Microaggressions Against Women Who Lift

Microaggressions Against Women Who Lift

Microaggressions Against Women Who Lift as a Reflection of Toxic Hegemonic Masculinity

by Colette Jesson

In this research project, my goals were to examine the ways women who lift weights experience microaggressions, evaluate the ways in which these microaggressions operate, and to inform a larger audience about the presence of microaggressions towards women who lift, how they are used, and how women have (or wanted to) respond to them.

Women in general experience microaggressions daily. However, women who participate in activities society perceives as masculine or do not look as “feminine” as the way society expects women to experience different types of microaggressions.

Through my research, I looked at how women who lift weights report their experience of microaggressions, what kind of microaggressions they were, and how they chose to respond, not respond, or wish they responded. While people who are not involved in strength sports like weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman/strongwoman, or sports that require lifting weights such as bodybuilding and CrossFit, might not realize how often women who do experience microaggressions as a result of their participation in lifting weights, it is an acknowledged and unfortunately accepted result of the clash between general society and female strength culture by female participants.

Feminist theory states that society is constructed in a way that benefits men by disadvantaging women through the construction and reinforcement of strict gender roles.

As society continues to evolve it should be noted that the patriarchy (the sociocultural hierarchy that benefits men by disadvantaging women) is a dynamic system constantly reproduced and reconstructed through gender relations under ever-changing conditions, including resistance by subordinate groups (Wedgewood, 2009). Masculinities theory recognizes that the patriarchy has negative effects on women, but also notes negative effects on men as well. By creating clear and defined gender roles, society pressures men into performing masculinity as defined by society’s construction of gender, including negative and toxic aspects (Sculos, 2017).

This sociocultural pressure to perform and conform is known as hegemony. However, it is important to understand that hegemony requires the consent of all men (and some women) to maintain the patriarchy (Hearn, 2004). The aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are toxic to both genders and to society, commonly referred to as toxic masculinity, include hyper-competitiveness, tendency towards and glorification of violence, chauvinism, sexism and misogyny, rigid conceptions of sexual/gender identity and roles, heteronormativity, entitlement to (sexual) attention from women, (sexual) objectification of women, and the infantilization of women (Sculos, 2017).

Although gender roles are fairly noticeable in mainstream culture nowadays, they tend to have some nuance in the fields of exercise and sport, such as women should only participate in cardio, or cardiovascular-based sports like running in order to remain “slim” and “toned” and avoid getting too “bulky and manly," while men should lift weights and compete in strength and power-based sports to “get ripped and strong."

Women are actively discouraged from participating in strength and power sports in order to maintain a hierarchy in which men are considered physically stronger which allows for the continued justification of society to benefit men over women. While women’s athletics have come a long way, it should still be noted that women’s weightlifting was only added into the Olympics in 2000, and that many women who participate in more “masculine” sports still face significant criticism from society. These criticisms often come in the form of microaggressions.

Microaggressions are commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental interactions that communicate negative, derogatory, or hostile slights and insults, whether intentional or unintentional, towards members of oppressed groups (Sue, 2010).

Allen and Frisby conducted a study that found differences in number and type of microaggressions between women’s sports at the 2016 Olympics, with gymnastics and weightlifting had the most overall number (2017).  Weightlifting had the most in the categories of restrictive gender roles, traditional physical appearance, and focus on physical body type/shape (Allen & Frisby, 2017). Other studies, such as Kaskan and Ho (2014) divided microaggressions into categories of inferiority, objectification, and restrictive gender roles, while Gearity and Metzger (2017) divided sexist microaggressions have 7 different categories: sexual objectification, second class citizens, assumptions of inferiority, denial of the reality of sexism, assumption of traditional gender roles, use of sexist language, and denial of individual sexism.

It is important to recognize that types of sexist microaggression have significant overlap with aspects of toxic masculinity.

Aspects of toxic masculinity such as chauvinism, sexism and misogyny, rigid conceptions of sexual/gender identity and roles, heteronormativity, entitlement to (sexual) attention from women, (sexual) objectification of women, and the infantilization of women encourage men to engage in sexist microaggressions in order to maintain the patriarchy. Sexist microaggressions are a direct reflection of toxic masculinity throughout society, but also the individuals who commit sexist microaggressions.

Gearity and Metzger also noted that sexist microaggressions might also be attempted to be framed as “well-meaning” or “chivalrous." However, all sexist microaggressions are meant to stop or deter women from continuing to participate in the activity or behavior (Kaskan & Ho, 2014). In the case of women’s athletics, sexist microaggressions are used to stop women from participating, performing, or competing in sports overall, but especially “masculine” sports (Allen & Frisby, 2017).

Women who compete in “masculine” sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman/strongwoman, and bodybuilding often face microaggressions on two fronts: both that they aren’t conforming to female gender roles and that they are performing aspects of male gender roles by participating in lifting weights and in some cases actively building muscle mass.

As a result, the sexist microaggressions have two themes:

  1. if you are a woman you should conform to female gender roles
  2. if you are going to perform “masculine” activities and some aspects of masculinity, you must be a man who should conform to male gender roles, including and especially traits of toxic masculinity

While many sexist microaggressions are committed as a result of toxic masculinity, many microaggressions are made suggesting that the women they are directed at should be performing aspects of toxic masculinity as well such as hyper-competitiveness, tendency towards and glorification of violence, rigid conceptions of sexual/gender identity and roles, and heteronormativity.

For my research, I looked at Instagram posts of top female athletes from weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman/strongwoman, CrossFit, and bodybuilding, as well as the Instagram page @you.look.like.a.man which reposts submissions of comments received by women who lift as a result of them lifting weights.

