Promoting the Female Lifter

Art by Ariana Shaw, What The F Assistant Art Director

“Aren’t you afraid that your shoulders will be too big?” “Are you afraid of becoming too manly?” These are two common questions I and other female weightlifters hear. Unlike men, who are often praised for their dedication to the weight room, a built physique, and will to become stronger, women are often heavily discouraged and even ridiculed by society. Even when women are encouraged to strength train, the message spread by the media focuses more on socially constructed beauty standards than cognitive growth or reaching non-aesthetic goals. This double-standard permits men to be muscular, strong, and assertive, while making women fear social rejection if they cross the “gendered” lines. By concentrating primarily on appearance over health, the mainstream fitness community is pushing women out of the gym and ignoring the cognitive value of lifting. Instead of focusing on aesthetics, women should also be encouraged to weight train in order to dismantle the misogynistic narrative within the fitness industry. 

While the popularity of female strength training has been increasing, the “encouragement” from the media can still be demeaning and sexist, as shown by the female fitness magazine industry. Many fitness magazine headlines primarily focus on appearance instead of improving athletic performance or mental and physical vitality. Titles such as “7-ways to burn fat faster,” “17 Bodyweight Moves That Will Help You Sculpt Serious Abs” and promotions of weight-loss competitions preserve the idea that women should consistently consume less, be small, fear body fat, and place their value in how they look. These magazines are capitalizing on and preserving women’s socially invented fears of physically taking up space or straying from the physical norms. Also, these periodicals often focus on female celebrities and their weight or weight loss by dedicating entire blog pages and articles to their workouts and diets. By doing so, the media is forcing us to compare ourselves to celebrities who have resources that aren’t accessible to the average person, which sets unrealistic standards. 

Throughout history, the ideal female silhouette has fluctuated between incredibly curvy, to stick-thin, and everything in between. But no matter how curvy or toned the “ideal” feminine physique is, the one thing women are often told they shouldn’t be is bulky or muscular. Alba Carreres, in her article “Athletic Women Talk About the Abuse They Receive,” interviewed four athletes on the body-shaming experiences they’ve had due to being muscular. Statements ranged from “I’ve been called a man and a bull, and that no guy will ever want to go out with me,” and “As I walked past [a group of women], I heard one of them call me disgusting,” to, “a guy told me that if his girlfriend became as strong as me, he would break up with her.” Each of these experiences illuminates the severe sexism and stereotypes attached to muscular and athletic women. There is an exclusivity to physique and gender; women are to be small and toned, and men are supposed to be large and muscular. If the lines are blurred or boxes are broken, then people become quick to ridicule and shame. These athletes challenge the confines of their social cases and the association of muscles with masculinity. They are evidence of both the intense misogynistic ridicule within fitness and the empowerment women can experience when they weight-lift and push past the barriers.

Even in the gym, where one would expect more inclusivity of athletic or muscular women, there can be humiliation and prejudice against ladies who push past the misogynistic narrative that tells them to stay small, dainty, or passive. At my gym, I have a client that became a member with us after being forced out of her old gym. As a powerlifter, she is incredibly built, and her motivation is evident through her physique and ability to lift more than most men. Consistently, she was asked to wear pants or long sleeves because she was considered “too intimidating” to other gym members. Although other women at her gym also wore small shorts, sports bras or tighter tank tops, they weren’t told to cover up because they conformed to socially accepted body norms. When men walk around shirtless,  show off their muscles, lift heavy weights, and grunt in the gym, no one bats an eye. In fact, it’s almost expected within some gym cultures that they do. However, once a woman arrives and challenges that culture or wants to be included, suddenly “being intimidating” becomes disrupting, rude, and unacceptable. It is a double-standard that is established to keep women from becoming stronger, both socially and physically. 

