A friend and ally sent us a link to a post he recently put up on his blog about women and weightlifting that asks “Are Women Oppressed in the Weight Room?” This is a topic that I have honestly not given much thought before, so I’m grateful that he brought this to my attention.
But when we think of “strong women” and “iron ladies”, it is all about strength of character, willpower, and spirit. It’s Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir and Angela Merkel. But why is it not women like Aneta Florczyk?
It’s interesting… physical strength is an attribute that women are not supposed to have. The ideal female physique is socially constructed as thin and delicate. In “feminine” sports, female athletes tend to be small and thin even if they do have muscles – look at figure skaters, swimmers/divers, gymnasts, and dancers. Physical strength, and having big, strong muscles, just isn’t feminine.
The fact is, women are oppressed in the weight room. To even get there, a woman has to overcome the discouragement of her peers and family members, the insecurities about her femininity, the intimidation of stepping away from the elliptical machines to a part of the gym where there are a lot of big, sweaty men. When she gets there, she have to deal with the jeering and mocking of guys who hit on and patronize her, treating her like she don’t know what she’s doing, offering to “spot” her when she’d rather just be left alone. There’s a system here that keeps women weak, and by definition less “useful” than men, whether or not it was designed with that intention in the first place. What else are you going to call a society that makes it acceptable for men to be physically strong, and not women?
I hesitate to use the word “oppressed”, though… According to feminist scholar Marilyn Frye:
The root of the word “oppression” is the element “press.” The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.
The mundane experience of the oppressed provides another clue. One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.
The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.