Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis who believes that, above all else, fitness should be fun. In her weekly column, “Strongly Worded,” she explores what it means to be a confident, mindful, unapologetically strong woman.
While traveling in Ecuador earlier this month, my arms became the topic of many a conversation with the locals. Near strangers would squeeze my biceps and shoulders while exclaiming, “Muy fuerte!” (Translation: “Very strong!”) The children of one of the families I stayed with remained convinced they’d seen me on a YouTube clip of American Ninja Warrior, no matter how much I tried to refute them.
Women lifting weights is just not part of Ecuadorian culture (yet!), especially in the more rural areas where I spent most of my vacation. So people seemed to find the girth-iness of my upper arms noteworthy.
An Andean woman dresses me in traditional Caranqui garb during one home stay, and we share a laugh about how tight the gatherings are at the upper arm.
While at first I felt embarrassed by people’s comments, as the trip unfolded, I began to welcome them. I realized that my own perceptions of the interactions were coloring how I interpreted them—I could view them as intrusive, or I could see them as just inquisitive. So when my 26-year-old male guide through the Amazon jungle wanted to compare shoulder size with me, I was game. When the 21-year-old guy leading my volcano-hiking expedition asked for a picture of me flexing, I rolled with that, too. I figured that if I can set an example for being unapologetically strong (that’s one of my life mottos; more on that here) in the United States, I owe it to my gender to do it everywhere.
Near the end of my trip, I got to take part in a shamanic ritual during which the healer drew a symbol on my face. Through an interpreter, I gathered that it was the symbol for female strength, but beyond that, a symbol for the possibility of equality. Men had traditionally been held up as powerful, the shaman said, but women were equally powerful. There was a kindness in his eyes, as well as a deep understanding of humankind. He predicted I would bring more attention to the power of women through my work (no one had told him that I’m a fitness writer and personal trainer, by the way).
The shaman told me that the world will be a better place when women are valued as much as men are. Fittingly, he drew this symbol on my cheek with dye from a plant known as a lipstick tree.
Fielding questions about the size or shape of a woman’s body (my own included) will probably never be my first choice—our bodies are already so often the topic of public scrutiny when truly, the decision about how to present ourselves to the world is our business, and ours alone. But I can’t help but notice that the more positive and enthusiastic my reactions are when people broach the topic, the more positive and enthusiastic the asker becomes. (Why yes, my arms are big, just the way I like them!)
The truth is, many of these types of questions (regardless of the country in which they are asked) stem more from curiosity than judgment, as if the questioners are asking tentatively if it’s really okay that we are breaking from the cultural norm. And in those instances, even when we don’t pick the topic, we can very often set the tone for how the conversation plays out. We are strong that way.
Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis who talks fitness, food, happy life, and general health topics at her site, jensinkler.com, and writes for a variety of national health magazines. Earlier this year, she authored Lift Weights Faster, an e-library of over 130 conditioning workouts for fat loss, athleticism, and overall health.
Jen works with clients at The Movement Minneapolis, a facility that uses biofeedback-based training techniques. She is a certified kettlebell instructor through the RKC (Level 2) and KBA, and an Olympic lifting coach through USA Weightlifting; she also holds coaching certifications through Primal Move, Progressive Calisthenics, CrossFit and DVRT (Ultimate Sandbag).
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Lifting Big and Altering Expectations
What a 10-Year-Old Taught Me About Fitness
How Trainers Torch Calories Without Doing Cardio