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28 October 2023

Six years of weightlifting has led me to healthier beauty standards

Along with a growing number of other “gym girlies” I have left behind the pursuit of thinness.

By Pippa Bailey

I was 15 when I first noticed my thighs. I had, of course, known of their existence before, knew that there was some structure of bone and flesh connecting my knees to my hips, but beyond their basic biology I had never considered them.

I recall, with improbably bright clarity, walking up a hill with some school friends to catch the 57 bus. The girl walking in front of me was wearing knee-high socks, her thighs bare – and impossibly, enchantingly thin. Though her skirt was rolled up to dizzying heights (as we all wore them at my all-girls’ school, presumably trying only to impress each other), there was no discernible meeting between them. When I got home later that day, I twisted and contorted before the mirror, trying to get the same perspective on my own legs: were they, could they possibly be, that thin? I precisely engineered the right number of waistband rolls so as never to reveal my thighs’ eventual inward curve, and learned to sit with only my tiptoes touching the floor, to avoid a fleshy splay over the chair.

They obsess me still – but today I search them in the mirror not for bland thinness but for angles and curves; for jutting quads and popping “hammies”, as “gymfluencers” on Instagram refer to hamstrings. Rather than sucking in, I tense and flex. As I grind through reps on the leg-extension machine, I observe my thighs, spread as wide and flat as desert plains, neutrally, if I observe them at all.

I never went looking for different beauty standards. Instead, six years ago, the search for exercise I enjoyed rather than simply endured led me to a women’s weightlifting class. There, I learned how to squat and deadlift and bench press; the meaning of “progressive overload” and “body recomposition”; when to employ chalk, bands, belts and straps to aid my lifts. I also learned to view my body as a force rather than an object. I came to want to take up more space, not less. And in the process, I left behind the pursuit of thinness.

[See also: The internet man is coming and I am anxious]

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I am joined in this small revolution by a growing number of women – or “gym girlies”, as fitness influencers call my kind. They post on Instagram the bits that others don’t: the bad body-image days; workout videos in which their stomachs roll or cellulite shows through their shorts; posed and tensed photos next to relaxed ones, or those taken first thing on waking next to those after a full day of eating. Their “what I eat in a day” diaries are less green juice and five almonds, more an ungodly amount of protein and big nights out with friends. They accept the impossibility of an ideal, identikit body and recognise the natural limitations of genetics. Their mantra: it’s not a dream body if it’s a nightmare to maintain. It is, in the end, another kind of diet culture, another kind of vanity – but it is, I hope, a healthier one.

Since I moved into my flat two months ago, my bike has been doing little other than taking up space in the hallway – no doubt to my new flatmate’s great irritation, though she is too polite to say. Cycling had always felt a safe, almost interior experience – ridiculous given the number of near-misses I witness on the roads each day, I know – but since my phone was snatched from its handlebars it no longer seems so pure and self-contained. It’s also due to my new commute, which is only 15 minutes by bike and far too short to feel like proper exercise, so I’ve been walking the 40 minutes to and from the office instead.

The journey home is particularly enjoyable now the evenings are growing darker – for dusk, when it is dark enough to turn on the lights but light enough to leave the curtains open, is the perfect time for snooping. And my new neighbourhood of Barnsbury, with its white-stuccoed Georgian townhouses and wrought-iron-railed squares, doesn’t disappoint. Particularly rewarding are the houses that are still houses, rather than divided up into flats, the multiple buzzers in their doorways giving them away. Who, I wonder, are these people who live in actual houses, with actual internal stairs? I spot one for sale and look it up: a casual £5m. My mental tally of how many baby grand pianos I’ve spotted in front rooms is already into double digits.

I scuttle home to my new(ish)-build flat, which, despite its moth-eaten carpet, rotten bath panel and lightless fridge costs me £1,200 a month – only to discover that the cold tap in the kitchen doesn’t run when the washing machine is on. Perhaps it’s time to get back to cycling.

[See also: Three years on from lockdowns, I have finally tested positive for Covid]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts