My mind was poisoned by diet culture. Then I tried weightlifting | Fitness

I have grown two hard lumps on my arms. They are deltoids, apparently. I have never been remotely aware of having deltoids before – I always assumed my shoulders simply elongated into a formless mass of flesh that eventually gave way to the rest of my limbs. But now I have deltoids. They are small, hard and perfect, and yes, even though they only occasionally emerge when I rest my elbows on hard surfaces, they’re a reminder that your body can still surprise you.Right now, the ideal body has never looked more different. Bulking up is out; thin is back in. We are apparently living through the “Ozempic era of weight loss”. The celebrity slimming jab is so in demand that people with type 2 diabetes – who need it to regulate their blood sugar levels – are struggling to get enough of it. Famous people remain tight-lipped about whether they are on Ozempic or Wegovy (both are the brand names of semaglutide; the latter is licensed to treat obesity) but the craze for thinness is evident on catwalks, magazine covers and the Instagram grids of pretty much every Kardashian.I started lifting weights around the same time Ozempic went viral on TikTok in 2022, after I wanted to find a non-jogging workout that didn’t involve subjecting my knees to London’s pavements. I am still a baby when it comes to strength training – I just about deadlifted 35kg this week, while the average for a female lifter my age is 87kg. But given that my arms once trembled after 10 seconds of holding a 1kg dumbbell above my head, I consider that progress.An emerging body of research suggests that regular strength training helps reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. For me, this is nice to keep in mind but largely beside the point; so are the deltoids, to be perfectly honest. Weightlifting allowed me to reach into the recesses of my 00s-poisoned mind – the decade that made me believe that protruding clavicles were the height of red-hot sexiness – and gently rearrange everything. Not enough to stop me from looking at weighing scales with the tender longing and repulsion of an ex-lover, but just enough to make me rethink my relationship with my body: that it isn’t about what it looks like on the outside, but what it can do.It turns out that a lot of people do not expect women to be physically strong – a fact best underlined to me when the staff of an outdoor pho restaurant applauded when I scaled their gate after getting locked out. (If you are an attention-seeker who loves food, all I can say is that nothing feels better than a Vietnamese chef clapping your dedication to noodles.) But it is the quieter moments that make me realise the number weightlifting has done on my brain and my body. I can comfortably manoeuvre a heavy suitcase out of an overhead locker now. I can jump a fence to go after my dog when she wanders off. I surprise myself by carrying fully loaded Tesco home delivery crates. Every instance is like a lo-fi version of when Spider-Man realises he can shoot webs or walk up a wall. Low stakes for anyone watching, but huge for me.With the exception of marathon medals and Strava counts, women’s fitness rarely centres the invisible things your body can accomplish. Most of my old gym classes – which I attended with increasing resentment – were about improving physical appearance. All those “leg-lengthening” pilates classes, all the ab workouts for toning and flattening, the entreaties to feel the burn; all that pain just to be smaller and leaner – other than the bum, which is still the only muscle women are encouraged to build in the gym.I don’t begrudge anybody who goes on Ozempic or Wegovy to lose weight for cosmetic reasons. Everything in society misdirects us into believing that the fastest way to attain respect, achieve success or get ahead is to be thin and conventionally good-looking. But if you truly want to get a different body – or at least a new outlook on it – try weights. Zing Tsjeng is an author and freelance journalist

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