The Curious Contradiction of the Heavyweight Athlete
by Jessica Fithen
“Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” - Erin McKean
I scrolled through a popular weightlifting account on Instagram, comparing the comments left for two popular, talented athletes. Both athletes were at the top of their game, both were Olympic medalists, and both had a successful competition. Both were heavyweights, and had similar physiques. The only difference was one athlete was a woman, and the other athlete was a man.
The comments left for Georgian weightlifter Lasha Talakhadze were almost universally positive, ranging from “god” to “beast” to “greatest of all time,” and “incredible athlete.” In fact I grew tired of scrolling literally hundreds and hundreds of comments scouring for one single piece of negative feedback.
On the same site, the comments left for American weightlifter Sarah Robles (@roblympian) were predictably full of sexism and misogyny. It didn’t take more than a few comments to slide by before the first one popped up, “Sponsored by McDonalds.” This was quickly followed by, “Look at that tummy jiggle,” “Cool a bodyweight lift,” and “I don’t care what you say this shit isn’t healthy.”
But wait a minute. Where were the comments on Lasha’s post critiquing his body, making fun of his diet, or announcing to the world they find him sexually unappealing? They didn’t exist. Sarah, on the other hand, is routinely harassed on social media for her body, with men leaving comments like “athlete” (the quotes in this case being added by the man to make a joke that she is not, actually, an athlete - you can see that post, here) or “concern trolling” (a type of trolling that gives the perception the harasser is only concerned for the person’s supposed lack of health, not that he finds them visually unappealing.)
The message: it is acceptable for Lasha, a man, to be “overweight” to achieve his goals in weightlifting, but it is not acceptable for a woman, Sarah, to do the same.
In powerlifting, more and more women have fallen in love with the sport. Gone are the days where women in the weight room is a confusing sight, and it is no longer seen as “extreme” that a woman picks up a barbell. Unfortunately, as the ranks of women have grown, societal pressure on women to not only lift well – but be physically attractive to men while doing so, has increased. It’s slowly become less about the weight on the bar, and more about the weight on your body.
Sixteen-year-old heavyweight powerlifter Mahailya Reeves (@mahailya_myshelle) came on the scene by storm. The teen boasts a 540lb squat, a 375lb bench and a 463lb deadlift, all within her first two years of competing. Every single time her incredible feats of strength are shared on any major outlet, the relentless attacks on her appearance and her bodyweight are enough to make anyone lose faith in humanity.
“Let’s go bodyweight squat!”
“That’s just an obese dude with a wig”
“Cool but being that fat is not fucking healthy”
“If I was 1000lbs I would be able to squat 1000lbs too, that’s not impressive it’s sad”
“She’s just doing her bodyweight and are we sure that’s a girl?”
Comparatively, powerlifter Ray Williams, largely regarded as one of the greatest squatters who will ever live, shares a similar physique, yet is hailed as a hero. Aren’t his sponsors and his 200,000 Instagram followers concerned with Ray’s health too? Or is it that Ray is not expected to be visually appealing (read: slender) and therefore given a pass on appearance trolling during his feats of strength.
As a heavyweight athlete myself, I have often been the target of this commentary. Last month I competed at the Arnold in Columbus, Ohio, as a part of the women’s Pro Strongwoman division. I was also given the opportunity to compete in a Rogue Fitness Record Breaker attempt, which was a circus dumbbell max lift set to 180lbs, alongside three other amazing women.
As the video was live streamed, in came the comments attacking our bodies. My favorite comment left on the Rogue YouTube video was “Good for Samantha! A strong and actually in shape strong woman!” The implication was that because Sam (the athlete pictured far right) weighs less than myself (pictured second from right) and my other competitors (both World’s Strongest Woman multiple year winners), she is by default the only one “in shape.”
Hilariously, later on in the competition I loaded a 240lb tacky-free Atlas stone over a bar a ridiculous 34 times in a last woman standing event, which leads me to believe I have fairly decent conditioning. *shrugs*
Could it be that “in shape” isn’t what this man meant at all, but more likely, who he found the most visually appealing? After all, where are the comments left on the men’s Strongman videos, attacking their bodies? I rarely come across any commentary left for any pro competitor in my sport that is berating them for not being “hot” while competing. Shhh, Thor, smile more! You really need to lose some weight, it’s not good for you honey.
Speaking of Thor, check out these comments left for Ragnheiður Jónasdóttir (@ragnheidurjonasdottir), a woman who trains at his gym in Iceland. Now keep in mind Thor's body weight clocks in over 400lbs. But if you're a woman, even training one training at his gym? You need to be skinny.
"So cute and sexy.... NOT. If I were you I would focus more on cardio. No one wants to look at your saggy arms...I thought you were a shemale with a beard for a moment."
And the ever so helpful, "Girl needs a diet coke every now and then."
Cute and sexy? Who's trying to be cute and sexy? Why is it assumed - and expected - our goal in everything we do is to be cute and sexy? She's trying to get strong. If she wants to be "cute and sexy," that's cool. But if that's not her primary focus (or even any focus, at all), that's also cool.
She doesn't owe you cute and sexy as her payment for existing in this world as a woman. I don't recall anyone lashing out at Eddie Hall or Brian Shaw for not being "cute and sexy" in any of their videos.
In sports even outside the strength world, the message continues to be clear. Women exist to turn men on sexually, first, as our primary means of measuring self-worth, even during an athletic competition. Hey that’s cool that you have a 500lb squat, but what do you look like in a bikini? Oh sweetie, men don’t care about your world record dumbbell lift, they just want to you look sexy in a dress. Nice deadlift, but you really need to get a boob job! And above all else, remember it’s not “hot” to compete as a heavyweight athlete as a woman.
Know one thing. The barbell doesn’t care about your sex appeal. The stone doesn’t care what you look like in a sundress. You don't "owe anyone pretty" because you're a woman. Are you happy with YOU? That is what counts.
Jessica Fithen (@filthy_fithen) is a competitor in the sport of Strongman and creator of You Look Like A Man.