fitness · weight stigma

For the nth time, fitness doesn’t equal weight: Lizelle Lee and the meanness of fat phobia in women’s sports

CW: Discussion of judgments about body weight, negative self image talk, and weight discrimination in women’s sports.

South African Lizelle Lee is the world’s leading women’s cricketer this year. She was also awarded best women’s one-day international cricketer in 2021. If you know about cricket and want to see her stats, they’re right here.

Lee announced her retirement from international cricket before the start of a series with England that she was scheduled to play in. Why? Because some officials deemed her too fat to play.

What?! Yes, it’s true. Here is a list of the main facts:

  • Lizelle Lee is one of the world’s top women competitors in cricket.
  • Lee trains and attends gym sessions. She recently passed the run fitness test.
  • Her team has weight requirements, which they claim are part of the “fitness” requirement. Lee did not meet their weight preference thresholds.
  • In order for Lee to be able to continue to earn money as a professional athlete, playing cricket domestically, she would have to resign from the international team. For the details, check out this article and this article.
  • So, Lizelle Lee retired (at age 30) from international cricket.

By the way, three days after she was forced into resigning, her team “lost three ODIs and three T20 matches against England, suffering an overall 14-2 defeat on points in the multi-format series.”

This story makes me really angry, because it is one of so many examples of how mean and destructive and irrational fat phobia is in women’s sports.

It’s mean because Lizelle Lee, who is a titan in her field, one of the world’s top athletes, is barred from play and made to feel like her body is to blame. This is the same body that plays cricket the way almost no one else can. Here’s Lizelle Lee below:

Here’s another content warning: Lee speaks about her negative body image, which is certainly in no small part due to team officials preferences that her body be smaller.

“I know I don’t look like an athlete but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job,” Lee told the BBC World Service’s Stumped podcast. “I looked like this last year and I had a brilliant year.

“I don’t feel good about myself. I don’t even look at myself in the mirror any more because I don’t like the way I look. But that comes along because every time I’m in (South Africa) camp, it’s always about my weight. Emotionally, it breaks a person down.”

This breaks my heart. And then I get livid. I don’t play cricket, but she looks like the very model of an elite athlete- powerful, confident, graceful and focused.

Let’s be clear: Lizelle Lee is more than fit to play cricket internationally. She’s proved this through her record. So this isn’t about her ability to play. It’s about what her body looks like. Lee explains more about this in a BBC interview excerpted below:

“The big thing that got me is that I made the fitness physically. I did the running that I had to do. Basically, I’m fit to play,” she said in the interview. “I had this conversation with them in Ireland – because I got dropped in Ireland because of my weight as well – and I told them ‘you’re dropping me because of the way I look and how much I weigh’ and they said ‘no, we’re dropping you because you failed the fitness battery’.”

“I said: ‘Yes, okay, but if you break the fitness battery down, what did I not make? I made the fitness, the running, but I didn’t make my weight. So, you’re dropping me because of weight’.”

Yes, that’s exactly what they are doing.

Forcing Lee to retire is also destructive. First, she had to retire in order to continue to have a job playing cricket, which is what she does to pay the bills.

Had Lee not retired and potentially not received an NOC (no-objection certificate, saying it’s fine for her to play), she would not have been able to play in domestic leagues around the world and subsequently not have received a large chunk of her annual income.

“Probably one of the reasons I had to decide to retire is to make sure we don’t have that [debt] anymore. The salary from The Hundred is a little bit more than my yearly salary at CSA, not counting match fees and World Cup prize money,” she said.

Also, Lee’s team suffered from her absence. They lost their first match without her. Surely forcing Lee out will hurt team morale.

Now to irrationality: team officials’ claims that Lee failed her fitness test because of her weight are completely irrational. Lee has shown that her weight is not a detriment to her fitness. Far from it– she passed all the fitness tests. When asked about what role weight played in calculating fitness parameters for athletes, team doctor Shuaib Manjra said this:

“The fitness test is not based purely on weight; it’s based on a number of parameters. You need to meet a very low threshold of 60% to pass the test. You have a composite score of different parameters, weight is one of them.”

The one test you must pass is the 2km time trial, not the weight. If you pass the 2km time trial and the other tests then you’re fine, but weight is not the sole criteria. It’s a composite score set at a low level of 60% which you need to pass in order to be eligible for selection,” he said.

This makes no sense at all. Lee passed the 2km time trial and other tests. She simply didn’t meet their weight preferences. Furthermore, Lee points out that another player failed the fitness test (but presumably not the weight preference test) the following week, but was not threatened with withdrawal of her NOC (the no-objection certificated required for play).

Fat phobia is mean, it’s destructive, and it’s irrational. And it’s rife in women’s sports. Just ask Serena Williams. Or Michelle Carter, Olympic gold-medalist shot putter. Or me. Or many of you. Let’s keep calling it out. Maybe some day, with all our efforts, we’ll hit it out of the park.

Woman about to hit a softball. It's teed up and ready to go sailing out of the park.
Oh yeah– tee it up and we’ll knock it into oblivion.

4 thoughts on “For the nth time, fitness doesn’t equal weight: Lizelle Lee and the meanness of fat phobia in women’s sports

    1. I just looked at an interesting study comparing male bowlers and batters. As expected, bowlers tend to be lower in weight and faster. Batters tend to be stronger in various ways and higher in weight. Lee is a batter. And re baseball: although weight franticness has pervaded all sports, there are loads of higher-weight players, especially pitchers and some batters.

      For the Boston Red Sox, David Ortiz– Big Papi– is a big, heavy guy, and also one of the great players of all time. I ran into him at Logan airport once and got a selfie… I couldn’t help myself!

  1. Wow! Also grr and many words too rude to write down. That is shocking. Also, I looked at the pictures. She is not fat, unless you are using a Victoria’s Secret model as your standard for size.

    1. Totally agreed on the Wow! Grrr! And Lee is being subjected to some weird weight standard that clearly isn’t designed to make her a better player, but rather an unhappy and now ex-player. GRRR!

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