Weight Class Obsession: Just Say No

Wandering around naked in the University of Iowa’s women’s locker room at its Campus Recreation and Wellness Center is taboo. I’ve written about this before, and thankfully, I no longer have pit my need to know with extreme accuracy how much I weigh against how much I don’t want people thinking I’m neurotic as I weigh myself on the CRWC’s $1000 scale without a shred of clothing on my body. The need to know always won out against the cringing self-awareness that accompanied my furtive dashes to that scale, and this speaks to how seriously I took what weight class I competed in at the very beginning of my powerlifting career.

You know you have a weight class obsession problem when you own two scales. We're down to one now. In our defense, both of these were extremely unreliable so we just used them as faulty controls against one another.

You know you have a weight class obsession problem when you own two scales. We’re down to one now. In our defense, both of these were extremely unreliable so we just used them as faulty controls against one another.

A few things I want to make clear here: powerlifting is a weight-class-based sport. We’re pretty obsessed with how much we weigh not because of how we look (well, supposedly, anyway) but because it’s how we stack up against one another and how our strength is judged—powerlifting is about relative strength, after all. National rankings are arranged by sex and weight class. There is no option to “opt out” of weight class even for beginners who really don’t care or expect to do well in their first competitions. If you compete in powerlifting, you are going to step on the scale.

Over and over again, if you listen to some of the best voices in the sport, the idea of focusing on weight class is de-emphasized. Concentrate on building a solid hypertrophy and strength base, whatever you need to do to accomplish that, however much you ultimately end up weighing, they’ll say. I remember attending a seminar in which Brandon Lily sat on a panel of lifters who included, among many others, Caitlin Trout and Ed Coan. Lily strongly advocated not limiting your weight by weight class unless you were literally capable of breaking a world record in a given weight class. At the time I attended that seminar, I thought his ideas were somewhat extreme. I still do, a bit, and I also don’t presume to know what is best/would make the entire lifting population happy, as that is a very individualized question. But I do know that it’s interesting that while many seasoned, successful competitors in the sport advocate giving yourself literal room to grow, it is often the mediocre or downright unsuccessful lifters who spend inordinate amounts of time preoccupied with weight class.

I get to wear one of THESE again.

Believe it or not, I don’t even think this is from my 105 meet. I think it’s from when I competed at 114 the first time. Yes, this is scrawny at its finest.

I am guilty of this preoccupation myself, and I don’t claim to be as enlightened, or, well, good, as the sport’s veterans can claim. Very early in my career, I first competed at 114. I remember being so terrified of coming in over the 114 pound weight class even when each morning I was waking up pounds below that weight that the day I was to weigh in for my second meet I ended up weighing in at 109 pounds—down three pounds from the then-normal  112 pounds or so. Terrified, I had barely eaten or had anything to drink that entire day. The way I treated that weigh-in was grossly overreactive and spoke to how much I felt like weight class was crucial to what I did at the meet.

I don’t even remember the total I did that day. I do know, having done this a little longer now, and having put on a lot of weight and competed several more times in a variety of weight classes, that the anxiety and pressure I felt that early to make sure I was at a certain weight class was completely ludicrous. The amount of people in this sport who concern themselves with weight class is stunning—it’s almost as if a constant discussion of/focus on weight will relieve everyone from having to take the more complicated, harder look at their powerlifting career as a whole. Ed Coan competed in weight class after weight class, unfettered by a singular obsession with his weight as he grew into his talent and progressed upward over time from class to class. I have deep respect for people who are willing to do this. Because it’s hard, and it’s humbling (okay, yeah, unless you’re Coan, because whatever he did at any of his weight classes was fantastic), and you have to pay your dues and respect the fact there are people competing at whatever weight class you’re competing in who have been doing this sport longer and have very likely gone about it “the hard way” by progressively moving up weight classes.

This is something I’m dealing with now. Early on in my career, I thought I might just keep my weight way down for the 105 class and just slowly grind away at being one of the best in that class. I say slowly because for someone who’s a little over 5’2”, staying in range of 105 means that the muscle mass I can carry is fairly low. In other words, if I wanted to do 105, I’d pretty much have to look like I don’t even lift. Ultimately, I would be a more fragile lifter, with a very tiny margin for error and a maximal strength cap that would be far lower than if I allowed myself to gain more lean mass. I chose to move up weight classes. My allegiance to one class dissolved rather quickly. To date, I have competed at 105, 114, 132, and 148. Yes, I skipped 123. No, I don’t plan on going back for it. I also have a very fluid picture of what weight class I will choose over the coming years. I am entirely open to the idea of competing as a light 148 and growing into that class. I will probably spend some time competing at 132 if my weight is very reasonably in range of it—no more than 4 pounds above it for an easy water cut. But I am not going to get married to a weight class, and I’m not going to flip out/obsess over it when I’m a beginning-intermediate level powerlifter.

