In recent years, weightlifting among women has grown in popularity with more and more women braving the weight room to increase strength and musculature. Instagram and YouTube have been flooded with fitness vloggers teaching women how to “grow a booty” and “tone up”, and numerous studies have shown the benefits of strength training for women, both psychologically and physically. However, in a culture which values women’s femininity and fragility I set out to examine how the media and stereotypes might work against women who do or want to weight lift. It was my goal to critically examine representations of athletic women in the media and popular culture, and compare those representations with the reality of women weightlifters and the myths they perpetuate. What I found (and more importantly, what I didn’t) was very telling about how we view strong, weightlifting women. It seems there is a very narrow standard by which we judge active women, which rarely includes strong, muscular, weightlifting women. The women who are strong and weightlift are frequently ignored and even actively discouraged in a culture which places importance on a woman’s appearance over physical ability.
To begin with, it is rather difficult to find representations of women weightlifters in the first place. The fact I had such a hard time finding weightlifting women might contribute to women’s hesitancy to lift weights in the first place if they never see representations of themselves weightlifting in popular media. A lack of representation for women can make it seem rare or even impossible for women to weightlift. Most representations of active women in the media exist at either side of an extreme spectrum – a thin, frail woman who gets her exercise by doing yoga and running with no serious weightlifting, or a manly, iron pumping caricature of femininity. Surely, athletic brands would appreciate the vast variety of active women. However, this was not the case. Lululemon, a popular athletic brand, released an advertisement (Lululemon 2015) which rather than focusing on women’s strength and power, chose to focus on the kind of person these women are and their thin, dainty bodies. Rather than showing a variety of sports and situations their clothes could be worn in, the advertisement focused on the way these women felt wearing these clothes while doing things like painting, yoga, and other activities frequently thought of as feminine. The advertisement reinforced the idea that as a woman, it doesn’t matter what you might be doing, what matters is how you look while doing it. The lack of representation for strong, muscular, weightlifting women extends even to athletic brands which choose to focus on femininity and softness to sell their products.
So even if an athletic brand is not going to focus in physical capability for the women purchasing their clothes, then perhaps a gym would? This is not so much the case for Planet Fitness (Planet Fitness 2016). Rather than showing women weightlifting, or being active at all, they are shown in the locker room getting ready, standing around a mirror. There is a dichotomy of women in the commercial – a group of three attractive women calling each other hot in front of the mirror, and an unattractive and insecure woman sheepishly covering herself in a towel watching from a bench. The woman on the bench is made to feel intimidated and not enough in the presence of these thin, immaculately groomed young women. No one is shown exercising in the commercial. Again, rather than choosing to show strong women, the commercial focuses on skinny, frail female bodies as the embodiment of attractiveness and gym goers.
So what myths might this lack of representation create which contribute to women’s hesitancy to weightlift despite mounting scientific evidence of its benefits? Weightlifter Aditi Sharma (Sharma 2016) explains some of the myths women have about weightlifting, some of which she even believed herself before she started lifting. She explains many women think they will get thick or bulky of they lift weights, however this cannot possibly happen without years of experience and possibly steroids given women have only a fraction of the testosterone that men do, which is responsible for building muscle. Many women also believe the only way to tone up or build lean muscle is to do many (15+) reps of very light weights. This is again not true. In order to build muscle, the muscles need progressive overload and to become fatigued, which requires lifting heavy. There is also a general idea that the only way to look better is to lose weight and burn as much fat as possible. In order to grow a butt and become curvy, muscle must be built underneath the fat, which can mean gaining weight for some. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, and thus burns more calories throughout the day.
In her piece “Do you even lift bro? : a psychodynamic feminist analysis of the mental health benefits of weightlifting for women”, Katharine MacShane examines the psychological benefits women could gain from weightlifting, and how hypermasculinity within fitness culture affects women and even discourages weightlifting. Her paper points out that women actually receive more psychological benefit, such as increases in confidence, self-esteem, and self-reliance, from weightlifting than from cardio alone (MacShane 17). Women who weightlift also report fewer body issues than women who do not (MacShane 17).
As for barriers women experience who want to weight lift, MacShane points out that muscularity in men is accepted and even celebrated, whereas muscularity in women is not as socially acceptable. She uses gender constructionist theory to explain how boys and girls are taught to view their bodies differently growing up, which can contribute to differences in attitudes towards weightlifting. Because boys are taught to be tough and strong, it is more likely they will grow up to weightlift than girls. For girls on the other hand, softness and femininity is valued over strength. Children grow up adhering to and being praised for the standards applied to them, while alternatively being punished or ostracized for not living up to them. MacShane points out men are encouraged to get big – both with their bodies and posture, whereas women are expected to make themselves smaller and take up less space. “If gender is indeed a social construct, the policing of gender roles at the level of the physical body serves to restrict women to a limited range of acceptable possibilities for what their bodies might look like, and what they might be capable of doing,” (MacShane 29).
Despite mounting scientific evidence for its benefits, weightlifting while female continues to be a bit of a taboo in our culture. Not only is it difficult to find representations of strong, weightlifting women in the first place, the women I can find fit a very narrow definition of athletic or attractive. This lack of representation contributes to myths which are perpetuated about weightlifting for women. These myths are reinforced by the unspoken rules we learn about masculinity and femininity growing up, further ostracizing women from weightlifting. While lifting weights as a woman might seem intimidating or even unnecessary, there are numerous benefits despite a culture which doesn’t acknowledge or even discourages it. It is my hope that in coming years we will continue to destroy outdated stereotypes which limit women’s ideas of what they can and cannot do, including weightlifting.
Emery, Lindsey. “4 Reasons Women Shouldn’t Fear the Weight Room.” Health.com. Health.com, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Lululemon. “Lululemon | Choose Feeling.” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Aug. 2015.
MacShane, Katharine H., “Do you even lift bro? : a psychodynamic feminist analysis of the mental health benefits of weightlifting form women” (2014). Theses, Dissertations, and Projects. Paper 787.
Planet Fitness. “Planet Fitness Lunk Alarm Commercials.” YouTube. YouTube, 29 June 2016.
Sharma, Aditi. “weightlifting for Women.” My Republica. My Republica, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.