my powerlifted Body

Nonfiction / Vanessa Couto Johnson


:: my powerlifted Body ::

In youth, there were times when I want­ed to occu­py no space whatsoever. 

When I want­ed to just be a mind. 


There are var­i­ous rea­sons to not want to be vis­i­ble to the world / there are var­i­ous ways the world tells us not to be vis­i­ble or fear being vis­i­ble, espe­cial­ly as a woman. 

[If I am vis­i­ble, what am I vul­ner­a­ble to, what am I val­ued by, how do I con­trol my cur­ren­cy and presence.] 


Lift­ing has helped me accept that I am a phys­i­cal being. Not only accept but also celebrate. 

When I hear oth­er women’s pow­er­lift­ing ori­gin sto­ries, so often they are tales of recla­ma­tion of the body. The lift­ing help­ing them find and val­ue themselves. 

I am not plan­ning on build­ing a body inside of mine. [Thrust of existence.] 

So, I build the one I have. 

I want this body to be able to do for me in old age: that is the longest-term goal. That the bones be strong and that I can still brute about. If some­thing doesn’t get me (acci­dent, pow­er­ful ill­ness), my genet­ic test­ing has sug­gest­ed a like­li­hood of reach­ing cen­te­nar­i­an state (longevi­ty being some­thing observed among my ances­tors as well). Not that I’m expect­ing to be dead­lift­ing 500 lb. at 80 years old and beyond, but I’d hope to still be able to do 250 lb. at least. That is pos­si­ble. Hel­lo to my 80-year-old self, if she reads this. 

When I see a body low on mus­cle, I won­der-wor­ry for the future of that per­son. It’s not my busi­ness. It’s some­thing I try not to think about. 

But I do look at bod­ies and think: those fin­gers almost at knees—would be a good dead­lifter. And so on. 

Par­don this all—I do believe peo­ple should do what­ev­er they want with their bodies. 

But yes. It’s the heart that dri­ves the ath­lete. The want. 

In terms of lift­ing in a men­stru­at­ing body, I’m weak­est in the week before men­stru­a­tion (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly researched stuff, this is, and I’m say­ing it’s indeed my expe­ri­ence). I’m then strongest dur­ing menstruation. 

That said, I wouldn’t want to com­pete dur­ing men­stru­a­tion (an addi­tion­al chore to deal with), and that hasn’t coin­cid­ed for me at the time of writ­ing this. 

I’ve won­dered at times what sort of pow­er­lift­ing num­bers I’d be putting up if I start­ed younger (teens or ear­ly 20s rather than mid/late 20s). 

Or if I were a man. But I don’t think of that one much, because that wouldn’t be the body for me, even if it is an (per­haps) eas­i­er one to get stronger. 

I have thought of how, as a trained woman, I should prob­a­bly have as much (if not a bit more) mus­cu­lar­i­ty as an untrained man has, and then on top of that the body fat lev­el I need as a healthy woman, there­fore that I should weigh more than the aver­age untrained man at around my height. That’s def­i­nite­ly not total­ly sci­en­tif­ic though. But it is a part of the think­ing that made me not fuss about the num­ber on the scale to be low. 

The truth is that every body is a unique body. Even ones with sur­face lev­el sim­i­lar­i­ties will have dif­fer­ent attach­ments onto the bone, dif­fer­ent joint thick­ness, seg­ment lengths, etc. that can give advan­tage or dis­ad­van­tage in lifts. 

A day after my third com­pe­ti­tion, a friend who spec­tat­ed spoke on the spot­ters, some strong men: a “how uncom­fort­able could it be to ‘be with’ a hard mus­cled body.” I think I main­ly chuckled. 

I could have said: I think I’m com­fort­able to “be with.” (I real­ize my body is over­all soft­er as being a woman, but I am firm.) 

I could have said: mus­cle is gen­tler than you may realize. 