In some circles, however, the strength of women is fully embraced and encouraged. CrossFit, a sport which focuses on functional movements, aerobic exercise, and moving large amounts of weight quickly, has become a popular workout, especially among women. In her article, “What Crossfit Can Teach Pro Sports About Gender Equality,” Katrin Davidsdottir discusses how, although Crossfit has separate competitive groups, it does not have gender-segregated workouts and holds everyone to the same athletic standards; “There is no fear of women ‘becoming too strong’”. In fact, they’re encouraged to reach their full potential and compete towards becoming the “World’s Strongest Woman.” Unlike many other competitive sports, such as track and field, Crossfit athletes compete within the same arena and gyms (known as “boxes”) and are paid an equal amount for their winnings. Every body-type or gender is encouraged to put forth their maximum effort, become as strong as possible, and improve their overall fitness for health and strength purposes. 

Although the misogynist socio-psychological experiences some women endure when they strength train may push them away from the gym, in some cases, these constraints can be incredibly motivating. In 2002, the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan and the National Center for Women and Wellness studied how the fitness intervention system called “Fitting in Fitness for Life (FIF)” could increase perceived empowerment and, therefore,  increase the likelihood of long-term fitness maintenance in women. The FIF approach “addresses increasing physical activity from both an individual cognitive-behavioural and a broader, sociopsychological perspective.” Consequently, FIF forced the female participants to discuss the social and internalized barriers keeping them from physical activity. The participants partook in “a combination of consciousness-raising activities, group discussions, written exercises, planning/strategizing and weekly evaluation” to increase maintenance of activity, embrace self-care and to view fitness as pleasurable. 

Overall, there was a significant increase in all levels of physical activity, including ones with weight training compared to the control group with no discussions. While addressing their social and personal confinements associated with fitness, these women were able to comprehend their behaviour from a broad perspective in order to create personal change. These discussions about the normative gender fitness stigmas preventing women from being active in supportive settings turned their oppression into a unifying agent of change that motivated them to break down their social boxes. 

Despite the social and cognitive advantages of promoting women to weightlift, there can still be repercussions, as evident through the bodybuilding culture. In a short documentary with The Guardian, Rene Campell, a female bodybuilder, discusses that despite the empowerment and feeling like a “body of armour”, bodybuilding has led to an unhealthy obsession with her physique. She developed obsessive tendencies, such as a regimented diet, workout plan and fixation with extreme dieting. As a result, her health degraded and her social life was impaired. However, to her, “training comes first.” Her muscles are her career and life; they demand obsessive attention and dedication because, as she says, “how else are you going to be very regimented and disciplined.” 

The bodybuilding physique represents the minority regarding beauty-standards, but, the demand for exceptionally lean and muscular bodies can still make women feel self-conscious. Within weightlifting, but particularly bodybuilding, the prevalence of Muscle Dysmorphia or “Bigorexia” has been increasing. Sufferers of the disorder are focused on increasing muscle mass and have a perceived lack of strength which they unhealthily obsess over, like Campbell. Similar to the conventionally idealized small frame, the lean and muscular physique evident within most weight-training based sports marks a standard or a physical expectation for women who lift. The weightlifting community, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, will naturally establish a new set of beauty standards. Nevertheless, it is important to still emphasize the need to avoid falling subject to them in order to evade the maturation of self and socially destructive habits.  

Prior to weightlifting, I dealt with crippling anxiety, depression and developed an eating disorder that lasted nearly three years. Initially, I started working out for aesthetic reasons and, unfortunately, used it as an obsessive substitute for my eating disorder. Although, soon after I started weight training, my gym time became my therapy and I experienced empowerment and mental clarity I hadn’t in years. If I could push my body and mind for an hour then, surely, I could discover better coping mechanisms for my mental disorders. And, beyond repairing my brain, that hour of lifting motivates me to be an example for other people who have either personal or social confines to escape from. 

Although the physical changes associated with weightlifting are wonderful, the mental strength gained from it is immeasurable. For many women, weight training represents so much more than a “look;” it teaches us to throw the metaphorical dumbbell at the socially manufactured fears of looking masculine or embarrassing ourselves within a gym. Even if the current fitness community won’t accept strong women, we should still keep pushing to find or make our own space. The social boxes set around us are temporary, illusory, and are meant to be dismantled. By encouraging women to weightlift, we are not just setting an example for females, but for anyone who feels like a minority or experiences prejudice that they can find strength.

Periwinkle Seljord

What The F Blog Contributor

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