CrossFit, as it grows in popularity, continues to evoke passionate opinions and intense commentary. There are the CrossFitters who fall in love with a sport that means more than exercise. There are the naysayers who believe it is dangerous and do their best to crucify it at every turn. There are the enthusiasts and the detractors, both groups vocal and emphatic.
For women, however, the opinions and judgments and commentary surrounding CrossFit take on an additional layer of complexity. Those women who choose to participate in CrossFit are often discussed and dissected, as though somehow a science experiment open to any who wish to poke and prod and examine:
Is it feminine to be a CrossFitter? Are women who CrossFit pretty? Are they too muscular? Are they bulky? Are they too manly? Are they attractive?
Are they womanly?
My nine months of CrossFit has brought with it deep joy, but also unsolicited opinions from many. There are many folks who make incredibly kind and positive comments. There are those who are incredibly negative and hurtful.
I have been told I am too big, too thin, lost too much weight, gained too much muscle, work-out too much, need to work-out more and differently, obsessed, and selfish. Recently, I was told by a personal trainer that if I actually wanted to look like the women on TV who CrossFit, with their big manly legs and their big manly arms, then I was well on my way to accomplishing just that. He said this to me while sneering. He said I would soon not fit into my suits.
When greeted with inanity that is utterly foolish, ignorant and hurtful, it is infuriating. Getting past the anger, we are left with a choice. We can both accept and allow people to spread lies, fear, venom and jealousy, or, we can calmly demonstrate why they are wrong, with logic and facts.
I believe that we have an obligation to do the latter as much as possible. I believe that truth and vulnerability always wins over fear and hate. I believe that putting the positive and honest facts out there helps negate the painful lies that seek to destroy.
This is my story. It is also the story of some amazing women who epitomize the truth of what CrossFit does to women, and for women.
This story is long, and it is accompanied by pictures that have never seen the light of day. This is difficult. It is a struggle to put these pictures out there for people to see. I debated for a long time about doing so.
I decided that the pictures are incredibly important. For almost ten years, I was utterly convinced that I would never look good again. I believed I would never be healthy again. I was sure I could not lose twenty pounds, let alone seventy. I was certain I would fail.
I am positive there are many, many women out there who feel the exact same way. It is possible a few are reading this article. If you look at me now, you might think that I don’t understand; that I have no idea how it feels to be obese. That I have no idea how much it hurts, how miserable you are all the time, how disappointed in yourself, how hopeless you feel so much of the time.
I do understand. I was there. Now I am here. I promise you, I promise, that you can be too. I promise you that you can do it. I promise you that you are worth it. You will see in my story that it wasn’t easy. It took a long time, and I am still not done. There were set-backs and bumps along the way. I have kids, a demanding job, obligations….all the things that each of us manages every single day.
If I can do this, anyone can. I am not special or unique. I am a normal woman who got fat, got depressed, and then decided she had enough. I do not berate who I was, but I am so deeply grateful to be who I am now.
I am 5’11 and was always the tallest girl growing up. I was athletic and participated in gymnastics, swimming, diving, basketball, volleyball, and tennis. I loved team sports and loved being active and was good, though not great. I did well in school, had friends and had fun. In middle school, I began to notice for the first time that I was much taller than the other girls, and bigger. I was not the least bit overweight, but my frame was just bigger. I began to notice that the “little” girls somehow seemed more girly. I would think of it sometimes, but was generally too busy to worry much about it. In high school I started noticing it more. I started thinking about how much space I took-up. I started realizing that women who demanded space were often not treated well.
I had learned early on to project confidence. Some of which I genuinely felt, but much of it honed through years of being a thespian. The confidence was my shield against comments and judgment and opinions that deeply hurt my intensely sensitive nature.
I was told I was big. Every single teen magazine I read, every single thing I saw on TV, every single bit of life also told me that when you are a woman, big is bad. I acted as though it did not hurt me. I presented a dismissive exterior. But I knew what big meant: big meant not feminine. It meant not pretty.
The internal struggle continued through college and law school. I gained the typical “freshman 15” at college and that went up and down throughout school. At 23 and in my first law job I did Body for Life with a friend.
I felt wonderful. I lost weight and started getting strong, getting muscular. Then the comments started again. I was too muscular. Too big. Did I really want all that muscle? It was so manly.
So I stopped. A lot of other things happened, a lot of life happened, and I slowly grew overweight and then obese. By the time I delivered my second child at age 30 I was 267 pounds. The picture below is from the day before I had my daughter and I weighed 267 pounds. She was 8 pounds 12 ounces.
