IPF World Champion Natalie Hanson was recently interviewed by Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler on their podcast, Stronger By Science. (Skip ahead 1h 48m, if you want to hear the section I’m referencing.) In the interview, she said that one of the biggest barriers to women reaching their strength goals is the persistent desire to be smaller.
Hanson, who recently broke a world record for bench press and also works as a powerlifting coach, says that a common barrier to the sport for women is that they have to deal with social pressures around body image and aesthetic appearance. “Don’t get too bulky,” is a message that might get joked about “but it still carries through. It’s a component we shouldn’t overlook.” She says it’s less common with women who are fully bought into the sport, and more likely an issue for “general population” women who have an interest in starting powerlifting. They hear from men “that they are going to get big and buff, and that’s a problem.” She points out that “A guy is never going to hear that.” “That discrepancy when women begin a strength journey and men is stark, and alarming to [her] that it’s still a thing.” So, when women reach out to her for coaching, “they are interested in powerlifting and joining the sport, and they want to drop a weight class.” She describes this challenge as “interesting and concerning.”
It is important to point out, and Eric and Greg comment on this, that amongst strength athletes, it is universally understood that folks are stronger when they are larger. This is easier for men to accept than it is for women, and they have seen the impact of this pressure on women when they choose to at least remain in their current weight class, if not drop one, even though it reduces their success in their chosen sport.
Hanson also mentions incidences where she’s had to deal with comments from men about her body size, even in the gym where she trains regularly. “I’d been powerlifting for about a year and I was just going up a weight class. . . I had put on a lot of weight, muscle and fat, and generally got bigger, and that’s fine. And I looked a lot stronger. And I was training at the gym . . . and some older guy walked up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re a thoroughbred.’” She expresses her confusion in the moment and how it changed her feeling about working out at that gym. She thinks he meant it as a compliment, but she was clearly baffled that he felt that it was ok to comment on her body at all.
Her advice to men, “If you wouldn’t say this to a friend that’s a male, don’t say it to a friend that’s a female.” She clarifies that she knows that guys who are really close will “give each other shit,” but she’s talking about how men talk with acquaintances.
I find it startling to learn that a woman at the top of her game has to deal with these pressures, and that the women she trains are still focusing on their size over performance goals, even when they are there ostensibly to become a world class lifter. Hanson acknowledges that she is happy to work on aesthetic goals with her clients, if that is what women would rather work on, but that the two goals–to be a competitive lifter and to be smaller–work at cross-purposes. Having a larger body makes you a stronger lifter. And women who are faced with this choice–to be the best lifter they can be, but have a larger body, or to be less of a lifter but comply more closely with society’s expectations–many of the women she works with choose the latter.
And it makes me sad to learn this, as I like imagining when I watch an amazing lift pulled from an incredible female athlete, that she has broken through the barriers the rest of us must wrestle with. Somehow, it seems, she’s accepted that she’s going to stand out, and she chooses her personal goals over bullshit pressures from outside of herself. Apparently, however, she’s likely dealing with the bullshit, too.
It occurs to me that this means we really don’t know how strong women can be. Because as long as women are battling pressures to be less-than at the same time that they are competing, they are hobbling themselves. In order to really test women’s strength, women need to feel equally safe as men pursuing the sport to its limits. And at that time, maybe we can comment on a woman’s body and lifting without it being an issue. As Hanson says, “it would be great if we got to a point where we were all so comfortable and proud of our bodies and what our bodies are capable of that we could freely talk about things like that, say ‘you’re looking jacked’ or ‘you’re looking huge,’ without it being a potential trigger or offensive comment.” Until that time, we should “stop making comments on how women look.”
What do you think?
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.