The Problem With Empowerment

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Empowerment: a word that has garnered so much attention and use in the past few years that it is almost played out. Naturally, I want to ramble on about. Before I move on, let me be perfectly clear, I am ALL ABOUT “empowering” women….I just have issues with how we (the collective we) do it.

Let’s start with the word - empowerment.  Empowerment is defined as authority or power given to someone to do something. More colloquially, most of us define empowerment as the process of garnering confidence, strength, and fortitude to do things and feeling secure in the doing of those things. These definitions are perfectly adequate and do, indeed, serve their purpose. BUT….is that really what we mean when we say we want to “empower” people? We want to GIVE them power? We want them to garner power from another source? Are we supposed to lead people to some magical fountain of empowerment so they can drink from it and then BAM, they’re confident, secure, and strong?

Personally, I don’t love that idea. I don’t want to give anyone power because power isn’t mine to give. I think most people would agree that, when we say we want to empower people, we aren’t talking about an exchange of confidence forces. We want people to stand up and fight for themselves and do so with confidence. We want people to stand in their own power. It may seem like I’m being petty with linguistics here, but language matters. And more importantly, how that language is used and how those ideas come into fruition, matter. They matter a great deal.

At times, it seems that things written in the name of empowerment have taken on a rather less than “empowering” tone. There is a lot of “empowerment” that is done by shoving one group down so that another group may rise. Lately, it seems as if empowerment has really come to mean “making one better than someone else” and that’s just bullshit. That is not helping others stand in their power. That is not “empowering”.

NOPE.

NOPE.

In my own realm, I’ve seen this illustrated most strongly (ha!) when it comes to the idea of strength versus aesthetics. The idea that women who get into sports like powerlifting, strongman, etc. that are judged on strength are somehow above, better than, or just frankly more fucking feministy, than women who choose sports that are judged on aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, I think lifting is about the most power-building (literally) thing that women can engage in - but do we really need to shove other women down to make that point? Furthermore, does the commentary on what women wear, what we look like,  and how we adorn ourselves actually serve to further the goal of helping women stand in their power?

Whether I am reading an article about bikini competitors or reading an article about women powerlifters, I feel as though I’m being told how to present my body. Look, I get it. A sport which is predicated on being on stage half naked IS inherently a bit more about how you present your body - that’s the sport. That’s, by definition, what someone signed up for. And you know what? More power to them. Insinuating that those individuals are somehow less, and women who compete on a platform are somehow better, is just exercising the same comparative bullshit that most women who lift have come to hate. I think intention is important here as well - is someone posting things on social media as a way to garner attention to take people’s money and provide  a, shitty at best and dangerous at worse, service to them? Are they posting as a exercise in confidence? Are they trying to share their story? Are they trying to criticize others? All of these things matter. And quite frankly, you as the consumer get to chose what you consume. You can unfollow, you can ignore, you can scroll on past. You can change the conversation and show that there is not one “right” way to fitness by sharing your own story and selfies, if that is something you chose to do.

It seems as if the borderline constant comparative banter and judgement occurs as a knee jerk reaction. There is a recoiling from and rebelling against what, for most women, was sold to them as they only way to do “fitness”.  Most women have been told that in order to be “fit” you must exercise a certain way, eat a certain way, post on social media a certain way, and if you don’t...well then, you aren’t fit. More importantly, the “cooking breakfast in your underwear” (credit for that illustrative phrase to Dani Overcash) model of fitness was sold to them as the only way to attain worth. The idea that one has to display themselves in a particular way or only do particular activities in order to check the box of “fit” is, indeed, totally fucking useless.

Can we not, though?

Can we not, though?

On the flip side, I don’t think making sweeping condemnations or generalizations about the intention of groups of women, and somehow framing those condemnations in a “well, clearly we are better” way, is useful. I know I am very guilty of thinking of that way and saying those things - and honestly, I still find myself doing that from time to time.  I don't want others to make sweeping generalizations about me, so why would I not extend that same courtesy?

We, the collective we, have to move past this. Instead, we can embrace that there is the radical notion that maybe, perhaps, some women may chose to present their bodies in a certain way and pursue certain activities because *gasp* they like them! And those activities make them feel good! And those things aid them in standing in their power. (Note: I’m not here to entertain a debate about whether one can have power if they conform, intentionally or unintentionally, to the “male gaze” or societal standards. That’s a different topic for a different time).

