Content note: This piece mentions sexual assault. If you need support, you can call the confidential National Sexual Assault Support Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
At the gym, Paula O. Lockhart racks up some serious numbers. Her recent accomplishments include 367 pounds on the leg press, flipping an 80-pound tire in sets of 12 and deadlifting 170 pounds. She’s currently working up to a 135-pound chest press. But the journey to get here has been a long one.
As a young girl, Lockhart was interested in cheerleading and volleyball but she says, “the combination of the fact that I was a shy, fat, Black kid and I never saw kids that looked like me playing sports” meant she remained a spectator. Plus, she adds, “coming from a single parent household where my mom was doing her best, money for extra-curriculars would have been a stretch.” Instead, she participated in school plays, where she discovered a love of acting that helped her overcome her shyness.
In 2011, she was sophomore at Wesleyan College, a private liberal arts college for women in Macon, Georgia, double majoring in theater and communication. She decided to audition for a musical and started working out as a way to gain the stamina she knew she would need. Lockhart was cast to play a man.
“When you go to an all-girls school and want to get cast in shows, inevitably there will be a time when you have to play a man.” She felt, she says, “like I might be here for no reason. Everyone else is getting great roles. When you’re fat, you get cast as the grandma, the funny friend, the side kick, a dude.”
She was further frustrated that as a solid actor cast in supporting roles, the director wasn’t giving her much, well… direction, which is an issue for someone who’s studying theater.
The Power of Weightlifting
Lockhart found an outlet for her frustration in a Crossfit class. While she wasn’t a fan of the “yelling” and the “herd mentality,” she did feel that being there she was “able to take control of something, and it gave me a sense of peace.”
Her packed academic schedule didn’t allow space for another Crossfit class, but her work study program gave her a job at the front desk of the university’s athletic center. She asked the head of the gym to show her around and started trying different machines and workouts.
Lockhart found she loved weightlifting because, she explains, “there’s no finite endpoint. Even if I’m lifting the same amount of weight as yesterday, there’s always something different that I can focus on.”
She also fell in love with the more solitary nature of it. “Weightlifting gives me the chance to be my own competitor. It’s the one time I am devoted solely to thinking about myself and my progress. It’s not necessarily about the output, but about you, yourself, in the focus and mental dexterity.”
When I ask about any downsides of weightlifting, she doesn’t hesitate to tell me that a lot of it is dealing with other people’s unsolicited comments and advice. After 10 years of weightlifting, people still come up to her and say things like “I’m so proud of you, just stick with it and in eight weeks you’re going to see progress.'” Once a woman gave her advice based on seeing Lockhart’s ten-minute cardio warm-up and assuming that was her entire workout.
Knowing that kind of unsolicited advice does real damage and makes people feel out of place in a space in which they are trying to become comfortable, Lockhart models boundary setting, earning a reputation as “the lady at the gym in the bright outfits that will not hesitate to tell you to leave her alone.”
Lockhart also shared that she has experienced racism frequently from white men at the gym who feel entitled to “all the space in this gym,” refusing to let her work out and doing things like moving her stuff and taking her spot when she turns her back. They take the attitude that “this is my space that you are infringing upon,” Lockhart says. She feels that their behavior is a clear message that they don’t want the gym to be inclusive.
Working Out for Healing
Yet, the gym has also been a source of deep healing for Lockhart. In 2019, she was working out behind two big guys who were doing 80-pound shoulder presses and dropping the weights from their fully extended arms. When she asked them to control the weights so that they didn’t hit her with them, the two six-feet-plus men became combative.
As she left the gym, she had a visceral reaction to an experience from five years prior. During her first year of graduate school in 2014, she was sexually assaulted. Soon after, she saw the man who had sexually assaulted her at the gym. She ran out and didn’t go back for weeks.
As she left the gym that day in 2019, she had a realization. “Here I was, about to let my space get taken again.” Instead, working with her therapist, she decided that this time would be different. She told her family and friends what had happened to her, and she walked back into the gym with her head held high, fully reclaiming her space.
Among her fitness accomplishments and personal best lifts, Lockhart says that a very big accomplishment for her is “being able consistently think about fitness in a holistic sense and really taking a full-fledged step away from the scale and not being scared to say that I don’t look at the scale.”
Becoming More Inclusive
When it comes to making the gym more inclusive, Lockhart says it starts with staffing, not just people of different races but also body types, so that everyone who walks in the gym will see people who look like them. She also points out that the staff needs to be not only diverse, but also specifically inclusive, which means that everyone is greeted warmly and made to feel a part of the community. She adds that the focus from the staff shouldn’t be on body size and should come from a weight-neutral perspective.
She also wishes the weight lifting community were more inclusive of those who are focused on “quality over quantity.” She adds, “I’m not just trying to lift, lift, lift. I am connecting in my body and taking care of my body.”
Lockhart, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, keeps busy. She’s the program manager for the Governor’s School for the Arts and an artist educator at a local theater, where she’s creating a class specifically about playwrights who are People of Color. She also was recently the winner of a Black Artist Fund Grant from the Louisville Fund For The Arts. She’s using the grant to write and produce a one-woman show that started as a monologue called “Fat Body” that she wrote in 2017 for a show she was in at the time. She will be using her own experiences to talk about how fatphobia is an issue across society, as well as how fatphobia can more harshly affect Black women due to the intersections of fatphobia and racism.
When she’s not working, teaching, researching, writing and performing, she’s still lifting and loving it.
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