Women’s weightlifting was only added to the Olympic roster for the first time in 2000, and that year Cheryl Haworth secured a bronze medal in the event for the United States. I remember this especially well, because Haworth was the first athlete I’d ever seen with a body that looked at all like mine -- at 5’9” and 300 pounds, Haworth did not look like an Olympic champion to most people, but to me she was utterly magnificent.
One would hope that the intervening 12 years would only have improved public perception of women’s weightlifting, and given that the women’s weightlifting events for these upcoming Olympics have been quick to sell out, it would seem this is a sport in which interest is growing. Of course, there will always be a handful of vocal douchebags out there; this week, one of them took to Twitter to harass 18-year-old British women’s weightlifter Zoe Smith, ostensibly for failing to chose a sport that allows her to be pretty by his limited standards.
"I wouldn't even look at you," infidel1978 tweeted. "I'd think you was a bloke and so would 9 out of 10 lads. [...] Now piss off back to the kitchen and make your boyfriend a sandwich he's hungry."
Smith responded in a blog post about the resulting exchange:
"We don't lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that," Smith wrote. "What makes them think that we even want them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we're flattered. But if you don't, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place?
"This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren't closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any woman with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren't weak and feeble."
While attacks like these have the potential to be frustrating, hurtful and even demoralizing for individual athletes, they also shed light on a much larger cultural issue around female athleticism -- that is, our belief that it is only acceptable for women to be athletes if they are also able to appear feminine in a socially acceptable way.
Things get even more complicated for women athletes whose sport requires them to maintain a certain body mass. Two US women’s weightlifting hopefuls, Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold, participate in the +75kg events, which are for athletes weighing more than 165 pounds. Robles stands 5’10” and weighs 275 pounds; her teammate Mangold reps at 5’8” and 350 pounds. Both young women are lifelong athletes dedicated to their training and about to experience a dream come true by participating in the London Olympics; it’s a shame that there is still so little respect for their athleticism in spite of their size.
Robles first began drawing media attention when it was revealed that she was living on $400 a month during her last several months of training. Most Olympic hopefuls -- especially ones with a good chance of securing a medal -- rely on corporate sponsorships to support their efforts, which can be expensive. An online media firm had stepped up to sponsor Robles as of last week, but it’s telling that athletic brands that actually sell weightlifting equipment weren’t calling the woman who is the highest ranked American weightlifter, period, gender notwithstanding.
And it’s tough to believe that it doesn’t have at least a little bit to do with her size. Robles does not fit the expectation of what an lean, idealized athlete should look like, and I suppose it’s easier for Nike and Adidas to keep to narrow cultural misapprehensions of what a strong body looks like than to try to take down those assumptions and possibly impact their sales.
Robles has also been outspoken about other issues relating to her size, most specifically to the problems she and some of her larger teammates faced with the official Olympic outfitting. Olympic athletes have their clothing furnished for photo shoots and other formal events. Robles wrote a blog post outlining the many instances so far this year in which the clothing offered simply didn’t come in her size, forcing her to make do with the apparel designed for male athletes.
I am not alone in this. There are other larger women on the Olympic Team this year. There have been for many years now. I wish with that in mind, there would have been more consideration for us. All people who qualify for the Olympics and get outfitting should feel included, comfortable, and ready to shine. I am a woman. I want to look and feel like one. I want to fit in with my team mates.
Am I going to sit here and cry about it? No. What am I doing to make change? Every time I get to talk about body image or my blog, I jump on it even in interviews. I spoke with Nike and Polo representatives and mentioned the issues. If no one speaks up or just accepts what's been handed to them, positive change will not happen. I want future athletes to be happy, comfortable and included. I want the fashion industry to rethink their ideas of what a female athlete can look like.
Robles’ teammate, Holley Mangold, is also speaking up about the undue burden placed on women athletes to still meet a certain standard of conventional attractiveness. Mangold first started making news in 2006 as the first female offensive lineman in Ohio high school football. Last year she was profiled on an episode of MTV’s “True Life” called, “I’m a Big Girl.” Mangold has also taken to speaking at schools about self-esteem: "I'm super comfortable with my body and a lot of people don't have that. I like to help people be a little happier with who they are. It's who I am."
If people like Zoe Smith’s Twitter attacker had their way, none of these women would feel entitled to the self-confidence and strength they rely on to succeed in their sport. But as these women rise, and women’s weightlifting itself gains more attention, maybe we’ll begin to appreciate that strong bodies can be extremely diverse, and that athleticism does not come in one size fits all.