Maja Tosic: When I abandoned beauty for strength

By Maja Tosic, Columnist
Published November 3, 2014

I started weightlifting for all the wrong reasons.

Maja Tosic

I heard it will give me the toned look of Gisele.
I heard it will give me the ass of J. Lo.
I heard it will give me the arms of Jennifer Aniston.
I heard it will give me the slender legs of Heidi Klum.
I heard it will give me the flat abs of Rihanna.

I heard it will give me a body other than my own.

A year ago, I listened to the magazines, movies, celebrities, friends and family that told me exercise could move my body far away from its current form. I pored over the advice and tips that detailed how to lift small weights to achieve the beauty ideal of the perfect female celebrity. They all directed me toward the same end goal — thin and toned. Alone with these voices, I had become fogged by the pursuit of changing my body beyond its normal form.

Creating my exercise plan started with opening the expanding pull-outs from the middle of women’s magazines. Each pull-out displayed a sequence of exercises done by wispy white women. They had no sweat, no creases, no fat and were holding only two-pound weights. A TV remote could have replaced the weights they happily clutched. Nowhere had I seen images of women lifting weights that demanded real strength.

Though I consumed these images wholeheartedly, they sent me dangerous messages. They informed me that lifting weights should be done, ironically, to not gain visible muscles. They told me that I should not be “bulky” or “big” or “muscular.” They led me to believe that I should want the opposite. I should not want to inhabit three-dimensional space. I should want to be thin and lean enough, so I appeared defenseless.

Besides the visible messages that the fitness media was imparting, I found underlying lessons between the aspiration of thigh gaps. They told me that by consuming less space, I would receive more love and worth. The areas my body left blank could be filled with more points on an attractiveness scale designed by men. As I peered into the images of perfectly toned women in fitness magazines, I saw their eyes hinting to me that a woman’s body should never reveal real power nor intimidate men. It was hard to look away. Their stare was gripping, and soon I came to see what they saw.

Each day, I followed the sequences that were supposed to burn more calories than cardio. I religiously did very little weight at high repetition in order to build leanness instead of big muscles. The fear of becoming unattractive sustained my resistance of looking strong. Soon weightlifting became something I did for others — to allow others to find me attractive and worthy.

After months of revisiting the same routines and the same corners of the gym, I still was very removed from the body I was promised. And I was exhausted. I was exhausted by the need to constantly adhere to one ideal and to exercise feebly. I decided to listen to my exhaustion and to abandon what I was supposed to do. As I wished to switch to new routines, I found very little knowledge on how a woman can become strong instead of beautiful.

My journey to find new ways of lifting weights led me to see the obvious.

It’s no wonder that so many women of all ages wish to adhere to a singular beauty ideal. And it’s no wonder most women believe they will become massive bodybuilders if they begin to lift weights. And it’s no wonder that the image of a woman bodybuilder is unattractive, because of its “threatening” demeanor to men. And it’s no wonder that there is little knowledge circulating women’s minds on how to safely and properly lift weights. And it’s no wonder that the free weight section of every gym lacks women while men are overpopulating it. And it’s no wonder I was afraid to ignore norms by becoming strong.

And it’s no wonder when a woman’s worth is labeled by her need for the strength of men.

After learning the hidden obviousness, I let my strength truly reveal itself. I let my body move toward the gravitational pull it desired. I longed to be strong for myself and honored my body as it morphed into unforeseen molds. Through my journey, I have come to appreciate my ability to grow to its own tune.

Maja Tosic can be reached at