I am sometimes asked for my views regarding how women new to strength training can successfully get into the activity and potentially compete at a chosen strength sport. Because I am a powerlifter, I will write specifically in reference to that sport, but the following ideas can be applied to the participation of women in other strength sports as well. My first response to questions regarding how I navigate being a woman in a male-dominated activity is one of negation– I very specifically try NOT to think of the gender difference between myself and those who train for powerlifting who are not women. I advocate the idea that to reach a true sense of equity between the sexes amongst those who powerlift, attention to gender should be minimal beyond sex and weight class delineations. The minute I stop focusing on my gender while I’m in a gym surrounded by many men and few women is the minute I free myself of all the baggage and considerations tied to gender that might complicate the way I think about myself in relation to my lifting.
This is not easy. If you’re a woman and new to strength training, it is likely that you will lift in a gym with an unequal ratio of male-to-female lifters and you will notice this. Those around you will notice it. It is up to you to decide how the attention of others makes you feel. No one can make you insecure about your efforts in the gym but you. This seems like an oversimplification of the matter, but it is an oversimplification that will serve you well if you learn to believe it. I have not achieved the kind of enlightenment that comes from believing this sentiment all the time–every gym session, every lift, every rest period, I only manage to divorce myself from my own awareness of others’ awareness of me some of the time. The more I demand of myself that I rise above my self-doubt and the hesitation and insecurity that comes from thinking about what others are thinking, the more I train myself to truly overcome whatever trepidation I might hold about being a minority amongst a majority.
There are those who will brashly assert that they never care what others are thinking when they are lifting in the gym. This may be true, and I am happy for them if it is. Chances are, however, women new to strength training will not hold this mindset, or will only be able to hold it for small amounts of time as they perform their workout. To those women, I say persevere. Every time you go into the gym believing that you have a right to be there and that your gender has little to nothing to do with training your body for strength, you train your mind towards a greater sense of self-confidence and self-possession.
I cannot imagine what my lifting landscape would look or feel like if I lifted in an environment dominated by other female lifters. I have been lifting in gyms in which over 20 men are working around me for several years now, and asserting my space amongst them has been an ongoing project. Getting yourself to the point at which you truly do not mind or think about the difference in gender between you and the lifters around you is one that often takes time. Ultimately, you want to be in a place in which you barely consider how your strength compares to the men around you because you know that considering strength relative to size is how to truly compare strength levels between one person and another. You want to be in a place in which you are able to fully concentrate on your body and the bar with which you are working without thinking about how your body is sexually identified, because the bar doesn’t care which sex you are. It is that simple. You are responsible for how you feel in any situation, be it strength-training or otherwise, and no one else can determine this for you. You can choose to feel the eyes of others on you or you can choose to dismiss this sensation. The more you practice dismissing it, the easier it will be. Lifting will give you confidence, but not without some work on your part. Go into the gym knowing what you may face psychologically and how to rise above it. Training knows no gender.