Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are Women Oppressed in the Weight Room?

"Strong women run in the family." my mother loves to boast. I was, knowing my mother and grandmother, inclined to believe her. My mother is a woman who is not afraid of being honest with people about what she thinks, and this is a quality I have been raised to respect. I never saw the appeal that some people do in "submissive" girlfriends whose every wish was your command. Just as I try to cultivate strength of character in myself, I see the same trait as very attractive in a woman. "Sure, who doesn't like an independent woman? Men love bitches." is the chuckling response to me. It's fashionable to like strong women, especially on liberal college campuses.

But when we think of "strong women" and "iron ladies", it is all about strength of character, willpower, and spirit. It's Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir and Angela Merkel. But why is it not women like Aneta Florczyk?

[patriarchy]"the world's scariest handjob"[/patriarchy]

When I first saw the video above I gaped in awe and fear. I quickly passed it around to some of my friends to gauge their shocked reactions. They were properly shocked, but it was their other exclamations that made me wonder:

"You sure that's a woman?"
"She's like a dude!"
"I wouldn't hit that. Not with a ten foot pole and a paper bag over my head."

Hm, being strong isn't womanly. Who'da thunk it?

I think it was Coach Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength fame that mused:

"Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general."

While this sentiment resonates with me as an athlete, I see it as something that encompasses everything so wrong with male dominance and privilege in the weight room, and the accompanying oppression of females. It's been proven over and over that resistance training a.k.a. weight training a.k.a. moving heavy objects, is beneficial to almost every aspect of life. Keeps your bones strong, your muscles healthy, your body fat low, your immunity up, your endurance and work capacity at high levels... you wonder why everyone isn't already doing it.

The fact is, women are oppressed in the weight room. To even get there, a woman has to overcome the discouragement of her peers and family members, the insecurities about her femininity, the intimidation of stepping away from the elliptical machines to a part of the gym where there are a lot of big, sweaty men. When she gets there, she have to deal with the jeering and mocking of guys who hit on and patronize her, treating her like she don't know what she's doing, offering to "spot" her when she'd rather just be left alone. There's a system here that keeps women weak, and by definition less "useful" than men, whether or not it was designed with that intention in the first place. What else are you going to call a society that makes it acceptable for men to be physically strong, and not women?

Before you go and doubt me there, consider the "girl pushup" where you support yourself on your hands and knees instead of on your toes and knees. Also called the "partial pushup" because it only requires a partial amount of effort, and consequently imparts a partial amount of strength development. Men do it because they are too weak to do a full pushup, which they are expected to graduate to, however it's just fine for girls to do it their whole lives. When's the last time you walked into a gym and saw a girl doing a full pushup?

It's when men are regarded as "strong" and women as "weak." It's when women want to get in better shape but only go for the cardio machines and spinning classes, which hardly have any effect on muscle size or strength. It's when you never see a woman doing a bench press or a deadlift. It's when my male friend tells me he'll never date a swimmer because their shoulders are too broad. It's when my female friend tells me that she'll never touch a barbell for fear of getting "too big." That, by the way, is hardly a concern, but one that I'll talk about another time, if ever.

It's true that because of hormone levels and inherent biological differences, holding men and women to the same standards of strength is not entirely productive. But there's something wrong when women believe that it's unacceptable to be strong at all, that it's "unfeminine" or "unwomanly." It's hypocritical to tell people to be the best that they can be and then chide women for being too athletic, too muscular, too strong. Even women who are strong in non-physical aspects can't win - people throw around the term "bitch" to describe headstrong women thinking it's a compliment, when at the same time it ascribes a host of negative qualities that may or may not be true. Strong men are strong. Strong women are bitches. Women can't win.

It's easy to point to female athletes like Maria Sharapova and Alison Stokke and tell me that it's socially acceptable for women to be athletic now. But those two fit a socially constructed standard of beauty where women can't, for one thing, have big, powerful arms like Aneta, but guys can. If you're a guy, when's the last time you gushed over a powerlifter besides Marilou Dozois-Prevost?

[patriarchy]"that's a good snatch"[/patriarchy]

I guess what I've been trying to say this whole time is that women have a place in the weight room as much as men do. The fear of being too big and muscular is not only unfounded and completely without merit, it's a disservice to athletes like Aneta, who diet and train harder than 99% of gymgoers to get where they are. Women, embrace being strong and being athletic. Don't be afraid of achieving fitness that gives you not just cardiovascular endurance but also muscular strength. Here's to the empowerment of women everywhere!

And what can men do? Encourage your mom, your sister, your friends to go lift some weights for their health. Go with them if they're unsure if they want to do it. Stop making comments about how women are less feminine for being strong. Don't patronize women doing deadlifts or pullups. If you see it happening, go tell someone who works there to stop the harassment, because I'm not about to tell you to tell off that huge dude who squats 600.

I guess it's why I'm such a big fan of programs like Crossfit. Crossfit encourages both men and women to lift hard and heavy and develop all-around strength, going for elite fitness in all aspects, for everyone. Some people say Crossfit "makes men ripped and women hot." That's subjective I suppose, but then I see Jolie Gentry, who by Crossfit standards is the fittest woman in the world, and she's certainly easy to my eyes:

[patriarchy]yay, uggs on the beach![/patriarchy]

No comments:

Post a Comment