average person, and it doesn’t make you anti-feminist, or exclusionary to people with different goals and bodies. It also seems unrealistic to expect oneself to cast off all desire for external validation, especially regarding something you work really hard for. If a stranger looked at me and said “I bet you have a really fast Farmer’s carry,” I would BE SO FLATTERED. I also do not live for that to occur. I can be pleased by the external validation of an old coworker telling me my arms are getting bigger but also self-validate. For some of us, this may be something we have to practice, and that’s okay.
Your goals are YOUR GOALS and you do not owe to the world to tailor your goals or your desires to appear a certain way to anyone but you. Of course, many women are under a variety of pressures with regard to our appearances, many of which can be incredibly damaging. That is not what I am talking about (and is its own topic deserving of LOTS more discussion, of course). I am saying if you want to get jacked to “show” people you lift, GO DO IT, it won’t hurt anyone else, and it might make you feel great. It’s okay to enjoy external validation. It is clear that that cannot be your only motivator; that’s not healthy or reasonably sustainable (and for something as difficult as bodybuilding, external motivation probably won’t get you far). But you don’t have to throw the gainz-baby out with the old wheywater (<—trying desperately to make a lifty joke huehuehue).
I would love to hear other women’s thoughts on the article, as well as their take on getting external validation/learning to internally validate their progress, which is something we could talk about at length!)