25 years old and 175 pounds
The next two years were incredibly stressful with children who had various health issues and a difficult job. By July 2011 and at 32 years old, I had moved to Albany Georgia and was 237 pounds. I did not recognize myself. I felt awful. I was exhausted and miserable. I was a size 18 women’s. I could not shop in regular stores. I really and truly was big.
My job required a physical before starting. I will never forget standing on the scale and seeing 237 pounds. I was humiliated and angry. How had I let this happen? I had always been an athlete and now I was obese and unable to run for even one minute. I decided right then that no matter what, no matter how long it took, no matter how hard it would be, I was going to lose weight and be healthy. I was not going to do any fad diets or some quick fix because I was never again going to find myself standing on a scale with tears streaming down my face. I was going to make permanent changes and never feel such bitter disappointment in myself again.
I started on myfitnesspal.com, a wonderful free website to count calories. I joined the beautiful gym at my employer, starting with just walking on the treadmill and elliptical, eventually finding Zumba. I was diagnosed with hypo-thyroidism, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and diverticulosis. I started a low dose medication for the hypo-thyroidism, and researched extensively how to manage IBS. Any medication I took for it made me loopy and exhausted, and since that was already occurring with the hypo-thyroidism, I realized quickly I was going to have to learn what my body needed to prevent the incredibly painful IBS symptoms. That meant figuring out what I should not eat and learning how to manage stress.
After extensively researching anti-inflammatory diets, I discovered Paleo. It made perfect sense, and I started following it with the addition of a small amount of cheese. Not eating gluten made a dramatic difference in reducing symptoms. My back pain improved. My mood improved.
The weight slowly, incredibly slowly, started coming off. My average weight loss per month was two pounds.
Being patient through the process was difficult. I have the patience of a gnat. But something changed in me that day in July when I saw 237 pounds. I knew that day that I was not going to give-up on myself again. The weeks where I lost nothing were hard, but I would talk to myself in the mirror, telling myself that I was worth trying. I was worth eating healthy and nourishing food. I was worth exercising and moving my body. I was worth finding love for myself once more.
For a very long time, those talks in the mirrors were merely a performance. I didn’t truly believe I was worth it. Slowly, very slowly, with every week that I exercised at least four times, with every day that I ate well and within my calories, with every day that I proved to myself that I could do it, I started to believe my reflection.
I still remember so clearly the morning I stepped on the scale and saw 199.6 pounds. It was the first time since 26 years old that there was not a “2” at the beginning of the number. Tears streamed down my face as it finally hit me: I could do it. I was doing it. I was worth it.
After 30 pounds lost my thyroid tests were back in the normal range and I was able to discontinue the medication. All of my labs had improved dramatically. My IBS was well under control.
By August 2013 I had lost 50 pounds. At 5’11 and 187 pounds I was still in the “overweight” category on the BMI chart, but I was thrilled with my progress. It had taken two years but I had gone from a woman’s 18 to a regular 14. I could shop in normal stores again. I was no longer obese. I was on my way.
FINDING WORLD CAMP CROSSFIT
My weight loss, however, had stalled. I was sick of the treadmill and elliptical. Zumba was fun, and while I was happy with my weight loss, I was not happy with how I looked. I was smaller but still fat. My dear friend Neil Lewis had been talking to me about CrossFit and World Camp CrossFit for the past year. I always listened to him, fascinated with what he described, seeing how amazing both he and his beautiful wife Tami looked. I researched CrossFit and was petrified.
The people who CrossFitted were gorgeous and strong. They looked amazing, had lean and defined muscles, and the workouts sounded insane. How was I going to go to a gym where everyone surely looked like Neil and Tami and the people on the internet? How was I, 187 pounds and a size 14, going to possibly be able to fit in at a CrossFit gym?
By September 2013 I had enough. I was 185 pounds and the scale was stuck. I was bored at the regular gym and irritated with not seeing any further results. I was sick of still feeling fat and I was frustrated with how weak I was. I could not pick up my son. I still did not have the energy I thought I should have. I could not do even one push-up. I had struggled with lower back issues for a long time and wanted to get stronger to hopefully help with the pain. I was sick and tired of the scale and how much I let it rule my life and my mood.
I vividly remember feeling incredibly irritated with the scale one morning at the very end of August, and running into Neil at work. He, as always, and not knowing how I was feeling, brought up CrossFit and World Camp CrossFit. That morning I told Neil that I was petrified but that I was ready. He looked at me sideways, in true Neil fashion. At my work, I am very confident. One would not expect me to admit to feelings of intense fear. Neil took it in stride. He was so incredibly kind and supportive. We agreed to meet at World Camp on September 4, a Wednesday, for the 5:30 a.m. class.
