Sexism in Lifting: What is the right balance between sticking my neck out and doing my own thing?

How do we know if we’re making progress when it can go so slowly, it feels like standing still? How do we keep doing the work, plugging away at the pieces, running the experiments, when we don’t even know what the endpoint will look like?

Is there a revelation, a revolution, a moment when everything changes?

I could be talking about lifting, but today I want to speak about so much more. Today, I want to talk about the pervasive sexism in the lifting community. I want to talk about the forces within lifting that serve to exclude so much of the population from accessing what lifting has to offer us–the empowerment, the literal strength and independence, the skills of meeting ourselves where we’re at and always challenging ourselves to be more.

But we can’t do it if we can’t see it. We won’t do it, if we’re chronically pushed away, pushed out, and dismissed.

And the lifting community, even the evidence-based lifting world that I love and celebrate and share here, is not immune. Women are not assumed a part of the group. This happens in hundreds of subtle (and sometimes outright hostile) ways.

Let’s take this video from Omar from a few weeks ago as an example.

I love Omar. He’s my dude. I never miss an episode of Iron Culture. I buy and proudly wear his Raskol apparel. I love his focus on good information, lifelong lifting, on always finding new ways to keep doing the damn thing.

And yet, in these 10 minutes, where you might think he’s making a generic video, he’s actually, implicitly only talking to men.

The clues for who he includes in his audience are inside the assumptions and generalities he makes.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. When Omar references big lifts, he exclusively mentions lifts in ranges that would be reach goals, but not impossible, for men. They are weights that are currently beyond, or world-record level lifts for women. Omar speaks of a lifter reaching for “. . . a 500 pound squat, or even 600,” when these numbers would likely place you as a world record holder, depending on your weight class, as a woman. Later in the video, he talks about “people deadlifting 700 pounds,” when the current women’s deadlifting world record (for any class) is 636 pounds. So, implicit in Omar’s references to weights and accomplishes with heavy weight, he is sending the message that “we” the audience are men reaching for men’s accomplishments in the gym. Using the language of “some people” isn’t enough to make this inclusive.

More subtle than exclusionary lifting numbers, within this video there’s ingrained assumptions about who is lifting and the culture of lifting. Notice how he describes what he perceives as the main challenges of the intermediate lifter who ends up quitting the sport. He tells a story about a generic lifter who gets going in their twenties, who thinks of themselves as hardcore, makes a lot of gains and 5 or 7 or 8 years later, quits because they’re not seeing big changes anymore. Now tell me honestly reader, how do you imagine this twenty-something lifter in your mind’s eye? I’m seeing a young man who probably did sports, who moved into lifting to get big, to get babes, and if he wasn’t turned off by the macho bullshit, saw some gainz, got some love from the bros, and he stuck around for a while. That’s definitely one kind of lifter. But what about the rest of us?

Where’s the story of the person who never saw themselves as an athlete but found lifting because they could do it on their own, without the audience of a team? What about the middle-aged person who finds lifting later in life, never shows great promise but loves how lifting helps them move more comfortably through their days? What about the person with higher body fat who learns that lifting is endlessly variable to body size, and that larger body sizes can actually be an advantage, and finds success in movement for the first time in their lives? What about the woman who decides to finally defy gender roles and see what happens when she pushes herself to get really strong? We are different ages. We are different gender identities. We’re from different cultural and racial backgrounds. We have different abilities. We’re all lifters.

What about the hurdles and challenges that all of these lifters face that might lead to them leaving the sport? The ablism, fatism, sexism, and racism that pervades many lifting cultures and keep people from sticking around because the barriers are too much, too unpleasant, to be worth putting up with anymore? By not acknowledging these hurdles, Omar fails to include these lifters in his audience.

And I want to be clear, I’m sure Omar knows his audience. I’m sure he has data on who watches his stuff, and it’s a whole bunch of twenty- and thirty-something guys who’ve been lifting a handful of years. But is that because that’s all there is to lifting or is that because lifting media fails to include more diverse audiences in their messaging? How many of us tune it out because we can’t relate?

That’s what it looks like to subtly exclude women and other under-represented groups in the lifting community. And my sense is that Omar is a good dude and wants to be a welcoming voice.

