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On Weightlifting and Body Image

Image of Keira Hand, Image by Primo Chalk

Seeing as I will be talking to and sharing the stories of many other athletes, I found it necessary to share my own. Bare with me, because this is going to be a long one…

This is me:

Keira Hand weightlifting using Primo Chalk Keira Hand Flexing her biceps on a mermaid costume, Image by Primo Chalk

This, is also me:

Image of Keira Hand on her passion on Photography, Image by Primo Chalk A Younger Keira Hand on a 5K Run, Image by Primo Chalk

In two of these images, I feel fat. I am constantly worried about my caloric intake, I want to take up less space. In the other two, I feel confident. I don’t care if I gain a couple pounds or eat an unplanned donut, “it’ll go to my quads” I always say.

Do I need to clarify which feelings went with which photos? I imagine not.

During my final year of high school, I went through a profound mental change.  As I creeped toward adulthood, I felt increasingly insecure in my ‘baby face,’ I felt more like a child than a young woman.  I wanted the curves, I wanted the sex appeal, and I didn’t feel like I had any of it.  This desire turned into an infatuation with the concept of an ideal waist to hip ratio that was spoken of in articles about Marilyn Monroe(whom I deemed the ‘perfect’ woman, the epitome of sex appeal). But instead of trying to build my glutes and legs to gain this ratio, I decided the solution was to lose weight.

This, coupled with my perfectionist mentality, spiraled all the way out of control.  I ultimately found myself in a state where I would count and measure the calories of carrots, squash, even gum.  My weight dropped far below healthy for my height, and my family ultimately realized the problem and enrolled me in an outpatient program for Anorexia Nervosa.

Fast forward a year of having to sit down and eat meals prepared by my family that were twice as many calories as I would eat in a day, and I was restored to a “healthy” weight.  I was sent off to college with my family assuming it’d be fine, but I still struggled. My infatuation shifted from weight loss to gaining purely muscle mass(which is neither possible nor healthy to do), and my obsessive tendancies continued.  I put myself through HIIT, high rep bodybuilding, and made sure to always be moving in some way between sets.  Yet as I seemed to be reaching my goal, I still felt fat and like a failure if I went over my macro allotment for the day, or didn’t reach them to a T. I would scroll Instagram and wonder why I didn’t look like the ‘fit girls’ presented to me.

 

Thankfully, in my Junior year I had an encounter that absolutely changed my life.  As I left the gym late in the evening, I had a trainer call me over.

“What are you doing with those shoes?” He asked(I was wearing Adidas Powerlifts).

“Oh I just have them for squats,” I replied.

“Have you ever done Olympic Lifting?”

“No,” I said, “but I always thought it looked fun.”

“Come to the gym at 8AM this Saturday.” He said.

So I did.  I walked into a room full of powerful women and men warming up with barbells, and in that moment I realized that this was where I belonged, this was home.

Of course, it was not an overnight transformation. I still struggled, I still felt fat, but each time I felt that way I knew I had my teammates and coach to help me through it.  The weightlifting community helped normalize eating for me. It forced me out of my comfort zone each day that we would go out to eat after practice, or when someone brought donuts to training.  There was not a single mention of calories, and if there was it was spun positively to how that food will fuel the lifting we just did.

My focus shifted away from my looks to my performance. I felt free for the first time in 4 years, and as I reflect on the experience I realize so much of it was due to my coach’s approach to my weight gain.  He never gave me a strict diet to follow, no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, he just told me to eat; and as my weight increased so did my confidence.

There are a couple factors that really made this sport perfect for helping me grow, these being the focus on the individual and the inevitability of failed lifts. At a meet, I am never looking at the other lifters. I am focusing on myself and the barbell, on beating my own PRs. I also had to develop patience with myself, and an acceptance of imperfection.  Due to the technical nature of this sport you have to be okay with failing lifts you may have made 100 times before, because so many factors go into the movements.  These two factors altered the way I treated my body, as well.  I accepted that I didn’t look like a fitness model, because I didn’t need to. I finally felt valid and amazing in my own right, thanks to Weightlifting.  In this sport I have found peace with my body and true self-love that I never experienced before.  I know that as my training continues these feelings will only grow stronger, and I can’t wait to see how much more I can grow.

Keira Hand with her weightlifting coach, Image by Primo Chalk

Pictured: my coach and I after I won best female lifter at a local meet.

If anyone reading this has or is currently struggling with body image or an eating disorder and would like somebody to talk to, my inbox is always open: [email protected]