Women and Weightlifting?

12 05 2009

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.

He writes:

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.

The double bind that she refers to includes lose-lose situations that women have virtually no way to be right in, like whether or not to have a baby (if she chooses not to have a baby then she is selfish, but if she has a baby she is criticized for giving up her career to have a family) or being sexually active or inactive (if she is “too” sexually active then she’s a slut but if she’s not sexually active then she’s a prude or accused of being a lesbian). But back to oppression. It means having an absolute lack of choices and being rendered completely impotent and molded by structural forces that work to maintain the status quo. When she writes of being caged in from all avenues, in every direction, she refers to the interlocking oppressions – racism, classism, sexism, ableism, fatism, etc., and how they work together to erase one’s choices and autonomy.

So regarding women and weightlifting, are women who lift weights stigmatized? Certainly. Are they discouraged from lifting weights because it’s “unfeminine”? Certainly. Are they harassed in the weight room? Certainly. But to say that women are oppressed in the weight room may be a bit of a stretch. Women and their experiences in the weight room are a good example of patriarchy in everyday life and how sexism and the politics of masculinity and femininity intersect to perpetuate gender binaries and gender norms.

Our friend goes on to write:

But there’s something wrong when women believe that it’s unacceptable to be strong at all, that it’s “unfeminine” or “unwomanly.” It’s hypocritical to tell people to be the best that they can be and then chide women for being too athletic, too muscular, too strong. Even women who are strong in non-physical aspects can’t win – people throw around the term “bitch” to describe headstrong women thinking it’s a compliment, when at the same time it ascribes a host of negative qualities that may or may not be true. Strong men are strong. Strong women are bitches. Women can’t win.

Two things: first of all, this speaks to a double standard in which a hard working woman in power is a bitch whereas a hard working man in power is just a powerful, successful man. Women generally have to work harder than men do to achieve recognition or praise for doing the same tasks/jobs. When a woman performs a job poorly it is perceived as an extension of women as a whole, whereas if a man performs a job poorly then it is just a reflection of him, not men as a whole.

Secondly, while women are discouraged from certain athletic events and discouraged from bulking up too much and being “too” physically strong because having big strong muscles is “masculine”, men are discouraged from being weight or appearance conscious because that’s “feminine”. Men who watch what they eat and are health conscious tend to keep it on the down-low because that’s considered “unmanly”, because men aren’t supposed to care about what’s on their plate and what they eat. Because they can eat whatever, since they work it all off anyway. Thoughts?

All in all, this is an interesting blog post and we recommend that you check it out.



One response

13 05 2009

Your friend asks: “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?”

There’s a pretty simple answer to this question. Whereas strong women like Thatcher, Meir, and Merkel have “character, willpower, and spirit” that rivals any man’s, Florczyk’s physical strength is only remarkable when compared to the strength of other women. For instance, her maximum bench press is 135 kg — not quite 300 lbs. Now, while that’s truly amazing for a woman, it’s only mildly impressive for a man. There are dozens upon dozens of guys at Tufts who can bench that.

Moreover, I don’t think the argument is really unique to women athletes. How many of you can name a single powerlifter, olympic weightlifter, or body builder other than Arnold? He’s only famous because of his career in acting/politics. The point is, the prevalence of strength sports was pretty marginal the U.S. until the 1970s fitness craze. Even now, the number of strength athletes who are household names are in the single digits. I don’t think you have to look for sexism to explain the lack of attention given to female strength athletes–or the lack of female interest in strength sports.

That said, your friend is right that almost anyone can benefit from weight training. He’s also right that women are silly for worrying about getting “too big.” I know guys who train years and years trying to add two inches to their arms. Fact is, the huge majority of women just don’t have the hormones or muscle fiber density to noticeably increase muscle mass.

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