You Look Like a Man was crucial to my research as it allowed me to find microaggressions directed towards average, everyday lifters and not just elite athletes. I divided up these microaggressions into 7 categories: assumption of traditional gender roles, sexual objectification/fetishization, assumptions of gender/sexuality, infantilization and assumptions of fragility, assumptions of inferiority, assumptions of toxicly masculine traits, and denial of reality of sexism.

  • Microaggressions involving the assumption of traditional gender roles involve outright stating traditional gender roles, “get back in the kitchen” and “make me a sandwich” type comments, as well as comments about what women and femininity are supposed to look like.
  • Sexual objectification/fetishization microaggressions are ones that involve outright sexual advances, unsolicited pictures of penises, and sexual comments, as a response to publicly posted lifting photos or videos, as well as comments or direct messages trying to involve women in the aggressor’s fetish (usually ones that involve women dominating or being stronger than men).
  • Microaggressions in the assumptions of gender/sexuality are comments assuming one’s gender or sexuality based on their appearance or participation in lifting weights. Common ones include questioning whether or not women are “real women," trans women, or men, as well as assuming women are gay/lesbian for lifting weights, or assuming all women are straight with heteronormative comments like “how will you find a boyfriend/husband."
  • Infantilization and assumptions of fragility microaggressions involve assuming the female body is fragile as well as unsolicited advice and talking down to female lifters.
  • Assumptions of inferiority microaggressions are microaggressions that simply assume women are weaker than or inferior to men.
  • Assumption of toxic masculine traits microaggressions are unique to this study as sports that society has deemed masculine, such as lifting weights, have societally implemented assumptions about those who participate as they are usually men that society has deemed as “the most” masculine. People then are inclined to believe that those who participate engage in all aspects of masculinity, including the toxic aspects, such as a tendency towards hyper-competitiveness, violence and anger. These type of microaggressive comments include ones like “I wouldn’t want to meet you in a dark alley," “’roid rage," and “do you want to fight."
  • The last type of microaggression I looked at was denials of the reality of sexism. These types of microaggressions are not outright aggressions but allow the system of sexism to continue by both denying women the reality of and ignoring its existence and influences.

Many of the comments I looked at involved more than one type of microaggression. I noted which type(s) a comment fell into, totaled them up, then looked at the percentages of each type I found.

Category

Percent of Overall

Assumption of Traditional Gender Roles

24%

Sexual Objectification/Fetishization

20%

Assumptions of Gender/Sexuality

19%

Infantilization and Assumption of Fragility

17%

Assumptions of Inferiority

11%

Assumptions of Toxicly Masculine Traits

6%

Denial of Realities of Sexism

3%

 

The final form of my project is web comics that can be distributed and reposted of social media in order to raise awareness of these microaggressions, as well as make fun of those who perpetrate them. I chose this format because it acts in a similar and opposite way that the microaggressions occur: online.

Microaggressions not occurring online are often reported by the women they were directed at as a social media post or comment. Many women are inundated with microaggressions daily, especially top athletes who have a large following and are going “to the extreme” in their sport.

Web comics allow women some comic relief and help to provide the message that they are not alone in their experiences. It also allows for rebuttals to these microaggressions that women have experienced, but at the time were not able to or felt uncomfortable with responding to.

I took actual experiences of microaggressions from women as well as, in some cases real and in some cases fantasy or exaggerated, responses to those microaggressions and made them into comic form. The comic form also allows for some distance from reality of the viewer, so the reality of the situation is not causing the same stress being on the receiving end of the microaggression causes.

About the author: Colette Jesson (@colette_jesson) is a 3rd year Kinesiology student at the University of British Columbia. She competes in the sports of both weightlifting and powerlifting. 

 

References

Allen, K. & Frisby, C. M. (2017). A content analysis of micro aggressions in news stories about female athletes participating in the 2012 and 2016 summer Olympics. Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism. 7(3). doi: 10.4172/2165-7912.1000334

American Psychological Association (2018). Harmful masculinity and violence:  Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2018/09/harmful-masculinity

Brown, K. (2019). How toxic masculinity harms men and society as a whole. Focus for Health. Retrieved from: https://www.focusforhealth.org/how-toxic-masculinity-harms-men-and-society-as-a-whole/

Hearn, J. (2004). From hegemonic masculinity to the hegemony of men. Feminist Theory, 5(1), 49–72. doi: 10.1177/1464700104040813

Kaskan, E.R. & Ho, I. K. (2016) Microaggressions and Female Athletes. Sex Roles. 74, 275–287. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0425-1

Gearity, B. T., & Metzger, L. (2017). Intersectionality, microaggressions, and microaffirmations: Toward a cultural praxis of sport coaching. Sociology of Sport Journal. 34(2), 160-175. doi:  https://journals-humankinetics.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/journals/ssj/34/2/ article-p160.xml

Miller, K.E. (2010). Wired: Energy drinks, jock identity, masculine norms, and risk taking. Journal of American College Health. 56(5) p. 481-490. doi: 10.3200/JACH.56.5.481-490

Novotny, S. A., Warren, G. L., & Hamrick, M. W. (2015). Aging and the muscle-bone relationship. Physiology (Bethesda, Md.), 30(1), 8–16. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00033.2014

Sculos, B. W. (2017). Who’s afraid of toxic masculinity?. U.S. Labor and Social Justice. 5(3) 6. doi: 10.25148/CRCP.5.3.006517

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender and sexual orientation.

Hoboken: Wiley Wedgewood, N. (2009). Connell's theory of masculinity – its origins and influences on the study of gender. Journal of Gender Studies. 18(4) p. 329-339. doi:10.1080/09589230903260001

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