For 60 to 90 minutes, three days a week, my universe consists of a few hundred pounds of iron and a pair of headphones. I am a weightlifter. Not a bodybuilder, not a powerlifter, but a weightlifter. Ostensibly, I lift because it’s my “me” time. I take satisfaction in watching the numbers in my little training log move up just a bit more than the session before. Really, though, I lift because I simply enjoy the act. I also happen to be an anomaly in most of the gyms in which I have spent any significant amount of time. To put it in callous terms, I’m small by most lifting standards, and I have hated myself for it.
I grew up on superhero stories. My favorites were always Batman and the Green Lantern; to this day, I’ll sometimes recite the creed of the Green Lantern Corps to psych myself up during a lagging round of push-ups or presses. I wanted their bravery and their cleverness, and when I began lifting, I wanted their bodies.
The other men in the gym had those bodies. Bruce Wayne and John Stewart (my favorite Lantern) were both 6’2 and over 200 pounds of lean muscle. The men I watched bench-pressing the iron equivalent of two times my body weight met those standards. Meanwhile, I had finished growing at 5’6. I put on fat more easily than muscle, especially around the midsection. In my mind, I was nothing but short legs, thin wrists, and a troublesome potbelly, and I repeated that to myself every time I picked up a dumbbell. Those superhero-shaped men flew around my squat racks and my nightmares. Some did so with deliberation and scorn, smirking and commenting; most never acknowledged me except perhaps to ask how many sets I still had. It never mattered. I hated them all for what I perceived as their success where I so miserably failed.
Despite stereotypes to the contrary, any lifting community is as varied in personality as the lifters themselves. I’ve gone into spaces that welcomed anyone and everyone with no judgment about background, skill level, or appearance. Likewise, I’ve cringed in gyms where the scales tipped to mockery and bravado rather than respect and geniality. Most gyms lie in the middle, but all tend to feature at least a few individuals like myself: we who do not fit a preconceived “gym-rat” appearance and beat ourselves up for it.
More Radical Reads: From the Doctors to the Gym: Navigating Body Shame In the Most Vulnerable Places
I began casually exercising with a friend back in 2008, mostly because he enjoyed it, and I enjoyed his company. We used his backyard equipment, and I loved to say that I worked out so that I could then eat whatever I wanted (the callous thoughts of a person still too new to the subjects of food sensitivity and, indeed, biology). We were hobbyists who never worried how we looked and only competed with one another in the friendliest of terms.
Three years later, I entered actual gyms and properly fell in love with the bar. I read Henry Rollins’ essay The Iron and the Soul and watched the new Batman, Marvel, and James Bond movies, obsessively wanting to match their characters’ physicality (and their appearances, despite almost never admitting it). I also read about how those movie actors had personal trainers and nutritionists, time and resources, and (probably) genetics allowing them to build those bodies.
I knew the facts. I knew looking around at the enormous men surrounding me on lift days that I had not a single clue what any of their stories might be. Perhaps some were independently wealthy enough to spend large amounts of time and money on their physiques. Perhaps they, too, were genetically gifted, what lifters like to refer to as those who “can look at a dumbbell and grow.” Perhaps some struggled even more than I did to add a few pounds to their deadlifts, and their success was the result of more work than I could possibly imagine. Every one of those thoughts crossed my mind every time I looked in a gym mirror and wanted to throw a dumbbell at the reflection for daring to be on the short end of average. But I still felt this way.
Most blogs and articles on getting started with working out in a gym give one piece of advice over and over again to those who struggle with this sense of inadequacy: if you’re feeling self-conscious looking around in that gym, so is pretty much every single other person. If anyone has ever gleaned some positivity out of that advice, I would never want to take it away. I will state that for me, however, that advice does not address the root of the anxiety. The idea that others are suffering as well can make me feel a little less alone, but it doesn’t change that somewhere inside of myself, I feel as though I am a lesser being for not appearing a certain way, simply due to the fact that I was born with a body that can never meet a certain standard for measurements.
The culture is rarely helpful, either. For every truly welcoming blog like Steve Kamb’s marvelous Nerd Fitness, there are a hundred CT Fletcher videos or “Do You Even Lift?” pages shaming anyone who does not conform to rigid criteria of mass and intensity. Calling yourself a hard gainer on the wrong forum is tantamount to admitting that you are the Avatar of Sloth, come to Earth to inspire the multitudes to sedentary lives and self-inflicted obesity. These can be dangerous places for anyone, particularly for a smaller lifter with a progressive bent against body-shaming.
More Radical Reads: Moving from Healthism to Radical Self-Love: The Man In the Photo
It takes love to fight this kind of battle. I love lifting because, while those superhero stories give me a complex or two about what my body should like, they also inspire me to move past them to see what that body is capable of accomplishing. While 20 percent of any given lifting session might be spent frowning (and battling against the instinct to frown) in the mirror at the body doing dynamic stretches between press sets, the other 80 percent is engrossed with pushing the limits of my own abilities.
I love the act of holding a barbell in my fingers. I love the sensation of inflating my torso and pushing my joints and my flesh against gravity. And if I have a desire to hate myself for not having a body that matches Batman in this movie or that cartoon or comic book, I can think on that same character and imagine that he would offer me the reassurance that doing as much as I do with what I have makes me a greater personification of his spirit and ideals than anything that those giant-sized men can do with all of their mass and strength.
It is through the act of loving myself and my body and what it is capable of that I fulfill my dreams of matching up to those heroes. And if I feel, at any time, that I don’t match up to the men around me, it is because I do not. I am my own hero under the bar, and just like those secret-identity-having inspirations of mine, that fact will remain true whether everyone in the room knows it or not.
No mask required.[Headline image: The photograph shows a man with brown skin, short black hair, a light blue tank top, and gray shorts. He is sitting and lifting a weight with his right hand; his left hand is pressed on top of his left knee. To the right, a barbell is visible; to the left is a blurry image of a person weightlifting.]