As she picked the barbell up off of the floor, psychology sophomore Bella Johnson could not help but think about her mom.
Johnson did not like the way she looked in the mirror as a child. She thought she would be prettier if her thighs did not touch. At age 10, she had attempted multiple diets to lose weight or to look different than the reflection she saw in the mirror.
Johnson said she felt this pressure from society to look a certain way. She said she would often see models portrayed as beautiful and wish she looked like them.
At the age of 13, Johnson was restricting herself to eating 500 calories a day — essentially a starvation diet — and began to induce self-vomiting. Before long, she went to therapy. She was never diagnosed as bulimic or anorexic because she had the symptoms of both. Therapy helped, but Johnson said she still did not feel fully recovered.
It was not until Johnson’s mom got her started powerlifting that everything started to change. She discovered she was naturally better suited for strength training over cardio training and began to look for ways to use this newfound skill.
Powerlifting is different than the jerky, fast movements that can be seen in olympic weightlifting. While lifts can be fast when training for a meet, lifts are slow at the meet because the weights are much heavier than the weights used to train with. Johnson’s uncle was a state championship powerlifter — this is where her mother got the idea.
The sport also has less to do with aesthetics, which was a large part of why Johnson said she was dieting in the first place. Powerlifting is more about pushing the body to see what one is capable of, according to Johnson. Johnson’s mom began looking for meets for her to have an outlet to help her recover from her eating disorder.
Johnson and her mom found a Washington State Championship meet in 2014; she signed up. Johnson was amazed at what her body could do and she took four state records at her first meet.
For Johnson, powerlifting became a form of self-love.
“Powerlifting is a way to become the strongest version of myself physically and mentally,” Johnson said. “Powerlifting helped me take that last step into recovery.”
After the Washington State meet, Johnson joined a powerlifting gym in Washington, and has been powerlifting for five years since.
“Powerlifting has allowed me to be more comfortable in my own skin,” Johnson said.
Now that Johnson is a powerlifter, she feels differently about the models and views society has on beauty.
“There’s something empowering about rebelling against femininity norms that induced or triggered my eating disorder,” Johnson said.
Cal Poly Eating Disorders Treatment Coordinator Sarah J. Park said that while social media is not the only trigger for eating disorders, she is hearing more and more about the role of social media when it comes to these disorders.
“It’s never been easier to compare ourselves to others than it is now. Our social media presence is usually our best self,” Park said.
Park said she hears many people respond to eating disorders with, “Oh, just eat normally,” but Park stresses that it is much more complex than that.
“It’s all about the food and not about the food at all. It’s about control and perfectionism,” Park said.
As a female powerlifter, Johnson said there is a misconception revolving around heavy weight training and femininity. She said the biggest misconception is that women will be bulky from the weight training, which is not true. The training will just tone and tighten the body up, according to Johnson.
Johnson’s coach, Brenna Patterson, said powerlifting has helped her put a purpose to her gym routine. Even in high school, Patterson had broad shoulders and looked muscular. She felt this was odd for a girl. Powerlifting helped her feel more comfortable.
“It’s nice to put a purpose to everything and be proud of the muscle I gained,” Patterson said.
Johnson would eventually go to nationals, a large powerlifting event that has thousands of competitors. Before nationals, Johnson’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. In early May of the same year, she went into hospice care. Just four days before nationals, Johnson’s mom, the one who got her into powerlifting in the first place, died. Johnson told herself that she would go to nationals because it was what her mom would have wanted for her.
Johnson placed third in her weight class and age group.
“I did it for her,” Johnson said.
The meet solidified Johnson’s belief in powerlifting. While she was there, the meet director took the microphone and spoke to the crowd for a minute. He talked about the meet in general, but he also talked about how Johnson had just lost her mother. Johnson broke into tears and the crowd stood and applauded her.
“It made me hold powerlifting that much closer to my heart,” Johnson said. “It kept me afloat.”
While Johnson loves her sport, she said balance is important for sustainability and happiness. Singing is a passion of hers and she recently donated $6,000 to cancer research from six songs she released on iTunes. All the songs were dedicated to her mom.
“When life knocked me down, powerlifting helped me find the strength within to pick myself back up,” Johnson said.