And I haven’t left him a comment on a YouTube video or sent him a link to these posts when I have questions because I know, I KNOW I will be attacked by some of the men who follow him. So Omar, who I think would be open to the feedback, he doesn’t get the information that he’s doing harm. And it doesn’t get better. Because I am afraid of the fallout. I don’t want to open myself up to the abuse. Not by Omar, but by some of the legions of men who consume his content.

And in case you think I’m overreacting, or I just need to push through the discomfort and fight the fight, let me share with you exhibit B: the heartbreaking story of Jessica, who founded You Look Like A Man (YLLAM). According to her side of the story, she saw sexism in the strongman community, created a “safe space” for women who lift and do strongman, and then has been maliciously attacked to the point of dismantling YLLAM and admitting herself to the hospital for mental health reasons. (TW, if you read the piece–talk of suicidal ideation.)

What Happened to YLLAM? at Medium.com

Now, I don’t have firsthand experience of the fall of this community. I’ve known about YLLAM for a few years now, but I chose not to get into the community to protect my own mental health. Recommendations to join the group always included stories of women sharing videos of men filming their lifts without their permission or online trolls sending sexist abuse in response to women’s online brag videos or form checks. I didn’t need more evidence of the bullshit that men can do to women who lift. But I was glad the community was there, that women had created a space for themselves.

And I’m deeply saddened to hear that it did not turn out to be a safe space. That apparently it became yet another battleground, pushing out women from lifting communities, defining whose goals were valid, who is inside and who is outside based on sexist, patriarchal definitions of worth–appearance, perceived beauty, narrow definitions of femininity. This piece also highlights that it isn’t only men who push women out of lifting communities, but other women who buy into these narrow definitions of worthiness. When we benefit from patriarchy, when we let it go unquestioned in our own beliefs, we perpetuate it.

And yet, as saddened as I am that YLLAM failed to create a safe space for all women, I also am deeply annoyed that in order to feel safe we have to create a separate space for ourselves. It shouldn’t have to be that way. As many nice guys would say, it isn’t all men. It certainly isn’t all men who lift.

I wasn’t a part of the YLLAM community, but I have read countless comments online from men about not being a “pussy” in the gym. I have seen women post videos of accomplishments only to have men denigrate them as not good enough, or faking it, or not feminine enough. I’ve been given the dubious compliment by a guy at the gym “you’re not so bad, at least you don’t look like a dude,” I’ve had equipment taken from me, and I’ve been yelled at for “wasting time” while resting between sets.

In a forum, I requested the men not use sexist or racist language and then witnessed a 9-hour debate as to whether or not the language was indeed sexist or racist, whether or not my concerns were valid enough to warrant changing the language of others, and whether or not I was actually imposing on them by pointing out that their language was exclusionary to me or others.

For the record, reverse patriarchy, just like reverse racism, isn’t a thing. The system perpetuates straight White men’s power. Holding them accountable to the impacts of their actions isn’t oppression.

My experience has been that it is very few men who will stand up against the sexism of their peers. Maybe they don’t contribute, don’t add to the shitty comments, the harassment, the pushback, but they also usually don’t shut it down. Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they need to see comments from someone like me, or like Jessica, to spark their sense of outrage or responsibility or recognition that there’s an issue. Maybe they’re just as afraid of the ensuing abuse as I am.

But does that mean I, we, have to open ourselves up to the abuse in order for it to maybe get better? It isn’t a guarantee that even if we speak up that the rest of the guys will take the hint that they need to have our backs.

So, I often don’t speak up, but I want to.

So, I rarely leave comments or feedback on videos or other media, but I wish I safely could.

So, I created this space to build my own little community, but I don’t promote it.

I am, in my heart, an activist. I’m a doer. I want to fucking change shit for the better. I also just want to live my life, find my peeps, have a happy place to be myself without having my guard up.

I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t know if I’m mentally up for the challenge of putting myself out there to insist on it getting better. I don’t know if I’m mentally up for the challenge of keeping my mouth shut, either. I guess that means that for now I’m picking my battles.

But I’m so frustrated that it has to be a battleground, that we still need a revolution.

2 thoughts on “Sexism in Lifting: What is the right balance between sticking my neck out and doing my own thing?

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