Strong Women: Weightlifting and Sports are a Great Solution to the Modesty Problem

Possible trigger warning: This post contains some profanity, and is written for those members of my audience whose physical abilities allow them to play active sports or lift heavy weights, especially women interested in trying weight lifting.

Abby Stockton poses with a barbell.

I’ve often remarked on the way the modesty doctrine made me think of my body as a decoration – and a flawed one, at that. I was supposed to be pretty but not sexual, which to me meant starving off all curves and remaining a perpetual prepubescent girl. I was taught to self-objectify (to always see myself through the eyes of potential male observers). I’m far from alone in the damage I did to my body and mind because of this self-objectification:

Self-objectification is a process by which girls learn to think about their own bodies as objects of other people’s desires. Instead of appreciating the body for its abilities, its strengths or its pleasures, a person sees it as something for other people’s enjoyment. Multiple studies have linked self-objectification with an increase in rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as lower academic achievement. (From Psychology Today: “Hey Baby” Hurts, an article primarily focused on street harassment of teenage girls.)

I no longer think this way, but it’s been the single hardest legacy of my fundamentalist years that I’ve had to overcome. It has taken me years. I think I’ve mostly arrived, but every now and then I snap back and have to re-teach myself how to think about my body. Most days, though, I’m there. I’m valuing myself for things other than what I look like. One of the greatest strategies I’ve found for loving my body is doing a sport.

My sport of choice is weightlifting.

(By the way, watch this woman pick up one end of a car. She rocks!)

Just this morning, I pulled off a 100lb squat for the first time! I’ve already reached a bodyweight deadlift. For those who aren’t familiar with the lingo, the former means I load up a barbell totalling 100lbs and squat straight down and back up again, like a toddler grabbing a block off the floor. The latter means I do this with a loaded barbell weighing the same as me.

Growing up fundamentalist and having no gym access or instruction, I had never even thought about how much weight a woman could lift. It didn’t even occur to me that human beings could lift more than they weighed at all. Watching a woman lift 460lbs (video) would have been an entirely novel and awe-inspiring experience to me. It still is, a little bit. I mean, 460 pounds!

The truth is, ordinary human beings can get incredibly strong. Olympic powerlifting women can lift over 500lbs at once. Women can even continue lifting weights during pregnancy, which tends to result in a faster, easier labor and healthier baby than average. Oh, and it can help you bounce back pretty quick, too. (Note: Your mileage will vary. Pregnancies are very individual matters.)

Now, let’s dispell a Whole Lotta Myths that come up when most people encounter women lifters for the first time. The myths? That lifting will turn you into The Hulk and your husband will leave you because you look like a dude, and you won’t be able to wear cute dresses anymore and ugh… Well, you get it. Here are my answers:

1. No, you won’t get huge (unless you really, really try and pop steroids).

Professional female bodybuilder in competition.

Professional bodybuilders like the woman on the left do intensive, specific exercises meant to make those muscles pop. Their diets are fine-tuned so that every morsel helps them bulk up. They take supplements. Many of them take steroids. They work under professional bodybuilding trainers hours and hours out of every day. Finally, during competition season, they slim down to such low bodyfat levels that they literally can’t sustain them for more than a few months. They wind up getting easily dehydrated and sometimes even require oxygen! During off-seasons, they put the fat back on and just

look thick. So yeah, ladies, you’re not going to look like the woman on the left by accident.That said, let’s stop and think critically for a moment about why looking like that is discouraged. Female bodybuilders, probably better than any other athletes, demonstrate just how much male and female bodies have in common. Both sexes can be strong, ripped and powerful. Why is a body like that encouraged on a man but discouraged on a woman? Why do we see one as buff and attractive and the other as “gross” (as I’ve heard some of my friends unfortunately say when they put on a little muscle)? Why are women’s bodies not admired for their power and strength, but for softness and delicateness?

Why doesn’t everyone think this woman is absolutely beautiful? I do.

