I will admit, I have been obsessed with the way I look for years, probably since I can remember. Yes, I am vain. I have passed it off as many things: especially as a focus on health. It’s true that I have been interested in health since being a toddler – my mum remembers me at 2 picking the fat out of my food, and, too young to say the ‘f’ sound crying ‘hass’ in disgust as I flung it across the floor. Artificial sweeteners were banned from the house by me when I was 12. At the tender age of 3 I informed both parents that I was not getting enough fruit [I was] and that I would get scurvy. Although I insisted my parents bought me candy every week (as they got some) my mother would remove old stale and largely untouched bags of pic ‘n’ mix from their place languishing at the back of my draw. Sweets were out – fruit and lean protein was in. Maybe some mac ‘n’ cheese too. But it’s not just health. I’ll admit it, if the endless pursuit of ‘the body perfect’ indicates vanity, then since the age of about 14, I have been vain. Sue me.
This vanity has been variously a good [keeping me with a healthy BMI, keeping me with a good nutrient intake, getting me to do some exercise] and a bad [over obsession, crying in the mirror, under eating / over training] thing. Perhaps it has lead me to my current job. However, I, and others, have always been interested in where it came from. The Freudians would cite a lifetime of trying to gain strangers’ approval as my working parents ‘neglected’ me at nannies. The behaviourists would point to my very slim, and very beautiful mother, who put me on my first diet at the tender age of eight and rewarded deprivation. The geneticists would agree, but for different reasons. Trait modellers would classify me as ‘Type A’ – always striving for new goals to the end of perfection. I had some sympathy with all the views, and others. In fact, the only view I did not have sympathy with was the more sociological view, epitomised by ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’. I did not agree that I wanted to be thin because as a woman with a successful career in a traditionally male dominated field and a busy life I needed a ‘flaw’ and ‘imperfection’ to stop me being intimidating to men. If that was a step to far, then certainly I needed to be small and little so that I could in some way at least seem to be subservient. I saw this as a load of old hokum, because I did not believe it was a view that generally affected women’s outlooks among my circle of friends. Until I started weight lifting.
When I first started weight lifting a lot of people said to me ‘ooooh, you don’t want to get big’ and I agreed with this at face value, after all, the goal of weight lifting was partially to tone up, but more to lose some weight (fat mass). So, I got into lifting and was fairly unworried about how I looked, havingbeen reassured from several nutritionists and personal trainers that it would impossible for me to accidentally get ‘huge’. I loved weight lifting. Just loved it, and I loved what it did to my body. Others didn’t. They looked at me and said ‘your arms are so big!’ which struck me as odd, as I was size 2, all my clothes fit and my body fat was low. I realised that what they meant was that I had biceps. Not huge biceps, not disproportionate ones, just ones that were now visible at rest. The general consensus among people was that this was wrong. Even my boyfriend expressed some concern. He is supportive, it was jokey, but there was an edge. People at home looked at me and asked me if I was ‘overdoing it’. [At this point I should point out that I was not even close to being anywhere near extreme, I would not even be competitive in bikini class competitions].
I also worried about it. I realised this when I was hiking last weekend and I had to pull a backpack up… Frank said to me ‘I know you have big muscles but I think you might need help’. I found I was offended on some level – did he call me big? Was he implying I was unfeminine? This gave me cause to think carefully – why was my body now straying into the ‘unacceptable’? I was certainly healthy. I eat well, I exercise reasonably. I would say I am in pretty good proportions; in fact my waist to hip ratio is .7… considered ideal. My waist is 26″… a little larger than before, but a small, toned size. I have balanced figure… so what is the problem? It is that I have visible muscles. As one girl said when she introduced me to her boyfriend ‘this is Lekki from Zumba… she is buff’. But shouldn’t women have muscles? Shouldn’t women have biceps and a healthy strong core? Where has this notion that women must be small, and let’s face it, weak looking come from? I understand that sexual dimorphism is a goal; but trust me, I am a lot smaller than any guy, my arms are way less toned than most guys and if you are looking from a more emotional / practical perspective – although I can lift more than most girls (squatting 170 – y-e-e-e-e-e-e-s) even the most untrained of guys can rerack the weights with one hand, that I fail to do with 2.
I am suddenly annoyed that the conception of female beauty is so tied up with being incapacitated. Be really thin, so don’t nourish yourself adequately for endurance. Don’t have any muscle, so don’t be able to carry your luggage easily when you travel. Have large breasts and a small waist that affect your center of gravity. Wear crippling high heels and have long difficult nails. Screw it. I don’t think beauty is about this anymore – it is about strength and health — inside and out. Women should be able to lift heavy things, they should be able to run easily and they need muscles to do it. I am keeping my biceps and I think they look beautiful.