I began a fitness Instagram with the opening of the 2016 New Year. Two to three times I each day I photos in varying yellow lights flexing when the locker-room empties, I show off my sweat-slicked skin and blood-pumped veins, I model the tangled nest of salted hair floating on top of my head, I share the workout I just completed, and perhaps craft poetic line about my day and the way the that hard work made me feel.
I didn’t create the page for attention, for an excuse to stand sports-bra clad in front of the mirror, or for an excuse to brag about how many times a week I had hit the gym. I created the page for two reasons. 1) To track my own progress. 2) To connect with a community of woman I had long followed on Instagram, but never been a part of. When the New Year struck, and the mono I had battled during the later months of 2015 had finally resolved itself, I was ready to put myself out there, with hopes of getting something in return.
While it is a public account, I hid the page from my friends, from my family, until they somehow stumbled upon it (an event more likely that I had realized with the transparency of social media).
When I began the fitness page, my partner at the time aggressively and regimentally screen-shotted the profiles of other women who commented or liked my photos, with the screenshot of the stranger, presumably also working towards her fitness goals, a sarcastic comment about her hair, maybe a jab at her tattoo, the occasional jibe about how “thirsty” these other fitness Instagram owners were. I now wonder if her aggression stemmed from a disillusionment about the community of weight-lifters I had found through Instagram, or if her comments could be explained by the society we both grew up in: a society that has not yet found a way to value strong-bodied women.
It wasn’t until the fitness account created conflict in my romantic relationship that I realized that originally, I hid the account because I created it in order to fill a void I had in “real life”: a community of women to workout with, share progress with, and motivate.
What my partner saw as competition, I saw as encouragement. These women and I have formed our own secret community; we leave heart-eye and muscle emoji’s in the comments of each other’s photos, we send the occasional inbox message commending each other on our transformations, dedication, and progress.
In gyms around the world, women deconstruct the myth that they are “the weaker sex” and make gains towards equality, yet the community element remains highly tech-driven, remains pretty solidly in the sphere of social media. Is this simply a symptom of the digital age? In January, as now, the question still remains: why aren’t more women hitting the weight rack? Why did I have to create an Instagram in order to find the community I was craving?
My hypothesis: the feminist movements since the 60s have emphasized social, legal, and institutional equality, while failing to support physical equality and physical gains in women. Displays of female physical power continue to be prevented, perverted, and undermined, despite the increased number of female athletes and Olympians in the media.
We are part of the first generation to grow up with Title IX, which passed in 1972 and offers women, among many other rights and protections, equal opportunity to participate in athletics. Yet, while we grew up with greater access to sports teams, equipment, and budget, and while we now live in a world where women are just as likely and able to compete and play in sports as their male counterparts, Title IX has not led to the debunking of the myth that women are the physically weaker sex. Instead, the message that the ideal female body is weak, is constantly transmitted to women through religion, family, work and professional life, and the media.
So the question is: why hasn’t there been a bigger push on physical power or empowerment? Is it because erasing muscle shaming has not been a priority of the feminist movement, and as a result the stereotypes of muscular women still pervade. Or is it because physical power has been depicted as something to fear? While some caution of physical power is warranted, the benefits are undeniable – confidence, strength, power, and a joy in physicality.
Nine months since I created the account, I have gained two things: a more supportive community than I ever could have dreamed and a blossomed confidence that came from watching my body become more physically capable. The confidence I have felt blossom in myself has positively effected my life outside the walls of the gym.
If these are the benefits, how do we get more women to hit the weight-rack? The work begins by disassociating strength from masculinity and debunking the myth that women are physically the weaker sex. Hitting the gym, entering the Crossfit box, joining a contact sport, and sprinting the field are acts of rebellion for women in a world that discourages women taking up space.
Let’s give women like me, women who find solace in the weight rack, the space to celebrate them for their dedication and hard-worked; let’s create space for who they are and who they choose to be and labor to become.