If you’re a beginning powerlifter—under a year and a half of training for the sport, just dabbling, barely having competed or not having competed at all—and you find yourself agonizing over what weight you’re going for your first or second meet, you’ve got to get away from whatever group of people you’re surrounding yourself with that talk about weight class like it’s the point of the sport or like it’s what defines you as a lifter. Because it doesn’t. If you can comfortably make a weight class and compete successfully at it, ok. If you are jeopardizing how you feel on meet day by making a massive cut to a weight class when your numbers are terrible in relation to the top lifters at that weight class, something’s wrong there. I watch people do this on a regular basis and for a while fell into the fear-mongering trap that is Weight Class Obsession. This trap became more apparent when I contemplated doing a meet at—gasp—whatever I happened to weigh that day. Wouldn’t this mean I was somehow failing at the sport? Wouldn’t it mean I was lazy? Didn’t care? Wasn’t as competitive? Wasn’t a “real” powerlifter? Wasn’t as seasoned a competitor? Newsflash—you can’t force a status of “seasoned competitor” by making weight. You’re a seasoned competitor when you have lifted in a lot of meets. You’re a stupid competitor when you think obsessing over weight class will do anything but distract you from having to face how much this sport is a long-term investment. If you’re in powerlifting, if you’re not thinking in terms of decades, you’re foolish. The majority of the top lifters in this sport have been doing it for a decade or more, and that’s no accident.

Let's do this.

More of this, less obsessing over which weight class you’re going to pull off a mediocre performance in on meet day.

To mix metaphors, I’m going to jump on the broken record bandwagon here: there are no shortcuts. Even the shortcuts don’t shortcut as much as you’d like them to. The more your pride talks instead of your logic, the longer you’re going to spend preoccupied with things that will ultimately only hinder your progress as a lifter. So to all the beginning lifters out there, here’s my plea: get off the damned university gym scale. Rise above the obsession, and allow yourself time to be better than that. I am amazed I even have to say this, but here it is in caps: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WEIGHING WHATEVER YOU WEIGH WHEN YOU COMPETE IN A MEET. Get. Off. The. Scale. Unless you just like being naked in front of people you have class with in a few hours, of course.

The Wedding Dress Problem

I have had two big problems needing solving since last November–November 17th, 2013, to be exact. On that day I experienced two panic attacks and such serious anxiety that I went out of my mind and off a platform at a powerlifting meet instead of competing as I was scheduled to do. Also on that day Kyle found himself proposing to me, impromptu, cradling my shuddering, crying form on a couch after a long, ugly trip home from Dubuque away from the meet and all the people who had watched me unravel. I don’t know how he originally was thinking about proposing, but things don’t always go as planned, and they went way off course as far as plans go in this instance. I remember sobbing, telling him there was no way he could ever want to truly be with someone who was as screwed up as I was–how could he ever willingly commit himself to such a liability? And I told him I was afraid of losing him, wanting him forever but believing my fears and my flaws rendered me undeserving of anyone’s commitment, of that fabled unconditional love. That day flayed me bare, stripping my pride down to the deepest reaches of what I loathed for years, what I starved and mentally flogged myself for. A conviction that something, some nameless intrinsic defect was what I would always be apologizing and punished for. I cracked on the platform in the name of this nameless thing about myself that was not enough and I cried into my partner’s chest for fear of it barring me from ever truly having him. And he told me it wouldn’t and he asked me if I wanted him to ask me to marry him and then he asked me to marry him.

This is why I don’t really have an engagement story to offer when people ask for it. I tell them he proposed to me on a couch, impromptu, kind of like a conversation that just went that way. Because that’s what happened, out of context of anything more than what might constitute stage directions. There is no quick, neatly-packaged way of saying it was a truly pivotal point in my education of what it means to love and receive love. There were no theatrics–no scripted movements. Our engagement was a formality in a bond that had been forged without a need for labels or declarations to anyone else. As we often say to each other, we are de facto already married. The time has come to honor what we have together with people who are important to us and who value us for what we have to offer to each other and to the people in our lives. We are having a traditional wedding, and it is going down on April 25th of this year.

Now, of the two problems that arose in the wake of the events of November 17th, one has been solved. I overcame the massive issues with anxiety that caused me to crumble that day when a little less than a year later I got back on the platform for a full meet and went 9 for 9, totaling 766 in the raw unwrapped 132 lb weight class.  The other problem–the fact that now that I was engaged, I needed to get myself a wedding dress and feel ok about wearing it–has not been so neatly resolved.