If it’s God’s will, I ask you why God wants women to be weak. If it’s “nature,” I ask you why we’re capable of strength and refuse to use it? I think it’s all about patriarchy. The male ideal is the muscle-bound protector. The female ideal is the soft, delicate protected one. Which is all kinds of bullshit, because a woman who can defend and protect herself is much safer than a woman who would never pick up anything heavier than a 5lb dumbbell lest she get “bulky.”Now, gender politics aside, if you want to train with weights but are afraid of bulking up, have a look here (video). Also watch this 125lb woman lift 345lbs (video).

2. Women do not need to train differently from men. Period.

The men who are most successful at weight lifting tend to use free weights – barbells and dumbbells with plates – rather than those complicated exercise machines. There is absolutely no reason a woman can’t do the same weight lifting routine.In the lifting world, the “big three” exercises are the squat, deadlift and bench press. Lifters add up the total weights of each to get the number they use to measure their progress. Mine isn’t all that high yet (320lbs) but I do know some women in the 700lb-range. These exercises are extremely efficient for the whole body, so you can get perfectly fit by just doing those three plus a cable or barbell row for your upper back. I love the simplicity of lifting.

A woman performing a front squat.

The bottom line is that there is no physiological reason for women to forego lifting the way men lift. I am lucky enough to have a female lifting partner now, but when I go alone I tend to be the only woman in a sea of men. The biggest obstacle to women getting strong is not trying in the first place. It makes sense that men have cornered the market on the exercises that build strength the most effectively. Women are finally starting to find out that they can benefit, too.

Note: I don’t judge you if you’re not into athletics. Not at all. Just please, never discourage a woman who wants to work out because she might “get big” or “hurt herself.” That’s just foolish. Also, please don’t do what this guy does, shaming other men because “Somewhere out there, a little Chinese girl is warming up with your max.” This shaming works only because men are trained to believe that they must be stronger than all women. This is misogynist (and racist, too). A strong woman is a strong woman. It’s good for her. It is not evidence of your own emasculation. This attitude is partly responsible for the way women end up segregated in the cardio room while men build strength; if men welcomed strong women, rather than using them as examples to shame other men, more women would feel comfortable in the weight room.

3. Weight lifting is a relatively safe sport.

Fit women flexing their hard-earned biceps.

You’re more likely to get injured in any other sport than weightlifting with proper technique.

It takes some getting used to, but if you listen to your body, it’ll tell you when something is wrong. And if you’re really worried, check out the From Dork to Diva series from Krista Scott-Dixon. She’ll show you what not to do and then what you should do instead. Also, google up those obnoxious black-tinted powerlifting websites and read their tips on form (but don’t obsess over it if you’re a beginner – the tips can be more intimidating than the weights if you start thinking all of them are Matters of Life and Death.

4. Weight lifting can help you lose weight, even without hours of cardio.

Muscle burns more calories than fat. It also takes up less space. That means that if you eat the same amount of food and put on muscle, you’ll probably lose fat (from extra calories burned) and be slimmer (because muscles are dense and compact) even if the number on the scale doesn’t change.

I hate running. HATE. RUNNING. So I don’t do it anymore. I walk. I lift. I eat. Life is good.

If we all did the things we are capable of doing we would literally astound ourselves.

What does this have to do with the modesty doctrine?

Weight lifting has caused me to respect and admire my body for what it can do. The only weight on my mind is the weight on the barbell, not on my thighs. (It’s just a nice side benefit that lifting heavy enough will probably make you – and me, if I’m lucky – smokin’ hot, too!) Weight lifting has reminded me that I have real, physical power – the kind the Christian patriarchy movement didn’t want me to know I had.

Now, if a guy leers at me on the street, I’m more likely to think “I can take you, arsehole,” than “Oh no! I just sent another man to hell with my boobs!” I’m sure the Ladies Against Feminism would be horrified, but you know what? It’s called confidence. It’s good. It’s healthy. It may also keep me safe, by making me look less vulnerable (because I am less vulnerable).

