This past weekend, I was lucky enough to head back to my home state of Missouri for the first annual Women’s Fitness Summit. The vision-turned-reality of Dr. Cassandra Forsythe and her colleagues at Girls Gone Strong, the Women’s Fitness Summit is an initial and crucial step in addressing a major imbalance in the fitness world – despite the fact that women make up half of fitness population, the overwhelming majority of the speakers at major fitness conferences are men, and the topics they address are overwhelmingly male-centric.
Much like Size Strong, the Women’s Fitness Summit is not about alienating women from the rest of the fitness community, but rather about creating a safe and productive space for open dialogue and the sharing of knowledge and resources amongst women who are passionate about their health and strength. Over the last three days, women from all over North America gathered to share stories, discuss ideas, and learn from a panel of varied, excellent speakers. It was uniquely inspiring, and I feel honored to have witnessed and experienced the beginning of something that truly has the capacity to change the way that we talk about women’s health and fitness for better and for good.
I’m sure that over the next few days there will be plenty of recaps of all the amazing ideas and information exchanged at the Summit (search #WFS14 on Twitter for a pretty comprehensive taste), and truly I wouldn’t be able to do the speakers justice (despite extensive and feverish note-taking) in truly summarzing all that was learned, so instead I will offer up my personal most powerful takeaways from the conference. Without further ado:
“For many women, a perfect diet means perfectly restricted.”
Dr. Susan Kleiner opened the Summit with a fascinating and data-packed talk on the role of carbohydrates in the diet of female athletes, and this line resonated with me in particular. A healthy diet should be built around knowledge — eating to fuel your body in the best possible way for the amazing things it can do. But the rhetoric around what women should eat is almost always framed around what we shouldn’t eat, just as the language around how women should exercise is nearly always about how to become slimmer and smaller. Restriction. Negativity. The focus on being less. It’s a pattern, and it has to stop.
“We want to create a democracy of bodies.“
Molly Galbraith of Girls Gone Strong is pretty much amazing. She shared her personal story with incredible grace and candor, and one of the things that really got me thinking was how she made a point of highlighting her exact weight at different points in her life. A lot of women who are a part of this new women’s fitness movement — myself and Lina included — are proponents of stepping off the scale and far away from it, because this one number just has too much power and influence over how women feel about themselves. Molly, however, is able to use the scale as information without making it more significant that it should be, and she shares her body weight as part of her goal to create a “democracy of bodies” — to show women that strong and healthy comes in different heights, shapes, sizes, and weights. There’s an alarming lack of variety when it comes to showcasing bodies in the media, which surely you are well aware of. When I was growing up, I thought the perfect weight was 120 pounds — for no specific reason, with no consideration for height or other factors, and without ever really thinking about why such an absurd thing would plant itself in my head. I love the idea of announcing our weight to discredit the importance of weight — by looking at a variety of different women with totally different bodies and seeing what they weigh, it becomes so much easier to let go of that number as anything to judge or fear.
“Strength and feminine beauty are not separate things.”
If you can meet Jen Sinkler and not want to have strong, awesome muscles, you might not be human. Jen gave us a great rundown of women who have been performing feats of strength throughout history (one of whom met her husband by beating him in a circus wrestling match — the best, right?) and then taught us some “badass lifts that are not just for dudes (and never were).” She fully embodies my second favorite line from her presentation — that strength and feminine beauty are not mutually exclusive; that strength can be inherently and vitally feminine. You guys, strength is not just big muscles and lifting cars over your head or whatever. It’s (to steal from another speaker I’ll be highlighting in a minute) anything that enhances your capacity. What’s not beautiful about that?
(Note: This was my second favorite line from Jen Sinkler only because when describing the Jefferson deadlift she gave us a tip on how to not get “booped in the V”, which is now my all-time favorite phrase.)
“Building strength, movement, and lean mass is your best beauty regimen and retirement plan.”
Joy Victoria said a lot of quote-worthy things during her talk about how to enhance your strength, but I thought this one was extra cool and pertinent. Think about the amount of advertising dollars spent on getting women to purchase beauty products to look younger and better, and think about how directly our fitness training affects our ability to look (and feel) younger and better. Think about how it’s just as — if not more — important to invest in your body for the future as it is to make sure you have enough money to live on. A fitness program is absolutely a retirement plan — investing and ensuring that we’ll be able to live and move and enjoy the future, rather than just being able to afford it.
“It only takes one woman to raise the bar for what all women can do.”
I really wanted to curtail my use of words like “amazing” and “awesome” and “inspiring” in this post, but it’s so hard because there honestly was so much amazing and awesome and inspiring at the WFS. Triathlete and Iron Man rockstar Marni Sumbal was certainly all of these things, and I was so inspired by this line in particular. I’m not an endurance athlete (and I probably never will be), but I’m so motivated by women doing things that women aren’t expected to do and paving the way for the day when women being awesome at physical things is no longer remarkable.
“Women are not small men.”
This Stacy Sims quote kind of sums up the rest of what was awesome about the Women’s Fitness Summit. The idea behind having a conference just for women is not about hating men or excluding men or thinking that men are the worst — it’s about addressing a void in resources and knowledge. We are not just smaller men or weaker men. Our bodies are different, at the mercy of different hormones, and capable of/better at different things. Ann Wendel spoke about pelvic floor dysfunction and how common it is for female athletes in particular to experience urine leakage in every day life and when lifting and exercising — common, which should not be mistaken for normal. In a male-dominated fitness culture, these women are not finding the resources to gain the knowledge about why this happens or how to train their pelvic floor muscles. Almost every female-focused fitness class will talk about “working the core”, but how many women truly know what muscles comprise their core, how those muscles work, and how they should be engaged? Dr. Brooke Kalanick took us into the hormones at work surrounding menopause and the other factors involved in this time when the body a woman has worked to get to know all her life suddenly becomes a stranger, no longer reacting to the same foods and same workouts in the same ways. And the very cool Elsbeth Vaino introduced some really incredible data, gleaned from her own client base, regarding structural differences between men and women and how that affects our abilities to perform certain tasks and exercises. If you’re training a woman (maybe that woman is yourself!) to do pull-ups, it’s vital to make sure that the right muscles are being activated and to build up to these exercises by training those muscles. Elsbeth pointed out that women generally don’t activate their lats as well as men do, making it that much harder to do pull-ups and do them properly. A training program that focuses on lat activation gives a woman not only the practice but the knowledge she needs to accomplish a goal.
This post has now gone on forever, and I feel like I barely scraped the surface of what we learned at the Women’s Fitness Summit. I hope at the very least, though, that I’ve given you a sense of the important discussions that were open and dialogues that were begun — discussion and dialogue that you should be a part of. Check out the WFS Facebook page and the websites mentioned above, and start following what these amazing speakers and organizers are doing. We are all a part of this movement that, more than anything else, is about changing the words we use to talk about things and putting good, honest knowledge out in a realm that is clogged with absurd negativity and flat-out lies. Share these resources. Support these women. That’s girl power — literally.