Yet. See, once I was engaged on November 17th of last year, the reality of needing to do all the wedding stuff, including finding a dress, hit. I found a dress quickly, more quickly than I expected. I tried it on at nearly the heaviest weight I have ever hit, looking puffy and bloated when I saw myself in mirrors and in pictures from that day. It wasn’t good. Since that time I have lost a solid 10 plus pounds, but the discomfort I felt in that dress and the anxiety and dread I have felt about the actual wedding day in the dress have remained. I worked from the month of trying on that dress to this day to get my weight down but slowed and then stalled my progress when training presented something of a conflict of interests with being “wedding-skinny.” Even after dropping weight, the crippling fear of looking horrendous in the dress remained. The fact that I have larger shoulders and arms due to lifting didn’t help my misgivings either–I remember trying on the dress and thinking how incongruous the picture looked. I knew I wouldn’t feel truly comfortable in any dress, that even to my eye, an eye that was supposed to be the champion of women carrying muscle, my muscular upper body did not look right in anything so feminine. I’m not proud of this. It’s not how I’m supposed to think.

Yep, my arms are freaking huge. This was taken the day after my meet, I'm pretty sure. Stuff that into a wedding dress, bro.

Yep, my arms are freaking huge. This was taken the day after my meet, I’m pretty sure. Stuff that into a wedding dress, bro.

But to be completely honest, my arms and chest and back do look incongruous to me when literally placed in the context of the dress I will be wearing that day. It’s like two aesthetics at war, the stronger of the two winning and making the whole image look like a farce. Not being stage-lean hasn’t helped. Originally, I had figured that if I just got my body fat percentage down to an extremely low point–like maybe a few weeks away from being able to compete on a figure stage–I’d somehow look ok in the dress.

The problem with this is that I am not a figure competitor. There’s a point where bringing my body fat levels down will challenge if not entirely tank my strength. Training for maximal strength is not an arena for being super lean. Sure, some people achieve it–albeit through means that may or may not be clean-testing on your average drug test panel–but for a lot of us, particularly a lot of us women, trying to train optimally for powerlifting means being super lean all the time is not possible. I’m not even going to go into the science of all this shit. Seriously, no, not even going to do it. Also, it’s worth noting here that what is one person’s “lean” is another person’s “whoa, this is my ‘before’ picture.” While I brought my weight down and am maintaining it/possibly slightly losing a bit more bodyfat, I’m at the point where seeing my training progress gives me far more than being “wedding SKINNAY, BITCHES” would give me.

b4after2

I DID drop weight, but I’m kind of done doing that now, k? Let’s just stay here.

My powerlifting interests, then, are in direct conflict with my “I don’t want to look like shit on my wedding day” interests. The idea that my family will quietly look at me on that day and think how “bulky” I look runs endlessly through my head when the topic comes up for me mentally. It’s this push and pull, this discrepancy, that is torturous.

So I think I’m writing this post to signify the beginning of the resolution of this issue. I’ve been starting to crack in the last few weeks–making decisions and stalling my weight loss so I’ll maintain instead of dropping over and over. I’ve done it semi-consciously driven by the subconscious conviction that enough is enough. Here is my declaration: if anyone thinks I look like shit on my wedding day, in my dress, fuck them. I am done with this shit. This is the size my body is at this moment in my life. I do not really plan on bringing it down any further. I have totaled elite in three different weight classes with this body. I been nationally ranked in two weight classes and whenever this meet’s results are posted I will be nationally ranked in a third. My deadlift is 369.3 pounds at 128 lbs bodyweight. I bench nearly thirty pounds more than I weigh. My squat is increasing by leaps. The body that will occupy the dress I am wearing on my wedding day is so much more than a mass of cells walking down an aisle. And no one is going to make me feel like shit for how it looks. No one has the right.

Screen shot 2014-10-18 at 2.48.36 PM

Demonic deadlift party don’t stop. This is me a few weeks before this recent meet.

The Wrong Ideal

I was going to make a bunch of red X's everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

I was going to make a bunch of red X’s everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

Let me tell you exactly what is wrong with me.

That sentence is sitting there, and staring it is like standing at one of those weird five-way intersections in a city that isn’t laid out in a grid, dense buildings convulsing around streets that run towards each other at odd angles. There are a few options, a few paths you can take, and those paths might cross and get you to the same place even if you choose this one or that one or that one. It’s all the same, but the ways to get there are not.

