Excercising like a girl: Self-care, gyms, weights

Warning: Today I’m going to talk about going to the gym and femininity. Moreover, I’m going to talk about  my personal, embodied experience. I’m a feminine, cis-gendered woman, with an hourglass figure (when I have a figure). This means there’s stuff about makeup and hair and dresses. There will be mentions of breasts and bottoms and sweat… I struggled to find a post that spoke to me in a helpful way about my body, and my experience, so I know this isn’t going to help everyone, but it might help some of you in your self-care journeys!


It’s true, 2015 was a tough year. I got tired, I was super busy, I couldn’t delegate, I didn’t eat well, I didn’t excercise enough, didn’t read enough, didn’t write enough… Anyway, by the end of the year, we’d managed to get some more staff in to delegate things to, and then I started thinking about looking after myself. And one of the things I started to do was go to the gym.

Now I’m not a gym person, and I’ve never been naturally good at it. I had a gym membership for a miserable year about 12 years ago, hated it, couldn’t afford the membership, didn’t seem to get any thinner or fitter. I have lots of injuries and weak joints–wonky knees, funny elbows, weak ankles.

I also hate excercise for the sake of it. Instead, for the last couple of decades I mostly walked places, cycled places, gardened, ran around a lot in my job, stretched, did a bit of yoga–all of which was great and got me through. (And in fact, is generally the way to go if what you want is to live a long and healthy life.)

But now I have less opportunities to be active, and my body is getting older, and I’ve decided it’s time to bite the bullet. 

And getting started I’ve had to learn a lot of things. So I thought I’d share them, while I’m still new, for other people who might be thinking about starting out and a bit freaked by the whole idea (I was!).  Thanks to everyone on Twitter and real life who has given really great advice. And thanks to everyone who has been really supportive. I hope this passes on a bit of the love.


Gyms look like scary places for girls who want to be strong–they seem to either be about strength (which is coded masculine in our culture), or they seem to be about competetive thinness (which is bullshit and harmful). We are taught to throw like a girl (Iris Marion Young’s influential essay has informed a lot of my thinking about this, including my repeated use of the word ‘girl’), to lift little pink weights and to only excercise in a way that makes us thin and doesn’t mess up our hair. (I’m not linking to the thousands of articles I waded through that actually promoted versions of this–they are trash and don’t deserve the traffic.)

I am pretty feminine. I love clothes, makeup, jewellery. I never leave the house without lipstick and earrings, often a string of pearls or a silk scarf. I have masses of long hair. My face care routine is extensive and complex–because I like the smells and the ritual and buying nice potions and also because I like the way my skin looks afterwards. (Shoutout to this Slate article about feminist academics and Korean skin care routines). I am more likely to be found in a cotton frock and a pair of ballet flats than shorts and a t-shirt. In fact, when I started this excercise malarky, I owned a single pair of yoga pants and no sports shoes.

Still, I intend to sweat at the gym, because that’s the point. And I was sick of being weak. And I have to admit that being too fat for all my pretty clothes was also a significant factor in getting me to the gym. But trying to get there, I couldn’t work out what to do with my hair, or what to wear, or how to excercise, or anything. So I hope some of this will help you to get up, and get moving, just that bit more often and that bit more effectively..

This is the stuff I learned.

The actual excercise health stuff. 

  • Women should totally be doing weights.
    I read this awesome post by Zeynep Tufekci, Put down the Pink DumbellWhat I learned about how the fitness industry lies “It’s very hard for women to “bulk up”. An average woman is not going to accidentally “bulk up”,” she writes. But you will get strong, and you’ll probably get more toned, and you might even lose weight (but you might not).
  • Tell other people you are going to the gym.
    This is really effective for women–social shame is very motivating for us, so use it for something you want to be encouraged to do. See also, personal trainer. (Thanks to Emily our College Head of Wellbeing who told me this, and who regularly asks if I’m still excercising and who tells me she’s proud of me when I say that I am. She’s ace.)
  • Tweak your diet.
    Once I started really working out, my diet really needed to change. I was STARVING all the time.  You will be hungry, fill yourself up with things that will make you strong. That means protein, vegetables and a bit of fat (thanks to Matthew Smith @smiffy for much of this!).
    Expect to need to eat more protein, some fat, and, importantly, don’t reward yourself with cake.

To be honest, just as important for me, for getting through the front door of the studio, and going back the next week… what will I wear? what do I do with my hair? how do I look presentable at work afterwards?

