What is empowerment?
“Empowering” has recently become the buzzword du jour, plastered all over everything from boot camp classes to butt-shaping leggings. A lot of people (myself included) use the word when we talk about lifting weights. But WTF does it actually mean?
The definition I found listed was “Empowering (v): The giving or delegation of power or authority.”
Interestingly, I couldn’t find a definition for the word being used as an adjective, even though I hear it used most often to describe something. To me, feeling empowered is about giving yourself permission to do and be what you want. To riff on the definition above, it’s about “giving power or authority” to yourself.
Put another way, empowerment is the recognition that you have everything you need inside you; it’s simply a matter of learning how to call upon it.
Independence is empowering.
I think when we talk about how empowering it is to gain physical strength, what we’re really talking about is simply being able to do more stuff for yourself. On the most superficial level, if you’re strong enough to do pullups, you probably don’t need help opening pickle jars. When you can squat 1.5 times your bodyweight, you don’t need help carrying your groceries.
Being physically strong offers an incredible sense of independence, because you literally become free to do more stuff without needing help. As a woman particularly, this can be a huge revelation. When I first started getting stronger, I remember feeling like I had stepped out of the matrix! My whole life had been spent believing this massive lie that women are supposed to be weak and small and need taking care of, and as the old rule book crashed out the window, the world opened up in front of me. If I don’t need anyone to take care of me than what could I do??
The answer is absolutely anything.
Safety is empowering.
Let’s go even deeper now. I know nobody wants to talk about this, but many women spend every moment of our lives aware that we are vulnerable to being overpowered at any time. Men are typically bigger, stronger, and faster than us, and there is a certain gut-wrenching vulnerability that comes from walking around simply trusting them all to not use their powers for evil.
Getting stronger decreases that vulnerability, and lets you drop some of your defenses so that you can relax. Personally I know that when I felt weak and unprotected, I was constantly scared and anxious and defensive; it was exhausting. Now that I’m stronger, faster, and more confident in my body, I feel safer. I don’t constantly worry about people invading my space anymore, so I have tons of extra time and mental energy available to spend on other stuff.
I wasn’t really living before; I was constantly defending myself from anyone and everyone. Without a deep sense of safety in your own body, you have no choice but to constantly consider how you appear to others, as a means of prevention and protection. Many of us get stuck there for years and decades, never realizing that a sense of safety was actually within our reach.
Physical strength allowed me the freedom to let go of my fears and defenses. It let me step outside of how other people saw me, so I could start living my real life. While this fear may be subconscious for most women, I believe erasing it is one of the biggest reasons getting stronger feels so good.
Empowerment comes from within.
But empowerment isn’t just about physical strength and safety. It’s also about recognizing that you already have all the power you need. There’s this huge misconception out there that power has to be given to you. That if you work hard and behave yourself, someone will eventually give you the power to live fully and be happy.
But we have it backwards. Power isn’t meant to be given. It’s not even meant to be earned. It’s yours already; you were born with it. It’s just that we’ve been encouraged, in a hundred thousand quiet ways, to give it away.
You don’t want to kiss your creepy great-aunt, but she says you have to, so you do. You let your crush go further with you than you’re comfortable with, because you don’t want to upset him. You get shamed for wearing an outfit you loved, and you never wear it again. In each moment you give away your power by allowing someone else’s needs and wants to carry more weight than your own. In some tiny, imperceptible way, you alter or hide your real Self to protect yourself. You trade your power in exchange for safety.
These moments, these hundreds of thousands of tiny moments, they add up. You build a life that’s safe and good and normal, but you feel weak and drained and empty and you don’t know why. Naturally, this epidemic-scale female power leakage creates a ripe environment for consumerism.
The fashion and beauty industry have been having a field day selling you back your power. Everywhere you look, you see “Buy this and you’ll feel worthy and powerful!” They tell you that if you follow their very specific set of rules, you’ll finally feel free and happy! But it’s all a lie, and now the health and fitness industries are on board too.
The huge lie that the fitness industry is selling is that having a strong and sexy body gives you the power to finally be confident and happy. But while having a strong and sexy body is awesome, it’s not what gives you the power.
Watching your body get stronger and tackle new challenges helps restore your confidence in yourself. It reminds you that you are awesome, and it brings your attention in a deeply visceral way to the frequently-ignored experience of being you. It helps you re-learn what it feels like to prioritize yourself, trust yourself, and take risks. In this way, over time, it helps you reclaim the power you’ve lost.
It needs to be said that most people will spend their entire lives seeking power that they already have. Those who try to manipulate you into giving away your power are the weakest and emptiest among us, and they must be avoided at all costs. It’s impossible to relax into your own power when you know someone nearby is hungry for it.
So why is lifting weights so empowering?
Because it offers you independence and safety, and it reveals the lie that you need anyone’s permission to be powerful. It frees your mind from the unbearable burden of considering what other people think of you, and it brings you back to yourself.
The best part is how empowerment tends to snowball. Emboldened by your new physical strength and momentum, you take one teeny tiny step toward the life you dream of, and quickly realize that when you move with power and authority, nobody stops you. So you take another step. You keep moving, keep creating what you desire, and the world keeps letting you. You become more courageous and powerful with each step, and eventually you’ve built the kind of life you used to think was impossible. You’ve become one of those brave people who stands fully in her own power, inspiring other people to do the same and chase their dreams.