For most of life, I exercised only to burn calories. I ran recreationally, and, the few times I went to the gym, I’d use the elliptical. Did I want Michelle Obama triceps? Um, yes, absolutely. But I didn’t seem to realize that triceps like that would take more than a few dips off my bathtub every other week and, plus, I was scared of getting “bulky.”
And then after a difficult summer before my junior year of college—I had eye surgery, my grandmother died—I stumbled on a more effective way to lose the pounds I’d picked up on a cookie-heavy college diet: Stop eating. I say “stumbled upon” because it wasn’t exactly a conscious decision. Both physical pain (from the surgery) and grief (from my grandmother) actually made me lose my appetite. (I say “actually,” because, until that summer, I didn’t believe that grief could make anyone not want to eat. Usually being sad meant Ben and Jerry became my most intimate friends.) I lost probably ten pounds in a single month and I barely even noticed. That is how out of it I was.
Even when I did notice, I didn’t think anyone else would. But they did. The first thing my brother said to me, after not seeing me for a couple months, is, “Wow, you lost weight.” And then when I visited my boyfriend at his home in California, I overheard his father say I looked “amazing” (erm, okay, thanks, dude). A couple weeks later, a middle-aged woman on a New York subway platform asked me my age (22), then told me I looked 11 and laughed. My female friends seemed mostly envious, asking, rhetorically, what I ate. Good question: What did I eat?
In the mornings, coffee with skim milk and a single apple, core and all, in tiny bites so it would last a half hour; a few crackers for lunch, maybe a square of dark chocolate, a banana; and then one actual meal a day, usually with my (oblivious) boyfriend, who would finish whatever food I inevitably left on my plate.
I didn’t run much during that time. I had exercised to burn calories—what was, I thought, the point of exercising, now I was skinny?
I’d never liked gyms, anyway, and I especially did not like weight rooms. The few times I went to one in college, I felt soft and out of place, incompetent and weak, uncomfortable and embarrassed, like a snail racing a car. Overwhelmed, I’d do a few lunges and bicep curls and leave. But, whatever, right? I thought of myself as a runner, not a lifter. Weightlifting seemed more vanity than sport, a waste of time, in the mind of a person who’d read somewhere that the benefits of cardio outweighed all else. But, although I didn’t realize it then, the gym, and especially the weight room, intimidated me. It seemed yet another boys’ club in a world full of them.
My bout of disordered eating may have only lasted a year and a half in my early 20s, but it affected my eating habits for twice that amount of time. I didn’t know how many calories someone of my size and age should consume per day. I continued to try to quell hunger pangs with diet soda. I experimented with protein bars as meal replacements. I sometimes called a scoop of hummus and a plate of vegetables lunch. And, even crazier, I really thought that it was! I was exercising regularly at this point—running three to four times a week and completing a single seven-minute strength circuit my mom had ripped from a magazine every day—but I didn’t relearn how to eat a whole sandwich until I started weightlifting, until I learned how to see food as fuel again.
I started weightlifting a month before my 26th birthday because I wanted to impress and hang out with and, um, let’s be honest, ogle at, the man who’d become my husband—a former almost-professional soccer player, who’d been lifting for nearly a decade as part of his training.
Yes, I tried it out because of him (if you’re reading—thanks, babe!!), but I wouldn’t have kept going if I hadn’t also liked it—liked the sore muscles that follow a hard workout; liked that I could track, in five-pound increments, my progress; liked that I was getting stronger.
AND YET, I wouldn’t have kept going to the weight room (four times a week!! look at me!!) if I hadn’t also learned I wasn’t going to bulk up. It’s true. I mean, not, “Goodbye, Michelle Obama arms” True, but still true. Maybe it’s obvious to some of you, but I actually didn’t know that 1) building large muscle takes years of conscious, high-level training on a careful, high-protein diet and 2) it’s much, MUCH easier for men to get big because they produce, on average, 16 times more testosterone—which promotes muscle growth—than women.
In other words, a bulky body is not something that happens to you from lifting heavy loads; it’s something you work like really, really hard for. By the same token, the low weight-high rep formula recommended to “tone” women is as much a myth as the idea that Victorian women could be harmed lifting dumbbells heavier than two to four pounds (lol, Victorian scientists, infants weigh more!!). The elusive “toned arm” is a muscular arm, and the only way to get it is to train with progressively heavier weights. As men do.