The night before September 4, I could not sleep. My stomach was in knots. I was very scared. I was embarrassed. Driving to World Camp the next morning was an exercise in sheer will. Walking through the doors of World Camp that morning was one of the scariest and most difficult things I have ever done.
It was also, unequivocally, the best decision I have ever made for my health. It is one of the best decisions, one of the best choices, I have ever made in my life.
I cannot lie. When I walked in I saw exactly what I thought I would see: gorgeous men and women in fabulous shape doing incredible things. Every single person, members and coaches alike, looked like action movie star superheroes. As a brand new person I had to do much, much less than everyone else. I huffed and puffed and creaked and cracked. I was beet-red and graceless and confused. I was embarrassed.
I was also fully and completely supported by every single person in the 5:30 a.m. class. I was cheered-on. I was coached by three incredible coaches: Kris Morrill, Chris Carver and Devin Griffin. I was inspired by the women I saw all around me who were just as strong and athletic as the men, who were stunningly gorgeous and stunningly strong. I was humbled by how hard everyone worked. I watched all the athletes in their glory and was brought to tears.
That first morning at World Camp allowed me a glimpse of what could happen. It showed me what could be possible, with hard work and dedication. It gave me hope.
I signed-up that morning and never looked back. I fell in love with World Camp, its members, and CrossFit. I immediately started going five days a week, then six. I soaked up every bit of information, advice and coaching that I could. Those first few weeks were a blur of trying to figure out what was going on and gritting my teeth through the intense muscle soreness that accompanied moving my body with purpose. They were also deeply meaningful for me.
While I was scared to walk into World Camp every morning, not knowing what we were going to be expected to do, I was also eager to learn from expert coaches and be among supportive and motivated people. Every morning felt like I was going home.
Four weeks after starting at World Camp I started a blog. I had not written in a decade, a decade of silence and difficulty. World Camp brought back my voice. The amazing athletes that I was surrounded by inspired me to write once more. The inspired me to try as hard as humanly possible every day to be better than yesterday.
So many of the World Camp members coached me and helped me: Neil, Tami, Shae, Wendy, Jay, Michelle, and countless others who wanted nothing more than to help a new, unsure woman learn and grow.
Former World Camp coach Chris Carver patiently worked with me daily on form. Coach Devin Griffin taught me Olympic lifts. Coach Kris Morrill taught me pull-ups and helped me get my first chest-to-bar pull-up, among many other things. What these three coaches really did, however, was with unlimited patience and dedication, helped me believe that I was capable. That I could. That I was an athlete.
Nine months later I weigh 167 pounds. I am size 8 in pants and a 6 in tops. I have never been a single-digit size in my adult life. I can do things I never imagined I could do: pull-ups, dips, push-ups, a handstand push-up. I can lift a whole lot of weight. I ran a mile in under eight minutes. I’m seeing my abs. I can pick-up my 95 pound son without a hitch – and it makes him laugh with abandonment.
I have specific and big goals. I am going to do my first competition this June, and then my second. I am going to do a muscle-up, no matter how long it takes to achieve. I am going to clean 200 pounds, and then I am going to clean and jerk 200 pounds. I am going to run a 7 minute mile. I am going to be able to string together toes-to-bar and handstand pushups. I am going to walk 50 feet on my hands.
Truly, the most meaningful thing that World Camp CrossFit has given me is genuine self-confidence. I had lost so much confidence along the way. The coaches and members at World Camp are the most supportive, kind, motivating, wonderful people I have ever met. Every day at World Camp is a day where you learn that you can do more than you thought. It is a day where you feel pride at accomplishing something difficult. Every day at World Camp is a day you grow.
World Camp is not just a gym. It is a family. We are accused of being a cult. We accused of being irresponsible in promoting a dangerous activity. We are accused of being obsessed.
I am accused of being too muscular, bulky, and unfeminine.
Not only is this the smallest I have been as an adult, but it is the strongest. It is the healthiest. It is the happiest.
Pop culture and the media send mixed-signals regarding women and beauty. Models are often stick-think women who look weak, cavernous, and hungry. The message that women and men receive about beauty from pop-culture is still largely based on stereotypical gender roles and extremes: men are supposed to be strapping and muscular. Women are supposed to be thin and small. Men should be strong. Women should be weak. Men have muscles. Women are permitted only their bones.
