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Do You Even Lift? On External Validation and Bodies

It happened on a break between sets on an average bench day in February. A female colleague I didn’t know very well approached me and we struck up a friendly conversation. As she finished telling me that she used to lift heavy, she casually said, in an encouraging way, “Oh man, I bet if you started to lift you would gain muscle soo quickly.” Unfortunately, I had been lifting weights…for over a year, and had been training specifically for powerlifting for 10 months, having competed in two meets prior to this conversation. I know I was (and still am) very much a baby in the lifespan of a powerlifter, but I had most definitely started lifting by this point.

Liz competing at a powerlifting meet

Above image courtesy Grit Power. 

I tried to ignore this conversation, and how awkward it made me feel, and how awkward it made me feel to think about how awkward it made me… Okay, you get it, I’m in my head a lot. Ultimately, I added this encounter to my list of people’s reactions to learning that I’m a “powerlifter”: from disbelief, to laughter, to the reaction from a male friend “oh, well, you don’t look like you’re a powerlifter, I mean for a girl, I mean you look good, like strong, but not too strong, mumble, mumble…”.

I have spent some time thinking about these reactions, and more importantly, my reactions to them. Besides the troubling aspects of what a female “looking good, like strong, but not too strong” means (that’s another post – and maybe a PhD dissertation – entirely), I ultimately want to try and figure out why, on one hand, I cared that she didn’t recognize that I lift weights, but, on the other, I actively distance myself from the external pressures put on women in powerlifting to look a certain way. What does it even mean to look like a powerlifter?

It’s kind of strange that in something so objective as a strength sport, it’s even a thing to expect that women to look a certain way. But, we have numerous examples of how this is simply the reality in which all female athletes live. We saw this during the 2016 Olympics in the shaming of a Mexican female gymnast’s body, in the constant criticism of American Olympic lifter Sarah Robles, in the never-ending discussion about how “manly” the Williams sisters are, and in which female athletes get sponsored and which do not. In fact, as I just googled “female athletes”, three out of the top four returns were about the “hottest” and “sexiest” athletes. Sigh.

I want people to know that I lift things, and I suspect lots of other women who powerlift do too because powerlifting is awesome! Powerlifting is part of my identity and is a distinctly feminist act in many ways: from the empowering feeling of doing a traditionally male thing, from having a positive and inclusive group of people (men and women) to do it with, and to focusing on what the body can do rather than what it looks like… oh wait.

But I’m not worrying about booty gains, so it’s still okay, right? I just want to have some muscles. That’s okay, right? I’m trying to break the stereotypical mold of what women should look like, so that’s cool…right? Yes, muscles are awesome and amazing and it is important to bust the “female = small” myth, but why are muscles important to me? If I’m honest with myself, maybe it is sometimes because I need external validation that I am a lifter, and often ask myself, “am I an athlete only if someone else says that I am”?

I am inspired by everything that Janis Finkleman (aka Babyeaterlifts) does, but her 2014 blog post “The Cult of Quadzilla” is especially bang on. She talks about the popular “humble brag” in the world of lifting: when pants are tight in the butt and quads, but loose in the waist. Because how else will the world know you lift unless your quads can no longer fit in pants? The cult of thick has become a thing just as the cult of skinny used to be. Don’t get me wrong, our society is still so far entrenched in the low body weight = health thing it’s staggering. But in our little powerlifting world, it seems like it’s shifted to a thick but lean ideal. People will know you lift when you are “thick.”

When I do get compliments on my muscles, I feel really happy. And then I remember how annoying it is to have assumptions made about what you do based on your body. I can’t have it both ways: feel validated (finally!) and then talk about how stupid external validation is when I don’t get it. But, on the other hand, maybe it depends who acknowledges the muscles? If my teammate knows how hard I’ve been working to gain muscle, and she compliments me, that’s great. We should be proud to show the world that we work hard and crush stereotypes.

That last paragraph has made me second guess this whole post, so I will wrap it up here before I delete everything in a wave of self-doubt. I have no tidy conclusion to this dilemma, but I guess I’m just saying as a life-long non-athletic person who has never been accused of having “muscle”, I wish that my body would look like I lifted, even though I wish I didn’t care at all what my body looked like, and my enjoyment of my body and of this sport should never take into consideration what other people think or do not think about me. This is the point of This is Female Powerlifting – to value action over aesthetics and get rid of the word “ideal” entirely. And for me, I’m working on understanding this as all aesthetics.

By Elizabeth 

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