When performance artist Bryony Kimmings started weightlifting in 2017, her body-confidence was at an all-time low.
“I’d had a baby and really felt that my body wasn’t my own anymore,” she says. ”It had gotten quite a lot bigger than it used to be. I felt really ugly and gross and fat. I’d never had an issue with my body before, but I could sense a shift within me where I’d really started to loathe it.”
Aware that focusing on weight loss might cause her self-worth to plummet further, she decided to channel her energy into getting strong – really strong – and spontaneously paid £600 for a year-long membership at a local bodybuilding gym in her London neighbourhood of Tufnell Park.
“I thought if I don’t do that, I won’t do it,” she says. “Over the course of a year it changed how I felt about myself so much. I can now look at my body and think ′I love you, you’re brilliant. You really move brilliantly and you’re so strong’ – I can do anything now.”
Kimmings is arguably more in touch with her emotions than most, as her theatre fearlessly focuses on her own past experiences. Her latest show, ‘I’m a Phoenix, Bitch’ follows her through post-natal depression, dealing with her son Frank’s epilepsy diagnosis, then learning to rebuild her life after the dust settled. And yet, she was surprised by the impact weightlifting had on her mental health.
“As soon as I was able to control the muscles in my body, it taught me that my brain could also be manipulated in that way"”
“I didn’t start it for mental health reasons. But what I realised was that the strength I was building in my physical body was making me feel mentally strong,” she says. “As soon as I was able to control the muscles in my body, to grow them and to make them do stuff that they’ve never done before, it taught me that my brain could also be manipulated in that way – and I went back into therapy because of that.”
Two years later, Kimmings still religiously lifts weights five times per week. She’s recently moved to Brighton, but squeezes a session in between the school run and work. “I’m a single mum so in the evenings it’s impossible to go to the gym. And also, have you ever been to the gym in the evening? It’s packed and there’s loads of fucking meatheads,” she jokes.
“When your child gets sick and there’s nothing you can do, you feel powerless in the chain of events in the universe"”
“All the blokes are in the weights bit, so the best time is just after the school run. No one’s awake yet who’s a meathead. Everybody’s either an old person or a mum.”
Kimmings describes enjoying the “mechanics” of weightlifting – knowing “if I eat this food and I do this exercise, I’ll be able to pick up that” – and that logic has helped her regain a sense of control after a whirlwind few years.
“When your child gets sick and there’s nothing you can do, the fallout of that is that you feel powerless in the chain of events in the universe,” she says. “By being able to go to the gym and have a technique, it’s a bit like meditation really, there is an element of it helping me feel like I have control over my own destiny.”
The confidence Kimmings has developed in the gym has transferred to almost every aspect of her life.
“I can go into a meeting now and think, ‘I couldn’t give a fuck about any of you lot, I’m going to win this meeting, I’m going to get what I want’,” she says.
“It makes me walk down the street and I think: ’If you touch me, I’ll kick your head in.′ It’s given me such confidence and it makes me feel so powerful that it’s insane – I didn’t know it would ever make me feel like that.”
She credits other enthusiasts in the first bodybuilder gym she went to with helping her find her stride in the sport and inspiring her to keep going.
“There was only a handful of women there and they were fucking ripped. It was great because there was never any sexism in that place because it was very clear women could do the same as men – they were doing the same exercises, it was just a different gender,” she says.
“They were all really supportive which really helped me. It was never a case of ‘what are you doing in here?’ If you ever needed any help, everyone was super helpful because everyone in there loved it.”
For any women intimidated but tempted to try weightlifting, Kimmings suggests booking onto a powerlifting session with a female instructor. It doesn’t matter if you don’t fit in with the stereotypical bodybuilder aesthetic, she adds.
“When I tell people I weight-lift, often they say ‘well, you don’t look like you do’, because I’m really skinny, I’ve got quite a slight frame. But that’s not really the point – I’m not trying to be the Hulk. I’m just trying to have a healthy relationship with myself,” she says.
“I’ve got bigger shoulders now and more muscle definition than I ever had before... but it’s along that problematic ‘thigh gap mentality’ to listen when people say ‘you don’t look very big’. Any kind of obsession around what you look like is the wrong kind of obsession for me.
“Fitness should be about how you feel, and if I feel strong, mentally and physically, then I must be doing fine.”
Bryony Kimmings performs ‘I’m a Phoenix, Bitch’ at Battersea Arts Centre from 20 Feb to 9 March, then Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts from 3 to 7 May. For tickets and more info please visit bac.org.uk and attenboroughcentre.com
In ‘What Works For Me’ – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about their self-care strategies.