  • That messy high bun that all the posh girls wear with their yoga tights and racer backs? That is actually the best hairstyle for the gym.
    You hair is out of your eyes. It doesn’t go frizzy. It keeps the mass of your hair away from the bits of your scalp that sweat the most, thus allowing your wet sweaty hair to dry out. You don’t catch your plait on random bits of equiptment (I once went over my plait doing back stretches on a foam roller, ouch!). Put the bun high enough on your head that you can lie on your back comfortably, and use a clip for any random short bits (See here, scroll to the bottom of the page, for a picture of what I’m trying to describe).
  • Dry shampoo is your friend–but apply it before your workout.
    Now if you have short hair (as I did once), you are probably going to wash it after your workout. But washing and drying my hair now takes an hour, minimum, without styling. So dry shampoo is my new best friend. (I am a fan of Not Your Mother’s Dry Shampoo–it works and it doesn’t show up white on my nearly black hair).
    The best tip I read? Apply it BEFORE your workout, so you get ahead of the sweat game. And then again afterwards. And then style your hair back up in the messy bun.
  • Ebay is full of never-worn fancy workout clothes for a fraction of the real price.
    This also warns you not to buy the fancy workout stuff until you’ve actually started working out.
    I promised myself more workout clothes after I’d been going for a month–before then I just wore the same pair of yoga pants and single sports top over and over again.
  • You will however need something to wear to the gym the first time! But, if you are anywhere near a size 14 (Aus/UK, size 12 US) or above, don’t go for branded workout clothes.
    I’m usually an M, sometimes an S. I was horrified to discover I could barely fit into size L running shorts.
    I shared my woes on Twitter and Lee Skallerup-Bessette recommended these gorgeous plus sized leggings by Fractal9. Otherwise Target was regularly mentioned, and I found moderately decent stuff at Kathmandu. Lululemon also has pretty things for those of us who are M when we’re not buying sportswear.
  • Sports bras have evolved, so you might want to try again. 
    I read this fascinating article about Why are Sports Bras so Terrible? which also gave some research about what to do if you want to excercise and you actually have breasts. Quick take away, yes those uniboob strap-in thingos are awful for larger sizes, (“Once you go above a certain size, you start coming out everywhere anyway,” White explains”) so get something that actually looks like a bra from a brand like Champion that does proper research.
  • Yes you will need gym shoes. No they don’t have too be fancy, just comfortable and lightweight, lace-ups with a rubber grip and flexible sole are best.
    If you are stylish, you are totally going to be getting a bright pair of Nikes, so just get on with it. Otherwise, anything will do.
  • My face! My red face! That’s what primer is for.
    I go straight from the gym to the office, which means I need to wear makeup. However, I have pale skin that flushes, and so I basically look like a tomato for an hour after my workout.
    And flushed face means sweaty face, so my makeup goes on and slides right off again. This is where primer comes in. I’m a fan of Bare Minerals primer which seems to be sufficiently breathable that my skin isn’t trapped under what feels like a plastic bag, but effective enough that my lightweight foundation doesn’t slide off either.
    And, after an hour, I go from ‘glowing’ in the lady-sweat sense, to looking pretty radiant, which is nice.

But… doesn’t it hurt?

  • Yes, ladies. It hurts. 
    Not worse than your bad back. And not in an actual pain way. Actual pain is bad, it means you are doing it wrong, or too much, or your body isn’t ready yet.
    Scrub out all that ‘no pain, no gain’ / ‘pain is just weakness leaving the body’ rubbish–that’s a fast path to serious injuries. A good trainer or training program will work with your body, or around it.
    But yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable because you need to be really working, and working is effort, and it’s the pushing your muscles that bit further that’s making you stronger. 
  • It aches worst 2 days later. 
    It really shouldn’t be particularly bad straight after your workout. A few hours later, you might feel it a bit. But 48 hours later is the worst. Be prepared.
  • Ibruprofen, a hot bath, tiger balm, arnica. 
    Use them. They are your friends.
  • Do the stretches between work outs. Maybe buy a foam roller. Go get a massage. 
    Anything to stop your muscles seizing up. You want to be firm, not cramped.
  • Those compression leggings actually work.
    I went out and bought the expensive 2XU ones because  I like buying nice clothes, and I wear them around the house because they are basically a pair of amazing full-leg Spanx and they make my bum look amazing.  They also help with water retention.
    But the main reason to buy them is so that, on day two when your muscles are PMS-flu-flogging sore, you put the leggings on and you feel like someone has just given your whole lower body a good strong hug and it’s all better.

Does it work?

I’ve been doing this for about 3 months now. I looked at myself, and I asked my partner, and this is what we came up with.

I’m more toned. I am stronger. When I took 10 days off from the gym over Christmas, I felt less energised. My waist is coming back. My bum is perking up. My skin is more glowy. I have less RSI. I am more resilient. My nails and hair grow faster.

Thanks to @smiffy @PM_Freestone @readywriting @siandart @drkknits @thesiswhisperer @qui_oui @deborahbrian who all answered questions, gave advice, and shared their stories. You rock! 


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