Monday, April 16, 2012

Weightlifting While Female

Writing a short piece at Women Talk Sports, Mariah Philips asks:

"It may now be OK for women to be strong. But how strong? Why does it remain socially prickly for women to lift large amounts of weight? Why must women struggle to preserve socially condoned images of femininity while they try to honor an athletic identity that challenges those gender norms?"

She is writing in the context of being a college softball player who regularly lifts weights.

In my experience, in over 20 years of weightlifting and participating in various athletic endeavors, all of the gyms I have worked out in over the years have operated on an unspoken, unwritten rule of gender segregation that, I believe, is due mostly to pervasive gender role policing and conditioning. The Rules are that men should lift free weights and maybe do a little cardio and that women should do cardio and maybe use the weightlifting machines.

So yeah, I certainly know of the social prickliness that Philips refers to.

My years of having men (and some women) tell me that "the goal of weightlifting for women isn't to get big and strong," of offering me unsolicited (and often poor) advice, and of coaches and trainers acting as though weightlifting is crucial for male athletes and optional for female athletes has ingrained in me that it's not..... socially safe to be a woman who is actually lifting weights to in order to get stronger and, gawb forbid, bigger.

Gender narratives emanating from multiple sources, in a nutshell, inform us that men should work out in order to become large and strong and that women should work out in order to become thin and to get "toned." Becoming strong and healthy is, according to a lot of "fitness" advice, a tangential side effect of working out while female. It's a bonus, but not necessary to being "fit." Apparently.

Many women, in fact, express concern to various personal trainers about not wanting to "get big muscles." They want to keep themselves small, even if that means being weaker than they could be. And, I don't think that's a desire all women are just inherently born with. I think it's something women, for the most part, learn from society.

The other day, I was recently browsing Internet for some tips on increasing my bench press. I like being strong. I like lifting weights. I like feeling powerful. Being strong, I believe, helps me be a better athlete. And, it at least gives me the confidence that I could stand a chance in a self-defense situation.

Interesting how gender role policing seeks to take that confidence away from women.

Also interesting is that every. single. article. that I found, regarding the bench press issue, assumed that the reader was male. And, the advice many of the articles offered went along the lines of "never stop eating" and "use supplements."

That sort of advice just isn't given to women.

And, in this way, are inherent biological differences further exaggerated between men and women: Imagine the body of a man who lifts heavy weights, never stops eating protein, and is on supplements, compared to a woman who doesn't lift weights, avoids protein out of fear of getting "big," and who is restricting her diet.

Ya think they might look different? Ya think they might have different levels of strength?

And yet, these are the images that are often used to "prove" how different men and women Just Naturally Are. How "inherently" strong men are compared to women. How men Just Love To Eat Their Man Food, while women just love eating, like, half a salad.

Now, contrary to straw caricatures of feminist arguments, I don't think patriarchy is a literal group of men sitting around a table twirling their mustaches thinking of ways to keep women weak. (It would be easier to counter if it were). But, I do think it's a win for patriarchy- as a social system that enforces gender roles in a myriad of ways- when we ignore the ways that gender policing, body shaming, and fat-hatred operate together to make women feel as though it's "socially prickly" (at best) to lift heavy weights.

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