CrossFit embraces strength, health and power. It embraces tenacity, hard work, and grit. It promotes, encourages and respects women who are strong, who are muscular, and who are athletic.
CrossFit is not promoting a physical ideal; it is not focusing on the physical appearance of CrossFit athletes.
CrossFit does not care.
Instead, CrossFit cares about how much an athlete can snatch; how far an athlete can walk on his or her hands; how many pistol squats an athlete can perform; how fast an athlete can run; how well an athlete can perform the muscle-up. CrossFit cares about proper Olympic lifting technique; about eating healthily and naturally for optimal athletic performance and health; about proper amounts of rest and recovery. CrossFit cares about functional fitness that improves daily living; about stretching beyond one’s comfort zone in order to grow; about mental strength as well as physical.
You will not walk into a CrossFit box and hear women being complimented for being skinny. When you walk into World Camp CrossFit, you will instead see all the athletes gathered around a woman who is about to PR her lift. You will see admiration in the faces of those who watch her, both the men and women, and pride for her strength. You will hear the comments praising her strength and hard work.
You will then notice that she is muscular, defined and lean. You will see that her shoulders and arms are well-built and capable, that her abs are visible and tight, that her legs are strong and firm. You may be confused as you heard that women who lift heavy weights and who participate in CrossFit are bulky. You heard they are manly and not feminine. You heard they were unattractive.
What you see in front of you though is beauty. You see a strong woman who is lit from within with vibrance and health and pride. You see a woman holding a whole lot of weight with a huge smile at her achievement.
You see the truth. You see what a woman looks like when she realizes she is strong. You see what self-confidence looks like. You see the glow of pride. You see the physical beauty, but you also see the shine in the eyes of a woman who finally believes in herself.
Because of CrossFit. Because of being strong. Because of being and feeling alive. Because of being capable. Because of feeling confident.
You see a woman who knows the truth, who knows her truth: strong is beautiful.
I have been humbled by the World Camp CrossFit athletes since the first day I walked into World Camp. I look forward to writing about many, many of the World Camp athletes in the years to come. I asked the women featured in this article if they would participate as they represent a cross-section of the women athletes at World Camp.
These women all have different abilities in CrossFit. They all have different goals in CrossFit. They all have different lives, different histories, different dreams and hopes and ambitions. They each have a unique story.
They are each beautiful. They are each incredibly strong. They are each ferociously hard-working and committed. They are each supportive and kind. They exemplify what it means to be a woman who CrossFits: strong, confident and beautiful.
Each of these women destroy the myth that claims that women who CrossFit are “bulky”. They silence the ridiculous and ignorant people who say that women who CrossFit are unattractive. They demonstrate how lifting heavy weights not only makes you strong but also makes everything tighter and more compact.
One of the things that struck me during my very first day at World Camp was how the classes were almost equally populated by both men and women, perhaps leaning towards more women than men, and how women and men were treated completely equally. They were simply athletes. There was no different expectation for women. Yes, prescribed weight is less for woman than men, but the expectation was that women were capable and strong and would work just as hard as men. The coaches treated everyone the same.
As those first weeks went by I witnessed first-hand how the coaching staff at World Camp reveled in women being and becoming strong, how they respected strength and determination, and how they applauded women for fighting to develop as athletes. Kris Morrill, owner and head coach at World Camp, has created an environment that is known for producing strong women athletes who are respected in the CrossFit community.
“I have had the opportunity to work with many athletes of different calibers and skill sets,” said Coach Kris Morrill. “I have coached both boys and girls athletics and men and women in the gym, all different in their own way. I enjoy coaching athletes of all abilities, but it's the women that are the most mind-blowing. A woman will enter the gym timid and unsure that she has made the right decision in doing so. She feels awkward and tries desperately to find her place. It's out of this that she is able to truly find herself. As coaches, we ask the same if not more from our women clients as we do the men. I've always said that if you give a woman in the gym a task, she won't stop until it's fulfilled."
"The woman of World Camp CrossFit will not quit, they don't settle for less than they know they are capable of. The same woman that enters the gym that first day is not the same that walks out. She replaces that timidity with confidence and that awkwardness with fight! She is an athlete. She earned that title. "Down with the old man, and up with the new," ripped hands and bruises are merely her rights of passage. You see that beautiful woman in her heels and business suit walking down the street, or the one in her wedges and sun dress at the mall, and don't you dare underestimate her... she will out-work and out-train you any day of the week. I am proud to be a part of a community that believes that easy will no longer suffice, and I am amazed of the accomplishments these women make each day."
