The athlete – who can do a 300-lb. squat – is hoping to inspire other women to love their bodies

By Ana Calderone
July 16, 2015 09:00 AM
Jackie Ricciardi for Boston University Photography

Before Boston University graduate Molly Kelly took up the sport of powerlifting in school, she was always concerned with being the smallest version of herself.

“I struggled really badly with disordered eating for a long time when I was younger,” the 22-year-old tells PEOPLE. “I always wanted to be smaller. I was always obsessed with being thin and so I always tried to eat less and run more – anything I could do to take up less space.”

But learning to master weight-lifting moves like the bench press, squat and dead lift helped the Connecticut native accept her body and its potential.

“My legs grew considerably, and at first it was intimidating because none of my pants or shorts fit,” she says. “But then I began to really love it because it was a sign of hard work. I built them!”

Kelly even got a reminder of her strength tattooed on her thigh.

“It says ‘strong’ and in parentheses ‘for a girl,’ kind of in a sarcastic way,” she says. ” ‘Strong for a girl’ is a really backhanded compliment that a lot of female athletes get, and I think it’s a way to undermine female strength. So I like to say, ‘I’m not strong for a girl, I’m just strong.’ ”

Now the athlete – who can do a 300-lb. squat – is hoping to inspire other women to love their bodies.

“I think that there’s something about being muscular that gives me a certain sort of power of taking up space in a room – making you feel like you can take up space in life, at work, in any circumstance,” she says. “It’s amazing, and I’d really like to help other women feel that way too.”

Her one piece of advice for women struggling with body image: “Do not let your weight define you. Do not let the size of your clothes define you. Do not let how much weight you lift define you. Define yourself. Love yourself.”