Last year I went to go watch a powerlifting meet in New York to support my friend who was competing. When I first walked in, I immediately found myself in the middle of a sea of burly men clad in spandex and covered in chalk. But to my surprise there were quite a few women there too. I watched a tiny girl who couldn’t have been taller than five foot one and heavier than 130 pounds deadlift 250 lbs and bench press 150lbs. I was immediately obsessed and I threw myself into weightlifting. There was something so empowering about being surrounded by strong women who exuded complete confidence and control and who rejected expectations about girls being frail or weak.
This week OCA sat down with Alex Guo, a senior at NYU Shanghai who is very involved with the fitness community in Shanghai, to talk about her own experience with being a girl who lifts.
OCA: What has your fitness journey been like? I remember you used to belly dance freshman year and then you did pole dancing, and now Crossfit. Take me through your thought process behind your interest in each of those.
Alex Guo (AG): One factor is I keep changing what I like and another factor is just being at different stages in my life and having different goals to pursue. I started fitness because I used to be a fat kid and back then my goal was just to lose weight but then through that I started to love fitness and sports. I started to explore the things I like. Pole dancing was a really big part of that. I did it for about a year and a half and then I decided to try Crossfit because when I went to New York I found out Cross Fit was really big there so I wanted to try it out. And also I wanted to work out with people and Crossfit is kind of like a community sport. Everyone is very supportive of each other. When I came back to China, Crossfit in China is very expensive [laughs]- so I stopped doing Crossfit and started working with a trainer at a company where I used to work. Now my goal is to have a six pack… It’s been my goal forever but now I’m more focused and I train with my trainer and by myself. Sometimes I go to community workouts in Shanghai called FitFamShanghai- they’re free and people go train together. It’s a really great way to meet people and have fun while working out.
OCA: In comparison to Shanghai have you found the fitness community in other places you’ve lived and studied to be different or largely the same? For example you’ve also lived in New York and Florence- how did you find fitness there to be?
AG: I think that fitness in China is starting to pick up. As you see fitness is becoming the new fashion everywhere. China isn’t a country that’s very big on fitness like we understand it but as more and more people are Westernized or internationalized they’ve started doing all kinds of fitness related things.
There are actually a lot of pole dancing places in Shanghai and yeah, New York has everything. There are five or six Crossfit places too but they’re just kind of pricey- the way Chinese people see it, fitness like that is a Western thing and only Westerners or white people workout. Chinese people workout in their own way: some people do running and some people gym to look good but not really in a Western way. Girls are different because girls will, for example, swim but don’t want to be muscular. So it’s kind of like a mix now.
OCA: It’s interesting you brought that up because I think a lot of girls view the gym as this male dominated space, and they tend to stick to cardio equipment or yoga, which is not a bad thing but I still wonder why more girls aren’t lifting weights. Maybe girls are intimidated by the weights, maybe they have a fear of getting muscular and “manly” or they don’t think that being strong is important. But what’s your take on this and what’s your own experience with that been like?
AG: [laughs] Guys are annoying. I’m already very bulky so I’ve had people say oh how come your thighs are so big or your arms are crazy- “man shoulders”. I do find it very annoying, even in Palladium in New York, in the gym there, it’s full of huge and not very lean Americans and they workout but then only the really fit girls workout with them. Like only the girls with the really nice bodies have the courage to stand next to them and use the weights, and girls who aren’t in shape or not confident don’t. Or sometimes even if they’re fit, they stick to treadmills or yoga and other things. I think it’s a confidence thing- for me I wanted to be confident and confident of myself so I just started doing it without caring what anyone thinks. I think that’s important, you can’t think about what others are thinking about you, if you want to do something, just do it.
OCA: On the topic of confidence, I want to talk about slut shaming and body positivity. The thought of a woman who’s confident with her body and her sexuality is this terrifying thing in our societies. But you’re someone who seems to be very comfortable with herself and in her own skin. So what’s been your experience with shaming, and confidence and body positivity? Where do you get your confidence from?
AG: Being confident- I think that girls who don’t work out can also be confident about their bodies. But working out can only make you better. There’s so many benefits and there is no disadvantages. I just keep working out and I see my improvements, like if I get leaner or if I get stronger, I just become more and more confident. Working out itself makes you feel more happy and energetic. Everything about it is quite positive.
But also in terms of pictures, I’m on Instagram a lot and I’ve been trying to show my pictures in a way that’s tasteful and motivational- like what I do, what I eat. Sometimes, on the beach, girls including me post pictures being sexy- and I do that because I’m proud of my progress but I try to not oversexualize myself. I try and keep stay within certain boundaries just because it’s what I like and is what I think is tasteful. Other people can think whatever they want. People say all kinds of things and you can’t control that but at the end of the day you can only control how you think about yourself. Everyone thinks differently and people should pursue what they like and set their own boundaries.
OCA: There’s exercise and then there’s eating. Eating right is probably what most people struggle with. And there’s so many choices like paleo, vegan, low carb, etc, etc. What’re you doing in terms of nutrition and do you have any advice for people looking to eat better?
AG: Everyone is different and because of your goals you have to plan differently. I myself have to lean down and grow more muscle so I’m eating a lot of proteins, vegetables and adding in some complex carbs. So that is a healthy diet in general and most people chose to do that. But girls know that sometimes you just want to eat sweet things like ice cream or chocolate- and whatever comes to my mind, once in awhile I have the urge to eat something sweet, and it’s hard to control but you have to keep your goals in mind. Other people’s diets would depend on what they need in life. Like Chinese people would say eating rice is healthy but I don’t think that eating rice is healthy. Everyone is different and will say something different. You have to figure out what you want and how you want to live- do you want to live a sustainable lifestyle, do you want to eat processed food, or red meat or no red meat, vegetarian or not- it’s really complicated! [laughs]
OCA: What advice would you give to other girls fitness wise?
AG: First of all, do get into fitness. It’s a lifestyle-you meet different people, you get healthier, you can get in shape, your life choices are better. Whether you go on a yoga retreat or start running or lifting weights- just do something. Every girl is different, every girl is beautiful. Figure out what you want in life and work to make that happen for yourself.
For more, follow Alex on Instagram @mademoiselleguo.
This article was written by Rae Dehal. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Alex Guo