What is it that women “should” be? What is it we “should” do? What “should” we look like?
As crass as it is, screw “should”. To hell with what “they” say we “should” be.
Instead, ask yourself, what would you be if you could?
Who will you be because you can?
Women are meant to be strong and live loudly and fully. We are meant to embrace our innate beauty and be confident in our strengths and gifts. We are each unique. We are each meaningful. We are each a gift. We are each blessed with one body, one chance at making each holy second of this beautiful existence count. Being healthy, both physically and mentally, allows us to live a fully present life.
Being healthy means engaging in activities that make you happy and your heart sing. It means moving your body with joy at what it is capable of. It means rejoicing at being strong enough to lift your child, to carry your groceries, to protect yourself in a parking garage, to have the energy to chase the waves on the beach, to feel good in your swimsuit, to swing the tennis racket or the golf club, to avoid aging in pain and living your last years in a hospital bed.
It is impossible to ignore the connection between what pop-culture has deemed beautiful and feminine (i.e. thin and weak) and women’s reluctance to lift weight and increase their strength, thus protecting their most valuable asset: their health. It is completely understandable, our reluctance to possibly turn into someone that we fear is considered unattractive.
We have been sold a lie. We have been fed an image of beauty that is sick and twisted and destructive. We have been sucked into a dangerous and damaging portrayal of what it means to be feminine, to be a woman.
When something like CrossFit comes along, something that promotes women being strong and healthy and alive and vibrant and capable, it needs to be commended and praised. It should be lauded for its contribution to fighting against the obesity epidemic in the United States, for publicizing strength and muscles and physical fitness.
When somewhere as meaningful and impactful and important as World Camp CrossFit exists, it should be recognized for the part it plays in showing both men and women alike that it is possible to be better, to be more, to be strong and fully present and joyful.
CrossFit offers the opportunity to women to get strong. It offers the chance to get more physically fit than you ever thought possible. As Coach Kris Morrill said, it offers the ability to truly discover yourself.
Who will you be because you can?
CrossFit at World Camp CrossFit allows us to answer the question every single day with complete confidence.
This is who I am. I am strong. I am capable. I am unique and amazing and beautiful.
I am a World Camp CrossFit woman.
Click on each blue button below to learn more about each of these amazing World Camp CrossFit athletes.
“Every woman has the right to be unique and beautiful in her own right. If she is long and lean or built like a brick house it shouldn’t matter. Beauty and strength come in all shapes and sizes! If it’s what a female athlete wants for her body, I think it’s her right to do it."
"We are all created to be different - to be individuals - and that's part of the beauty of Crossfit. Our strengths and weaknesses are our own and what we choose to do with them is up to us. The goals in CrossFit are nice, but the process is amazing and it is one from which we can learn a great deal about ourselves and what we are made of."
"CrossFit is a tool that enables me to participate in a high-level of fitness. At World Camp I am surrounded with like-minded people with whom I've developed long lasting friendships.”
“Being a woman and mom who CrossFits is empowering. Being able to do things I never dreamed of doing is something to be proud of. I’m thankful to have an activity that I can do with my children, where we cheer each other on, where they witness hard work, determination, joy and triumphs.”
“Women are cool and awesome and strong. I embrace this idea of femininity and strength. I think we have always been strong; it just takes a wake-up call for us to realize it."
“Muscles are a sign of hard work ethic and discipline, values that I am instilling into my two young sons.”
“I, like many mothers, often feel guilty for taking time for myself to work out and train, but I know I need it. It's like hitting my "reset" button. I like that my daughter sees me doing things that require strength. I love to hear her cheering me on as I push myself. When she's in the gym she imitates things she's seen me do...she'll row, jump rope, do burpees...even hand stand push-ups! It makes her so proud of herself, as it should!"
There is no better way to end this article then by honoring one of the most phenomenal women artists of our time, Maya Angelou, with her famous poem "Phenomenal Woman".
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
As always, a special thank you to Shae Foy of Shae Foy Photography. Shae is the most amazing business/creative partner that I could have asked for, and a truly amazing friend.
Special thanks to the following for assisting in the production of this article: World Camp CrossFit, Kris Morrill, Devin Griffin and Michelle Futch.
My warmest and sincerest thanks to the women who agreed to be a part of this article. Your strength, determination, beauty and spirit is incredibly moving. Thank you so much for being who you are every single day.
Photography by Shae Foy Photography
Article by Audrey Pike