Mary Cain is not the first or the last person to be told she has to be thinner to be a better athlete, but her powerful story about quitting Nike’s running team shows just how harmful this idea can be. She says she was the “fastest girl in America” before she switched coaches and found herself told over and over to get “thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” Her performance deteriorated, as did her mental health under the pressure.
Thinness and fitness are not the same thing, but they’re conflated in nearly every message about fitness these days, especially those aimed at women. (For a depressing illustration of the dichotomy, note the two companion books for men and women titled, respectively, Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and Thinner, Leaner, Stronger.)
Follow a fitness account on Instagram and you’re likely to see a lot of bikini pics; scroll down r/xxfitness (a fitness community for women and non-binary people) and it seems like every day there’s a proud before-and-after with photos of someone skinny.
But the thing is, if you’re getting fit and getting stronger, you don’t need to become skinny or get abs. That’s not a natural endpoint of most people’s fitness journey. Models and bodybuilders are often only at their leanest for a short time each year, and use photos taken during that time to populate their feed the rest of the year. I follow a lot of Olympic weightlifters on Insta, and the week before a big meet (like the recent world championships), a lot of the smaller lifters post bikini pics. That’s because they do drastic and often unhealthy cuts (crash diets) to make weight, and it’s only deep into those cuts that they have abs for a hot minute. They don’t have that body type year round, and most are only dieting in the first place because they have calculated that a certain weight class gives them the best chance at a spot in the Olympics. (For an in-depth discussion of this, I recommend listening to Alyssa Ritchey’s podcast episode about how struggling to cut weight for Worlds left her so weak she couldn’t do her planned lifts.)
In fact, if you’re doing a strength sport, like weightlifting or powerlifting, chances are you’ll be perform better in the long run if you gain weight. And that’s a hard thing to wrap your head around if you’ve been thinking all your life that being “in shape” means being thin, or at least thinner than where you started. Or if you think dieting and working out go hand-in-hand. Noted swole woman Casey Johnston has written that when you’re having trouble in the gym, often you just “need to give yourself the gift of a damn burger.”
Decoupling “working out” from “losing weight” in your mind is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health.
— Chelsea Fagan (@Chelsea_Fagan) October 1, 2019
Natalie Hanson, powerlifting champion and coach, said in an interview that the majority of women who come to her wanting to gain strength also ask to drop a weight class. “You’re obviously interested enough in the sport to want to hire a coach,” she says, “but at the same time this arbitrary number of 63 kilos is what you want to weigh, even though that number is kind of picked out of thin air by people in powerlifting.” (The interviewer, Greg Nuckols, noted that he often suggests his female clients move up one weight class when he wants to recommend they move up two; he says even then, they often don’t want to.)
And on another podcast, Empowered by Iron, the hosts (both women) asked their audience what they wish they’d known when they started lifting. Overwhelmingly one of the most popular responses was that they wish they had eaten more, and eaten more carbs, and not worried so much about reaching or keeping a low weight.
I really, really feel this. I’m in a place where I, personally, probably have to gain weight to get stronger and more competitive, but every time the scale creeps up I get spooked and change my mind. Meanwhile, athletes like Mary Cain are told that better performance will necessarily follow if they get skinnier. It’s just not true. You can gain or lose weight if you have a personal or medical reason to do so, but if you automatically think thinness and fitness always go together, that’s just a myth.