A friend watched some show, I think it was Say Yes to the Dress, an episode fea­tur­ing a body­builder look­ing for her wed­ding dress. My friend didn’t under­stand why she’d want the dress cut to show so much skin. 

I’m not a bodybuilder—and cer­tain­ly not at the low body fat lev­els body­builders will gen­er­al­ly be in (even when not prep­ping for com­pe­ti­tion, they tend to be lean)—but I under­stand. I pre­fer to wear open backs and sleeve­less (or short—hardly a sleeve) looks. I like look­ing mus­cu­lar in cloth­ing choices. 

And find­ing prop­er fit­ting clothes can be hard: most women’s shirts are designed with the assump­tion that if your chest + back is 42 inch­es, then the rest of the shirt will be boxy. Or it fits okay in the mid­dle, but oh my, if I move my arms I might hulk out of this thing. There­fore, the pref­er­ence becomes for cer­tain stretchy materials. 

I have worn a flo­ral, fem­i­nine, open-backed sun­dress, feel­ing cute but also as if I was cross-dress­ing. The frills on the straps over my shoul­ders par­tic­u­lar­ly more femme than my usu­al. My traps feel­ing mountainous. 

My body is more than its cloth­ing size. 

I loathe the con­cept of mak­ing one’s body fit cer­tain clothes: as if the pur­pose of my body is to suc­cumb to a piece of fabric. 

I loathe the nor­mal­iza­tion of such atti­tudes, which seem par­tic­u­lar­ly imposed on women as if some form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: being a size 6, a size 12, etc. 

Eh. The clothes should be hon­ored if they fit me. 

When I start­ed want­i­ng to buy clothes that would announce my pow­er­lifter sta­tus [“Pow­er­lift­ing Made This Body” tank top, “Just Strong” t‑shirt, a heart-shaped weight plate on a shirt], my chest + back were already above what the sell­er had down as typ­i­cal women’s siz­ing, and I’d have to buy the uni­sex to not have a too-tight fit. 

A com­pa­ny that makes bar grip shirts for pow­er­lifters to wear dur­ing bench press­ing (to pre­vent the back slid­ing on the bench) and squat­ting (to help the bar­bell stay gripped to the back) has men’s and women’s sizing. 

Guess which “gen­der size” I have to wear? 

Seri­ous­ly, the women’s largest size is for a 37-inch chest/back. That’s quite small—definitely in favor of women in low­er weight classes.

So I have to order the men’s medi­um. It arrives announc­ing its gen­der expec­ta­tion on a remov­able tag. The inside tag (print­ed direct­ly on the fab­ric) with the sym­bol­ic cir­cle and arrow against my upper back. 

I’m thank­ful for this com­pa­ny and its prod­ucts, but. 

It’s weird to feel like, from this pow­er­lift­ing-focused company’s per­spec­tive, I don’t exist. 

There are cloth­ing com­pa­nies that cater to the low­er half: jeans and pants that fit devel­oped quadriceps. 

That’s nice. Been suc­cess­ful for me over­all. Liv­ing in Texas, though, I find jeans too hot most of the year. 

Back in 2012 when I first learned that dead­lift­ing 300 lb. (and much more) is achiev­able for women—if you told me then I’d weigh 185 lb. when I’d final­ly do it—I’d be a bit bummed, maybe, as I was expect­ing that pull to be dou­ble body­weight. It wouldn’t be until March 2019 at my third pow­er­lift­ing com­pe­ti­tion and weigh­ing around 164 lb. that I’d dead­lift 335 lb., above dou­ble body­weight for the first time. 

So you could say I bulked from sum­mer 2012 to sum­mer 2018, about 5 to 10 lb. a year, and plen­ty of it was suc­cess­ful­ly mus­cle: in my sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion at 184 lb., I squat­ted 281 lb., bench pressed 160 lb., and dead­lift­ed 331 lb. with more to spare. 

