Name: Larissa M. Mercado-López
Location: Fresno, CA
What does being a Girl Gone Strong mean to you?
There is a word in Spanish word that I try to embody — chingona, or badass. The word is powerful for me because it comes from my identity as a Chicana, a woman of Mexican descent, and can mean whatever I believe is the most self-empowering. So, being a Chingona Girl Gone Strong means striving for fullness in everything I do, being kind to myself, and supporting others in their journeys. It means setting boundaries to protect my time and energy, unapologetically bringing my whole self to the table, and always speaking and living my truths.
How long have you been strength training, and how did you get started?
I picked up my first dumbbell at nine years old when I started throwing shot put during AAU summer track. I actually made it to the Junior Olympics twice, placing in the top 6 both times, and I broke a state record! I think it’s so important to get girls, especially, interested in lifting at an early age. The experience shifted the way I thought about bodies, so that larger and more muscular women’s bodies weren’t “gross” or “abnormal.” It expanded what I imagined to be possible for myself and helped me see all bodies as valuable.
At some point, everyone else hit puberty and passed me up in height and strength, but I still lifted to help myself with soccer. I also just plain enjoyed lifting! When I got to college, I approached strength training more seriously, but also developed eating and exercise disorders; these disorders are what motivated me to approach fitness not only physically but academically, and through feminism, I was able to confront and work through the messaging I had internalized about my body. Eventually, I got to a better place and now lift as regularly as my schedule will allow with kids and a full-time career in higher education!
All the squats!
Top 3 things you must have at the gym or in your gym bag:
Cell phone, protein shake, and towel.
Do you prefer to train alone or with others? Why?
I prefer strength training alone but I love moving in other ways with other people! I used to run a fitness collective in San Antonio, Texas, where I led four to eight women in a group workout every week at a neighborhood park. It was thrilling to watch them grow in their strength and endurance, and we laughed and bonded as we sweat and panted together. I love that exercise can serve a social and community-building function.
Most embarrassing gym moment:
A woman and I were showering in the shower stalls right next to each other when one of my jams came on and we both started singing — an impromptu duet!
Most memorable compliment you’ve received lately:
One of my favorite compliments will always be “Your class is my favorite.” If my classes can be a twice-a-week respite for any of my students, then I’ve done my job.
Most recent compliment you gave someone else:
My colleague and I happened to run the same race recently; she was running the 3k and I was running the 5k. I think it’s important to take pictures of my friends so that they can see themselves as they are working and playing, and take pride in those images, so I took some pictures of her as we crossed paths. When I sent them to her I told her that she had a “strong stride” and she revealed that she had been working with a personal trainer and had recently begun running!
Favorite way to treat yourself:
As an educator with four kids and a full-time job, I don’t have much time to write creatively. A treat would be getting away for a few hours to sip coffee and write!
Voyager, there is no path; one makes it as they walk — a rough translation from a poem by Antonio Machado.
What inspires and motivates you?
My children motivate me but my friends inspire me! I’m lucky to have friends who are artists, writers, academics, teachers, activists, and fitness professionals who are making important changes in our world and inspire me to be better.
What do you do?
As an associate professor of Women’s Studies, I have the best job in the world! Not only do I work with amazing students, but I get to be a part of a dynamic intellectual community, travel, research, write, and give invited lectures. I’m also a children’s book writer and writer for Girls Gone Strong!
What else do you do?
First, I am definitely a busy mother of four children, ages three to 13. I am also in the nascent stages of starting a consulting business to help fitness professionals make their businesses or gyms more inclusive and culturally competent.
What kinds of changes would you like to see in the fitness industry?
I’d love to see the fitness industry consult with more academics working in feminist studies, critical race studies, and fatness studies. We can all use experts from a variety of fields to inform our practices and philosophies.
There are so many ways in which the fitness industry can benefit from scholars and their research to increase their outreach, grow in their cultural competence, implement social justice practices, and develop more supportive strategies and resources for clientele. We should all be working together!
Your next training goal:
Master the pull-up!
Of what life accomplishment do you feel most proud?
Earning my PhD, achieving early tenure, and raising four children — it’s hard to choose just one.
Which three words best describe you?
Curious. Empathetic. Ambitious.
What’s a risk you’ve taken recently, and how did it turn out?
I took a Zumba class for the first time! I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed the challenge. It also inspired me to have my Latina Health students put together a campus event on Zumba, intersectionality, and inclusion. It’s amazing to see them grow in their comfort with their bodies through Zumba and to see how fitness practices can help grow community.
How has lifting weights changed your life?
Aside from the fact that it has eliminated my back pain, lifting weights has given me a wonderful analogy that has helped me teach students about what it takes to grow knowledge. As a women’s studies professor, I introduce students to ideas and realities that challenge their moral and philosophical core.
Learning, I tell them at the beginning, is much like the process of growing a muscle. Like a muscle that is trained hard, develops micro tears in its tissues, and with proper nourishment, repairs itself and grows, our mind too requires some discomfort, breaks down previously held ideas, and with proper nourishment, expands.
Lifting weights has taught me lessons about patience, growth, tolerance, and empowerment, and has made me a better mother, teacher, and person, overall.
What do you hope to inspire in others through your strength training?
I hope to inspire my daughters to find something they believe in and to pursue it, even if it means challenging expectations of what it means to be a “proper” girl or woman. I hope that watching me makes them feel like they can unapologetically invest time in themselves and continuously grow and set goals throughout their lives. As for my son, I hope to inspire him to respect women’s bodies and to believe that women have the right to occupy any place in the gym and the world.
What do you want to say to other women who might be nervous or hesitant about strength training?
Everyone is a beginner at one point or another; if you are consistent, you will always be stronger than you were the day before. It’s time to reclaim your place in the weight room and in this world.
What is your fitness dream?
To make Inclusive Fitness Consulting a reality and increase accessibility to fitness for all.
You can read Larissa’s articles for Girls Gone Strong here, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.