Who has the right to be strong: training as a way to get in touch with ourselves

We have been taught for millennia that muscle and strength are not for women. We were taught to be as small as possible, to take up as little space as possible, to provide as little resistance as possible – we were taught how to become the "weaker sex".

Across time and space, there is a constant common to women of all ages. Our bodies are a locus of struggle, the central place where patriarchal power relations meet, engraving deep scars onto our bodies, but also into our psyche, tearing us apart from ourselves.

To accept our body, and even ourselves, means to accept that we are strong. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task, and it is an even less pleasant process, because we have been taught from an early age that we are the “weaker sex”.

Women’s socialization rests on three pillars, which answer the question of what a “good woman” is. She is weak, she is beautiful and gentle and she can and must be controlled.

Although masculine strength implies aggression, it is not men who must control themselves in order to resist the “challenges” that the female body presents – the responsibility lies on women.

This becomes obvious when we ask what a raped woman wore when she was raped, but also when we tell girls who have just entered puberty to button up and pull the lower edge of their skirts down to cover their thighs so as not to “provoke”.

My body – my enemy?

In the society in which we live, women are still primarily treated as sexual objects, even as children. Girls “challenge” both their peers and adult men; the way the Serbian public reacted to recent reports of sexual abuse at an acting school in Belgrade, in the city Jagodina and at a research centre in Valjevo confirms this.

As they grow up, girls themselves accept this idea, internalize it, and see themselves as sexual objects, often even before they finish primary school, because for female children childhood ends with the beginning of puberty.

After their first menstruation, girls become women. We do not need drastic practices, such as child marriage, to see this clearly. It is enough to listen to what we say to our daughters: “Don’t provoke”, “Pull your skirt down”, “Button up”. We tell our sons nothing of the sorts. 

As we grow older, we internalize the idea that our body is an object that exists for others and not for ourselves, and we build a relationship with our bodies accordingly.

A society that sees us as sexual objects even when we are children pushes us into a patriarchal dissociation from ourselves, from our bodies.

Given that as persons we cannot exist outside our bodies, because they are not and cannot be entities separate from us, as a survival strategy we develop a relationship with our body as with something under constant outside supervision; and to prevent, or at least mitigate the consequences we begin to (self) control and (self) punish.

Immediately after reaching puberty, we remove hair from our female bodies, fight cellulite, slip into underwear that “shapes”, wear sneakers with a hidden platform to make our legs look longer, and starve ourselves to reach the ideal clothing size.

Perceived like that, the female body becomes an enemy to women, especially to the women who have experienced violence. And each of us shares that experience, because violence can be inscribed into our bodies by an individual – for example, in the case of sexual violence – but also by the whole society, in the form of structural violence.

The social expectation to control our bodies ourselves and through that (self) supervision take responsibility for what others do to them, while at the same time feel the pressure for our bodies to be pleasing to men, is structural violence.

Back in the 1990s Naomi Wolf wrote about the beauty myth, warning us of the consequences of self-supervision that accompanies the internalization of the idea that female bodies are objects. She noticed that, as women slowly entered the public and even political arena, gaining power, eating disorders became more frequent.1

Society’s attitude towards women’s bodies grew stricter, following the growth of power that women gained for themselves. In the last thirty years, the age limit for the implementation of beauty ideals in the key of (self)supervision and (self)punishment has slowly moved, so that they now reach both pre-adolescent and adolescent women.

Statistics show that 46% of girls aged 9 to 11 were on a diet (for under-17s, this percentage is 89), while half of teenage girls used extreme practices, such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting or taking laxatives, to lose weight.2 According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1 in 10 young women has some form of eating disorder.

The treatment of female body in the modern age becomes twofold, ever accompanied by the question of who has the right to it? While we perceive our bodies through a distorted mirror, which pushes girls, young and adult women to self-monitoring and self-punishing dieting, on the other hand – because our body is not really ours – the boundaries of female body are erased in such a way that everyone else has a right to our body except ourselves. They use this right to decide what it should look like, how they can treat it against our will, and even to set whether we ourselves have the right to decide on its autonomy, which is especially evident in debates on reproductive rights and termination of pregnancy.

Empowerment comes both from the head and the body, precisely because we are a whole

For such a system, based on a duality of strong and domineering /weak and submissive, to persist, women must believe that they are truly the “weaker sex”. They must be separated from their bodies, because only in that way can their bodies, even themselves, be objects. It is the whole of our spirit, soul, or being, call it whatever you want, and our physical bodies that makes us persons. Unfortunately, in the 21st century women are still not seen as persons.

How to connect with your body most easily? By perceiving the world around us with it. To be whole means that we perceive the world with our bodies, understand it cognitively and make decisions independently on the basis of that information.

Only thus, through a subjectivity achieved with both body and cognition, can we return and merge with our body. One of the tools for this connecting is the physical manifestation of the power that is innate to our bodies. But, although our bodies undoubtedly have strength, it is undesirable for women.

It is precisely why physical manifestation of bodily strength, expressed through practicing physical activities, has been forbidden for women for millennia. On the other hand, physical activity, as a process of building (physical) strength, was mandatory for men.

Women’s road on their struggle for the right to physical activity, embodied in recreational and professional sports, was long.

The reason for this may lie in the fact that the empowerment of women through physical activity is a direct path to general empowerment of women, since body are inseparable from person. Senda Berenson Abbott, the founder of women’s basketball, was also aware of this. She noted that one of the obstacles for women’s employment in the late nineteenth century was that women were not expected to strengthen their bodies because it was not suitable for them, while both physical and mental strength and physical health were required at hiring.