When I cau­tious­ly lost body fat from August [185 lb.] to Novem­ber [170 lb.] 2018 with strict nutri­tion and hyper­tro­phy train­ing (4–6 sets of 6–12 reps) four or five times a week for var­i­ous lifts, I real­ized going up flights of stairs was eas­i­er. Pants and skirts that fit me before were now on the verge of falling. 

But it was still a mind­fuck to be get­ting small­er yet putting this weight on my back to squat, as telling myself 200 lb. wasn’t much more than my own body­weight helped with con­fi­dence previously. 

I had to just learn to tell myself: you’ve done this before. Or not even think about it. 

I kept my strength, and that’s what my third com­pe­ti­tion was about: show­ing myself that even though I weighed around 22 lb. less than I did at my pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tion, I could lift the same or more. 

And I did. I squat­ted the same, bench pressed just over my body­weight, and dead­lift­ed well over dou­ble bodyweight. 

It’s a phys­i­cal­ly small­er me I see in the mir­ror now at 160 lb., but I know that she has just as much pow­er. I have more to grow from. 

I can love myself at 185 lb. and love myself at 155 lb. Both those women, being me, have val­ue and strength. 

I know what Day 1 feels like of start­ing to train for strength. How the body is a stranger. 

You’ll not be strangers for long if you keep going. The body is a con­stant com­pan­ion that will get more com­fort­able with doing your bidding. 

I’m not sure if my body is one that peo­ple look at and can tell I lift. 

I don’t know. I imag­ine it depends on the clothes and if the view­er knows what such bod­ies look like (I mean, as opposed to a com­pe­ti­tion-ready body­builder body that has stri­a­tions noticeable—the kind of body the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion will imag­ine, prob­a­bly, when asked to imag­ine some­one muscular). 

I want to look like I lift. 

I do calm myself in terms of that by the fact, of course, that I do lift. Have com­pet­ed and placed. A recent medal in my purse. 

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 

I love the vari­ety of women who come forth to the plat­form to squat, bench press, and dead­lift in competition. 

At a pow­er­lift­ing meet, you’ll see lifters of all ages. I’ve shared the plat­form with sev­en­ty-year-olds and sev­en­teen-year olds. 

No mat­ter your size, there is a weight class for you. You can­not be too small or too big to participate. 

Lifters look all sorts of ways. 


Mus­cles are not of men only. Mus­cles exist on every­one. Mus­cles are of the/every/any body. They are an inher­i­tance you deserve to know. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

I wrote this piece to par­tic­u­lar­ly think on how lift­ing has changed my rela­tion­ship with my body—my body as a gen­dered thing, social­ized thing, and mor­tal thing. Lift­ing has lib­er­at­ed me from my mind vs. my body: pow­er­lift­ing unites both; both mind and body are need­ed in mov­ing some­thing heavy. Lift­ing has lib­er­at­ed me from out­dat­ed soci­etal gen­der expec­ta­tions. I think there have been var­i­ous changes in soci­ety toward accept­ing mus­cu­lar­i­ty in women—strength sports in recent years have seen an increase in female participation—but until encour­ag­ing phys­i­cal strength in girls is as wide­spread as it is for boys, and/or until encour­ag­ing phys­i­cal strength as a legit­i­mate goal for all bod­ies is wide­spread, I’m not sat­is­fied. Lift­ing, for me, pro­motes my body acceptance/accepting hav­ing a body and how I can have this body on my own terms. And this is a joy I wish for every­one to find (either in sim­i­lar ways to my own or some oth­er path). 


Vanes­sa Couto John­son is the author of Pun­gent dins con­cen­tric (Tol­sun Books, 2018), her first full-length poet­ry book , and three poet­ry chap­books, most recent­ly speech rinse (Slope Edi­tions’ 2016 Chap­book Con­test win­ner). Dial­o­gist, Foundry, Soft­blow, Thrush, and oth­er jour­nals and antholo­gies have pub­lished her poems. A Brazil­ian born in Texas (and dual cit­i­zen), she has been a lec­tur­er at Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty since 2014.