I’m 28 now, and I can truncate my life into little sections and big ones. The theme that stands out among at least two thirds of these sections is the inability to fully appreciate myself, and I am endlessly apologizing and explaining and fucking up and comforting and writing and reading and watching and discussing and bottling up and breaking down and rising up because of it. There has been an evolution from the self-erasure of anorexia to the self-betrayal of bulimia mixed into the erasure that preceded it to the hollow sorting out of the damages left behind.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

So it’s hard to choose what to tell you is wrong with me, but there has been and continues to be a lot. And I’ll admit it here because this is one of few venues I have in which I’m not either enjoying the respite of being a blank, anonymous face to people I don’t know or dredging through the overexposure of myself to the few people I trust and love–it’s another purgatory. My audience is faceless and mostly nameless and, in my mind, hypothetical as much as it is real. This isn’t as brave, although it is possibly as questionable, as standing out in the middle of the street and screaming my shortcomings and my fears and my struggles, but writing in a publicly-accessible format is my best current attempt at extending myself enough to be voluntarily vulnerable. So let’s get to the catharsis, because that’s the juice you should be rewarded with if you’ve actually managed to read the block of text preceding the next paragraph.

Here is what is wrong with me–with my body. My legs are not elegant and long enough and they’re not thick and muscular enough. My ass is either not perky enough or it’s not large enough, or maybe both, or maybe it’s not small enough. My chest is probably too small although it’s too wide (because of the colar bones, you see, although for a while those were en vogue), I have too much body fat but I also may have too little and my pectoral muscles are making the whole thing a lot more awkward so I should make sure I either build those up or I get rid of them entirely. My back is far too muscular, although I could have a better lat taper and actually, I could stand to build a better trap/rear delt setup and my shoulders are certainly, absolutely too big but they’re also not really capped in appearance so, I don’t know, I should probably fix both of those things. My torso is ridiculously short and my waist-to-hip ratio horrendously poor; science says it is a miracle that I’ve ever managed to be found attractive by a member of my species in my life. My arms are definitely too large in proportion to the rest of me and they’re throwing the rest of my proportions into an uglier tailspin, two great jointed pillars drifting along in time with the rest of my body as I move from one point to another.

Once again, you're going to have to throw in some x's on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

Once again, you’re going to have to throw in some x’s on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

I cannot tell you how ridiculous it is to type that paragraph–how much indignation rises as I summarize the contradictions I now spend a fair amount of time trying to sort out for myself–contradictions that arose from what was originally a sincere attempt to subvert one set of ideals. Here’s the lesson for today–you cannot subvert one set of ideals by implanting another next to it. It doesn’t work. It’s why saying “strong is the new skinny” is bullshit and so is “real women have curves” and so is “all bass no treble” and whatever the fuck else we’re coming up with today to box everyone into meeting one ideal and saying “fuck you mate, you’re screwed” to those who don’t. Nothing human is ever ideal. To those of us predisposed to thinking things are black and white polarized boxes of good and bad, ideals are fantastic and we try to fit into them so people will call us “good” and we will be loved and fucked and respected and obeyed and saved. Because that is what makes sense. Failing an ideal means loss, dismissal, contempt, repulsion. I self-enslave over ideals because, in part, our very culture loves ideals. Because I grew up in a house steeped in judgment and dated men who built their identities out of the judgment of others–I loved and sought love from a those who took comfort in the predictability of the ideal.

I’m not blaming anybody here. My history is really not the point. What’s most striking to me is how much the act of reflecting on the convolution of two particular ideals–the female physical ideal championed by white Western culture and the female physical ideal coveted by the lifting and strength world–leaves me shaking my head in absolute disbelief. You don’t fix generations of body image issues by introducing new ideals. Sure, the new ideals are going to exist and the trends are going to come and go–I swear the flapper flat-chested elongated body of the 1920’s which is itself a nod to the far older Mannerist trend is going to rear its head out of a decades-old grave one of these days–but if we’re going to address the reparation of how we’ve talked about women’s bodies, trying to take the body that strength training might build and elevate it as the answer to all our eating disordered, body dysmorphic, image-obsessed issues amounts to shooting ourselves in our feet. It looks like a good answer, but when we embrace it we end up preventing ourselves from moving forward. You’ve read this before, but I’ll write it again: we’re not going to fix skinny worship by supplanting it with a singular worship of another type. Singular is not inclusive; whatever ideal you choose as the next skinny, you are right back to a focus that is as misdirected as it is narrow-minded. 

So out of all of this, here is my suggestion: if you struggle with a sense of how much you don’t measure up at a physical level, make a list of everything that’s wrong with you. The absurdity of the contradictions that will stare back at you should you cross-check your list with several sets of ideals beloved by this culture or that subculture is kind of great. Doing this exercise might not solve all of your problems, but it will have you peeking out of your box a little bit more.

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