In order to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, Katherine Schwitzer had to register using a pseudonym, so as to hide that she was a woman, because women were not allowed to participate in marathons – they were regarded as the “weaker sex”. When it had been discovered that K.V. Schwitzer was woman, she was attacked and pushed off the track. However, she managed to continue the race and finished it in 4 hours and 20 minutes.

Strength sports are still considered a male domain, and women who practice them face stigma.

Katie Sandvina, one of the first strongwomen, the strongest woman of the 20th century and the woman who laid foundations for women’s powerlifting, a discipline of strength, performed as a circus performer throughout her life, and her father offered a prize of one hundred gold marks to any man who could overpower her. No one succeeded, and Katie, who took the surname Sandvin from an opponent, the famous strongman Eugene Sandov, when she won in 1902, was even entered in the Guinness Book of Records for 73 years as the strongest woman in the world.

Just like Senda Berenson Abbott, Sandvin also fought for equality – she was a dedicated suffragette and a women’s rights fighter. They both knew something that is still valid today – that the empowerment of the female body inevitably leads to the empowerment of women in all fields of activity. This is one of the reasons why women are still generally not welcome in gyms, which are still an epicentre of toxic masculinity.

In the gym women face downgrading glances all the time, clear sexualized staring and illicit filming, bullying, sexual harassment, all because strength is still not seen as something that belongs to women, as something that women are entitled to, so gyms are also seen as a space where women are not allowed to exist.

As many as 70.7% of women experienced some form of harassment in the gym. Two thirds of that per cent of women faced was sexual harassment, and as many as 70% of them changed their workout routine to avoid such negative experiences.

Some of the women decided to train outside, in public space, to avoid the harassment present in gyms. Unfortunately, for some of them, like Laura Smither, Chaundre Levy, Ally Brueger, Karine Vetrano, Vanessa Marcotte, Mollie Tibbetts or Wendy Karina Martinez, that choice was fatal.

On the other hand, women have been taught from an early age that physical activity, and even the strength and endurance that is built through it, is not for them. While male preschool children enrol in football, more “graceful” disciplines, such as gymnastics or ballet, are reserved for girls.

When we reach adolescence, even when we have no ambition to play sports professionally, but exclusively recreationally, we are bombarded with a panicky fear that, if we exercise with weights, instead of spending hours on treadmills and ecliptic cardio machines, intended for weight loss, we will “turn into men”. We are taught that muscles are not for women, precisely because strength is not for women. We are taught to be as small as possible, to take up as little space as possible, to provide as little resistance as possible – we are taught how to remain the “weaker sex”.

Sve nas ovo navodi da postavimo pitanje – ko ima pravo da bude jak(a)? Jer snažna žena koja se ne stidi svoje snage i ponosno je pokazuje predstavlja vrlo jasno rušenje mita o postojanju „slabijeg pola“.

All this begs the question – who has the right to be strong? Because a strong woman who is not ashamed of her strength and proudly shows it, embodies a very clear demolition of the myth of the existence of the “weaker sex”.

The process of gaining that strength, training, is a feminist tool in the fight for equality.

By strengthening our bodies, we can see them exactly as they really are – strong. Our bodies, no matter what society tells us, are the source of our strength – they carry us through life, they resist the violence they suffer every day, whether done by an individual or the entire system, they have the ability to create a new life. Thus, our existence in gyms or on the courts clearly breaks down prejudices. And that is exactly why it is so stigmatized.

Yet, not every type of training translates to true feminist empowerment. Fitness culture is not a bubble that exists outside the dominant narrative that sees a woman as weak, gentle and beautiful, attractive to men.

On the other hand, it is encouraging that more and more fitness models and exercisers are beginning to openly criticize the dominant narrative and speak publicly about their experiences of (self)supervision and (self)control in achieving the ideal fitness female body – they talk about diets, counting calories, about eating disorders, about fainting on treadmills as well as other health problems caused by trying to achieve an ideal look. They also talk about lifting weights as a method of achieving physical health, of the freedom to eat when you are hungry, and eating what you like, as a method of achieving mental health, as well as of the unrealistic expectations they have faced.

We seem to be slowly moving towards a feminist approach to training as a form of empowerment. We are slowly starting to listen to our bodies instead of listening to what others tell us about them and setting a male view of them as the ideal.

In this way, trainings teach us to learn the concept of boundaries by listening to our bodies and their “NO”, so that later we begin to set boundaries in other areas of life, too.

Also, we realize through training that our bodies are not the ones that need to be adapted to the world, but quite the opposite – that we need to adapt the world to our bodies, and that this is precisely what we do when we eat when we are hungry, rest when we are tired, train when we feel like training, and all because we want to.

Through training, we learn that public space belongs to us, no less than it belongs to men, even though the fight for gyms, courts and streets has only just begun. This kind of training strengthens not only our bodies but every part of our being, and clearly criticizes sexualisation and “empowerment” through the commodification of the physical appearance and cleavage of a woman on the body as an object for others.

Though this is not the only way to do it, using training to accept our body as something ours, as something that we are, is a way of empowering women and rewriting millennia-long history in which we have been passive objects. Empowerment comes from both the head and the body, precisely because we – women – are both head and body. Precisely because we are a whole.

Translation: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Aug 3, 2021.

  1. (Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: W. Morrow.
  2. Neumark Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat! New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 5.

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