I have recently started weight training (a beginner's program featuring dead lifts, the overhead press, the bench press and so, so many squats). It was always something that I thought would be scary. But after about four months of lifting, I feel that I am finally getting the form right and seeing results. And I'm having so much fun.
Which is why I enjoyed BuzzFeed's recent article advocating for female weight training.
But, to be completely honest, I still don't feel comfortably going by myself. I feel so much more comfortable when my boyfriend is there with me.
In general, I do not care that much about what people think of me, so it seems strange that it should bother me in the gym, especially since I am not self-conscious about my body or my strength.
After recently re-watching Amy Cuddy's TED talk on how your body language shapes who you are, I have a new theory to explain my reticence in the gym.
Cuddy's research shows that people who feel chronically disempowered tend to take on body language which makes them look smaller and more closed. Those who feel chronically powerful, on the other hand, tend to make themselves big, open and take up a lot of space.
Unfortunately, there is a gender divide in terms of nonverbal expressions of power and dominance. Women, on average, feel chornically less powerful than men.
We also tend to complement the power positions of those around us; we do the opposite of what they are doing, rather than mirror their pose. In other words, if someone is making themselves big around you, you tend to make yourself smaller.
Now, imagine yourself as a woman walking into the weights section of a gym. All around you, there are men in power poses: weights above the head, feet apart, sprawled all over the benches. In a situation where there are so many non-verbal expressions of power, you tend to make yourself seem smaller, and hence feel less powerful yourself.
Walking confidently up to the squat rack, widening your stance, putting your hands shoulder-width apart on the bar and taking up vertical and horizontal space in the gym becomes hard.
Which is why I usually make my boyfriend occupy the space first. "I'm just quickly going to fill up my water bottle, be right back." or "I just want to weigh myself in the changing room, you grab a bar so long."
But, once you get there, weight training is really good for training us, as women, to display non-verbal expressions of power and dominance. In order to maintain good form, you have to keep your stance wide, get your squat low, and get the bar all the way above your head in a shoulder press. You have to take up space.
Cuddy's research has shown that just as our actions can be affected by our body language, changing our body language can change the type of actions we take. Specifically, practicing high power poses make us more likely to act like we are powerful. This means we are more likely to take risks, to see ourselves as leaders, and to participate in social and work situations.
So if you can stick out the awkwardness in gym, not only will weight training make your muscles more powerful, but the power positions it requires will make you socially more empowered too.