After a lifetime of “following the rules,” one writer describes how weight lifting changed her relationship with her body—and maybe with her daughters, too.

By Alyssa Ages - ELLE MAGAZINE 

a compilation of women strength trainers

When I was about seven months pregnant with my second daughter, I had an odd craving: I really, really wanted to do a burpee.

This was a deeply confusing sensation because, like most people, I hate burpees. But for three years, I’d been cautious about how I moved my body: I’d navigated a miscarriage, fertility struggles, a healthy pregnancy, breastfeeding complications, diastasis recti, and a pregnancy that included an ultrasound scare at 20 weeks. For three years (and really, a lifetime before that), it felt as if everyone except me—parents, friends, teachers, fertility doctors, lactation consultants, random strangers on the street—had some mandate for how I needed to move. It would take me another year to realize it, but a desire to recklessly slam my body into the floor was the initial hint that I’d arrived at a life stage where—when it came to my body—the only opinion I’d care about was mine.

Like most women, I’d received a litany of instructions throughout my pre-teen years and well into adulthood. Some were subliminal; others were direct:

  • Plug the bleeding.
  • Contain your breasts.
  • Shave the hair.
  • Stay thin.
  • Have curves—but not too many curves.
  • Work out, but only do cardio or lift 3-pound weights. Anything more and you’ll get “bulky.”
  • Don’t do anything sexual. But don’t be a prude.
  • Wow, you’re almost 30? Have you thought about having kids?
  • You don’t want kids? You’ll regret that.
  • You do want kids? You should get on that.
  • Your egg reserves are low? Maybe you should have had kids sooner.
  • Oh, you had a miscarriage? It just wasn’t meant to be.
  • Should you be doing that while pregnant? Or that? Don’t eat that! Or move that way!
  • Have a natural birth. Have an epidural. Get a midwife. That’s dangerous!
  • Breastfeed your baby. Hire someone to help with the baby. Buy better baby products. Why would you spend your money so recklessly?
  • Lose the baby weight. Lose it faster. Here, wear this waist trainer. Fit back into your pre-baby jeans. Don’t be so vain; you’re a mother now. Go to the gym. How selfish of you to go to the gym. You should be home with your kids.
  • Go back to work. Wow, you seem career-driven. How does your husband feel about that? Do your kids miss you?
  • Your entire identity can’t be “mother.” But wait, who’s watching the kids?
So when my body initially failed to accomplish its prescribed adult job of supporting a pregnancy, I wondered what was wrong with it—what was wrong with me. My body felt foreign, weak, and broken. I invited a team of fertility doctors and nurses to tell me how to use this body as a tool to conceive, and I followed their instructions. I became pregnant twice and delivered two children. After each pregnancy, I tried to “bounce back,” because I’d been told to do so.

Then, the year I turned 40, my youngest daughter reached the end of her infant phase. I started to notice that—while everyone now had an opinion about how I should control my daughters’ bodies, from magically halting public tantrums to forcing them into winter coats on the first chilly day of the season—the mandates on what to do with my body had slowly dried up. Or, perhaps, I’d simply stopped paying attention: I only had the bandwidth to weigh the opinions of two people, and they only cared about whether I had the strength to push the swings to their exact specifications.

I began to realize that, after decades of worrying over whether my body looked or acted the way it was “meant” to, I no longer wanted anyone else in charge. I can’t pinpoint the exact turning point; maybe it was the realization that I’d spent nearly half my life bending to the input of others, or the fact that I was suddenly gifted the chance to stop my children from making my mistakes. If I was so focused on someone else’s beliefs, if I only moved my body the way someone else told me to, what message would I be sending to my daughters? By changing my own perception of myself, could I somehow stop the cycle?

One morning, as I watched my daughter struggle to carry a heavy box of Magna-Tiles across her play mat, I fought the urge to swoop in and help her. And I thought, Well, fuck that.

Because what I wanted for myself, in this new stage of life, was actually what I wanted for her: to become strong. I craved strength in every sense of the word: the power of confidence—mental strength—and the pleasure of kindness—emotional strength. But I wanted to be visibly strong, too, my muscles sending the clear message that I no longer gave a shit if I fit into societal tropes of “femininity.” Physical strength would allow me to take up space in the world, and to be capable of caring for my kids for that much longer. I could pick them up when they needed comfort; carry them over that last hill of a hike when they were too tired; keep up with them when they decided our casual stroll was now a sprint. Strength and endurance training would become my own private protest.

If I was so focused on someone else’s beliefs, if I only moved my body the way someone else told me to, what message would I be sending to my daughters?”

I was thinking of this newfound mission when I reached out to Amanda Thebe—author of Menopocalypse and co-founder of Nyah Health, a virtual health platform for menopausal women in Canada—whose perspective on this time of life I admire. In addition to being a fierce advocate for removing the stigma attached to menopause, she’s also a firm believer in the power of lifting weights, especially as women get older.

While I was likely a few years away from perimenopause, “calmness” (mixed with a healthy dose of ire) was the perfect way to describe how I’d started to feel. In the year following my youngest daughter’s birth, my strength training was focused on “losing the baby weight,” a goal I hated even as I desperately reached for it. Now, when I stepped into the gym with the new goal of, simply, strength, I found that I felt more at ease in my body than ever before. I was discovering the power of what author and personal trainer Laura Khoudari wrote about in her book, Lifting Heavy Things: interoception, the way we feel sensation and movement inside our body (versus proprioception, the sense of where our bodies are in space).

“In order to use your muscles, you have to feel them,” Khoudari says. “Interoception is the key to being good at lifting, but also cultivating a relationship with yourself where you begin to understand your wants and needs—from very basic things, to things that we think of as more abstract, like boundaries and feelings.”

a black and white photograph of a woman in a leotard lifting weights

I could suddenly sense all my body might be able to achieve. I could see the world less as a collection of threats that might mock or judge or reject me, and more as a series of beckoning challenges: Could I lift that giant rock over there? Could I save someone in danger if I had to? My muscles started to grow, and I looked for ways to show them off. Dresses that had once zipped easily now fought a battle against my lats. Only a few years ago, that stuck zipper might have destroyed my self-confidence, sending me into a dieting cycle. This time, I just chose to buy something that fit.

Now, I try to use words like “strong” and “powerful” to describe myself, and my daughters have begun to echo that language. (The other day, I caught them flexing their biceps at the breakfast table.) When I offer to help them move something heavy, they brush me off by insisting, “I’m strong enough, Mommy.” That language filters into who they are as people, too. They understand that strength doesn’t start or stop with their lifting prowess. Nor is their value tied to their physical ability. But autonomy—how they choose to use their bodies, and whose opinions about them matter—is theirs to wield. I know that, as they get older, outside opinions about how my children should look or act will begin to eclipse my own. But I hope I’ve built a foundation of confidence that allows them to stand firm in all their radiant strength.

Leaning into this pursuit of strength, in its many nuanced forms, showed me that no one’s perception would ever matter more than my own. And for the first time in my life, I know exactly how my body is meant to exist.



Marlena Gabriel