The Moral of the Story

One of the best antidotes to the modesty doctrine and the self-hatred it causes is doing some kind of sport that challenges you physically and mentally. When you earn an achievement in sports, no one can take that away from you. When you hide in sack dresses, though, men can still take away your confidence by leering. When you lift something heavier than yourself, you realize that women’s bodies weren’t made weak by God, but by patriarchy. You realize that your body is not just about sex or attraction. When you run fast, or bike a challenging hill, or do a pull-up for the first time, you realize that your body is made for movement – glorious movement – and that staying at home and draping yourself in modest, feminine dress are actually strategies that Christian patriarchy uses to keep you weak.

Christian patriarchy teaches that the human body is a source of shame. Immodesty (whatever that is) is “shameful,” they say. Bullshit. If you believe that God designed the human body, with all of its potential, to be slowed down and wrapped up and immobilized by clothing and social regulation, you should re-examine your God’s head. How dare you keep women weak in the name of God? Although I no longer believe in a formal creed or Godhead, I do believe that if there’s a Creator with his fingerprints on our DNA, then he (or she!) intended for us to use our bodies to their fullest potential, to delight in our strength and speed and run wildly through fields like children. You can’t do any of those things if you’re worried about your damned skirt.

Finally, I believe it is immoral to prevent women from building their strength.

It is immoral to teach women to be ashamed of their bodies or to describe the very muscles that give them movement and power as “gross” or unsightly.

It is immoral to teach a beauty standard that values weakness and emaciation over power.

It is immoral to teach girls that beauty itself is more important than strength.

Now, get out there and kick some ass.

A Sober Second Look writes about Islamophobia
Sexism, Judgment Day and Forgetting as a Survival Skill Purity Culture is Rape Culture
Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds
  • Sarah

    Ahhhh!!!! I LOVE this SO MUCH. I’m still stuck in the self-hatred phase, but I used to compete in MMA, and i’ve seen what my body is capable of. This post totally inspired me to get back out there and take pride in my strength. Thank you!!

  • cheekypinky

    This is awesome.

    My mother still speaks condescendingly of my strength–
    she’ll say things like, “You just think you’re better because you’re stronger than I am.”

    Which is…not cool.

    She hated that I could move furniture,
    that I could lift heavy things,
    that I didn’t want to wait for dad to get home in order to do a “masculine” task–
    I could do it, and wanted to get it done.

    I think my strength and my pursuit of it scares her.

    I wish it didn’t. It’d be amazing to have a mom who would work out with me.

  • Therese

    This is an amazing post! I did not come from a conservative background, but I will begin working out at a CrossFit gym this week in the city where I live and every time you mention CrossFit, all the women are scared to do it for fear of “getting bulky.” What’s funny is: Even the guys are fearing muscles! They don’t want to “look big” either. What’s that about? I think in this culture we just have a fear of physical strength, particularly among women, but this bullshit is starting to effect men as well. I wrote this on the subject:

    • Sierra

      That is SUPER weird. My partner is a runner but he just does it for enjoyment. He still likes it when he gains a little muscle. I’ve never heard of guys wanting to be skinny. Wow.
      Great post – I love this line: “Look strong. Be strong. That way, you’ll rarely have to do much to prove it.” It’s so true.

  • Liberated Liberal

    Awesome! Do you mind if I steal some pieces of this to put in my sig line for a fitness forum? I love your last part.

    I have always loved fitness and have always been criticized for it. My mother used to be the biggest perpetrator, because she always believed that women were nothing but sex objects. Men in current society don’t generally love muscle, so I’m somehow hurting men by making them see my muscles. Sick. After years of illness and injury, I’m just now building myself back up. This was very motivating!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    This is such an inspiring post! I am trying to get myself into more athletic activity for reasons of health and my own self-confidence. The issue for me isn’t Christian patriarchal modesty culture, obviously, but overcoming the physical inferiority complex I gained as a kid. Spending most of elementary school gym class hiding in the bathroom in fear of the other kids (and “teachers!”) will do that to you. What we dare to call “physical education” in this country is entirely focused on team sports and competition, pitting kids against other kids, instead of encouraging kids to find what kind of physical activity THEY like and helping them to form their own goals, challenge themselves, and take pride in doing so. It’s Future Frat Boys of the World being given free reign to pummel the “weaker” ones in dodgeball by the Former Frat Boys of the World–the teachers. I was a bookish, geeky kid, I have no natural ability for team sports and I don’t like people throwing balls at my head (insert “Clueless” one-liner), so I quickly got the message that I was an inadequate weakling who couldn’t do any kind of physical activity right (except for swimming–I loved that but we didn’t do it at school). I hated sports and the cruel culture surrounding them with a passion and vowed that I would never, ever do sports again once I didn’t have to. I held to that too, until I realized that by holding that attitude, I was hurting nobody but myself, denying myself the many physical and psychological benefits of sports, and letting the childhood meanies define grown-up me.

