On the plight of modern female strength athletes and related topics

A number of problems exist in strength and conditioning and athletics that have meant an unnecessarily unbalanced and uphill climb for female athletes and strength coaches, and I'd like to elucidate some of those concerns here. Far from speaking definitively, it's my hope just to bring my own perspective as an athlete, a coach, and an observer. Forgive me if my writing either does not match your scope and view of the problems at hand, does not accurately portray the problems, or seems exclusive of specific groups, interests, or ideas.

Speaking to norms of beauty:

While the modern concept of a "gym" and of resistance training as a casual pursuit outside of sport-specific training has only been around for less than a half century, there have been societal pressures on females to look (and act) in specific ways back as far as I've been aware in history. These norms include pressures to be attractive as defined by the style and culture of the time, not for one's own sake, but for the sake of mate attraction and preconceived notions of beauty. One doesn't have to look far to find self-destructive practices built into the very ideas of beauty themselves: small feet, small frames paired with exaggerated reproductive features, signs of youth such as smooth skin, clear eyes, healthy hair and eyelashes. The pursuit of these and more have left many women idolizing either real or in most cases impossible physiques (thanks, Photoshop, Barbie, etc.) to the point that modern and prior cultures have embraced. We see females seeking breast/butt implants, fake eyelashes, makeup covering blemishes, fake hair, colored eye contact lenses, Botox, skin surgery, and on and on. The nature of an exaggerated and singularly driving message that "this is the standard image of Western beauty, and if you don't have it or aren't it, you must work to achieve it to have value as a human in your own eyes and the eyes of others" is a destructive message.

The simple fact that butt implants are a new phenomena shows that the definition of what "attractive" is in societal and male-dominated perspectives is an ever-changing one. The simple (massive) increase in spandex and form-fitting clothing has tended to sexualize the fitness space in a way that shouldn't belong, and turned the gym into a place where women can expect to receive unwanted attention despite their best efforts. If I can wear tight/compression leggings because it gets fabric out of the way and I'm able to complete my training better, women should be afforded the same opportunity without expecting advances and comments, or it immediately sexualizing training movements when that hasn't even entered the intentions or expectations of the athlete at hand. 

I'm doubtful we will ever be free from a norm reference for beauty, but I'm hopeful that we can (1) make it a more realistic (actually real) standard and (2) that we can build in a message of acceptance, that there is more to life than looking a certain way, that one can find self-acceptance, happiness, pair-bonding and deep contentment without any of this. To be sure, males engage in peacocking as well in attempts to seek mates or sex. Putting oneself in their best light to improve chances of success plays itself out on a daily basis an around the world in physical means, cognitive means, in conversations and cultures. And I dont think it's wrong to engage in this practice! We're all looking for love and acceptance, relating to others and feeling beautiful on the inside as we feel on the outside.

My hope is that we, culturally and individually, aim to make things more real going forward. It takes bravery to shun social norms of beauty when everyone around you isn't, when that's not the message you're receiving more broadly.

Speaking to norms on being an athlete:

To my previous point, resistance training for most females, if they engage in it at all, is only a new tool to seek the same end--achieve a predefined definition of beauty, which has now shifted at least partly toward an athletic build. By and large the majority of women engaging in the "fitness industry" still are focused on cardio and weight loss by all of the archaic and outdated methods that have been popularized by charlatans wanting to make a dollars on the hopes and dreams of well-meaning women. It's upsetting. "Fitness" for females has been the sideshow carnival of  waist trainers, jazzercise, Zumba, bogus fat loss pills and "lose weight quick" schemes, fad diets, specialized girly routines that "tone", and on down a list of ill-founded plots. Women deserve better. 

Nowadays for women, there is a relative pressure to conform to leanness, exaggerated shoulders and glutes, thigh gaps, and large breasts, if the magazines are to be believed. I have to remove myself from my powerlifting lens at times because I realize that powerlifters (even those people who regularly squat) make up a paltry percentage of the American population, a tiny subset of those engaging in resistance training regularly, which is then a subset of those engaging in health training practices. Removing myself from this myopic lens allows me to see the plight of more individuals that span ages, heritage, abilities, etc. 

This isn't to diminish the problem. I have seen study after study showing the advantages to self-esteem, confidence and motivation, self-image, etc. improve with goal-centered resistance training. I'd like to help bring that to more people, and to more women specifically. The likes of SmartFitGirls and other organizations are showing the problem and presenting solutions with grassroots efforts, and I hope to see organizations like that one continue to grow and thrive. More people deserve to feel what it is like to work toward something, to realize the successes of their efforts, have a positive self-image, relate to others who feel the same, feel athletic and accomplished. 

At its best, this is what being an athlete actually includes. By focusing on performance first and appearance in a reduced role, we focus in on an achievable and very personal goal. It's not something society or men have stated as a goal: it's your own goal because you chose it and you want it. This is one of the great things about being an actual athlete and it's not just something men should be able to experience. As such, men and women in high-visibility roles need to use their voice and shout for acceptance and inclusion--that resistance training and yes, even powerlifting and weightlifting are worthy pursuits for all people. 

Women athletes continue to face an unfair double standard of wanting to focus on athletic performance and excellence, and still face norms to be lean and attractive where men don't face this same standard. A look across baseball, powerlifting, many strength-based sports and onward show that female athletes face a pressure to perform well AND be lean, men do not face that pressure. It's okay to be performance-based across all aspects of your involvement with a sport; it's expected. 

It's unfortunate that despite their best efforts, those in high-visibility roles or even advocates for change are in for an uphill battle. There is a massive disparity in strength and conditioning currently, where men are seen as trusted sources of information, where a woman saying the same exact thing is seen as opinion-based and circumstance, or even outright wrong. Their opinions, even the same evidence-based and rational opinions that come from a lower-pitched and XY-chromosome-based mouth are seen as less authoritative. There are fewer females in strength and conditioning, and those females are lower on the hierarchical ladders of positional importance, paid less, and seen as knowing less. This is a multi-faceted problem that extends back to women not being shown exercise science as a viable and rewarding career path, social pressures against women in science compounded with women in resistance training, women in positions of authority, and so on. 

While I can't speak in place of female athletes or coaches, I hope to be a voice of reason and understanding, support, and solidarity. I understand as an observer some of what female athletes go through, and I hope to continue to be open to conversation and growth. I would like to see equality across expectations for men and women wanting to train and grow, to use resistance training as a tool for self-discovery and not feeling bad about that. I'd like to see equality in the cognitive realm of exercise science as well, that women and men are equally capable of brilliant, creative and nuanced insight on training and nutrition, capable of research, coaching athletes, manipulating training plans. I'd like to see payment and perceived value equal across men and women, with the same set of criteria concerning each--that we look to experience, to information content, track record, and the same set of characteristics we look for in men. I'd like to encourage more women to enter resistance training and powerlifting for the myriad self-supporting beliefs and changes to body image, and remove double-standards where possible.

Bryce LewisComment