I wanted to be a bodybuilder. I know, check out the “about me” photo, and you’ll see a pretty scrawny individual who is not even good at cross-country, the one sport where people are morally required to cheer for all participants even if they’re terrible. But for some reason, in college, I got the idea that I should not only be a bodybuilder, I should compete.
My lifting partner and I met twice a day at the non-varsity gym at 5 AM, no small feat for Rochester, New York. I lived off campus, and it was a mile and a half walk through all sorts of weather to accomplish our morning workout. It usually snows and rains in Rochester about 400 days a year on a leap year–the weather is so crappy, that the suicide rates are higher due to lack of sunshine. The University even built tunnels from building to building so that, like moles, students can burrow along and not emerge until after the thaw in mid-July.
But even with the distance to the gym and my crazy schedule—I worked full-time all crazy hours four miles in the other direction–weight lifting was important.
We started our day with a protein drink and the first half of our split workout somewhere between 5 and 5:30 AM, a time when no college student is awake except for the very few still painfully trying to locate their dorm rooms after whatever they had done the night before.
For a while, our presence in the non-varsity gym was somewhat of a curiosity—the muscle-loving college guys didn’t give us much respect. Girls aren’t supposed to be in the weight room. Well, maybe they can in certain circumstances, like when they’re decorating the sidelines or showing off matching outfits near the five-pound weight section that they might lift after the gossip session. We were very, very different. There were no matching clothes for us—only baggy sweats, lifting gloves, straps and all the grungy equipment a proper weight lifter should have. We were serious.
After our morning workout, we went to the dining hall with a half-dozen zip-lock bags and Tupperware containers. We ate what we could and packed food for later. I’m not proud—technically, this was against the spirit of “all you can eat,” maybe even crossing the line into theft, but I was flat broke. Breakfast was the cheapest meal available, so breakfast was the meal I attended.
The way we saw it, it was the best $2.35 shopping trip in town for poor, off campus college kids. It didn’t feel wrong packing take out lunch, because the football team “all you can eated” half the room. Ergo, I felt I deserved a bag full of apples, some cereal, a couple of bagels, and whatever else didn’t squash in my bag, especially when I factored in the tuition I was paying. This turned out to be a mistake for my lifting partner when she left hard-boiled eggs in her bag and two days later, cleared out the entire section of physics.
After a while, things got socially better for us in the weight room. Some of the guys actually acknowledged our existence. They’d even move away from the weights to let us pass through and let us rotate into sets. They passed us the real weights, not just the girly-5’s. It was definitely a sign of respect. And one day, someone even gave us the “hey” nod.
But the lines in the sand were still drawn, and the boundaries were clear. Guys often give lifting pointers to other guys, “Hey, you should try maxing out at ten reps, then doing supersets of (insert exercise here.).” If a guy performs an exercise incorrectly, another guy is required to correct him, either to help him avoid injury or to attain that girl-scoring chiseled physique. It’s in the rulebook.
But girls can never correct, help, or spot guys. It’s not allowed. When we dared try to helping a scrawny guy about to drop a weight on his face doing an exercise wrong, the entire room stared like we were suffragists a hundred years ago demanding the vote.
Eventually, we broke through the barriers. We knew we had truly made it–become real lifters–one day when a guy took our pointers and nodded a weak thanks. He cast a furtive look around the room to see if he had been socially emasculated, relegated to the ranks of wimpy guys driving minivans who lost their male card. Noting that he had not—that the gym crowd was treating us as genderless equals–he actually broke a smile. We were in.
Eventually, even though we were Part of the Crowd, I decided I was not going to be a competition weightlifter, even as a hobby. First off, no matter how many stolen hard-boiled eggs I ate, I could not gain enough weight to be serious in the sport—yes, “the sport,” for it quickly turns into an addiction. It starts with enjoying the strength and conditioning, escalates to reading Muscle & Fitness every day, chanting mantras like “Incomplete reps make incomplete body parts,” and finally to glorifying chemical drinks and potions, fake tans, and a diet only an anorexic could love, void of health and balance. I couldn’t do that.
Alas, we were not going to audition for American Gladiators when they came to our area. We would never be ready to take on the ranks of sculpted females who could throw cars and out muscle guys named Sven and Hans in strongman competitions following it up with more one-finger pushups than Bruce Lee.
That knowledge, and the requirements of the real world, ended my weight lifting career. I still work out—I run, I’ve taught and practiced martial arts, lift for fun, and hustled various sports at school. I usually lose, but I’m not above saying “Your mama!” in order to rustle up a good game of hoops.
When I think back on my real weightlifting days, I’m horrified by the lack of health, balance, and nutrition we put ourselves through in the name of health and fitness. I apologize to my poor body for this, because it’s growing older every day. I also apologize to the good people in the dining center for all the eggs I’ve stolen. Know that when I strike it rich, I’m going to pay them back, but in the mean time, I’ll feed some poor kid who forgot his lunch in their honor.
I love this! I never aspired to be a body builder, but my husband and I used to work out with weights at our college’s gym all the time before we became parents (being a pregnant woman in the weight room garners several scared, confused, disapproving looks, too!). A weight room is a great place to make sociological and psychological observations, and you hit the nail on the head with yours. I’ve also done some pretty mean things to my body and mind in the name of “fitness”, which were pretty much the opposite of what I would teach my own children now. I’m glad you (and I) have found a healthy balance! Keep writing!
That’s so true–I remember reading all the muscle books. I remember thinking, “Why can’t vegetarians/natural people win this stuff?” Excessive tanning, anorexic “pre-competition” diets and powdered things are so bad. I remember being proud of our first bottle of “fat burners.” Let me just say–um, I don’t have fat. Bad stuff!
I didn’t lift pregnant, but I did run–I was coaching cross country.
Great post! Really enjoyed.