HUFFPOST PERSONAL
07/09/2018 08:31 am ET

How Weightlifting Changed The Way I Navigate The World As An East Asian Woman

The author foam-rolling at the beginning of her weightlifting journey.
Jenny Zhang
The author foam-rolling at the beginning of her weightlifting journey.

As a Chinese woman in America, I have experienced more than my fair share of harassment centered around my East Asian-ness.

I have heard “Konichiwa, baby!” as I walk down my street in Austin, Texas. I have had someone yell “KOREAN?” at me from across a crowded coffee shop. Just a few months ago, I was cornered at a party with “Where are you really from?” When I begrudgingly answered “China,” they went on to talk about how they just visited Thailand.

These experiences often left me feeling powerless. These people did not see me, they saw an exoticized version of me that stripped me of my humanity. To them, I was a hybrid of two insidious stereotypes: the China Doll (submissive and meek) and the Geisha Girl (hypersexualized for Western consumption). My body did not feel like my own in those moments; instead, I was vulnerable and exposed. More than anything, I was ashamed at how small it made me feel, thereby reinforcing the stereotypes put upon me.

It wasn’t just a matter of Western stereotypes that warped my image of myself. In East Asian media, women are typically portrayed as thin, elegant creatures with milk-white skin and doe eyes. As much as I was trying to navigate the China Doll narrative in the West, the East was also telling me that I needed to be thinner, cuter, more of a soft “woman.”

And you know what? I succumbed to all of it. Throughout college and well into my 20s, I devoted myself to being a “cardio bunny.” I had never been naturally thin, but cardio was getting me there. I dialed my diet down, and my periods started getting lighter. I could finally see the space between my thighs.

I guess I was supposed to be happy with this result, because I was falling in line with what both cultures expected of me. But really, I just felt empty. Two years into this regimen, I was constantly hungry and upset. I questioned if this was how I was going to live my life forever ― counting calories, punishing myself with cardio, worrying about the subtle differences in my waist on any given day. It was time for a change.

As much as I was trying to navigate the China Doll narrative in the West, the East was also telling me that I needed to be thinner, cuter, more of a soft 'woman.'

A friend suggested weightlifting. I was immediately horrified by the idea, citing the myth that it would make me big and bulky. For an East Asian woman who has been told her whole life ― by both Eastern and Western societies ― that she must be thin and non-offensive, this was an absolute no-no. 

My first time lifting was comical. I showed up at my local gym alone. It was a small boutique gym with only one squat rack and a free weight area that was way too exposed. There was nowhere to hide.

I could barely lift more than 10 pounds. I felt foolish even trying, surrounded by grunting dudes in string-tees. Weightlifting has historically been portrayed as a “masculine” activity (although that’s changing thanks to the female lifters out there fighting the good fight), and back then, mostly men occupied my weight room. This intimidated me. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there.

And yet, behind the embarrassment and discomfort I felt, there was also a glimmer of something after I finished my workout: accomplishment. I was proud of myself for standing my ground and doing the damn thing. More importantly, I wanted to keep making myself feel that way.

I started lifting twice a week, and eventually bumped it up to three. Lifting became more comfortable the more I did it. I liked working against gravity. I liked the surge of power I felt when I pushed, pressed, squatted and pulled. I liked seeing which muscles were doing what in the mirror.

I liked knowing that I was making myself stronger, not weaker.

Back then, I was often the only woman lifting at my gym, much less the only East Asian woman. As I continued lifting, I realized my fears about “belonging there” didn’t matter; most people were just trying to do their own thing and take care of themselves. I was there to do the same, with the strength of Rihanna and Robyn to carry me through.  

The author (right) with friends at the gym.
Chad Kraus
The author (right) with friends at the gym.

There were also the obvious physical changes: I grew muscles in my arms, in my legs, in places I used to think of as insignificant, and they were now popping out to say hello. My jeans got too tight in the thighs, and I was OK with that because it also meant that I could bike longer, run faster, jump higher. It meant that I could dance and stomp and make the ground shake. 

That was five years ago. Now, at age 28, I continue to lift because I truly believe it has given me a healthy relationship not just with my body but with my presence in the world. Every time I pick up a weight, I defy the narrative pushed on me by both the East and the West. That confidence and active resistance has started following me outside the weight room; I navigate the world like someone who owns her body, who is empowered by her body.

Weightlifting helped me cultivate mental strength and self-respect, and most importantly, showed me that my body is not victim to anyone else’s expectations. It is completely and wonderfully mine.

I still get catcalls around being East Asian. I still have men literally putting their faces in my face to ask what ethnicity I am. But these moments do not hurt me like they used to, do not make me feel small or powerless like they used to.

They do not hurt me because of what I know. 

I know that my upper body gains muscle very easily. I know that I’m more dominant in my thighs than in my glutes. I know that I am grateful for being able to do an Asian squat, because that translates well when back squatting for real. I learned that I really love sumo deadlifts. I know that my back doesn’t fire properly all the time, which means that I have to be conscious of maintaining good posture and not hunching over during the day.

I know all the ways my body can be strong. Self-knowledge is power. Self-knowledge is rebellion. I learned about my body, and in doing so, learned about myself. That is something no one can take away from me, no matter how many times they make kissing noises and ooze out a slimy “kiss them long time.”

The author at the Great Wall of China in 2017.
Jenny Zhang
The author at the Great Wall of China in 2017.

Lifting has also changed the way I see myself in China. In 2017, I took a summer trip to Changchun, my hometown. My relatives asked me what I did for exercise in America. When I told them I lifted weights, they were horrified.

“Women should not lift weights,” my aunt said. “Can’t you do something like yoga or walking instead?”

She then pinched my thigh and clicked her tongue. “Ai-ya, so much thicker here!”

It was the third time in a week that someone had commented on my appearance. “So tall.” “Big girl.” “What a giant!” At 5 feet, 8 inches and 145 pounds, I was an oddity compared with the slender women around me. When I walked down the street, people turned their heads to watch me clomp by, thighs rubbing, shoulders square and broad. At the Great Wall, a man pointed me out to his partner and exclaimed, “Wah, look at that big girl!” 

Weightlifting started out as my rebellion against Western stereotypes of East Asian women, but it also turned into a personal revolution against the East Asian stereotypes I had been raised with. I am not diminutive, meek, giggling or demure. I am not a willow with a swan-like neck. And most importantly, I am not for you or anyone else. I am for me in a body made strong and resilient by the fire to exist for my own self.

I am a “big,” bad girl. I am not anyone’s China Doll. My aunt was right: My legs are thicker, not just with muscle, but with power and energy and delicious carbohydrates, and the electric knowledge of all the weight they can bear and push toward the sky.

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