The Return of Strong Women

Becca2_thumb Waving her large-knuckled, callused hands, Becca Swanson stares into my video camera and growls, "Hi, Robin.  I'm Becca."  It's 2005, and I'm at the APF  Powerlifting Nationals in Grand Haven, MI. Robin is my wife, and Becca Swanson is about to become the first woman to bench press 500lbs in a meet.  

Becca is a nice person, I'm sure, but she did as much to turn women off weights as the sticklike models that usually bear the brunt of the blame.  How many women really want to look like her?  Virtually none. 

Between 1996 and 2009, I've interviewed hundreds of women who are just starting their long walk toward fitness, and the while the vast majority already know that they "should" lift weights, they're always quick to follow with "…..but I don't want to get too big."
Women: you can't get like Becca without pharmaceutical help.  No woman ever became muscular and manlike by accident.  Women like Becca – female bodybuilders, some powerlifters, and even some Olympic athletes – typically make dozens of small decisions on their way to….well, you've seen her.

At the other end of a very long spectrum, you have Twiggy.  Sickening, yes, but closer to the 'ideal' for women – at least as reported in dozens of surveys and made obvious by cover shot after cover shot.  The 'best' body shape for women over the last decade, according to mass media?  That of a prepubescent boy.  

Even Oprah, the Grand Sage of Weight Loss (no one's done it more times than she has, after all!) seems to have been focusing on the 'slim' vision, instead of emphasizing her strengths.  Does she need to lose weight?  Yes.  But should that be her prime goal, or a side effect of increased fitness?

Chloe+Lattanzi+Taking+Cigarette+Break+Malibu+-zQ9P3cEhhfl Chloe Lattanzi is Olivia Newton-John's daughter.  She's a model.  And a singer.  And a socialite.  She's also whip-thin, a smoker, and a popular role model for young Australian girls.  After her mom's song, "Let's Get Physical," topped the US Pop Charts, Olivia promoted a line of workout videos.  Now in her 60s, Olivia still maintains good physical condition.  In this picture, Chloe appears a little askew – drawn, pale, skinny, and clearly run ragged.  The article, though, wasn't about a pop star's offspring hitting the rock bottom of health: it was about her black shorts.  

Is Chloe Lattanzi healthier than Oprah?  Do we accept her as she's pictured here: rice-line thin, smoking, and pale, over Oprah, who exercises and eats well, has a net worth over a billion dollars, has risen from cocaine-addicted weather reporting to dominating the world of multi-media, but can't seem to find happiness unless she's wearing her 'skinny pants?'  Who is the worse role model for women?

Luckily, from the ashes (laced with cyanide, rat poison, and nicotine) rises a new Phoenix: Michelle Obama.  Big in a good way, strong, and confident, the new "O" is setting a terrific example for women.  She's strong enough to be a match for a charismatic leader; she fends off criticism and shrugs off adoration; her arms are the topic of hot debate in every form of media.  She's not a wilting Nancy Reagan, whose reputation for strength amid strife was simply primal survivorship; she's not a doily-tatting Laura Bush.  She's not a mannish, pantsuited Hilary Clinton.  She's a woman.  She's out front.  She's large(r) and much more in-charge(r).  

Obama-garden1 Mrs. Obama isn't fat.  She's not sloppy.  She's well put-together.  Her confidence and her physicality complement one another.  She wears dresses, and she's not a Size Four.  She looks good.  I'd like to think that Michelle O, First Lady, could become a great lifter of weights someday.  

Heck, the 'real' weight is already on her shoulders.  What's a deadlift bar to her?

We've been truly fortunate, lately, to have a remarkable turnout of strength at our gym.  Our first 300lbs deadlift by a woman was on Saturday (watch the video here.)  We regularly have 15-20 women turn out for CrossFit WODs every day, especially if they involve strength training (last week, we averaged over 40/day for BASELINE WEEK.)  On Tuesday nights, we have women line up to pull trucks.

There's pride in them thar muscles.  Instead of chaining themselves to the whimsical teeterings of a tiny spring in a poorly-calibrated bathroom scale, they're at the gym.  They're doing stuff they never thought they could: flipping tires, pulling sleds, carrying weights, deadlifting, doing cleans and jerks and snatches, oh my!  They're rocking.  They're loving it.  They're turning out to workouts ready to rip; they're sending us emails and passing pictures onto their friends and logging it all on facebook.  
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The strong women are coming.  And they're not going back to their knitting-needle pink dumbbells.