A few years ago, I decided to compete in a bodybuilding show. My goal was not to become a professional but to challenge myself in something new. I trained for the physical aspects, yes—seeing how I could transform my body with consistent effort fascinated me. But I took it up for the mental challenge, too. I’m happiest when I’m learning new things and seeing how far I can push the boundaries of my mind—which in bodybuilding also happens to be inextricably linked to the body, given that you have to stay incredibly focused to get through all the workouts, strict meal timings, and unending gallons of water. Even mindfulness comes into play when you’re lifting, to make sure you’re engaging the muscles you’re intending to target.
I learned a lot through the experience about discipline, consistency and what one ounce of almonds looks like. I also learned that even today, people have certain ideas about how women should look, and when you step outside those bounds—particularly on purpose—it invites commentary.
It surprised me, although maybe it shouldn’t have. I’d started lifting heavy weights about two years before, and I distinctly remember walking into my gym the first day and seeing a woman with broad shoulders. She was very strong and very nice, and I was very sure I never wanted to look like her. It wasn’t until I realized how powerful I felt slinging around a barbell that I began to let go of my preconceived ideas about my body’s appearance.
It can take time to deprogram a lifetime’s worth of messaging. I was born when Jane Fonda’s workout videos were booming in popularity. Spandex and step aerobics reigned, and in the era following Title IX, a civil rights law that banned discrimination in educational programs, girls were encouraged to play sports— or at least not overtly discouraged from it. I tried my hand (and feet) at lots of different things—ballet, gymnastics, soccer, track, swimming—before settling into basketball as my main sport. I spent hours at practice, and in that time, I worked to be more agile, smarter, more flexible, faster, more coordinated and even smaller. Aside from some fleeting frustration in elementary school when I couldn’t do a pull-up, I didn’t spend much time thinking about strength. It never really occurred to me to be stronger.
To be fair, strength was not a common goal for girls when I was young. A 1985 quote from film critic Roger Ebert articulates the bias that I had probably internalized. “At first sight, there is something disturbing about a woman with massive muscles,” he wrote in reference to Pumping Iron II, a movie about women’s bodybuilding. “She is not merely androgynous, a combination of the sexes like an Audrey Hepburn or a Mick Jagger, but more like a man with a woman’s face. We are so trained to equate muscles with men, softness and a slight build with women, that it seems nature has made a mistake.”
Since then, the world has changed, and I have changed along with it. My weight today would horrify my 18-year-old self, and my arms are no longer the toothpicks I once prized. And yet I’ve learned the numbers on the scale are just one aspect of my life. It turns out I’m more motivated by the number I can deadlift.
Discovering the benefits of throwing around weights much heftier than eight-pound dumbbells has been life-changing, and I’m certainly not the only one to feel this way. Scroll through social media or peek inside a gym, and you’re bound to spot women who are getting strong and loving it.
“I thought lifting was so cool from the first time I saw it,” says professional strongwoman competitor Kristin Rhodes. “I was born to pick up anything heavy.”
I was born to pick up anything heavy. When in history is that a sentence that could have been reasonably uttered by a woman? Maybe Katie Sandwina said it. She was a beloved circus performer who could lift a 600-pound cannon and bend iron bars. Or perhaps Pudgy Stockton said it. The “Queen of Muscle Beach” dazzled crowds in the 1940s by holding her husband in a handstand over her head, a feat she performed with curled hair and the curves that were popular in her day (yet make no mistake, Pudgy was jacked).
Stockton and others paved the way for the likes of Jan Todd, who set more than 60 national and world records in powerlifting; for Misty Copeland, whose muscular frame broke the mold of what a ballerina looks like; and even for me, a writer and first-time bodybuilding competitor who will never be famous for anything related to athletics.
As I started on my own strength journey, I began to think about where my aversion to visible muscularity had come from. Even though I’d played plenty of sports, when I walked into a weight room, I initially underestimated what I was capable of. Why was that? When my strength training came up, why did people warn me about how I was bound to hurt myself, instead of encouraging me to test my limits? And why was I suddenly getting so many comments wondering whether I was worried about how I was appearing to the opposite sex, as if that had anything to do with my new hobby at all? I was seeing all kinds of strength being modeled by women in the public eye, and yet the topic was still so divisive.
I turned to one of my favorite places, the library, to answer some of these questions. But when I tried to read more about women and strength training throughout history, I came up mostly empty. Women were mentioned here and there, but the pages were dominated by men. I knew that couldn’t be the whole story.
And so I set out to write about the women I knew had been kicking butt since the beginning of time, grappling with the issues surrounding strength long before I ever learned to front squat. What I didn’t know was just how profound their contributions had been in ways that go beyond sports record books.
In Strong Like Her, we explore where our ideas about how women should look and act originate, uncovering biases that might feel hardwired but have actually been learned. We see how femininity and frailty once went hand in hand at the same time masculinity and muscularity came to be associated. We learn how women worked within the confines of social norms to stealthily get strong, eventually breaking down barriers even as they were governed by them. We dig into the cultural factors that have both encouraged and left some hesitant to build muscle, along with how strength served to expand a woman’s role at key points in history.
Mostly, we’ll celebrate the awe-inspiring women, from ancient times to today, who have harnessed their physical power to great effect—which almost invariably serves to unlock strength in other areas of their lives.
This aspect has led to personal growth and social reform in ways that often go underrecognized. Physically strong women have been on the forefront of issues from suffrage to body autonomy to equality in the workplace. Knowing the history of women’s hard-won freedoms is not only inspirational, it’s instructive.
As I collected the stories of women through history who broke barriers and embraced strength despite convention, I found myself spotting their spiritual descendants everywhere I looked. In particular, I was struck by how female athletes of today continue to push the boundaries of what women are told they can (or cannot) do.
The 23 contemporary female athletes profiled in this book model a new kind of female beauty, one based firmly in their incredible capacity and efforts. It seemed only right to include their photographs and their stories here. Their expertise ranges across disciplines, from rock climbing to martial arts to fencing. All exhibit strength in their own ways, adding to the definition of who and what a woman can be, and I’m personally inspired by each one. Without the women who were willing to swing a kettlebell before it was socially acceptable or learn to ride a bike in a corset and a full-length dress, we wouldn’t be where we are today, in an age where strength sports are growing at a record pace.
We have more to learn from these pioneers than how to get strong; why it’s a worthy pursuit is the more powerful message.
As a woman’s belief in her physical prowess grows, it does more than improve how much she can achieve athletically—it also elevates her overall well-being, including emotional, social and economic health, and these are all signs of strength to strive for. No longer is her body an object to be judged; it’s a vessel to be cultivated, and celebrated.
The warriors who rode on horseback in pants before that was “allowed,” the swimmers who shed the weight of giant wool skirts to feel the freedom of cutting through the water, the runners who were told they could never have kids because their uteruses would fall out, the lifters who made do with equipment that wasn’t designed for their proportions and your neighbor who joined a boxing gym all share something special: the power of strength.
This piece is excerpted from STRONG LIKE HER: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes by Haley Shapley. Copyright © 2020 by Haley Shapley. Photographs © Sophy Holland. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.