So what do we do? How do we help women stand in their power? We accept. We raise each other up. We refuse to settle for the tired trope of strength vs. aesthetics, because at this point, it’s just fucking lazy. We stop the comparative bullshit and the shoving of people into boxes. We stop judging women solely on how they choose to present their physical bodies. We  stand in our power. We help women to stand in their power.  We do better, because we deserve better.

Dealing with PCOS & FHA Part 2: Carbs, Stress, and Weight Gain

Disclaimer stuff: I’m not a doctor, endocrinologist, dietitian, etc. and am just sharing my own experience and what has been working for me. What has worked for me may not, and probably will not, work for you. Everyone and every body is different. Please always, always consult with your healthcare professional before making significant changes.

As I mentioned in part 1, I spent most of the winter feeling pretty miserable. After getting a diagnosis of PCOS and FHA, I tried taking metformin but due to my lack of more severe insulin resistance, it made me extremely ill. My endocrinologist told me to experiment with my diet and training and other lifestyle factors to see if those would bring some relief and we'd check everything out 3 months later.

I spent hours and hours researching different things regarding PCOS AND FHA and ended up mostly angry and disappointed. After searching every corner of the internet, I came up with some strategies that I wanted to try with my diet and lifestyle factors. The majority of these strategies centered around carb timing and cycle, weight management, stress reduction, and managing expectations.

Changes I've Made to Help Heal My PCOS & FHA:

Carb cycling: Managing carbohydrate load and consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates at the right times is important for any athlete, but it is especially important for female athletes with PCOS and FHA. The process of carb cycling involves consuming different amounts of carbohydrates throughout the week in some regular pattern (typically based in training days and rest days). The principles behind carb cycling for PCOS are based on how carbohydrate intake influences insulin - the mechanics of which are far outside of the scope of this post but this gives a great overview.

My endocrinologist had agreed that cutting out carbs or going low carb all the time was not in my best interest so I needed to find a way to keep my carbs for training (when I needed them) and keep them down during other times.

 I worked together with my diet coach and we decided to try a pretty aggressive style of carb and calorie cycling. I basically eat high carbs and calories, just above my usual maintenance level, on my training days (4 days per week) and then eat low carb and low calorie on my rest days (3 days per week). Overall, my weekly average caloric consumption ends up being right around my current maintenance caloric level.

Thus far, this strategy has helped me feel extremely good in the gym, helped me drop my testosterone levels quite a bit, and my physique has responded positively as well.

Weight management: Last year was spent pushing my body, hard. When you push hard, you need to recover even harder and that part was something I couldn't get quite right towards the end of my season. I absolutely planned to put some weight on in my off season and then maintain that for a bit and then cut down at the start of my next season. Well, that next season will turn out to be next year and at this point, there isn't any dieting down to be done in my very near future. The mental stuff associated with that will be touched on later, but it is safe to say that keeping my bodyweight stable has been key to regaining my cycle and bringing my hormones back to appropriate levels.

Stress reduction: This has by far been both extremely difficult and extremely beneficial. When things started going awry, my stress levels were sky high - and not all of it was "bad" stress! My business was getting busy, my client load was increasing, I was working another job, I was training extremely hard, and all of that good stuff. However, I was not giving myself adequate time to recover and bring stress levels down. I spent the first part of the year really focusing on bringing stress levels down. I now take a day off and don't answer emails, train, do anything strenuous, etc. I take time to journal, read, meditate, or do something non work related every day. I try to get enough sleep in whatever form it make take. I build time for all of this into my day (or my color coded planner, rather) because they are non-negotiable.

Managing my expectations: When I first received my PCOS and FHA diagnosis, I was angry. "How could my body do this to me?!" was something that I often asked myself. After some reflection, I realized that that mindset was not productive at all.  My body didn't "do this" to me - I did this to me. I fucked up. And because I messed up, I can also fix the situation (the beauty of being 100% responsible for your shit means you have the power to change things!). I decided to view this as a great opportunity for growth in areas besides competing. My coach, Annie, actually mentioned this to me when we were discussing my situation and it really made me excited to grow as a person, a coach, and an athlete.