    So now, I am attempting to approach sports with a fresh mind for the first time in my life and find what I really like to do. I have tried running and would still like to pursue it but I’m still so self-conscious about it! When I do it, I worry that I am some how doing it wrong and that all the super-fit hipsters in their sunglasses and ipods in my young, hip neighborhoood must surely be laughing at me! lol. It’s like being a kid all over again! I have started trying to learn mat pilates because I can do those privately in my room, with only a mat, and I enjoy the focus they require–it’s kind of like playing music, which I do.

    I would love to try weights or something some time but I am terrified of going to a gym. TERRIFIED! All those people…yeah, terrified. lol. Maybe one day. Reading about your process is certainly encouraging. Maybe there’s hope for me yet! :-P

    • Liberated Liberal

      My experiences was SO much like yours. And you’re right, it’s Frat Boy mentality through and through. I learned to hate sports right away, because I hated the cruelty and the competition that wasn’t just encouraged, but demanded, by the teachers. I hate all team sports to this day, and have panic attacks even in friendly family or friends based games.

      In high school I found my love of independent sport, though – running and weight-lifting. However, even joining Cross Country my senior year was a mistake. I hate competition and I hate that coaches feel justified in verbally and emotionally abusing you. It is disgusting and I don’t support sports or sports teams at all.

      As for running – Find books called Chi Running and Chi Walking. I am reading them now after years of injury. I think they have invaluable advice on a healthy-minded approach and technique. I’m going to make sure I start running (and walking) with good form from now on!

      As for weight-lifting, I highly recommend DVD workouts. I’ve used them for years with amazing results, and it will definitely get you fit enough to pursue the gym with confidence later if you feel the need. A very popular one is P90X. I personally like ChaLEAN Extreme or anything by Cathe Friedrech (, she is my queen!). You can go to Walgreens or BB&B and find the Supreme 90 Day Workout system, which is very affordable. Walmart and Target have Weider X-Factor, which is again affordable but more body weight and cardio (I think). There is Jillian Michaels’ Body Revolution or JNL Fusion if you want more comprehensive systems. There are thousands of individual DVDs, as well, of course, that are amazing. They run the spectrum from gentle to extremely advanced. I love all of these things, as well as yoga (especially Iyengar yoga) and kettlebells. I own two sets of Bowflex Selecttechs (up to 50 lbs) to save space, a barbell and kettlebells. I don’t like owning large pieces of equipment, because I feel like I can go to the gym for those. will be the best guide you could ask for. I am passionate about it and have accomplished great things just by working out at home. Of course, there is an initial investment, but it’s worth every cent for me. You can probably find so much at thrift stores and craigslist. Unless you get large equipment (and spotters) super heavy lifting will have to be saved for the gym if you ever decide to do that. I always did occasionally, but I didn’t depend on it.

      Sorry about that length, but I like this stuff :). There is hope for us picked-up geeky kids!

    • Liberated Liberal

      I mean to say “picked-on.” :D

  • Lane

    AHHH I LOVE YOU. Your blog is already one of my favorites to read and I love so much of what you write, but discovering that you lift weights just garnered you another ten BILLION points in my head. I’ve been a gym rat for quite a while–mostly non-barbell strength training–but I’ve recently gotten serious about real lifting. I am always trying to coax girls into getting their asses off the damn useless elliptical, and it’s so refreshing to hear other women leading the invasion of the Man Cave otherwise known as the weight room.

