I wanted to be good. But I also wanted to stay skinny. In my mind, that’s what an athlete looked like, and it didn’t help that slender was also the idealized body type for most girls my age. I was 5’3″ and weighed 100 pounds, more or less, until I was 19, well into my freshman year of college. A BMI calculator classifies that as underweight—but I liked it that way.
When I was 16, I was a distance runner. I lived and breathed cross country, watched my mile splits go down on my GPS watch during every run, and trained twice a day.
Throughout that period, I ate “clean,” scoffed at the idea of dessert, and definitely didn’t fuel my body properly for anyone who wished to be considered a serious athlete. American culture today drills one message into teenagers’ heads: that skinny equals attractive.
It’s easy to blame this on the Internet, television, social media. But, of course, it depends which voices you’re listening to in these media. During my sophomore year of college, I stumbled upon an Instagram account of a personal trainer. She had a flat stomach with carved-out obliques, as well as strong legs with visible muscle and powerful arms. She stood facing the camera head-on in a sports bra and spandex shorts even though she didn’t look “perfect.” Several things impressed me about her profile: her attitude, her confidence in feeling good about her body but also embracing its imperfections, and the giant pictures of burgers and steaks that she posted when she ate out. This woman knew how to eat to fuel her body well and had the confidence in herself not to worry about every single little thing she put in her mouth.
I hung up my running shoes, I threw my “clean” but protein-deficient vegetarian diet out the window, and I tried (with difficulty, sure) to say goodbye to my deeply ingrained fear of not looking like an attractive woman “should” look.
Today, I’m 21. I’ve been weight training seriously, excluding the semester I studied abroad, for almost two full years. And I’ve carefully upped my protein and healthy fat consumption. I currently weigh in somewhere between 125 and 130 pounds. Now, that BMI calculator says I’m on the higher end of “normal” for my height. But the funny thing is, I truly believe I look better. My waist is smaller, my legs are powerful, my butt is nicer (I’m not even going to pretend I don’t enjoy this one).
But way more important than any of that is the fact that I feel like a completely different person. Instead of focusing on how much I can run before my body breaks down on me and my legs are too tired to move, I walk into the gym every day with a sense of distinct purpose, wondering how strong my muscles are and how they’ll work for me that day. I really, truly enjoy it.
It’s harder, for one thing. I have a naturally small frame, and putting on muscle is difficult for me physically. But learning to trust my body, to fill it with the fuel it needs and to develop the patience to wait quite literally years for results, gave me discipline that jumping into running as an automatic varsity athlete never did.
Yes, I get weird looks in the gym sometimes. Guys will look at me like I’m not supposed to be there, like I’ve somehow stepped out of line. But you know what? That’s okay. I also get compliments on my strength, get asked what sport I play, and get questioned about tips because I “look like I know what I’m doing.” Even better is when I look in the mirror at myself and feel proud of what my body is able to do and the ways my mind has come to embrace so much that used to scare me. Because, well, I’m stronger now.
McKenzie Maxson is a senior at Northwestern University, where she studies journalism and history. Her favorite things include the gym, writing about and researching pretty much anything, coffee, dogs, and more coffee.