Managing expectations about my physique and performance has been (and continues to be) a learning process. I'm not always comfortable in my body and its current form and there are plenty of days where I wish I was leaner or that I could work towards that goal, but the reality is that it isn't that time yet. The time for that challenge will come, but it isn't now. Plus, I sort of enjoy having big(ger) shoulders and a wider back and actually having some hamstrings and a booty! This topic will get a dedicated post of its own, but suffice it to say, I've learned (and continue to learn daily) how to let go of certain expectations and see the big picture.

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And that’s where I am. My testosterone levels dropped about 40 points, all of my other hormones are normalized, and as far as my endocrinologist is concerned, I’m in a really good spot. I go back for another follow up in about 3 months to see if things are still in a good place and then I will go from there.

 This entire experience and process has been  a difficult, frustrating, and incredible learning experience. Am I uncomfortable at times? YES.  Absolutely yes. But I know that I need to be in that space for my health and for improvement over the long term. Is it easy? NO. It's tear inducing, frustrating, and overwhelming at times. But that's okay. Because it's necessary. I’m really looking forward to continuing to experiment and find what works best for me.  I truly can’t wait to see how this entire experience continues to impacts my life, body, and performance.

 

Dealing with PCOS & FHA: My Experience

I’m sharing a bit about my experiences with PCOS and FHA. These are just my own experiences and do not serve as any recommendation of how to treat your own issues. I wanted to share this because I found a fundamental lack of resources about these conditions for female strength athletes.

This is going to be a long one, so grab a coffee and settle in.

For the past 4-5 months, I’ve been dealing with a host of hormonal issues that have thrown me for a serious loop. In order to discuss what I’ve been doing to heal those issues and make progress with them, we have to back up to where this all started.

After Nationals in October, I was in pretty bad shape. I had been competing hard all year, dieting hard for a good bit of my season, and most importantly, I had been neglecting some very critical self care. I was working A LOT, sleeping very little, and was overall extremely stressed out on a daily basis. I am normally a person who can handle hard training and caloric restriction pretty well if I am taking care of my recovery and stress levels. When I don’t….I crash and burn. And that’s exactly what I did over the winter. I had lost my period for a few months and didn’t even really realize it until it returned on Thanksgiving. I was constantly freezing cold, my hair was extremely brittle and breaking, I was so fatigued that I could hardly function, my skin was a wreck, and my anxiety was so out of control that some days it was nearly impossible to leave my apartment. I took a trip to my gynecologist, we ran some tests, and she referred me out to an endocrinologist, initially to test my thyroid. After explaining everything to my endocrinologist, we had a few ideas of what could be going on and I was sent in for blood draws (so many) and a glucose tolerance test (aka chug this disgusting sugar drink and sit around for 3 hours). About a week later, my doctor called me to give me the results. All of my thyroid horomones and hashimoto's indicators were completely normal. But, my testosterone levels were extremely high and my glucose tolerance test had started out picture perfect but there was a slight abnormality with my response towards the end of the test. Towards the end of the test, I felt pretty damn bad due to the fact that I don’t chug sugar on an empty stomach very often. The high testosterone + slightly abnormal glucose response + missed periods + other symptoms lead to the dual diagnosis of: PCOS and functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA).

Let’s take a little break to discuss what those two things are:

PCOS = polycystic ovary syndrome; an endocrine disorder in women characterized by cystic ovaries, hormonal disruptions, insulin issues, and other hormonal and metabolic issues. See this page for a great overview.

FHA = functional hypothalamic amenorrhea; Secondary amenorrhea or absence of menses that can be caused by inadequate nutrition (calories or specific macronutrient groups), weight loss or low body fat, or overload of stressors. It can be caused by a combination by any or all of the above as well. Some women have cycles but they are abnormal and not “true” cycles (like me!).

This is a large scientific article regarding clinical guidelines and background on this condition.

 

My endocrinologist explained everything to me and noted that she was a bit unsure of what course of action we should take because she couldn’t give me the standard recommendation of “eat better and exercise more”. She admitted that she had consulted several of her colleagues when coming up with a treatment plan because female strength athletes are not a population they frequently see. We wanted to take a systematic approach to treatment and decided to start with medication. We agreed to try a medication (Metformin), and then have me experiment on my end with training volumes and dietary things  and see how that went. I picked up my metformin and took it for a whopping 7 days before I couldn’t handle it - I was getting extreme hypoglycemic episodes on the very lowest dose. At one point, after training, I had to stop and pull over on the side of the freeway to be sick and try not to pass out because my sugar had crashed so hard. My doctor took me off of that and we agreed to have me try some stuff on my end, monitor things closely, and come back in about 3 months for a follow up.