    Major props for your 100 lb squat! 100 lbs is my goal for the end of the year. I’d also like to hit a bodyweight deadlift by the end of the year. How long did it take you to get there?

    As a related anecdote, my mom enrolled some of us kids in an evangelical martial arts school (yup, that’s a thing) shortly before I hit puberty. It became a family affair and my mom ended up doing classes with us. As much ideological bullshit that flew around the room in that dojo, it was so crucial to my character. Much like lifting, martial arts is a very empowering sport that makes you feel strong, capable, and confident.

    Interestingly, my dad HATED our martial arts involvement. He had a paranoia of all things related to Eastern mysticism (even if only vaguely), so in spite of the fact that we were learning Bible verses and apologetics for our rank progression, he insisted that doing karate somehow invited evil spirits. Previously, I had speculated that he also hated it because it was something he had virtually no control over. It became a major part of our lives, and he barely knew what went on in our classes. This post and related ones I’ve read has started to add a new facet to my thinking: maybe he hated it because he saw that it was changing us, namely my tiny, domestic mom. My mom was coming alive–she was getting stronger, bolder, brighter. I think that freaked the hell out of my dad. (My parents are now divorced. Mom now runs the karate school along with her second husband.)

    • Sierra

      Haha, thank you! I’ve been lifting seriously since December, but I took a hiatus for several weeks twice when I had to get car repairs and went insane with my teaching schedule. I recall being told that martial arts were evil, too. When I can free up some time (without feeling totally spent) I plan to enroll in lessons. That may be after graduation because… money.

  • Meggie

    Can I recommend swimming too? It has been my sport of choice since I was little and I try to swim 20 laps (1km) five times a week. The wonderful thing about swimming is that it doesn’t need to be competitive. Turn up the local pool, choose the slow lane and swim however far you feel like. As you get fitter you can move into the medium or fast lanes or continue in the slow lane but add more laps. It is low/no impact so you won’t aggravate any existing injuries. (My back is stuffed after pregnancy.) If you are too self concious to wear swimmers, I wear a high neck, long sleeve swim shirt and 3/4 length boardies. (I wear them to prevent sunburn rather than for modesty.)

    • Sierra

      Oh hell yeah! I love swimming recreationally. It’s a great complement to my lifting and also gives me an extra workout.

  • Heidi

    I really loved this article. I’m a “big girl” with large boobies and hips, and I’ve recently been working very hard to love myself the way it is, so this is the sort of article that inspires me. There’s no body-shaming or trying to point to a “perfect” body. You obviously love body building, so hearing your passion come through is very inspiring. All over, I have a smile after reading this. Also, those women are totally hot and confident and beautiful, and that’s what loving a body means.

    I remember when Susan Powter came on the scene and a lot of people were criticising her short hair and muscular form, and my uncle just always said how beautiful he thought she was like that. I was a pre-teen/maybe teenager at the time, and it totally turned my head because I couldn’t at that time imagine a man not wanting a woman who was all soft and curved and the societal normal precept of what “feminine” was. Posts like this really go a long way towards challenging that idea of “feminine beauty” that really is very subjective.

    Personally, I’ve found that I love yoga and jogging and I even bought some of those ridiculous Skeletoes jogging shoes. I assumed I would like yoga, but I never thought I’d like jogging, and I never thought I’d find myself longing to get home and throw on the gym clothes so I can exercise. There is so much to be said for loving what you do and doing it for the love of it, not because you’re trying to attain some sort of unattainable beauty.

  • Christine

    I’m not sure if I’ve posted here before Sierra, but I’ve lurked for a long time. I just have to say: YOU ROCK, WOMAN!!

    I used to have a lot of body issues due to peer-pressure induced low self-esteem. Then I developed a number of health issues including fibromyalgia. Now, I realise it’s silly to hate yourself because your boobs are too big/too small/the wrong size when it’s so much more important to apprecite the things your body can do (and when the list of stuff you hate about your body includes things that directly impact on the quality of your life…)