 

I began to furiously research anything and everything regarding PCOS and FHA. It was absolutely infuriating to say the least. First, I could barely find any information at all on “lean” PCOS (the category I fell into) in general or any information that did not revolve around getting pregnant (because that must be a woman’s ultimate goal, right? *eyeroll*). Second, any information I did find was inundated with what I call, “woo” aka bullshit science. Don’t get me wrong, there are ABSOLUTELY things outside of the traditional medical realm that work wonders for so many people, myself included. However, it is a complete disservice, and quite predatory, to assume that because women are struggling with things that science doesn’t have a great grasp on, they automatically deserve (aka are so desperate) to be fed bullshit that is quite clearly not rooted in any actual science. I digress, as that’s a whole different topic for another day. Third, I felt like I couldn’t find any information for someone in a similar position as myself - someone who trains (and specifically lifts), already eats well, and already has hormonal birth control (IUD). Suffice it to say, nothing was very helpful.  In short, there was virtually no information on how to deal with these things for the female strength athlete.

 

I felt very lost and angry and frustrated. I felt so out of control and out of touch with my body and that feeling was so very foreign. I struggled with feeling like I lost a big part of myself. I identify myself very closely with my athletic endeavors and with being a person who troubleshoots and solves problems. And here I was, not doing any of those things. I really struggled with the fact that I had, somewhere along the way, fucked up. I knew deep down that I had messed up by stressing so much and putting my recovery on the back burner. High stress and low sleep are big triggers for me and add in getting glutened several times over the holidays, and it all added up to my body being overwhelmed (and rightfully so) with stressors.

 

After a brief pity party (because I’m a human being and this shit sucks), I decided to do what I do best: look at data and make a plan. I examined several different data points that I routinely note such as my diet, my training, my sleep, my cycle, etc. I started to do some research and investigating into my own data and experience to come up with some potential approaches that centered around carb manipulation and not losing weight. That last one was/is tough - I had gained some much needed weight back after my season, which was my goal, but it came on rapidly and basically wouldn’t stop. I don’t particularly care about the scale when I don’t need to make weight for a competition, but my body felt pretty bad and I wasn’t happy with my physique. A brief stint of some lower calories after I had been eating at maintenance for awhile indicated that my body wasn’t down with dropping weight. More details on all of that later. I decided to get with my diet coach (S/O to Anthony at Complete Human Performance for his endless patience with me) and come up with some dietary strategies for us to try to see what worked.  Both my diet coach and my doctor agreed that an overall low carb strategy was NOT the best approach, so we got creative and decided to try an aggressive carb cycling strategy (details of that later).

 

Beyond things like diet and stress reduction, I wanted to examine other ways to help ameliorate these issues. However, I wasn’t down with loading up on supplements with little scientific backing.I didn’t want to spend a small fortune on stuff that may or may not work and I don’t have the time to implement a very complex supplement routine. That’s just not my thing, personally. I stuck with my usual items for the most part so that I could evaluate what made a difference if my next round of blood tests came back differently.

On the exercise front, my endocrinologist also encouraged me to NOT stop training all together - she knew that I’m a competitive athlete and training is part of my life and since my cardio is pretty low, she encouraged me to monitor my training and cycles and work my coach to make adjustments from there. If I needed to stop training for a bit, that would be a bridge that we would cross when we got there, and that currently is not the case.

Fast forward to today...it’s about 4 months later and my testosterone has dropped 50 points back into the normal range, my cycle is getting somewhat regular, my weight has stabilized, my physique is in a place that I like, and I feel about 100 times better. I truly cannot express enough gratitude towards my diet coach, my coach, and my endocrinologist for helping me find what works for me at this moment.

So what exactly did I do to help heal my PCOS & FHA? That’s coming up in the next post...

 

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P.S. There is a new episode of "The Article We Were Too Lazy to Write" up! This one is on the importance of words, language, self talk, and related topics!